This played on BBC2. I missed it on its very brief appearance in UK cinemas. The two observations that spring immediately to mind are firstly that it is a story that deserves a big mainstream film release and secondly that what actually appears in the film is something of an insult to the talent on screen and the audience watching. The ‘Red Tails’ were a substantial group of African-American fighter pilots who formed the 332nd Fighter Group in WWII. In the context of the Jim Crow laws in the US at the time and the segregated American armed forces these pilots were extremely successful, especially in their role of escorting daylight raids on Germany by American heavy bombers. The ‘Red Tails’ were those painted on the tail fins of the P51 Mustangs they used on bomber escort duty.
The pilots involved were all trained at Tuskegee Alabama and aspects of their story and related stories have been covered in an HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and various documentaries and independent productions. In 1988 George Lucas started thinking about an epic three hour film that would tell the story complete with detailed action sequences of the air war in Europe. Lucas appears to have been sincere in his attempts to put the story on the screen and to draw on the knowledge of surviving members of the group. However, in the long process of getting the project into production several dubious decisions were taken. The result is a two hour film that focuses mainly on the CGI/green screen dogfight scenes (remarkably similar in their choreography to the dogfights in Star Wars). Most of the ‘back story’ about the experiences of the men in training and their interaction with white officers and airmen is left out. And, as Film Comment‘s reviewer Ina Diane Archer (daughter of one of the surviving airmen) points out, there is nothing about the families at home or the African-Americans who followed the exploits of the airmen in the US media. There are one or two lines of dialogue that convey the backgrounds of individual flyers (the pilots were mainly officers with college degrees or professional training), but in the most part the dialogue doesn’t expand far beyond banter and war-whoops.
The film’s director is listed as Anthony Hemingway, an experienced TV director, but many commentators suspect that Lucas himself is responsible for the action scenes. The tragedy is that the film has a stellar cast with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the senior officers and David Oyelowo as the most glamorous ‘ace’ pilot. Howard’s character has to deal with the racist postures of the top military and Oyelowo gets the romance with a beautiful Italian girl. The main setting is an Italian air base which at times reminded me of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Unfortunately there is nothing of either the absurdist satire or the psychological depth of that film in Red Tails.
It’s generally agreed that the action scenes in the film are exciting – but I also find them ludicrous. It’s partly a fault of the script by John Ridley (who scripted 12 Years a Slave) and partly the other-worldliness of the digital creation. It does a disservice to brave airmen to depict them as so successful immediately. They are highly trained but have no experience of combat – yet they easily out-manoeuvre German fighter pilots who are veterans. This a film where bombers and fighters fly in tight formations of equal spacing through clear blue skies as if in a manga or anime presentation. The damage to American aircraft and the loss of pilots is minimal compared to the total devastation they cause on German airfields, trains and shipping as well as in the air. The ‘real’ results for the 332nd were impressive but the exaggerations here diminish those achievements.
Rather than watch this film, I recommend the Spike Lee film The Miracle at St Anna (2008) and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story 1984. These are films about African-Americans in the US Army (rather than USAF) in World War II, but they deal with the realities of the war-time experience that are missing in Red Tails. The CGI aircraft catch fire, explode etc. in dramatic fashion in Red Tails but I don’t believe a frame of it. I think I prefer the realism and pathos of David Niven in a burning Lancaster bomber limping home to the UK in A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, UK 1946).
Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.
The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).
The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.
The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.
Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.
Grigoriy Chukhray’s (he co-wrote and directed) war film was made during the Russian Thaw, the Khrushchev years before Brezhnev re-froze culture, and was remarkable for the fact that it showed that World War II hadn’t been personally won by Stalin. Instead, Chukhray focused on ordinary people’s stories as a young man, played by Vladimir Ivashov, tries to get home, on a couple days leave, to fix his mum’s roof. The Private is an accidental hero, he destroyed two tanks when in a desperate situation, hence he is given a few days to go home. After the opening sequence there’s little fighting in the film; it’s more a picaresque narrative where he, warm heartedly, encounters soldiers and civilians. Central to the narrative is his meeting with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) and the pair fall for each other.
So far so sentimental and I was afraid it might be too saccharine for my tastes as everybody, at the start, seems to be good. However, Chukhray, a veteran of Stalingrad, isn’t interested in painting a socialist realist scene (where things are as they should be rather than how they are) and we encounter the less admirable traits of humanity. The Private, though, retains his goodness and Ivashov’s performance shines with convincing naiveté. His relationship with Shura is beautifully developed and the moment, when they part, is brilliantly edited with her face superimposed on the passing landscape and his thoughts given to us in the voice over. This isn’t a spoiler, we learn that the young man is doomed from the start.
Chukhray, despite the Thaw, struggled to get the film made because, his critics on the artistic committee that had to pass the script, argued it was too frivolous a way to represent that giant sacrifices people made to win the war. However, as the Cannes Special jury recognised in 1959, it’s its humanism that makes it a great war film. It is noticeable, however, that all the authority figures are benevolent; an unlikely fact so probably a compromise that Chukhray had to make to ensure the film got made. This isn’t a Soviet issue, Hollywood films rarely question authority either in a meaningful way.
The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.
Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.
The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.
I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.
My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.
On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.