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DVD Review

DVD cover

Flying Tigers (1942)
(2019 Reissue)


Starring: John Wayne, John Carroll, Anna Lee, Paul Kelly, Mae Clarke, Addison Richards and Tom Neal
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £12.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 17 June 2019

United States active involvement in World War II nominally begins with Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941 but the preceding decade had been marked by parries and thrusts at Germany and Japan: supplying the UK with mothballed ships and supplies, feeding off British intel as is apparent in the secret memos between Churchill and Roosevelt, spying on German activity in Mexico and South America, hosting British spies like Intrepid on American soil—and in the Pacific, affronting Japan with an oil embargo (that really pissed them off and was meant to) and unofficial combat units to fight their incursion in China. It is this last item on the prodromal war list that The Flying Tigers hallows for American home audiences in the hard core war days of 1942.

Hollywood was asked by Washington to make movies to inspire and boost morale for the war effort. And it did. Jewish immigrant studio bosses wanted to prove to President Roosevelt and everybody else they were loyal Americans. Herbert B. Yates and his scrappy little studio in the San Fernando Valley was no exception. He brought his unique stable of talent to the party – and its biggest star: John Wayne. Wayne had been unable to serve because of a knee injury so for the duration he wore uniforms on the back lot in Studio City, California.

If you watch this affectionate docu ( you’ll see it takes 80 minutes before you get to John Wayne and the war effort. Republic was the leader in kids’ movies, that meant cliff-hangers, masked heroes and heroines, (Republic was almost woke) singing cowboys and goofy comedies. Saturday matinee stuff.

For its ‘serious’ war propaganda Republic used its talent stable and special effects department. Its one big star, the Duke, was surrounded by competent ensembles who graduated from these ranks. His co-star here, John Carroll, (this is probably the best work he ever got to do) was the lead in the serial Zorro Rides Again (1937) and cast member Gordon Jones starred as The Green Hornet (1940). Later, Jones would be a recurring comedic cop nemesis for Abbot and Costello on their television show.

But it’s the Republic technical team who really give Tigers its memorable look. Publicity notes say there is actual footage of Japanese soldiers, pilots and planes, and there is, really, about a minute all told. The money shots of aerial combat, bombs and crashes are all miniatures, produced by the redoubtable special effects department commanded by Howard and Theodore Lydecker. Does it look like miniatures? Yes, yes it does. But that acknowledged, these are the best of that bygone table top art. We can admire them as an heirloom of invention the way we admire the old stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen.

The interesting thing about these HD DVD and Blu-ray editions lovingly engineered by Fabulous Films is that remastering evens out everything into a homogenised higher quality, including the grungy stock footage clips. As for the miniature sequences, you know the wires are there, you know that the model plane is flying over about an eighth of an acre of miniature canyons, backed by a matte of real mountains and real sky (look carefully and you can see the matte hairline border) and that lonely scrub tree in the right corner foreground is, after all, just a twig with lichen glued on for foliage. But it’s a nice little tree. You can say, wow, that always did look ‘fakey’ on television but now it’s really ‘fakey’ or you can say, wow, I wish I had that in my basement – or both.

Pictures like this, aimed at youth and the young in heart, were agitprop tools to reinforce loyalty to homeland support programs, war bonds for sale in the theater lobby and, hugely important, enlistment into the military for the sake of truth, justice and the American way. Harnessing the population to war effort is necessary for the biggest business there is. It’s so big, the US Pentagon today can confess it can’t account for nearly two trillion dollars per annum. That’s some big business. And some accounting.

This movie is an artefact of popular propaganda. President Roosevelt even lends his voice over a radio broadcast and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek contributes a thank you note on behalf of China as the movie opens. It is said that both Stalin and Mao had hit orders out for John Wayne. Nikita Khrushchev said he countermanded the KGB order when Stalin got lacquered for his casket with windows. Mao did not. Movies like this were probably the reason why. The hearts and minds of the Chinese people were his business, not John Wayne’s. Here we have a sort of back handed validation of this movie and other Duke movies like it. And Mao’s total lack of forgiveness toward American jingoism. It’s a serious movie reviewer who orders a hit on the star. We don’t see that every day.

The story itself? Not much to say, Wayne commands volunteer fighter pilots to do war with Japan over Chinese soil. Wayne and John Carroll compete for the same woman, a valiant war nurse played by the one dimensional mannequin, Anna Lee. There is sacrificial death but not that smarmy tasteless kind as when Kamikazes would do it. Hometown boy gives his all for God and country so the beloved panhandle can keep breathing free and smoke Camels.

Another technical star here is cinematographer Jack A. Marta. More credits than IMDb can list, a truly industrial artistic machine. He began in 1926 on What Price Glory under the helm of Raoul Walsh. In the early sixties Marta would shoot almost ninety episodes of the road series Route 66 and bring his ingenuity to a fresh location every week. There wasn’t time to hem and haw. In Flying Tigers his indoor exploratory dolly shots can weave into diagonals to consummate with unexpected pull-ins for an intimate conversation. There is a shot of Wayne in a Quonset hut lecture about enemy plane profiles for his pilots. Marta does a complete 360° orbit behind Wayne’s back, circling the room uncut, finding each actor’s face in deep focus, and returns to Wayne’s Mount Rushmore visage. His outdoor crane shots are elegiac, multifaceted, always efficient, aerially imaginative, engaging. Like Tinkerbell if she was going to war.

This is the Republic legacy. Make it look visually good, more of a tableau than you expect possible, get it in the can and get on to the next take. If you crave a smoke, do it on the run. The Hollywood industrial principle at its best. Sure the rivets show, and the seams and the tricks . Eat some more popcorn, have a Coca Cola and buy a bond from that pretty girl in the lobby.

Do we still have propaganda news, information control? Of course, just without those miniature planes and elegant slo-motion explosions. We’re smarter now. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.


John Huff

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