Flying Tigers: John Wayne’s First War Film

Wayne: Most Powerful Star in Film History

In his war pictures, beginning with Flying Tigers in 1942, John Wayne succeeded in establishing a coherent screen hero, characterized by specific themes that recurred consistently in his work: He usually plays the tough but sensitive commander and patriotic role model, the man of action who wants to fight and hates sitting behind desk, and the charismatic leader who can rally diverse men to the cause.

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

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 became a distinctive attribute of the “John Wayne movie.”

A competent leader but tough as nails on his men, Gordon is contrasted with a new recruit, Woody Jason (John Carroll), who signs up because he needs the money to pay off a breach-of-promise suit. Jason does not make a secret out of his eagerness to get the 500 dollars reward for every Japanese plane 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.” But Jason begs for another chance and his heroics save Gordon’s life. Bombing a Japanese supply train, Jason’s plane catches fire, but he manages to pushes Jason out, thus redeeming himself paying for his errors with his own life.

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

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

Wayne plays the Cary Grant role, the sensitive commander who nurses his men with firm hand, but also knows how to express genuine mourning when they lose their lives. Paul Kelly plays the Thomas Mitchell’s part in the original, as 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, as a pilot eager for a second chance. John Carroll, who is in both pictures, gets here co-starring billing, as Woody Jason, the new reckless pilot who must atone for his mistakes.

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

“Flying Tigers” is broader, more stereotypical and propagandistic than Hawks’ superb adventure, replete with close-ups of bleeding Japanese pilots, just before their last dives, and references to the enemy’s cruelty toward their prisoners, but, hey, the movie was released less than a year after the U.S. entered the War.

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.