Air Force functions as a mildly interesting but ultimately forgettable curio in the long career of Howard Hawks. It’s nowhere near as downright awful as say, sword-and-sandal borefest Land of the Pharaohs, but it’s not as entertaining as some of his other middling or mediocre works like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Made in 1943 for propaganda purposes, Air Force follows a US bomber crew on a routine mission as they fly out to Hawaii just hours before the attack on Pearl Harbour. From there, they are thrown straight into the front lines against the Japanese and the rest of the film depicts their arduous journey across the Pacific towards US bases in the Philippines.
This being a 1940s propaganda film, it is unsurprisingly fairly xenophobic towards the Japanese, though admittedly it doesn’t make any attempt to individualise a single enemy either. They are seen as distant enemies, mostly engaged in attacking the Americans but the two forces never get closer than a gunshot away. Air Force also features a racist dog that barks angrily whenever it hears the word “Moto”, which would make life exceedingly difficult for such a dog if it lived on the British motorways.
Stylistically however, this is classic Hawks; few closeups, snappy dialogue, group compositions of men standing around being men. At its core, this is simply a film about a US Air Force bomber crew and their varying personalities as well as how they function as a group. They are all individuals, and they’re all given backstories throughout the film; from the senior engineer who has a son elsewhere in the army, to the failed pilot-turned-gunner who can’t wait to escape the military. However, for the plane to work, they all have to subsume themselves towards the group and work in tandem. Broadly, Hawks tends to depict everyone fairly equally, giving each character the same levity onscreen. ‘To defend an America where the individual is king, Americans have to subsume their individualities for the greater good’ seems to be the general subtext.
This running theme makes up the backbone of the film; the crew take off, they land, they repair the plane and fight and repeat. Throughout, Air Force reinforces the strength and adaptability of this group to sustain losses and keep fighting, inevitably a result of the film’s propagandistic intentions. However, the sharp dialogue and solid performances mean that these scenes are also the most interesting; just as well the film is mostly made up of them. They bicker and joke around, but there is a sense of camaraderie which remains strong. This is supplanted by the visual strength of the film, and even in the small confines of the bomber plane, Hawks continually finds new visual angles to depict the group with, whilst throughout the film remains ever so stylistically simple. Always I admire this aspect of Hawks’ work: simple in setup, always technically perfect in execution.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t entirely make Air Force a good film. The last half-hour or so is pretty much non-stop action, and because of the film’s limited propagandistic purposes, the action is entirely predictable and relatively boring. The dialogue is ditched in favour of things blowing up, and when Air Force is already fairly slow-paced and long-winded at a running-time of over two hours, the action scenes really do drag the film down.
Were it not for the film’s length, its overdrawn action scenes or its occasionally repetitive structure and narrow propagandistic purpose, Air Force could have been something of a minor classic in the Hawks oeuvre. It might not have stood at the same level as say, Rio Bravo or Bringing Up Baby, but it could have been somewhere around the level of say, Monkey Business. Sadly, this is not to be. A curio it remains.