Thursday, May 30, 2013


If you want to scoop deep into the real murky moral ambiguity of war, the heart of the heart of darkness, take to the air and hunt the pre-code 1930s WWI flying ace movies written by John Monk Saunders. Dogfights and aerial maneuvers are performed in the era's rickety biplanes by day and mortifying guilt, terror, and despair is drunk away with rousing camaraderie by night. Using recycled aerial footage from the silent film Wings (1927), the dogfights are conveyed via quasi-kabuki anonymity as pilots are shot at through rear projection, adding to a sense of depersonalized, out-of-time aloneness 'up there' in the deadly skies. Since all the pilots wear the same evil-looking goggles it becomes important to cast actors with differing jaw lines, leading to some pretty strange specimens while accentuating the anonymity of death. The same burly Red Baron-type hun shoots, dies and salutes, in the same footage, in almost every one of these films, at least I think it's the same guy. Taken as whole, the films I am about to dive bomb into convey a strange moment in time: the years after the advent of sound and before the arrival of Hitler and Tojo. Up until then it was fashionable to be gobsmacked by the massive horror of "The Great War" and--like a guilty, shivering drunk--vowed never again.  Pearl Harbor crushed-out Hollywood's antiwar at the end of 1941, of course; were like Shane, forced to break our vow because, goddamn it, they made it personal.  

Before then though, the conscience-stricken flying ace films of John Monk Saunders' took advantage of the pre-code "amorality" to provide more than just up-to-the-minute reflections of the forgotten man's deep disillusionment over coming home to the Depression. They also eyeballed the sketchy border between war as a boyhood bonding experience and the post-war (or even post-battle) existential distress. Looking back from our 21st century hindsight, imagining America's attitude was Saunders' 1930-33 films haunt the landscape like a dark shadow. No wonder they were seldom re-released and are now available only on Warner's Archive or Amazon downloads. They're almost unAmerican!

Saunders and wife, Fay Wray

A professional aviator and trainer of WWI fighter pilots,  Saunders was a good-looking, intelligent, heavy-drinking depressive genius, thus his published stories of WWI aerial combat and heavy drinking provided perfect pre-code script material. Part Hemingway and part Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, he became a hot commodity in hard-drinking Hollywood and married Fay Wray! Was he flying the bi-plane that got Kong? Was it Saunders killed the beast? No, but Saunders' powerful, alcoholic thousand yard stare can't be dismissed from the horror metaphor, as we shall see...

As you know, I take a strong stance on the importance of drugs / alcohol abuse in being able to face the existential horror of the void. Would there even be a void without it? More importantly, it helps a writer stay lucid while delving into that void, deeply and lucidly enough to make it all flow like wine to the eye drums. The proximity of death opens the door to the screaming Lovecraftian horror of life, the terrifying tentacled devourer in the blackness waiting right outside your bubble of delusion, and the booze allows you to stare right into its gleaming, rotten yellow eye, and wink like a half-digested Jon Voight. Without booze, this grim confrontation which all sensitive poet hunters and fisherman must make every time they look into the terrified, dying eye of their prey (or blank page)--would be unendurable. Where would Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Huston, Tennessee Williams, or John Monk Saunders be without the booze OR the horror, the 'blue devil', the 'spook' that comes with war or delirium tremens? Like W.C. Fields' keeping serpents handy to warrant his use of 'snake bite remedy,' without these visionaries would not our generation, too, be lost, falling in a downward spiral? You may argue that it is in such a spiral, and you'd be right, but man have we learned how to plummet in style! We whoop it up like Major Kong. And that's because of our dead drunk writers.

Saunders' first filmed story was WINGS (above) in 1927. A turning point in aerial combat war realism, Saunders provided a probably accurate recording of the bloody birth of the modern mechanical man and the nerves of steel that allowed him to soar into the maw of machine gun fire at 3,000 feet, on nothing but some wires and canvas (and no parachute) and the way the alcohol and mademoiselles of gay Paris provided a welcoming bubble in which to crash land one way or another. Audiences loved the aerial stunt photography and, thanks to Saunders, they also caught a whiff of the full-on madness of cartoon champagne bubbles and Clara Bow's imitation of an uptight nurse's imitation of a vampiric courtesan.

But it is later, in the sound era, in a disturbing, brilliant WWI quadrilogy of pre-code sound films, where Saunders finds his true 'how to keep your cool even when the walls are trying to eat you' calling.

The early 30s pre-code years were themselves naturally existential: Remember my Forgotten Man?  He hurled his lunch across the land? Remember how an ineffectual censorship board made it easy to tell the truth about the pre-Social Security and unemployment insurance-era's widespread poverty, horror, disillusionment, sexual double standards in this country, and the war-related post-traumatic stress, the lure of Bolshevism, and the seething resentment over Prohibition?

Nervous isolationists looked anxiously towards Hitler's rise and Japan's aggression against China and saying "uh uh, not tonight, Josephine! This time we're staying home." And Saunders was the right man for the job of deflating our war balloon, giving us a little aerial action in the process via booze-drenched scripts for: THE DAWN PATROL (1930), THE LAST FLIGHT (1931), and THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933) and ACE OF ACES (1933). Let's examine!

Directed by Howard Hawks (Warner Bros.)
*** 1/2
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Neil Hamilton

In the first scene of this early Howard Hawks film, the flight commander (Neil Hamilton) at a French tavern-style headquarters rants on and on about the cold idiocy up the chain of command while his assistant counts the sound of incoming engines. There's two planes missing... planes they lost on the dawn patrol. It's all very modern and surreal and you can imagine seeing it as a play during the big Disillusionment of the post-WW1 Great Depression (along with Idiot's Delight, etc.), The film was a hit though, and even remade by Edmund Goulding in 1938 as a vehicle for Errol Flynn and David Niven. Basil Rathbone took Hamilton's role in that version and the casting and other touches make it a better film, Considering Goulding was a 'woman's director' and Hawks' a man's man, the remake is far more lucid and macho. Flynn is a far less mushy Captain Courtney than Richard Barthelmess, whose silent film sensitivity aged not so fine. 

As with Hawks' best films, there's a querencia, an enclosed shelter within which our brave group waits, drinks, smokes, sings, and passes out, between bouts with dead-defying.  And like all the best Hawks, we're made aware of every drink poured and cigarette rolled and match lit, and no one leaves a drink behind half-full. We come to know the layout of the place very well, like a second home. The bunks are upstairs, the bar is downstairs, and the CO's office opens out onto the bar, making it easy to hear tomorow's orders, get drunk, and then carry the lightweights up to bed all without going outside in the rain or having to deal with women.

That said, that shit was just getting started with Hawks. He's too willing still to abandon his improv masculine codexing once the stagy script demands we boil things down to the usual anti-war rants against kid killing and the pain Courtney suffers when his best friend (Fairbanks) starts fighting with him once Courntey himself takes over the flight commander role and starts sending kids to their deaths himself, including William Janney, crushingly great as Scotty's super naive brother, who assures them both he's great at flying and not afraid to die.

I was a big fan of the remake (here) and its super grim gallows' wit, and longed to see this one, and it's available at last via WB Archives. It turns out Goulding's film borrowed most of the dogfights but 1938 was too close to the start of the second war to get too weepy about killing kids, it was more about not being weepy at the thought of dying yourself, and of being a stout fellow who salutes and drinks with his enemy (shots between drinks or drinks between shots, as Marlowe says of Sean Regan in The Big Sleep). This time around, Richard Barthelmess as Capt. Courtney makes up for in method tics what he lacks in Flynn grace. When he gets out of his plane after a mission his legs wobble, like mine after mowing the grass, and we see a whole range of silent film pain, resignation in those big puppy Lorre eyes. He's far less boisterous than Errol Flynn, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is less jolly (but more authentically inside a war) than David Niven. Sometimes it may be hard to understand why Barthelmess was considered such a star, he's so stocky and short and thin-lipped, but there's a lot of acting going on in his silence, even while the rest of him stays posed like a wax statue, the flickering warm light in those eyes when he sees Scotty come back alive (with bottles) makes one choke up, whereas in the remake the same scene is merely jubilant and exhilarating.

