AIR FORCE could serve as the prime example of the WW2 propaganda-entertainment pictures that flooded the screen during the conflict. Designed to buck up the folks at home, extol the boys doing their jobs, highlight their tools (here it’s a B-17) and demonize, belittle and obliterate the enemy (here the Japanese). Director Howard Hawks makes excellent use of his penchant for camaraderie-stories, and gets ace work from his cast, all pulling together to paste foes from one end of the Pacific to the other.
Our boys descend into the debacle at Pearl Harbor, skip over to besieged Wake Island, move on to the embattled Philippines and end up taking part in a make-believe battle that sinks more of the Emperor’s Navy than was ever available. The camerawork from James Wong Howe is superb—the lighting is particularly effective, and there’s a lot of cool miniatures dazzle in the special effects. Dudley Nichols script lets the well-delineated ‘types’ in the crew—the skipper, the kid, the loverboy, the hard case, the old man, Tex, Irish, Brooklyn—lob their pitches, while Hawks smart direction keeps their blabbering under control and reasonably naturalistic, given they’re basically making speeches along with small talk. William Faulkner contributed some elements.
The real hardball is played by depicting the ‘Nips’ as not just vicious (plenty of history to back that up) but cowardly and incompetent as well (outright laughable). Wartime epithets are one thing (“Fried Jap going down!“), given the battle-to-the-death combative mood of the times—attention, p.c. patrol, what do you expect? “Gee, I’m sorry to hurt your feelings, especially after Nanking”?—but the utterly blatant falsehoods about homegrown Japanese-American sabotage in Hawaii are beyond defending. Eliminating that racist junk would have trimmed the 124 minutes to better accommodate that wildly visual, absurdly easy mop-up of the entire enemy fleet at the finale, which serves not just to get theater crowds on their feet but spur enlistment, since it seems so simple and fun to deal with Tojo’s minions.
An Oscar winner for Film Editing, nominated for Script, Cinematography and Special Effects, the movie was the 7th biggest hit of the year. Excellent performances all around from John Ridgely, John Garfield, Harry Carey, George Tobias, Arthur Kennedy, Gig Young, James Brown, Charles Drake, Addison Richards, Ann Doran, Faye Emerson.
After the film wrapped, Kennedy joined the Air Corps, Drake went into the Army, Young the Canadian Coast Guard. Garfield’s heart condition prevented uniformed service so he did bond tours, fought onscreen in Destination Tokyo and Pride of the Marines and helped found the Hollywood Canteen to give servicemen a place to take their minds off death.