“Flyboys” is an old-fashioned, boys’ adventure version of an arresting chapter in World War I history about the enterprising bunch of young Americans who flew with the French before the United States entered the war. Lovingly and knowledgeably made by director Tony Bill, who got his pilot’s license as a teenager, pic nonetheless has a lightweight, airbrushed feel; despite the brutal dogfights and inevitable deaths, there’s little gravity or resonance. Flight film fans and the idly curious will check it out, but the masses won’t be mobilized for this MGM release, at least not in theaters.
That not a single soul, not even a Frenchman, smokes in this film tells you pic’s portrait of the war has been sanitized for modern consumption. Even the 1958 picture about the same unit, William Wellman’s “Lafayette Escadrille,” had the Yank leading man, played by Tab Hunter, fall for a French hooker; here, the love interest is a virtuous young thing who looks after her dead brother’s orphaned kids.
Nearly all of the major Hollywood pictures about WWI aviators made in the late ’20s and early ’30s — Wellman’s “Wings” and “Legion of the Condemned,” Hawks’ “The Dawn Patrol,” Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels,” William Dieterle’s unduly neglected “The Last Flight” — underline the bitter fatalism of these warriors who, while the most glamorous figures in uniform, had a life expectancy once they started flying of three to six weeks. They were beautiful stoics, alcoholic knights of the air, the poster boys for the Lost Generation; veteran pilots wouldn’t even speak to new arrivals at first, knowing many of them would be dead in short order.
These tidbits are mentioned in the efficient but formulaic script by Blake Evans, Phil Sears and David S. Ward (the latter Bill’s cohort from “The Sting”), but they come across as items on a checklist rather than as facts that might have shaped attitudes and contributed to a mildly despairing, pre-existential philosophy of life. “Flyboys” is intended as a 90-years-on salute to these adventurers, but its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed perspective denies the tale true grit or the barest hint of tragedy.
The small band of Yanks gathered together in 1916 have come to France for different reasons. Among them are Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a laconic Texan whose family has just lost its ranch; William Jensen (Philip Winchester), a son of a soldier; Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), an upper class lout who needs to become a man; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black expat boxer appreciative of how France has treated him; and Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), an odd fellow with a mysterious past.
Ensconced in a fabulous chateau, they train under the benevolent eye of Captain Thenault (Jean Reno, bearing more than a passing resemblance here to Charles de Gaulle) and at a detached distance from charismatic squadron leader Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson). Director Bill’s desire to communicate the minutiae of flying comes through vividly: The biplanes were rickety, fragile things, fabric pulled over wire and a few struts; the controls were dreadfully imprecise; the machine guns often jammed; flying and aiming at the same time was tough, and so much more did the military value the planes over the pilots that no parachutes were provided.
The aviation-yarn format requires several airborne missions separated by earthbound downtime, with the latter increasingly devoted to Rawlings’ puppy dog devotion to lovely Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), whose life with the kids on a nearby farm becomes threatened by the encroaching Germans. The corny scenes between them are made agreeable enough by the actors’ charm as well as by the way the characters slowly compensate for the fact that each speaks not a word of the other’s language.
But the main action is in the air, where a vigorous combination of real footage and extensive CGI makes for dynamic and complicated maneuvers of the sort that are routine in outer space movies and videogames but haven’t been seen before in WWI fare (with the momentary exception of “The Aviator”). In many interludes, it is impossible to tell where the six actual planes leave off and the computer-generated ones begin, and perhaps never has the difficulty of lining up a moving target in a wobbly plane and getting off an accurate shot been better demonstrated.
The film also shows the chaos of squadron-to-squadron combat. Bill placed great importance on expressing the chivalry and mutual respect between enemies in the air; pic’s most upsetting moments come when the implicit aviators’ code is transgressed by the German arch-villain.
But these genre niceties are not going to mean much to young modern audiences, and the vanilla-flavored storytelling fails to make the revisiting of a distant war relevant; the nostalgia is not unpleasant, but in terms of tough-mindedness, it’s miles away from the trenchant entertainments that were embraced by the public not long after the war itself.
Franco’s carryover James Dean posings early on serve his character’s gruff coverup of a wounded soul, but the actor is best when he smiles and becomes personable. French stage thesp Decker is comely and promising, Salis has a sensitive, upbeat appeal as the initial odd man out who comes to love flying more than any of them, and Henderson obviously enjoyed draping himself in the accoutrements of romantic danger.
Shot in England, pic is handsomely and credibly appointed in all departments.