Flyboys: A Movie Review

“INSPIRED BY REAL EVENTS,” says the leader to the movie. That is Hollywood talk for “Something like this sort of, kind of happened, and we are shamelessly capitalizing on it for the purposes of making a movie.” That’s OK. We all have to earn a living.

In this case, the MGM movie Flyboys, released on Sept. 22, 2006, tells the tale of a group of young American men who volunteered to fly, and perhaps to die, for France during the First World War (called the Great War). They served in a legendary aircraft squadron that was named the Lafayette Escadrille.

A number of the Big Media reviews of the movie claimed that it was mediocre at best. (Har, har. Big Media discussing the concept of “mediocre.” Gimme a break.) A few critics whined that Flyboys is too long. (Yes, it is a bit long. Take an extra box of RAISINETS into the theatre.) Some critics said that the script is full of cliches. (Yes, there are cliches. It’s a war movie. Deal with it. At least nobody said, “They’re coming in too fast.”) One reviewer claimed that the special effects were “too digital.” (Huh? What movie did he see?) Another reviewer said that it was hard to tell the actors apart when they were all gussied up in leather jackets and goggles. (Hello? It’s a movie about guys who fly open-cockpit aircraft.)

But my question to the critics is “How many hours of flight time do you have, you bunch of know-it-alls?” And have you ever been locked onto by a pulsing, Soviet-made fire-control radar, diving for the deck, and twisting your skull off of your C-1 vertebrae to try to spot the telephone pole with the fire coming out the backside aimed right at your tailpipe? No, I didn’t think so. My view is that if you approach it with the right attitude, Flyboys is a movie well worth seeing. Call it a niche movie, perhaps. But it received a standing ovation from a roomful of some of the nation’s best pilots at the Oshkosh Airshow last summer. Those are critics who have earned the right to criticize. Everybody else is just bellyaching.

So be forewarned, dear readers. Flyboys is a movie about war. It is a movie about airplanes and flying. It is a movie about young men coming of age as they learn to fly and train to fight. Civilians become soldiers. Soldiers become warriors. It is a movie about these young guys bonding with each other while they stare death in the face, dodge flak, dogfight with German airplanes, and do fancy wingovers high above the trenches of no man’s land. But first, as they say in the movies, “Let’s set the scene.”

The Great War

It was 1916. The Great War had started in 1914, and all of the knowledgeable insiders expected that the conflict would last no more than a few months, at most. The events that constituted the so-called “causes” of the war, such as a dead duke in Sarajevo, were trifling. These were certainly not matters of supreme national interest, let alone things worth risking the destruction of empires. And after all, each side had a plan for how to fight the war and bring it to a swift and favorable conclusion. The boys would be home by Christmas.

But two years later, the conflict was still raging in Europe. The initial battles were not decisive. The German advances had been halted, eventually, but along a front line located not far outside of Paris. France and Britain, Germany and Austria, Italy and Russia, and numerous other European and colonial lands had fed millions of their youth into industrial-scale carnage. Entire nations and their economies had been mobilized. People of working age were either wearing uniforms and carrying arms or marching each morning to their respective workshops and spending their days manufacturing armaments for the fighting men on the front lines.

The governments of the belligerent powers were, of course, broke. Who would have thought that waging total, national-scale war could be so expensive? Whatever had previously passed for “public finance” had long since been subsumed into the war effort. Far from exerting any sort of fiscal or monetary control over the actions of governments, national treasury departments were assigned the pedestrian task of ensuring an endless supply of currency and supervising its distribution. After all, the national governments had to pretend to pay for the goods that were otherwise being requisitioned into the cause.

As for the movie Flyboys, the background is that France was broke and it needed both money and able-bodied men to continue to fight the war. The movie does not tell you that American banks and manufacturers provided the former, in the form of “credits” to assist the British and French in purchasing American goods. But the movie does a nice job of illustrating how the American media (in the form of movie houses in Flyboys ) assisted with the latter, by showing what were, in essence, recruitment films for the Anglo-French, anti-German cause. As one would expect, some young American men answered the call. Of these men, some were running away from a past and others were hoping to make a different future for themselves.

In the movie Flyboys, we see a cross section of the usual suspects. There is a tall, lean Texas cowboy whose family ranch has been foreclosed by the evil banker. There is a spoiled rich kid whose father is about to write him out of the will. There is a guy who signs on because he cannot bear the fact that his father, and grandfather, and previous ancestors were all war heroes of some sort. There is a former bank robber, a few steps ahead of the law. There is a seminarian who trusts God to be his copilot, in a single-cockpit aircraft, no less. And there is an African-American boxer who has fled the Jim Crow racism of Woodrow Wilson’s United States and moved to France. Then there is the squadron leader, a mysterious man with ice water in his veins who keeps a lion as a pet. This is not quite the French Foreign Legion, but close.

Toward the beginning of the movie, there is a remarkable scene in which the young, naive, and idealistic Americans debark from a train at one of the railroad stations of wartime Paris. In a cinematic shot descended from Gone With the Wind, they see before them hundreds of horribly wounded French soldiers staggering about in muddy uniforms, or lying on stretchers and groaning in pain with bloodied stumps where working body parts used to be. The camera catches the young Americans glancing at each other, eyes darting over the masses of wounded, as if to ask… well, you probably know what they are thinking.

So Flyboys is no rah-rah, war-is-glorious kind of movie. People die on the wide screen, in living color. Later in the film, aircraft catch fire and explode, and burning pilots tumble thousands of feet to their death. There is little left to the imagination.

The Remarkable Trinity

But you do not go to war just by catching a train to Paris. 80 years earlier, long before our young American eagles had landed in France, Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) had written of war and politics and described what he called the “remarkable trinity” of war. By this, Clausewitz was referring to the interaction of a government, its people, and the army. Clausewitz viewed war as the interplay of violent emotion, chance, and rational policy. He linked these elements to the social trinity of the people, the army, and the government. Here is what Clausewitz said exactly, in his great work, On War, published posthumously in 1832:

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon, its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity — composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

“The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second, the commander and his army; the third, the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.”

“War is,” wrote Clausewitz famously, “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” Clausewitz compares war to “more than a true chameleon,” meaning more than an animal that changes color to match its surroundings, but otherwise remains identical. Clausewitz is saying that war is a phenomenon that can, depending on conditions, take radically different forms. The basic sources of changes in those conditions lie in the elements of his “remarkable trinity.”

Thus, per Clausewitz, war is made up of more than just the sum of “the people, the army, and the government.” It is necessary to understand that Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity” is made up of three categories of raw forces. These are, first, irrational forces, meaning violent emotion, “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity.” Second, there are nonrational forces, meaning such forces that are not the product of human thought or intent, such as “friction” and “the play of chance and probability.” And third, Clausewitz refers to rationality, or the subordination of warfare to reason, “as an instrument of policy.”

Clausewitz connects each of those forces (using the word “mainly”) to one of three sets of human actors: the people, the army, and the government. Let’s look at each of these.

First, Clausewitz pairs the people “mainly” with irrational forces — the emotions of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity. By implication, the lack of emotion can also play a role. It is possible for a nation to fight, and even win, wars about which the people do not much care.

Second, Clausewitz pairs the army, meaning military forces in general, and its commanders “mainly” with the nonrational forces of friction, chance, and probability. Fighting organizations routinely deal with such factors under the creative guidance of the commander. Wrote Clausewitz:

“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction…This tremendous friction…is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance…Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes.”

Thus, in warfare, creativity depends on something more than mere rationality, including, one hopes, a divine spark of talent or genius in the leadership cadre.

Third, Clausewitz pairs the government “mainly” with the rational force of calculation — policy is, ideally, driven by reason. “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.” Elsewhere in his writing, Clausewitz stated that “If war is part of policy, policy will determine its character. As policy becomes more ambitious and vigorous, so will war, and this may reach the point where war attains its absolute form…Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa.”

This latter comment is the distilled explanation of Clausewitz’s famous thesis that “War is an instrument of policy.” Clausewitz understood perfectly well, however, that this ideal of rational policy is not always met: “That it can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there…Here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community.”

“No one starts a war,” said Clausewitz, “or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Yet by 1916, in the midst of the Great War, policy had simply failed to control the evolution of the fight. By 1916, the year of Verdun and Somme, the war had become a self-sustaining monster, from the claws of which no politician or policymaker could escape. And rather than being a distinct instrument of national policy, this particular war now was devouring entire nations. Armies, peoples, governments, and their associated economies and political systems were all hostage to forces beyond their control. The Great War had a dynamic of its own.

Back to Our Flyboys

All of which brings us back to our flyboys in France. “Whenever armed forces…are used,” stated Clausewitz, “the idea of combat must be present…The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching, is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time.”

Here was France, following the textbook written by the Prussian von Clausewitz, recruiting and training Americans to fly and fight on its behalf. The movie Flyboys gives a rather amusing, if not cursory, review of the so-called “training” program by which our young American protagonists learn to fly. By comparison with modern aviation training programs, which are rather bureaucratized and can last several years and cost upward of several millions of dollars per student, these young pilots-in-training were the true embodiment of flying by the seat of their pants. But still, things were as they were back then. Today’s rigorous training programs are the direct lineal descendent of this trial-and-error method. You have to learn to aviate, navigate, and communicate.