All in all and remake aside, Hawks' 1930 version is one of the more rousing WWI ace pics, and balances the anti-war sentiment with a more stoic existential acceptance of duty, and love of action and destruction (those miniatures of German airfields and railroad crossings blow up real satisfyingly, the ground buckles and caves). That's why, maybe it's a quintessential John Monk Saunders adaptation but it's filmed by a vet of the Signal Corp. himself (Hawks), so if the blubbering and arguing of the Big Anti-War message seems heavy-handed today, remember the time it came out -- 1930 -- and that Hawks was only one of three writers. You can tell which parts he wrote, too - the earlier ones, the drinking and carousing and singing and befriending the German flier. And someone else wrote the glum ranting of act two. It's still a great acid film, just like it's 1938 remake, for it taps into the way part of tripping involves keeping your cool and shrugging it off with a drink and a verse or two of "hurrah for the next man who dies," even when the walls are melting and the handrails down the stairs are like two pincers and the steps the tongue of some throbbing scarab beetle devouring you, and everyone you see seems to be bleeding -- you can see the blood pulsing through their translucent skin -- oh my god, so much blood almost always about to spill! You want to yell and pull at people's lapels and shriek why aren't they freaking out! In such a state, just keeping cool is a true test of manly courage. Maybe it's not the same as 'really' being in a war, but then again, maybe only schizophrenics, war vets, and survivors of 12 hour-long nightmare STP trips truly understand one another. BANG! BANG!

After the credits, sometime, the war ends and the surviving pilots go in various directions, usually after some opening scenes borrowed from WINGS and DAWN PATROL. Some pilots go home to usher in the early days of commercial flight, ala AIR HOSTESS (1933) and CEILING ZERO (1936). Some go into barnstorming. If they're too shot-up or broken and can't even fly a safe boring passenger route (which according to one ex-barnstormer is "like being a trolley conductor") they can try air mail routes in South America, over the Andes ala NIGHT FLIGHT (1933, my appreciation here) or ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). If they're too damaged even for that, there's always staying in prohibition-free Paris and drinking themselves into sweet oblivion, as with: 

Director: Williem Dieterle (for Warners)
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Helen Chandler, David Manners - ***

After opening on a wordless montage of war footage that stretches from random explosions and WWI shots of tanks, exploding boats, the overhead railroad depot bombing money shot from DAWN PATROL, there is--spliced in--anonymous goggled close-ups showing the fiery crash that has allowed Signal Corp. pilot Cary (Barthlemess) and his rear gunner Shep (David Manners) to be too fucked up to fly again. After discharging them, the doctor notes they're "heading out to face life, when their whole training was in preparation for death."

It was the preparation for death that had been, of course, Saunder's job during the war as a flight trainer. "I'm afraid they're like projectiles, shaped for war. Hurled at the enemy. They described a beautiful high-arching trajectory, and now they've fallen back to earth... spent... cooled off... useless." The doctor keeps going, noting that they fell 600 feet, "like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement - it shattered both of them." Okay Okay, we get it.

On the plus side it legitimizes their desire to live and die awash in a sea of boozy screwball gibber-gabber. Their goal is to get tight and "stay tight" - a beautiful high arching trajectory to be sure! And Paris is the closest place to get that tight, as Prohibition made going to the US less than thrilling.

Saunders had clearly been reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald before writing this and Last Flight could have become a Lost Generation cult classic if directed by a rapidfire overlapping dialogue and smoking and drinking wiz like Hawks or W.S. Van Dyke, George Cukor or someone with a dark-streaked screwball comedic humanism like Leo McCarey, Capra, or even Norman Z. McLeod. But, in the hands of once-impoverished German immigrant Willam Dieterle, the champagne bubble "hurrah for the next who dies" dialogue sinks down like smoke from an unfiltered Gauloises, revealing only a perfunctory understanding of boozy tuxedo modernism and the natural flow of spoken English. In this land of early sound and Germanic directorial strategy, everyone over-enunciates, waiting for the other to finish talking, allowing a long pause between each speaker, like a tableful of drunks never would in real life. The result plays like a 1929 Paramount Marx Brothers movie directed by a drunken Todd Browning, with (most of)  the cast of DRACULA (1931) all playing Groucho and Geoffrey from UNDER THE VOLCANO at the same time, though without a slur. Which sounds great, by the way, and almost is. When we find the boys after their discharge swilling away down at the local cafe, along with some other ex-pats, we are instnatly dubious of just how drunk they  are - but it makes sense that they would run into and all fall for, an ethereal vampire-like alcoholic played by Mina Harker (aka Helen Chandler). A fast-formed friendship forms - with Chandler as their kind of de facto mascot / Snow White (to their dwarfs) / Den Mother. They all fall into a moveable feast that heads off to Lisbon to party, and from there, a date-rapey creep in their midst ruins everything. Don't they always? 

