Air Force (1943)

Air Force (1943)

John Ridgley plays Captain Mike “Irish” Quincannon the pilot of a B-17 bomber (the Mary-Ann) whose crew includes crew chief Sergeant Robbie White (Harry Carey) co-pilot Lieutenant Bill Williams (Gig Young) bombardier Lieutenant Tommy McMartin (Arthur Kennedy) navigator Lieutenant “Monk” Munchauser (Charles Drake) assistant crew chief Corporal Weinberg (George Tobias) and radio operator Corporal Peterson (Robert Wood). There are two new additions made to the crew at the beginning of the film – a greenhorn youngster Private Chester (Ray Montgomery) and a “washed out pilot now aerial gunner” Sergeant Joe Winocki cynically played by (who else?) John Garfield.

Evidently there was a little intra-service rivalry within the Army between big plane crews and pursuit plane pilots in those days so James Brown plays Lieutenant Tex Rader a fighter pilot. Also recognizable in this film is Edward Brophy as a Marine Corps Sergeant J. J. Callahan.

It is December 6 1941 as the film opens and a squadron of B-17s begins their journey from San Francisco to Hickam Field Pearl Harbor Hawaii. The first part of the movie establishes the relationship between the crew members which is pretty much as a team familiar and comfortable with each other. Enter the new guys: Private Chester is a gung ho rookie excited about everything Winocki is wise guy who rains on his parade and can’t wait till his last three weeks in the service are up. Apparently Winocki was a failure in flight school and it was Captain Quincannon who signed the recommendation that ended his dream of being a pilot. The 20-year veteran crew chief Sgt. White doesn’t like Winocki’s attitude especially because his son has just been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel within the ranks.

Everything is pretty routine until Hickam Field’s radio transmission goes out. The radio operator is able to pick up Japanese voices and background static which doesn’t sound good explosions etc.. When the squadron leader finally gets through to someone in Pearl Harbor they are told to land at their pre-planned alternate locations. For the Mary-Ann that means a short rough runway on the Hawaiian island Maui. Though Captain “Irish” makes a good landing there is some slight damage which must be addressed. However while fixing the problem they are shot at by presumably some local Japanese and must take off right away. They then must land on the bomb cratered runway at Pearl Harbor.

After a successful landing at Hickam Field they learn that Tommy’s sister who’d been dating co-pilot Bill was injured in the attack. Part of the news is related to them by Tex whom they don’t respect from some history and the intra-service rivalry mentioned previously. They think Tex is partly to blame for Susan’s condition and assume he was hiding out during the attack. They learn from the Colonel at Hickam Field however that Tex shot down four enemy planes (Zeros) before he himself was shot down in the action. They are then told that their new orders are to fly to Manilla where the crew chief’s son stationed via Wake Island and asked to shuttle Tex to a pursuit wing stationed there.

On the way to Wake Island we get a sense of just how difficult it was in those days to find a dot on the map without the advance navigation systems and radar we have today. The crew is nervous making the navigator anxious throughout the flight about finding the island before their fuel runs out. Of course everyone (including the navigator) is relieved when they do. Unfortunately Wake too has been hit and after briefly refueling the exhausted sleep deprived crew is told to leave before an impending Japanese invasion when all on the island is expected to be lost. Several of the Marines on the island convince Weinberg to take their dog to save it from their fate.

It is at this point that Winocki starts to become part of the crew. Once airborne when the crew chief demands to know how a dog got onboard Winocki says it was he that did it. Later when the Mary-Ann makes it to the Philippines it is Winocki who tells “Irish” that he wants to help and stay on as part of his crew. The Captain is glad and says that first he must get rid of the dog (which he gives to the first Marine he sees played by Brophy).

More exciting action and interesting plot-line much of it predictable to fans of this genre make this film continue until it exceeds two hours on screen and the good guys deliver some comeuppance and payback at the Battle of the Coral Sea. This film directed by Howard Hawks won an Oscar for Best Editing and was nominated for B&W Cinematography Special Effects and Writing.

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