Continuing our look at film about the allied war against Imperial Japan inspired by “The Pacific“, which debuts on HBO Sunday night, we’ll start with a movie that isn’t as well known today as you might think considering that it’s directed by Howard Hawks one of the most rousing of the wartime-era propaganda/action films.
Did that seem a bit familiar? If so, it could be that “Air Force” is often cited as a major inspiration for “Star Wars” and that briefing scene certainly seems like a tell to me. Still, I’d probably argue that “Air Force” is — cultural/geek impact aside — the far better film objectively. Hawks had a very personal connection with aviation, the topic of one of three or four greatest works, “Only Angels Have Wings” and no one in his time was better at expressing the visceral thrill and danger of flight. The film also benefits from a screenplay written by one of the greatest of classic Hollywood-era writers, Dudley Nichols (“Stagecoach,” “Bringing Up Baby“) with an uncredited assist from William Faulkner and two lesser known scribes,
So why isn’t “Air Force” as well known as the two classics I discussed yesterday? Well, John Wayne‘s not in it, so there’s that. No, this film was made in the throes of the deep U.S. anger created by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the kind of anger we would not see again in the U.S. until September 11 of 2001, and there are some disturbing, though historically understandable, moments in the film that might seem both callous and racist to modern audience because they kind of are. Still, “Air Force” remains one of the best films of its type from an era when making a war film that was also kind of fun didn’t seem as borderline obscene as it does in our post “Saving Private Ryan”-era.
But that’s not to say that Hollywood never tried to make an slam-bang action-oriented World War II film set in the Pacific again. They just did it with more bloat in 1976.
Toshiro Mifune, the only Japanese film star to really become a household name to American audiences, gets a mention here. Now, however, the great Japanese-American James Shigeta. Shigeta is probably the equal of Mifune in terms of acting talent and presence but being an American of Asian ancestry seems to severely limit your acting possibilities somewhat no matter how talented and charismatic you are, even today — just ask Harold John Cho. Shigeta did get to play a male romantic lead in an actual tough-guy film in his first film and one kind of fun/silly/embarrassing musical, and that was it. You don’t get to be an actor of Mifune’s stature by being the token Asian in Elvis Presley movies.