To me, it's the date-rapey creep that ruins it - so part of protecting Snow White involves getting rid of Rapey the eighth dwarf as soon as possible - misleading him, sending him off to get cigarettes and running away and pulling down the shades when he comes by. And even so, aside from Barthelmess and Manners, the crew of fellow drunk expat aviators aren't very hip. It's really only Barthelmess and Manners that Nikki likes, and we like. Frink (Walter Byron) is the Rapey, an icky journalist who keeps hanging around their fringe; his creepy omnipresence stops most of the zaniness from being really fun (then again, "who cares?" is their motto). There's also a suspiciously loud Texan (Johnny Mack Brown) who tackles horses in the street outside the bar on a dare and rocks the flattest of twangs. There's also Elliot Nugent (who'd go on to direct the awesome 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY) as Francis, the shot-up, dour marksman who ends up spending most of the time eyeballing Frink (as I would be doing), though he waits until almost the end to finally do us all a favor and shoot him, calling an immediate end to the party.

Luckily for us despite the dates and uncouth trimmings, there's a weird poetry in the chemistry between Chandler and Manners, who seem even more ESP-whisp-thereal than they did in the same year's DRACULA --no easy feat. As Shep, Barthelmess's drinking buddy, bosom pal and ex-gunner, Manners' otherworldly feyness finds a great natural outlet--we believe he's forgotten what month it is--and when he dies shot in a cab and proclaims "in a way this is may be the best thing that ever happened to me," we actually believe him.

And it's understandable that both he and Nikki would be so drawn to the quiet strength of Barthelmess' densely rooted pilot. By contrast, they seem to float when standing still, their eyes following wisps around the room only the two of them can see, making them like a taller, drunker version of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but with their invisible strings fastened to Barthelmess's anchor, they don't need to worry about floating away

And the similarities of DRACULA and FLIGHT don't end there: Chandler's character Nikki is much more like the Mina in Stoker's novel of DRACULA than her actual Mina was in Todd Browning's adaptation. She might be reading crazy gonzo lines but she's delivering them like she's about to cry or relate her strange dream of a dark figure coming out of the mist. In the novel she becomes a kind of revered virgin icon-mascot for Van Helsing, Harker, Dr. Seward and Lucy's other grief-stricken suitor (a Texan!). If Frink was Dracula it might even be a remake, but in a way, the war already had the Dracula role, making it really like Dracula part 2, wherein Manners, Chandler, Barthelmess and co. all try to drink away the awful memories of, and wounds from, their big climactic staking.

In real life, Chandler would later experience kinship with monsters horrified by their lack of recognizable mirror reflection. Wiki notes that "she ironically fell victim to alcoholism later in life and was badly disfigured in a fire caused by falling asleep while smoking." And of course vampirism is a great metaphor for dependence on alcohol, morphine, or the horrors of war. Each is a key that can easily replace the other, soothe the worries of the other, and in the process open the lock of great literature and art (Barthelmess's character has a nervous tic but "the tic doesn't work when he's tight, so he stays tight").

If only I was there, I could have helped them ditch Frink sooner, for I was expert and driving off wallies, and man we'd have a time -for  the rest of them drink like I used to, and I loved my moveable feast crew, and we had the same infallible sense of surrealist absurdity, collective platonic love of our collective drunk beaytiful blonde resident wit and a hatred of date rapists we had to drink desperately to escape.

Brushing aside Frink's dour lechery, Mick La Salle notes in his essential, beautifully-written 2002 book, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man (where I first learned about Saunders' films, so this post owes La Salle a heavy debt):
"These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over [Nikki's] legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking a dim memory when such things were to live and die for...." 
"Nikki isn't a woman of the world, but an airy figure with a child's honesty and an adult's sadness, a female version of the men. (Chandler, whose own hopeless alcoholism would lead to tragedy, couldn't help but bring a special truth to the role.)" (p. 100)
The presence of Barthelmess makes it also a sequel to THE DAWN PATROL (if his lived and got discharged with buddy Fairbanks), and a perfect distillation of trying to drink away one's broken watch status via the icy abstraction of martinis and a beautiful, hard-drinking girl (a Zelda). 

Throughout the film the idea of being 'a big success' is played with, and the competition to be the last one in the room with Nikki is part of that, and also what drives Francis to finally off Frink, requiring Francis's subsequent disappearance into the Lisbon shadows. "This is the first time he's looked truly happy," notes Nikki as she watches Frances disappear. Manners has also been (accidentally) shot in the fracas, and a sense of VERTIGO / Purloined letter circular death drive / Appointment in Samara ensues: As he slowly dies in the back of a cab, Shep reports feeling like he's falling, and falling... like he and Cary did in the opening scene over the skies and screens of France. "He was ready to die once," Cary notes, "and he was ready to die again." 

Here it is, the real love affair of the story, that between Barthelmess and Manners, the way men bond eternally in the field of combat, like orphans forever clinging to paddle-less rafts during battles with shadowy Robert Mitchums (imagine if Stewart in VERTIGO had a buddy to fall into the infinite with, someone other than motherin' prude Midge). "Comradeship," says Barthelmess, "was all we had left."  
And maybe that's what the real lure of war is for men at home: an escapist grim fantasia of true brotherhood and comradeship and no prohibition or small town morals. In wartime it's just buds against the world, firearms instead of nagging wives, the chance to prove one's mettle when it's all stripped down to just you and the guys experiencing the same hell the next seat over. And Barthelmess--his usually impassive face contorting into a slow burn wide-eyed terror at being finally unable to save his gunner's life in the cab-cradles Manners' head as he dies, like a lover. But when it comes to pitching confessional woo to Nikki in their private train car back to Paris in the next scene, he seems to doing some lipless burlesque of what having lips is like. Still, the pair's lonesome auras collide finally and the sense of two lost souls clinging to each other continues-- each grateful that something and someone at least lets them pretend they're not already crashed.

And more importantly, they won't ever take the bottle away and say "you've had enough, honey."

Then, in 1933, Hitler consolidated power and Prohibition was repealed: two very good reasons for moving back to the States, where the voting majority were determined to keep out of the next world war. Sensing the new threat on the horizon, Saunders wrote two more anti-war movies that promoted a new isolationist propaganda stance.

This was when the need to start mobilizing the national military industrial complex was vastly more important than most people in their sloshed disillusionment could have realized, not only because arms build-up would lift us out of the Depression but because, as La Salle notes, "Had the United States found the will that year to throw a net over Hitler, tens of millions of lives might have been spared."

Well, anyway, these two 1933 Saunders flying ace films are great stuff now that they can't do any real damage to our collective freedom, so here we go:

Directed by Stuart Walker (for Paramount)
Starring: Frederic March, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Jackie Oakie

The descriptions of this film tend to describe it as a love triangle between Frederic March, rising Paramount star Cary Grant (in the same year he played opposite Mae West in her two best pictures), and a vamped-to-the-point-she's-ceased-to-look-human Carole Lombard (billed only as 'the beautiful lady' she seems ethereally daemonic enough to be the "bloofer lady" in DRACULA). But contrary to the picture at left, Cary Grant and Lombard never actually share a single scene in the film, and at left Lombard more resembles a wife or WAC in a WWII home front propaganda piece rather than a mysterious sympathetic ear wrapped in ermine who March trysts with in the dead of night in Hyde park.

And Cary Grant is no hero, but a sociopathic if ultimately loyal gunner to March. Grant's hawkish vibe allows March to play the guilt-stricken noble. He becomes a top ace, but he has to get progressively drunker to keep it together once his body count rises, to the point a grinning French general pinning a medal on him can smell the alcohol on his breath even in the pouring rain!  Hey, c'est la guerre! And when one of his gunners later simply falls out during a loop-de-loop maneuver, March's decent into alcoholism and existential guilt goes from spiral to straight downward dive-bomb.

The thing that tears the game up more than anything for Jerry (March) is that he can't admit how much he loves to kill. When he comes back from his first foray over the lines he's exhilarated and giddy, only to find his first-assigned gunner is dead behind him. From then on, he's horrified, not by fear of being killed, but of being responsible somehow for the deaths of his gunners (he loses five in a matter of months) while he gets his kicks. It's guilt for loving killing and collateral damage. What I dig most about EAGLE AND THE HAWK is just how flimsy the WWI bi-planes here seem. They look ready to fall to pieces at a moment's notice, little more than kites with guns attached. 

What's less exciting is the way, just like Kirk Douglas in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), Jerry's self-righteous anti-war stance includes blissful freedom from the big picture, i.e. the responsibility endured by Neil Hamilton in DAWN PATROL. It's very convenient to bad cop it to a higher-up and play the wounded dove without worry of the long-ranging sociopolitical consequences. That said, March's performance is brilliantly modulated and it's quite intense watching his polite veneer slowly crumble under strain of conscience, until, during the big drunken binge thrown in his 'top ace' honor (after he shoots down Voss, a Richtofen-like ace who's barely out of his teens), March finally snaps, interrupting his fellow flier's drunken singing with a crazy rant: "I earn my medals for killing kids!" He then staggers off to his room and commits suicide, a tour de force statement! Yeah right. What a waste...

La Salle notes that Jerry's suicide had a real-life parallel to Saunders' real life booze-enhanced turmoil:  "Seven years after the film was made, Saunders, age 42, hanged himself." (105) That would be 1940. You do the math; he died along with any socratic ideal of a future negotiated peace with Hitler. He also probably realized, as so many drunks do, that sobriety was his only other option.


But all that was still a ways off in 1934. Saunders could, at least for awhile, channel his booze-fueled depressive drunken combat envy to pictures and literature. We alcoholic poets come alive when our paranoia and sense of immanent calamity finally have a proper setting. Saunders' anti-war sentiment at its most effective always includes pro-war relish, a mix of emotions including a paradoxical sense of brotherhood with the enemy fliers. As long as he could seethe with isolationist fury he could indulge this Hyde-like dark twin as well.

One can imagine the outlet for such isolationism being choked off after 1938, never to return (until Vietnam). But American pacifism was all the rage in 1933, the year of such polemics like MEN MUST FIGHT and political satires like DUCK SOUP and DIPLOMANIACS, all of which adds up with Saunders' relative homicidal glee to compare favorably as a predecessor to PATTON if he pretended to be ashamed of his yen for slaughter, or Dr. Strangelove's amok hand making peace signs instead of Nazi salutes.

I'd hazard a guess too that, for one of WWI's more peerless Air Corps. fiction authors, Saunders' lack of actual combat experience reflects his guilt more than his characters' over killing kids. This is perhaps the one weak aspect of his work but as far as weak aspects go, you won't find these kinds of sentiments voiced so clearly anywhere else in pre-code film. Other writers were either anti-war pacifists screaming the dogmatic socialist credos while fascist soldiers hauled them away (ala IDIOT'S DEIGHT), or "over there / over there" lemmings. Saunders was too smart for either out, he explored the actuality of the grisly homicidal fish that bites the propaganda lure with a boozer's realization that they were two sides of a same lousy nickel-plated excuse to get away with murder.

ACE OF ACES (1933)
Director: J. Walter Rubin (for RKO)
Starring: Richard Dix, Elizabeth Allan, Ralph Bellamy, Theodore Newton, Joe Sauers - ***1/2

Sculptor Rocky (Richard Dix) and his wealthy fiancee, Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) begin the film in an idyllic upper class garden guarded by a strangely disagreeable ceramic gnome. Someone runs over with alarming news. It's war! He just saw the paper! Rocky immediately declares that signing up to go fight is for chumps, and in a subsequent scene up in Rocky's second floor sculpture studio, he and Nancy have an argument of principles while parade footage unfurls outside the window below his work in progress, a winged angel. She dumps him for his 'cowardice.' Which leads to the next scene, Dix entering his new barracks to meet his fellow fliers, while a guitarist sings "Ten thousand dollars for the folks back home / ten thousand dollars / for the family," while they roll up the possessions of the latest killed flier whose bunk Rocky's taking. We get the message, your family gets ten grand if you die in the air.

