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Filmed in the months when America's involvement in World War II loomed as an inevitability, the Warner Brothers production Dive Bomber (1941) stands out among the spate of service dramas released during the period. The striking Technicolor effort remains impressive today, both for the grandeur of its proficiently-captured aerial footage and its exploration of a branch of the military previously unconsidered by Hollywood, that of the flight surgeons charged with recognizing and addressing the risks and perils of pilot fatigue.
The narrative opens on a naval station in Hawaii, where aviator amigos Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), Tim Griffin (Regis Toomey) and Swede Larson (Louis Jean Heydt) are anticipating reassignment once their current round of maneuvers is complete. Tragically, Larson passes out in the course of a steep dive, and is dragged barely alive from the crash site. At the corps hospital, surgeon Doug Lee (Errol Flynn) overconfidently lobbies to perform an aggressive spinal procedure on Larson. After the stricken airman dies in surgery, Lee is left to face the contempt and enmity of Blake and Griffin.
A humbled Lee puts in for transfer to San Diego's naval base and enrollment in the flight surgeon program thereon, with an eye to studying, and ultimately combating, the causes of pilot blackout. It's not an easy task; Lee's head medical instructor Dr. Rogers (Ralph Bellamy), a proponent of leading theories on the issue, is cold and brusque with respect to the younger doctor's interest. Compounding matters is the fact that Lee's requisite pilot training has been placed in the hands of the newly stationed Blake and Griffin.
While Dive Bomber's titles acknowledged the cooperation of the United States Navy, the lore behind the film indicates that the service's cooperation with the studio, at such a particularly sensitive time in history, was grudging at best. As told in Charles Higham's Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, naval authorities were reluctant to give camera crews access to San Diego or to the U.S.S. Enterprise, and Jack Warner dispatched Col. William Guthrie to lobby Washington for the film's cause. "So great was the power of Hollywood studios at the time that the Secretary of the Navy...ordered the San Diego Naval Base staff to put the base at Warner's disposal," Higham wrote.
The three-day shooting stint aboard the Enterprise was no less tense; the cast and crew bumped the ship's officers from their bunks, and director Michael Curtiz at one point demanded the vessel's turnaround so he could get a satisfactory angle on the smoke from its stacks. The Enterprise's officers took their vengeance on the filmmakers by nightly setting off guns and depth charges from the moment they settled in to sleep. Just as photography wound down on the final day, the boat was ordered out to sea with such speed that the cameras fell to the deck, and the filmmakers were made to debark onto smaller boats along the sides while the ship was still cruising.
The film crew of Dive Bomber was deservedly lauded for the striking aerial images that it captured. Bosley Crowther stated in his New York Times review that "Never before has an aviation film been so vivid in its images, conveyed such a sense of tangible solidity when it is showing us solid things or been so full of sunlight and clean air when the camera is aloft." In his 1985 book Aviation in the Cinema, Stephen Pendo noted the challenges of the first-time utilization of a 600-pound Technicolor camera for flight sequences. "The [camera] was positioned in a twin-engines Stinson," he wrote. "The filmmakers cut another door in the fuselage opposite a standard one. Between these three-foot-wide times five-feet-high doorways a track was laid so the camera could be dollied from one side of the plane to the other."
Story and shared script credit on Dive Bomber went to Frank "Spig" Wead, the retired naval commander who worked tirelessly for the advancement of the Navy's air corps and who was portrayed by John Wayne in the John Ford-helmed biopic The Wings of Eagles (1957). The narrative lags in those places where it strays from the worlds of the pilots and physicians. Alexis Smith, in an early role as a potential point of romantic conflict between Lee and Blake, is given little to do, and the running comic relief, which involves Lee's aide-de-camp (Allen Jenkins) dodging his wife on payday, is unfashionably corny. Still, Dive Bomber boasts strong efforts from its principals, and remains both a compelling entertainment and a deserved acknowledgment to healers who served silently and well.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Frank Wead, Robert Buckner
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Winton Hoch
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Errol Flynn (Lt. Doug Lee), Fred MacMurray (Lt. Cmdr. Joe Blake), Ralph Bellamy (Lt. Cmdr. Lance Rogers), Alexis Smith (Linda Fisher), Robert Armstrong (Lt. Cmdr. Art Lyons), Regis Toomey (Lt. Tim Griffin).
C-133m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg