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  • 12A
  • Action, Adventure
  • 2006
  • 138 mins




In this WWI adventure, American volunteers take to the skies to escape their pasts and save France from the Germans. Tony Bills directs, from a screenplay co-written by David S Ward (The Sting)


William A Wellman initiated the World War I aviation genre with Wings (1927) and The Legion Of The Condemned (1928). Howard Hawks followed suit with The Dawn Patrol (1930), and Howard Hughes produced the ace of all 'flyboy' movies, Hell's Angels (1930).

All three directors had a personal stake in their films, having themselves been pilots during the Great War; when Wellman's semi-autobiographical project Lafayette Escadrille (1958) suffered post-production tampering at the hands of Warner execs, the director retired in disgust, apparently bringing the whole genre to an end along with his career. By then, both cinema and the world had moved on to the conflicts that followed 'the war to end all wars'.

Director Tony Bills, himself an avid pilot, has revived the genre with Flyboys. He picks up where Wellman left off, with a romantic epic about the squadron of American volunteers in France known as Lafayette Escadrille - and while his reconstruction of period detail and plane design is painstaking enough to satisfy any military historians in the audience, the film's characters and dramas are so thinly drawn that they could have been cut right out of a comic book. No wonder, then, that one of the fliers has been named Beagle, in apparent homage to Charles Schultz's cartoon canine Snoopy and his regular 'dog-fights' with the Red Baron.

"You gotta find your own meaning in this war." So says weary veteran flying ace Reed Cassidy (Henderson) to his young protégé Blaine Rawlings (Franco) in the middle of Flyboys - and in a sense it is the film's central problem. For while there can be no doubting the heady excitement and breathtaking spectacle of its aerial combat sequences (combining real plane footage with CGI to dizzying effect), oddly it is the scenes on the ground which come across as the most confused, as all involved struggle to make this World War I throwback have significance and relevance for today's viewers.

On the one hand, with its shell-shock casualties, dismemberments, bloody bullet-wounds, and glimpses of horrific trench warfare, the film pulls no punches in showing the devastating effects of combat on soldiers and civilians alike, while on the other hand it traffics in a bizarre nostalgia for the supposedly pluckier, 'Boys' Own' brand of warfare from yesteryear, where, we are led to believe, professional killers were chivalrous gentlemen engaged in adventurous feats of derring-do.

At the same time, the arena of the 'Great' War is depicted as an inverted double of today's geopolitical situation - for here it is the American nation that has failed to come to the aid of France (rather than the other way round), and here it is possible, however briefly, for a Texan farmboy like Rawlings to envisage a loving relationship with the French.

It is only at the end, when we are told that this good old boy has been left in the lurch at his post-war Parisian rendezvous, and has retreated back home to the family ranch, never to fly again, that our heads are brought out of the clouds and back down to earth. For after a dreamy vision of Franco-American cooperation (in a film that is a Franco-American co-production - and stars James Franco, an American), we end with a reminder of the current world order, where the US is an isolationist superpower led by a Texan businessman.

Add to this an exhaustive array of battlefield cliches, blandly stereotyped characters and romanticised heroics, and you have a very old-fashioned war movie that delivers a decidedly mixed message about its real-life subject matter.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Jean Reno, Jennifer Drecker, Christien Anholt, James Franco, Philip Winchester, Tyler Labine, Martin Henderson, Abdul Sallis, Pipp Pickering, David Ellison
  • Director: Tony Bill
  • Screen Writer: Phil Sears, Blake T Evans, David S Ward
  • Producer: Dean Devlin, Marc Frydman
  • Photographer: Henry Braham
  • Composer: Trevor Rabin

In a nutshell

Yearning for a time when warfare seemed so much simpler and more honourable, Flyboys is a thrilling, spectacular ride - but only when its dull characters get off the ground.

by Anton Bitel

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