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Lafayette Escadrille

Lafayette Escadrille(1958)

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The working titles for the film were C'est la guerre and With You in My Arms. The film opens with a shot of the Memorial de l'Escadrille Lafayette in Villeneuve l'Etang park outside of Paris. A voice-over spoken by director William A. Wellman states, in part, "In memory of the heroes of the Lafayette Escadrille, who died in defense of life and liberty. This monument...belongs to a handful of Americans who flew for France and died for France in the First World War." There is periodic voice-over narration spoken by Wellman throughout the film. The movie closes with another shot of the monument and voice-over tribute to the Lafayette Escadrille.
       The Escadrille Lafayette flying unit was formed in April 1916 by Dr. Emund L. Gros, director of the American Ambulance Service, and Norman Prince, an American who had enlisted with the French Flying Service. The Escadrille was commanded by a French officer and made up of American volunteer pilots. Originally thirty-five men composed the squad, but eventually pilots rotated to other squads of the Lafayette Flying Corps, which was part of the larger organization of the French Flying Service. With America's entrance into the war late in 1917, the squadron was absorbed into the U. S. Air Service. Although a modern source points out that in interviews about the aviation films that he directed Wellman frequently blurred the line of which squad he flew with during the war, after his retirement the director acknowledged that he was a member of the Lafayette Flying Corp, not the distinctive Escadrille.
       According to information in the Warner Bros. Archives at the USC Cinema-Television Library, the original script, dated July 1954, was written by Peter Paul Fix and ended with "Thad Walker's" death while flying an unarmed plane when he is strafed by a German ace, after which "Rene," distraught over his death, commits suicide by drowning herself in a river. A script dated October 1956 and attributed to A. Fleischman (with story credit to Wellman) includes numerous changes, including the happy ending of the released film in which Thad survives to return and marry Rene. The Warner Bros. file also indicates that Wellman requested rights for the poem on flying, High Flight, written by nineteen-year-old Canadian Royal Air Force pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who was killed in Britain in 1941. The poem was not used in the released film.
       An August 1956 memo indicates that the film was originally slated to be shot in color. Studio cast lists include J. Carroll Naish as the "concierge," but contract information notes that Naish never worked on the film and the part was played by George Nardelli, long-time double for actor Adolph Menjou. A September 1956 Hollywood Reporter casting item states that Clint Eastwood was testing with Natalie Wood for the picture. Lafayette Escadrille marked the feature film debut of Dennis Devine, son of Andy Devine. Wellman's son, Bill Wellman, Jr., appeared in his first feature film role playing his father. Although filmed after Lafayette Escadrille, the Warner Bros. production Sayonara (see below), in which the younger Wellman also appeared, was his first released film. Although a November 1957 Hollywood Reporter item adds Tony Millard to the cast, his appearance in the film has not been confirmed.
       Studio files and publicity note that director Wellman used several authentic period planes for the movie, including Bleriots, Sopwith Camels, Scouts, Nieuports and Fokkers, most provided by technical director Frank Tallman. Tallman also flew several of the planes in the film. Correspondence in the studio files from renowned stunt pilot Paul Mantz indicate that some of the footage of the air battle at the end of Lafayette Esacadrille was taken from Wellman's 1938 Paramount production Men with Wings, in which Mantz provided and flew several of the aircraft (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). Daily production reports in the Warner Bros. files indicate that the training and flying sequences were shot on location in Santa Maria and Salinas, CA. File memos reveal that Warners rented a back-lot set, known as "Bernadette Street" or "French Street," from Twentieth Century-Fox for one night scene which included the use of explosives.
       An undated Variety news item notes that a test screening in December 1956 included the tragic ending and audiences disapproved of Tab Hunter's character's death. Although re-takes were made in April and May 1957 it is unclear if they were to shoot the new ending. An internal studio memo from the Warner's office in Paris stated that the French sales staff described the film as unacceptable to French audiences and inquired whether the original tragic ending might be restored. June and October 1957 Hollywood Reporter news items state that Hunter, who had a recent success with a pop song recording, was to record a title song and a tune based on the movie theme score, called "Learning to Love" with music by Leonard Rosenman and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. It is unclear if the songs were ever recorded.
       Although Warner Bros. files do not reveal any reason why the studio held the release of Lafayette Escadrille until 1958, a modern source speculates that the studio hoped to capitalize on Hunter's further success as a singer, which did not materialize. A March 1958 Variety article reports that controversy surrounded the film's premiere, which took place in Washington, N. C., the hometown of James Brougham, a young, American volunteer pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille, who died in action. According to the article, several Escadrille veterans, who boycotted the premiere, insisted that Brougham was not a member of the elite Escadrille unit, but, like Wellman, of the larger Lafayette Flying Corp. Brougham was reportedly the most decorated member of the unit. Although Lafayette Escadrille was shot prior to Darby's Rangers, it was released later, making it Wellman's final film. The director died in 1973 at the age of seventy-nine. In his autobiography, Wellman, director of numerous hard-hitting war and aviation films including the 1927 Paramount World War I drama Wings (see AFI Catalog of Feature Film, 1921-30), the first Best Picture Academy Award winner, described his intention to make Lafayette Escadrille a tragedy based in part on his own experience, but that he was disappointed by Warner Bros.'s insistence on the happy ending. Wellman frequently referred to Lafayette Escadrille as the worst film of his career.