Monday, March 5, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Aces High (1976)

As regular readers of this space may know, I have a long fascination with World War I aviation. I've continually sought out movies about pilots of that era to watch -- and mostly continue to be disappointed in what I've found. I'm afraid "Aces High," a 1976 film starring Malcolm McDowell that had stirred in me a great deal of anticipation, will be added to the list of less-than-sterling WWI dogfighting flicks.

The source of my interest started in an unlikely venue: video games. I was thrilled with the 1990 game "Red Baron," which offered a historically accurate portrayal of air combat from 1914 to 1918. From there, visits to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum and reading several books on the subject only increased my ardor for the derring-do of these 20th century knights jousting in the skies, often with an antiquated notion of chivalry.

A big part of my fascination also likely explains why so many of these films leave me wanting more. I loved researching the airplanes, guns and hardware of WWI air combat. Remember, barely a decade after the Wright brothers first flew, men were using the rickety contraptions in warfare. Technological innovation soars during times of war, as various sides try to gain the strategic upper hand -- in this case, by gaining tactical advantages in the air.

The introduction of a new model of plane could tip the tide of the battle in the skies, as pilots with now-inferior aircraft attempted to take on adversaries with faster or more maneuverable planes.

I liked the fact that in "Aces High" the pilots actually discuss the various airplanes, their capabilities and advantages. Most of the squadron uses R.A.F. S.E.5s, a mainstay of the British flying corp, while one of the older pilot favors the French Nieuport 17.

The combat sequences in the film are generally quite good -- showing the air duels from the perspective of the pilot's cockpit. I also appreciated the fact that director Jack Gold often shot two or more planes together instead of just using special effects. So we can see exactly how close the combatants in a dogfight really were. (Allegedly the film re-used some air combat footage from "The Blue Max" and a Roger Corman movie.)

McDowell plays Maj. John Gresham, commander of a British squadron headquartered in a dilapidated air field 10 miles from the front lines. Gresham is an excellent pilot and stern commander, relying on small core of veterans to see their missions a success. There is a constant stream of inexperienced recruits coming through who quickly die -- 14 days is the current average -- and the stress has driven Gresham to drinking heavily.

His right-hand man is Capt. Sinclair, whom everyone calls "Uncle," due to his being older and less brash than the cocky younger fellows. Sinclair is played by Christopher Plummer, in a subtle turn.

Things change when young Stephen Croft (Peter Firth) is assigned to the squadron. He was Gresham's protege when they were at school together, and his sister is engaged to the commander. Over the course of a week of increasingly dangerous missions, Croft goes from being completely inept in the cockpit to more confident, has his heart broken and sees his admiration of Gresham angrily rejected.

"Aces High" just never really comes together as a human story. Though the air fights are well done and engaging, the on-the-ground action relies on familiar tropes about young men at war. As a glimpse at the early history of aviation combat, it scores well, but as a complete story it's shooting blanks.

I've got a few more WWI aviation flicks in my Netflix queue -- maybe I'll get lucky someday.

2.5 stars out of four

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