It's a startlingly modern scene, these pilots seem like they stepped out of a 50s Corman film. They're far too beat for1933. They jive like they should be swindling Tony Curtis out of his sax or chasing James Dean around an abandoned swimming pool. Each of the pilots has a mascot and a nickname: "This is Tombstone Terry, the Tennessee Terror, otherwise known as Dracula!" The man leans forward to eye Rocky's neck, "Welcome to the ranks of the undead!" (WWI ended 13 years before the premiere of the 1931 Lugosi film, mind you). They each have an emblem of their power animal/mascot emblazoned on their ships: Rocky just happened to think to bring a lion cub and there's a chimp who drinks to ease the pain when his master's in the air. There's also a dog, a parrot, and a pig with an iron cross tattoo. Each flier's bunk has a flag with the amount of killed enemy planes represented on it by big 'X' stickers on the headboard (usually a chunk of a shot down plane wing). The plane of each man is taken care of like a teenager takes care of his Pontiac Firebird.

Then there's the ingenious way Rocky's artistic understanding of natural light benefits him in dogfights. He chokes on the trigger at first and has to get winged in the shoulder by an enemy bullet before he mans up and squeezes. The boys celebrate his kill and Dix realizes that he may never make the grade as a sculptor, but this new bloody brand of performance has a nice adrenalin kicker.

But what is the 'meaning' behind this art? When Dix smacks a kid in the face with an ammo belt because he loaded it wrong, we know we're not supposed to be buying war bonds in the lobby. This shit is personal. And the very hip disaffection of the fliers bears out my theory that war and acid are just two different sides of the same empty, terrifying void.

The Lemming and the Lion
When, upon his initial coward-branding by nurse Nancy, Rocky decries war as a chance to duck out on your wife, and work, and responsibility, you know he's right, and he gets to say I told you so after she's become a nurse and personally dealt with being shelled and overrun. When they meet in Paris on a furlough she says she regrets goading him into enlisting, but he'll have none of it: "This is a great war and I'm having a grand time; every minute is grand!"  He's high on the cleanness of the war up where he is, the feeling of life and death so close and all that separates them the movements of his plane and firing of his guns: "Yes, it's a great war. I hope the next one is half as good!" He's giddy with insane sardonicism but his eyes look empty, reflecting a kind of DEATH DREAM somnambulism that some critics dismiss as merely Dix's wooden acting style. But behind that wooden mask lurks an agonized sculptor who has given up trying to hold onto his humanity, since he knows it will only get him killed. Like all sensitive artists, he starts out with far too much compassion, so he just jettisons it all. When he makes a brusque pass at her, Nancy balks. He exclaims war is is no time for scruples: "How can you refuse whatever you have to give?!" He all but twists her earlier words back into her face, and the moral hypocrisy of placing import on a woman's virginity dissolves in WWI almost as if that was the whole point of the war in the first place.

All in all, Rocky ends up being the more complex and interesting figure than March's Jerry in EAGLE. March endures his tenure as ace, but any joy in the sport of it falls instead to Cary Grant's sociopathic gunner. We know from DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE that March could have chilled us to the core if Rocky was allowed a duality, but Dix is almost better for being less versatile, more stiff (in both senses). Just as Cary shoots an unarmed parachutist in EAGLE, Rocky shoots down an unarmed German cadet and winds up in a hospital next to him. This finally snaps Rocky out of his psychotic stupor.

Luckily there's a happy ending, albeit with a strange 'is this just a dream and I'm really dead?' quality, like the end of TAXI DRIVER or VERTIGO or LAST FLIGHT. Rocky winds up the film back in the garden and in Nancy's arms, harmony restored: "We'll live only for ourselves, and by ourselves," she says, an eloquent if impossible advocations of the romantic ideal behind isolationist pacifism and the fantasy that America could take all the time it wanted to lick its wounds and Europe would just sort itself out on its own.

After all, America was still a teenager in 1933, a mere 157 years-old, yet it knew deep down it would never get a chance to even get comfortable with itself before being shipped off to die in yet another country's war. Rocky's last line, though meant as a joke, leaves a chilling after-effect. As he and Nancy embrace in the garden, his eyes rest on the garden gnome that bugged him in the film's first scene, noting cryptically, "I still don't like the looks of that guy."

Who else could that gnome be, but Adolph Hitler?


  1. For what it's worth, one of the pilots in Ace of Aces is nicknamed "Dracula" and introduces himself to Richard Dix by saying, "Welcome to the land of the living dead." Saunders co-wrote the screenplay, adapting one of his own stories. Hmmm...

    1. Good memory! I watched it earlier and added an Ace of Aces section at the end, you must have posted this just before I updated... but that you knew it off the top of your head blows me away!


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