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Clint Eastwood was just beginning his career and director William Wellman was bringing his to a close when they made Lafayette Escadrille (1958), a story of American flyers who volunteered to fight on the side of the French military forces in World War I before the U.S. officially entered the war. Eastwood had played small, often uncredited roles in a handful of movies before this. His career got a big boost a year later when he was cast in the recurring role of Rowdy Yates on the popular, long-running TV Western series Rawhide. The next time he appeared on the big screen was A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first in a series of European-made "spaghetti Westerns" directed by Sergio Leone.
Eastwood's role is still rather minor in this film, which also featured future TV star David Janssen (The Fugitive) and Tom Laughlin, who made a splash in the 1970s as the writer-director-actor of a series of films about the contemporary Western hero Billy Jack. The true star of Lafayette Escadrille was 50s teenage heartthrob Tab Hunter. He plays a young American who joins the European war effort and falls in love with a French prostitute. The story, balancing elements of action and romance, was based on the true experiences of director Wellman (who appears in the film as a character played by his own son), although he was always quick to point out that he was not, in fact, a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, a different squad of flyers from the Lafayette Flying Corps where Wellman learned to fly. (He was shot down later in the war but avoided serious injury.) Lafayette Escadrille was not even supposed to bear this title. Wellman's original title was to have been "C'est la Guerre," but the studio changed it before release, just one example of the tampering that caused him to retire from directing forever and curse studio head Jack Warner until the day Wellman died.
The story of Lafayette Escadrille was a very special one for the director because it was based on details in the life of a good friend of his in the corps. Drummed out of flying after beating up a French officer and running afoul of the authorities, the friend eventually went to work as a pimp. He fell in love with one of the working women, and Wellman was there when the friend married his girl. By this time, the U.S. had entered the war, so the friend went to see General Pershing, commander of the American forces, and talked him into allowing him to fly again. After he was shot down over Germany, his wife threw herself into the Seine. When they pulled her body from the water, she was clutching his identification tag in her fist.
Wellman poured his heart and soul into what he considered a very heartfelt, tragic story. When the studio tampered with his work, he "almost went crazy," he told Scott Eyman in an interview for Film Comment magazine not long before Wellman's death in 1975. In addition to changing the title, Warners decided Tab Hunter could not be allowed to die in the film, so they reshot the ending to keep him alive and have a happily-ever-after reunion with his sweetheart.
Although long considered a maverick, "Wild Bill" Wellman, as he was known around Hollywood, was used to the ways of the studio system. A veteran of more than 30 years in the business, he'd had his share of run-ins with studio bosses. Although, as he pointed out to Eyman, the trouble most often came "from New York," i.e., the non-production executives who held the purse strings. But he thought by this point in his career he would be free to make what he considered his most personal project without interference, especially with such credits to his name as the great aviation adventure Wings (1927), winner of the first Best Picture Academy Award® The Public Enemy (1931), which made a star of James Cagney; the original A Star Is Born (1937); and the acclaimed World War II drama Story of G.I. Joe (1945). At the preview of this picture, he said, audiences were dead silent for several seconds before suddenly cheering. But "that dirty rotten bastard" Jack Warner decided to change the ending anyway. Forced to compromise with a man he hated, Wellman told his wife of many years he had worked too hard and was too tired of it all to ever make another picture. With her encouragement, he kept his word and directed nothing for the remaining 17 years of his life.
Director/Producer: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Albert Sindey Fleischman, William A. Wellman
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: John Beckman
Original Music: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: Tab Hunter (Thad Walker), Etchika Choureau (Renee Beaulieu), William Wellman, Jr. (Bill Wellman, Sr.), Jody McCrea (Tim Hitchcock), David Janssen (Duke Sinclaire), Clint Eastwood (George Moseley).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon