Flying Tigers (1942): John Wayne’s First War Film, Directed by David Miller, Co-Starring John Carrol and Anna Lee

In his war pictures, beginning with Flying Tigers in 1942, John Wayne succeeded in establishing a coherent screen hero, characterized by specific themes that would recur consistently in his work.

Grade: B- (*** out of *****)

He usually plays a tough but sensitive commander, a patriotic role model, a man of action who wants to fight and hates sitting behind desk, a charismatic leader who can rally a group of diverse men to the cause.

Most important in those war pictures is Wayne’s hero’s attitude toward his soldiers, his obsessive goal to make “real men” out of them.  Thus, in most of his films, there is a two-generational plot, which contrasts Wayne’s leader with a younger and inexperienced soldier.

In Flying Tigers, directed by David Miller, Wayne plays Jim Gordon, the squadron leader of the American volunteer group, fighting for China’s freedom against the Japanese. This film is important because it introduced the generational conflict between Wayne and his soldiers, which would become a distinctive attribute of the “John Wayne movie.”


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A competent leader but tough as nails on his men, Gordon is contrasted with a new recruit, Woody Jason (John Carroll).  Jason signs up for a pragmatic reason–he needs the money to pay off a breach-of-promise suit.  He does not make a secret out of his eagerness to get the $500 reward for every Japanese plane that’s knocked down. Gordon despises Jason for his selfishness, especially after his failure to be at the base when needed; another flier takes over and finds his death.

“I was a kid,” Jason later laments, “It took somebody to die to make a man out of me.” A remorseful Jason then begs for another chance, and his heroic action succeeds in saving Gordon’s life.  Bombing a Japanese supply train, Jason’s plane catches fire, but he manages to pushes Gordon out, thus redeeming himself by paying for his errors with his own life.

Flying Tigers

Gordon is a commander who nurtures his soldiers to manhood by instructing them of how to accept military discipline. But he can also be a sensitive leader, who’s aware of the anguish involved in sending innocent soldiers out to die.  In one scene, he regrets having allowed a young soldier to fly on a deadly mission: “He should have stayed in college where he came from, but he begged me for a chance–and I gave it to him!”

The critic Allen Eyles has pointed out the similarities between Flying Tigers and the far superior picture, Only Angels Have Wings, an adventure about mail pilots in South America, made by Howard Hawks in 1939.

Wayne sort of plays the Cary Grant role in that film, the sensitive commander who nurses his men with firm hand, but who also knows how to express genuine mourning when they lose their lives.  Paul Kelly plays the equivalent of Thomas Mitchell’s part in the original, the pilot whose vision is failing but refuses to be grounded and dies in the air.  Edmund MacDonald plays the role of Richard Barthelmess in the 1939 feature, a pilot eager for a second chance. John Carroll, who is in both pictures, gets in Wayne’s movie co-starring billing, as Woody Jason, the new, initially reckless pilot who must atone for his mistakes.

The romantic interest in Flying Tigers is represented by Anna Lee, a Red Cross employee, who recalls fondly the steaks she used to eat in London, While Wayne reminisces of his life back home in San Francisco.

Flying Tigers is broader, more stereotypical and propagandistic than Hawks’  adventure, which is superior in every way. Wayne’s picture is replete with close-ups of bleeding Japanese pilots, just before taking their last dives, and it makes several obvious references to the enemy’s cruelty toward their prisoners.  These attributes are understandable, considering that the movie was released less than one year after the U.S. joined its allies in WWII.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Sound recording: Daniel J. Bloomberg
Scoring: Victor Young
Special Effects: Howard Lydecker, photographic; Daniel J. Bloomberg

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

The Sound Oscar went to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; the Scoring to Max Steiner for “Now, Voyager: and the Special Effects to DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind,” which also starred Wayne.


Directed by David Miller
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Written by Kenneth Gamet, Barry Trivers
Music by Victor Young
Cinematography Jack A. Marta
Edited by Ernest J. Nims

Production and distribution company: Republic Pictures

Release date October 8, 1942

Running time: 102 minutes
Box office $1.5 million (US rentals)


John Wayne as Capt. Jim Gordon
John Carroll as Woodrow “Woody” Jason
Anna Lee as Brooke Elliott
Paul Kelly as “Hap” Davis, Pilot
Gordon Jones as “Alabama” Smith
Mae Clarke as Verna Bales
Addison Richards as Col. R.T. Lindsay
Edmund MacDonald as “Blackie” Bales, Pilot
Bill Shirley as Dale
Tom Neal as Reardon, Pilot
Malcolm “Bud” McTaggart as McCurdy, Pilot
David Bruce as Lt. Barton, Pilot
Chester Gan as Mike, Mechanic
Jimmie Dodd as “Mac” McIntosh, Pilot
Gregg Barton as “Tex” Norton, Pilot