Monday, May 21, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Wing and a Prayer" (1944)

"Wing and a Prayer" would be little remembered as a rather standard World War II propaganda movie, except for a couple of things. The first is the absence of an obsessive focus on a disparate cast of characters with predictable geographic backgrounds and personalities -- the tough guy from New York, the laconic Texan, the All-American Midwesterner, etc. I've written before about my fatigue with the whole "swell bunch of guys" thing in war pictures.

What stands out more about this 1944 movie directed by Henry Hathaway is its innovative battle scenes. It combines some convincing footage of real planes photographed on an aircraft carrier with stock battle footage. For once, the stock stuff is actually blended well into the action, so the cutaway moment isn't totally obvious like it usually is when using canned stuff.

Even better are several scenes where Hathaway juxtaposed actors in the foreground against a background of battle footage. Though the combination isn't seamless, it was still impressive for its day -- perhaps one of the first uses of a "green screen" type of technology.

I was also impressed with a tactic employed by Hathaway during the climactic battle. Since it would have been unfeasible to depict a battle between American planes and Japanese carrier fleet while the war was still ongoing, the director cuts away to the captain on the bridge listening to the radio byplay among the pilots and their crewmen. He orders this piped through the ship's P.A. system, so we watch as the sailors react to the pilots' exultant shouts after shooting down a Zero, their screams of pain and their shouts suddenly being cut off.

At first I thought it to be a corny cost-saving measure, but Hathaway expertly manipulates the verbal diaspora so the audience feels like it's in the middle of the action, despite no corresponding visual element. One exchange is particularly memorable, as a pilot learns his gunner is paralyzed and cannot bail out as their stricken plane careens toward the ocean. "Guess we'll take this last ride together..."

Of course, it was probably not technologically possible to beam the entire radio transmissions of a flight of bombers throughout an aircraft carrier, and even if it was I seriously doubt a naval commanding officer would do so. But as I said, it makes for an effective narrative ploy.

"Wing and a Prayer" got its title from a hit song that came out in 1943, and its plot from a fictionalized version of events leading up from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of the Coral Sea and eventually the Battle of Midway. Sometimes subtitled "The Story of Carrier X," the film follows a single carrier as it runs a series of maneuvers meant to distract and misinform the Japanese high command into thinking the American Navy is dispersed and disorganized.

Their orders are simple: fly missions to look for the enemy, then run away as soon as they're spotted. Needless to say, the pilots are dismayed at fleeing from the enemy. Eventually, of course, they get to have their big fight.

An interesting thing about "Wing and a Prayer" is how subservient characterization is to the plot. If the theme of this movie, like many of its ilk, is that "we're all in this together," then it's underscored by having no one character stand out.

Dana Andrews is ostensibly the lead playing the redoubtable commander of the pilots, though a close second is Hallam "Oscar" Scott, a callow young pilot whose cocksure nature is not matched by his prowess at the plane's controls.

In an interesting ploy, Scott (William Eythe) is supposed to be a movie star who joined up to fight. He got his nickname from the Academy Award statue he won and carries with him in the cockpit as a good luck charm. The rest of the crew beg him for stories of kissing Betty Grable and other big Hollywood stars, and in one scene they watch one of her movies, "Tin Pan Alley."

The third lead is Bingo Harper, the taciturn flight commander played by Don Ameche. It's an unrewarding part, as Ameche scowls his way through the entire movie, his character's stubbornly by-the-book ways earning no adoration from the rowdy pilots. In the end he's portrayed as an honorable man of duty who sublimates his emotions to protect the entire ship.

Also notable in the sprawling cast is Charles Bickford as the grizzled captain, Kevin O'Shea as a veteran ace battling the shakes, Richard Jaeckel as an underage gunner and the inimitable Harry Morgan as a loudmouth ensign.

The planes used in the movie were SB2C Helldiver bombers and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, sturdy little ships with a crew of three. Curiously, I noticed that the pilots fly almost the entire time with the glass cowl of their cockpit slid back, exposing them to the wind and elements. I suppose this must be historically accurate, since a contemporaneous movie made with the cooperation of the Navy surely wouldn't get such an important detail wrong.

3 stars out of four

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