And to quote Clausewitz once more, in this context, “War is the realm of danger; therefore, courage is the soldier’s first requirement.” Courage? Damn right. Early in training, the young flyers learn that the average lifespan of a pilot on the aerial front is about three or four weeks. Still, our Airedales do not seem overly worried about the possibility of dying. They are volunteers in the service of France, spending their time training hard by day and, by night, living in rather luxurious officers’ quarters. Later, after the American entry into the war, such accommodations would be labeled as “la guerre de luxe,” as one wag coined the phrase in reference to the headquarters of Gen. Pershing’s staff.

When the action takes to the air, the movie Flyboys truly displays its exceptional lift-versus-drag ratio. The highflying battle scenes are nothing less than spectacular. Anything more realistic would require you to strap into your seat and pull some Gs. These aerobatic displays are a combination of actual footage of real aircraft, coupled with exceedingly realistic, digital enhancements. The sound of the spitting engines and whirring propellers, coupled with the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, fill the theatre and provide a solid sense of being there in the thick of things. The explosions are eye-popping. The scenes of burning aircraft being ripped to shreds and plummeting to the ground are simply astonishing, and during a couple of scenes just plain take your breath away. Good guys die, and you feel terrible about it. The bombing scene at the end of the movie is almost a direct remake of the ending from the Howard Hughes classic Hell’s Angels (1930). All that is missing is 100 knots of wind slipstreaming in your face and hot oil spraying back into your mouth.

Flying and Fighting

There have been many great airplane movies set in wartime, from Wings (1927) and the above-noted Hell’s Angels to Twelve O’Clock High (1949), The Blue Max (1966), and Memphis Belle (1990). These are movies about flying and fighting, with subthemes of leadership and mission, friendship and sacrifice, bravery and blood-bonding. One of the questions that always crosses my mind when watching such films is whether or not the depiction in the film is of people simply manning the equipment or of aviation technology equipping the man? After all, who is that guy in the silk scarf? Great war stories, let alone great airplane movies, usually get into the issue of why people fight.

Why did the flyboys in Flyboys fight? They may have started out really wanting to fly and fight for France. Or perhaps they were just running away from a past, or seeking a new future. But as their wartime experience crystallized, they flew and fought for each other, just as a soldier on the ground often fights literally for the man on the left and the man on the right. And those flyboys of Lafayette Escadrille fought like hell, flying and fighting, shooting and being shot at, and yanking and banking, all to the purpose of getting just a little more angle on the other guy. Just pull that stick a little bit harder, and take that shot, and don’t forget to cover your wingman. Because when you are in a frontline combat unit, your squadron mates are not simply your friends, they are your brothers, as in the Shakespearean sense of the term. Your mission is your purpose. When you are a knight of the sky, you truly believe that you must not fail your comrades.

Life in the Blue Battlefield

When a pilot takes off on a combat mission, he (or she, these days) is not just logging hours. He is up there, out there, letting it all rip. If the order comes to engage, he engages. If the order comes to provide ground support to an embattled group of soldiers or Marines pinned down on the front, there are no excuses. You just answer the call, “Roger, inbound, weapons hot.” The other side has anti-aircraft? So freaking what? Some days just ain’t your day. There is no such thing as pulling back, leaving station, wimping out with some piece-of-crap excuse about how there is a “low oil pressure indication on engine No. 2,” or “My ejection seat actuator is out of qual.” Too bad. Talk to the chaplain. That’s why you have wings on your uniform. You are there to fly and to fight, and that is life in the blue battlefield.

So Flyboys is a good movie about a group of brave young men who long ago risked their lives to fly and fight alongside the French in the Great War. It is a good story. Yes, it is a little bit long, due primarily to the inclusion of a sappy love interest, and a few instances of underediting. But still, where else can you go to see a modern film with such a great display of antique aircraft performing wing-ripping aerobatics?

And if watching a bunch of brave pilots flying Newports and fighting it out with German Fokkers (that is the correct spelling; it is a kind of airplane) above the trenches is not good enough for you, just get serious and think about what Clausewitz had to say. Why were these young guys fighting? “It is, of course, well known that the only source of war is politics — the intercourse of governments and peoples…We maintain…that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” Thus it was when Clausewitz wrote those words in the 1830s, as it was in 1916, and as it is today.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
September 28, 2006