Well, Viv and I made the arduous trek to far Lynnwood to see Flyboys last night. Presumably due to the unorthodox funding model employed by the film (the producers made the film with their own money), the film has terrible distribution in the Seattle area, playing only far-edge suburban screens. That said, the film is a very old-fashioned war movie and the values seen in the piece may be more inline with suburban America’s than Capitol Hill’s.

The film’s two-hour plus length was not problematic, for me, however peculiar a choice it may be. The film’s production values are absolutely top-notch, the acting is professional and on the whole I felt that the generally cool reviews the release has garnered to date undersell the film.

The film’s appeal, of course, is primarily in the visual recreation of the experience of World War One air combat, and again, I feel that the party line seen in most reviews undersells what is actually on the screen. There are about four lengthy set-pieces and I found each one absorbing and free from irritating technical gaffes. One interesting digital addition to the visual vocabulary of the dogfight is the smoke trails the rounds leave in the air.

Despite my happiness with the spectacle, there are of course what I take to be a few adjustments to the historical events. Only one really bugged me:

An opening sequence shows a main character watching a newsreel in a Texas theatre and a reverse angle displays a segment on the newly-formed Lafayette Escadrille. The planes displayed in the segment appeared to me to be Nieuport 28s, a place which came into service after the events seen in the film. I suppose I may have mis-viewed them, as the rest of the film is relatively insistent on historical accuracy in details of setting and technology.

The other adjustments that appear to have been made are all apparently in the service of making the film more cinematic. First, nearly all the DR1s seen in he film (the famous Fokker triiplane), are bright red. It’s my understanding that that color was actually only used by one pilot, the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and that the majority of the DR1s in service actually employed a base color scheme of a streaky green camouflage. I could sure be wrong on this one though, as distinctive color schemes are well documented for a large number of pilots.

A further adjustment is the repeated use of spoken or shouted dialog while in flight between the characters. In reality, while one might very well shout in an attempt to communicate, the combination of engine noise and airspeed in an open-cockpit plane makes unaided verbal communication an impossibility.

Finally, there are repeated shots depicting planes in very close proximity for seconds at a time, right on one another’s tails, as the pilots hold fire in hopes of getting a solid shot lined up. While the tracking and firing details appeared satisfactory to me, it seems worth noting that these moments of close proximity did not make up the majority of time in this sort of combat; for each close-distance encounter a pilot often had to engage in long minutes of careful jockeying for position.

A kind of corollary to this is what appears to me to have been exaggerated performance characteristics of, in particular, the Nieuport 17s that are the featured planes in the film. N17s are in my opinion the most beautiful airplane ever made; however, they also exhibited a tendency to lose wings in steep, high-speed dives, an activity shown repeatedly in the film without such a consequence.

A further corollary is the repeated depiction of planes in relatively close proximity to the ground – a run of bombers appear to drop their payload from 500 feet or less; a Zeppelin is seen over Paris from above, the Eiffel Tower clearly visible in the distance, and an apparent altitude of 2000 feet. While the aviation technology of the war limited operations for most planes and zeppelins to under 20,000 feet (if I recall correctly, the Camel’s ceiling was about 13,000 feet), attaining maximum altitude was always a key aspect in successful sorties. In particular, Zeppelins were often able to operate above the reach of most anti-aircraft weapons. A low-altitude daylight raid on paris as seen in the film strikes me as exceedingly improbable.

Despite these entirely understandable adjustments, they clearly do make the film more cinematically legible than it might have been, and as noted, I entirely enjoyed it.

One thought on “Flyboys

  1. Hey, I came across your blog entry while searching google blog search for entries regarding flyboys. Thank you for your insightful comments of the reality of combat versus the fiction on screen.

    While I understand the inaccuracies seen on the movie, I greatly enjoyed it nonetheless.

    Hopefully this movie inspires people, such as it did me, to read about the real history of aces of world war 1 and 2.

    I even bought a combat flight simulator and plan to begin playing. I bought IL-2 which many people tell me is the best combat flight simulator on the market.

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