Flyboys: Tony Bill’s Tale of the Lafayette Escadrille Battle Heroic Men,

Tony Bill’s “Flyboys,” an account of the the heroic men of the Lafayette Escadrille, the first American fighter-pilot squadron in World War I, is an old-fashioned adventure movie that, notwithstanding its CG effects, feels as if it were made in the 1950s or early 1960s.

In its grand set-pieces, the movie may be stamped more by the action-driven vision of its producer, Dean devil (“Independence Day,” “Day After Tomorrow”) than its director, though Tony Bill is a licensed aerobatic pilot and dedicated WWII buff.

New, impressive technology has allowed the filmmaker to show battles in fragile, flammable, open-cockpit biplane, that outraced better-equipped enemy aircraft. Nonetheless, the story itself has been told before, by William Wellman’s 1958 “Lafayette Escardille,” a modest, 90-minute picture, compared to the bloated epic of “Flyboys,” which inexplicably runs two hours and two minutes.

Marred by sentimental (borderline schmaltzy) sensibility, that’s reflected in every aspect of the production, from the narrative though the personality conflicts and particularly swelling music, “Flyboys can’t decide what the focus of the saga is and who the primary target audience for such fare is in today’s market.

Indeed, a tale of love, loss, and adventure, featuring a fleet of real WWI airplanes, state-of-the-art special effects, and ground-breaking digital camera technology which put the viewers in the cockpit with the flyers, “Flyboys” is a movie with something for everyone: adventures for boys and teenagers, handsome actors and a preposterous romantic story that doesn’t belong here for the girls, and an attempt at a psychology and sociology of war, that comes across as shallow, for the presumably more mature and discriminating audiences.

The tale, scripted by David S. Ward (“The Sting”), based on Phil Sears and Blake Evans’s story, is set in 1916, in the midst of the raging WWI. On the Western Front, the Allied powers of Britain and France are bogged down in stagnant trench warfare against Germany, with millions of men already killed. It would take another year for the U.S. to declare war, but meanwhile, the country remains stubbornly neutral and naively isolationist, letting Europeans fight their “own” war.

Against this broader political context, we are introduced to several Americans, who have journeyed to Europe to assist the Allies as volunteer ambulance drivers and members of the French Foreign Legion. Soon, some of the American volunteers form their own squadron to take on the better-equipped German pilots and aid in the Allied War effort.

Each of the ten or so fighters has a chip on his shoulder and personal or family reasons to fight. James Franco (known for his James Dean portrayal) stars as Texas-born Blaine Rawlings, a proud youngster who finds himself evicted from his family’s 900-acre ranch, and sees a new future in a newsreel reporting on the squadron’s heroics.

French Foreign Legion recruit, Higgins (Christien Anholt) transfers to the squadron from the ambulance corps. Nebraska-born William Jensen (Philip Winchester), a cavalry officer’s son, joins to uphold the family tradition of military service. Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labiner) enlists to make something of himself, yielding to the pressure of his wealthy and powerful father. Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), a cocky character who can’s shoot straight, is escaping from a traumatic past (which, of course, we get to see in a lengthy flashback). Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black American expatriate, wants to defend France, a country that has shown him tolerance by allowing him to compete and become a boxing champion; in America, he would not be allowed inside a cockpit.

The novices are contrasted with the squadron leader Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), already a vet fighter pilot at 28, who has seen firsthand the dangers of this new air combat and knows the few of these young men will survive. An object of respect and mystery, Cassidy, the squadron’s top ace, has defied the odds time and again with more than 20 kills to his record, but he has paid a price: He’s lost his idealism and innocence.

French star Jean Reno plays Captain Georges Thenault, who commands his French pilkots to put the American through vigorous training in preparation for their aerial combats.

As the boys–and initially they are boys–train to fly the latest French biplane, the Nieuport 17, they quickly realize the gravity of their situation; a pilot’s life expectancy is three-to-six weeks. They soon learn that they are outnumbered, fighting against a superior German military power. Unfortunately, they are even denied parachutes, since the military places higher value on the airplanes than on their pilots’ lives.

Soon combat begins, and Rawlings and his fellow pilots are engaged in a furious aerial dogfight with shocking, devastating casualties, beyond their worst expectations. The highly trained German pilots, in their superior Fokker aircraft, are adept at coming from nowhere to outmaneuver a French plane and shoot it down. The shockingly short life-expectancy of the pilots is reinforced with each burial in the squadron’s cemetery.

Not to neglect the love interest, and potential female viewers, the movie cuts back and forth between the battles and the evolving macho camaraderie between the men, whose form of relaxation is beer at the pub and visits to the local bordello, and an innocent romance between Rawlings and French girl Lucienne D’Arcy (newcomer Jennifer Decker), initially mistaken for a prostitute.

Not in this movie. Lucienne turns out to be a young, virginal Gallic lives in a town country nearby, raising by herself her war-orphaned niece and two nephews. Through Lucienne, Rawlings learns firsthand the disturbing costs of the War as it has affected her and her family.

The film’s weakest and softest sequences depict the romance between the American and French. When Lucienne’s farm is surrounded by German infantry, Rawlings risks his life to rescue her. Soon thereafter, they bid farewell as the chaos of WWI forces her to leave for Paris. (Title cards at the end inform us of the pilots’ fate.)

In contrast, the good parts of “Flyboys” are those in which the movie remains faithful to its title. As the pilots who survive regroup and prepare for their next battle, Rawlings and his flyers learn how to master their fears behind, particularly when they face the deadliest battles yet. All thoughts of idealism and thrill-seeking gradually take a back seat to a single notion, survival, staying alive, and helping save comrades in need.

Using modern equipment and special effects, the filmmakers recreate these dogfights in graphic manner never seen on screen before: the thrills, the dangers, the chaos, the proximity of battles in open planes, made of nothing but canvas, wood, wires, and linen. WWII airplanes were the space vehicles of their time, except that the pilots weren’t in a cockpit and didn’t have any protection or parachutes; they were basically flammable flying targets.

You’ll get a concrete feel of what it’s like to fly inverted, or to do loops and rolls in the sky in an open cockpit biplane, with the enemy flying close by and shooting at you. In one of the most exciting and painful climaxes, the combat on air resemebles a Western shootout (with the planes substituting for horses), or an actioner’s mano-a-mano fights.

End note

Aeronautical technology had barely advanced before WWI, a time when most people had never even driven a car. Barely a dozen years after the invention of powered and controllable flight, these pilots invented, experimented with, and dashed headlong into the modern era of aerial combat.