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If Flying Tigers (1942) strongly reminds you of Howard Hawks's great aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings (1939), it's not simply because John Carroll appears in both pictures. Elements of plot and character were virtually lifted wholesale from the earlier film (and without credit, leading some to suggest Hawks should sue). But here, this tale of a tight-knit team of flying aces - and an arrogant maverick who finally sees his duty and sacrifices himself for the common good - is turned to the war effort. Flying Tigers became a major boost for minor studio Republic and another big leap in John Wayne's growing stardom, and earned Oscar® nominations for Best Score, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.
Wayne, in his first of many war films, plays the leader of a squadron of flyers in the U.S. volunteer group known as the Flying Tigers, a real-life corps that defended Chiang Kai-Shek's China in the days before the U.S. entered World War II. Carroll plays disobedient wisecracker Woody Jason (closely approximating Richard Barthelmess's role as the dissension-causing pilot under Cary Grant's command in Hawks's film) and Paul Kelly is Wayne's second-in-command, a role that resembles Thomas Mitchell's part in the earlier film as a pilot whose eyesight is failing.
The real-life Flying Tigers were organized by Brigadier General Claire Chennault to fight in defense of Burma (Myanmar). In 1937, Chennault went to China as an aviation adviser and by the summer of 1941, he was recruiting American personnel to join that country's fight against Japan. The Chinese government paid the flyers a bonus for every plane they shot down, and between December 1941 and July 1942, they were responsible for destroying almost 300 Japanese aircraft. In 1942, the group was replaced by the regular Army Air Corps, which many of Chennault's men joined.
Flying Tigers scored big by capitalizing on the nation's patriotic mood and by providing a bona fide hero in the person of Wayne (who never entered the service during the war, but portrayed military men five times between 1941 and 1945). Although Republic's all-time biggest money-maker by a wide margin, the picture came under some criticism from a number of fronts. While making no objection to the then-common depiction of the Japanese as vicious villains, government officials did note that the Chinese allies were portrayed as "likable but slightly ludicrous." They also criticized the showcasing of individual heroics over the ideal of teamwork and cooperation. Some former members of the corps slammed the film for historical inaccuracies and leveled accusations that the two former Tigers hired as technical advisors had been dishonorably discharged for being "suspected of perversion."
These complaints did nothing to blunt the picture's impact. One reason for its success was the authenticity of the action scenes, augmented by clips confiscated from Japanese newsreels. Much of the look of the film was achieved by the Oscar®-nominated Lydecker brothers, Republic's ace visual effects team. Because the interiors of the planes could not be shown for security reasons, the Lydeckers mocked up the cockpits and instrument panels and made the full-size planes out of plywood and balsa. The two chose to shoot all outdoor effects in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to take advantage of impressive cloud formations. Republic's sound department was also Oscar® nominated for creating the noise of engines and battles entirely in the studio.
A couple of supporting players may be familiar to viewers. That's Jimmie Dodd (billed as James here), the head Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s, in the small role of McIntosh. And Mae Clarke, as Verna, is best remembered both as Dr. Victor Frankenstein's bride Elizabeth and as the woman who took a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931).
Director: David Miller
Producers: Edmund Grainger
Screenplay: Kenneth Gamet, Barry Trivers
Cinematography: Jack Marta
Editing: Ernest Nims
Art Direction: Russell Kimball
Original Music: Victor Young
Cast: John Wayne (Capt. Jim Gordon), John Carroll (Woody Jason), Anna Lee (Brooke Elliot), Paul Kelly (Hap Smith), Mae Clarke (Verna Bales).
by Rob Nixon