From Republic Pictures comes the latest John Wayne big screen war time adventure circa 1942 following the United States entry to the Second World War. Duke takes center stage as a commander overlooking a group of flyers in China working for hire against the invading Japanese prior to December 7th, 1941.
So says the Duke when asked about the bullet holes strafed across the broadside of his fighter plane. I’d expect no less from Big John. Among Duke’s pilots we have Tom Neal, David Bruce and the always reliable character actor, Paul Kelly, who serves as his second in command. As far as casting goes, Kelly, fits fine but a rather odd choice since he’s not one of Duke’s regular costars like Paul Fix or Ward Bond. Perhaps we’re still a bit too early in the John Wayne story just yet to see his regular stock company surrounding him.
The Oscar Nominated special effects kick in immediately as the planes take to the skies mixing stock footage with model airplanes and cockpit footage of the Duke and company engaging in an aerial dogfight against the invading forces.
Awaiting back at the base is Duke’s love interest and company nurse, Anna Lee. A keen eye will also spot actor Richard Loo in an unbilled performance as the company doctor. A young pilot pays the ultimate price on the latest mission and Duke takes it personally. From here he’s off to Rangoon to secure more fighter pilots. Among them Edmund MacDonald as a man looking for a chance at redemption with his wife Mae Clarke by his side. Then there’s second billed John Carroll coming on like a cross between Clark Gable (he even has the mustache) and a cocky Errol Flynn/James Cagney wannabe.
Like Cagney in many of his early military roles, Carroll, is not above thinking he can do it all by himself as a one man team as opposed to working under Duke’s guidance as a member of the Flying Tigers. His arrogance will quickly isolate him from the other pilots and he’ll even take a shine to Duke’s gal, Anna.
Unlike those Cagney/O’Brien films, this won’t go in Carroll’s favor as the early Warner Bros. films did leaving O’Brien on the sidelines. After all, Duke is no Pat O’Brien. Or should I put it the other way? Pat O’Brien is no Duke Wayne.
Other faces you may spot in this David Miller directed effort are Willie Fung as a waiter tending to Duke and Anna as they take in a night on the town, the always unlikable Charles Lane barking out his lines and Gordon Jones as a pilot who has joined up alongside Carroll.
David Miller was directing just his third feature film and was noticeably absent from the screen for the balance of WW2 following this production. He wouldn’t release another film until 1949’s Bing Crosby effort, Top O’ The Morning. He may be best known for directing Kirk Douglas’ own personal favorite, Lonely Are the Brave in 1962.
The volunteers continue to take to the skies but when December 7th 1941 passes they’ll be enlisted in to the war officially and Duke will receive orders from another long time character actor playing his new commander, Addison Richards. For the record this well known “face” of Richards has an astounding 411 acting credits to his name at the IMDB.
The orders are looking for a pilot to fly in what amounts to a “one way trip” into enemy territory to take out a bridge and supply train for the Japanese. Duke isn’t about to pawn this off to any of his men and will take to the skies personally to see the job is done right.
Let’s just say he’s in for a surprise when he reaches the cockpit of the cargo plane carrying cannisters full of nitro that have been rigged for the drop.
Credited as the writer and originator of the story is Kenneth Gamet who would also put pen to paper for Duke’s 1951 Airforce adventure, Flying Leathernecks. In between the two films he’d also be credited on Duke’s Pittsburgh (1942) and one of my favorite non-westerns starring Duke, Wake of the Red Witch (1948).
By this point in his career, John Wayne, had bust out of the low budget westerns he’d been making for a decade thanks to Ford’s Stagecoach and found a home in the WW2 films of the 1940’s. Alongside Flying Tigers he’d star in the war time dramas Reunion in France, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable between 1942 and 1945. Some say singlehandedly winning the war on the big screen.
Much has been made of Duke’s war movies and the fact that he never actually served in the military while many of his fellow film stars answered the call. Look elsewhere for details on that topic as I’m not about to cast stones Duke’s way. Bottom line as far as movies go, his war time films are full of adventure and excitement and I love them. That’s all that really matters as far as I’m concerned. I saw them all as a child and at the time they thrilled me with adventure and big screen heroics. Still do I suppose.
Born in England, Miss Lee, like Duke would become a member of the John Ford stock company. She appeared in How Green Was My Valley, both Fort Apache and The Horse Soldiers opposite Duke, The Last Hurrah, Gideon of Scotland Yard, Two Rode Together and would also appear in Ford’s swan song, 7 Women released in 1966. She even starred in an episode of Wagon Train that Ford directed alongside Ward Bond. Despite all these John Ford films I still remember her best as the female lead opposite Boris Karloff in the memorably shocking Bedlam released in 1946.
Flying Tigers should be easy to find if you’re looking to see it though I doubt it turns up on those John Wayne 24 hour film festivals TV stations still carry to this day. It’s available on DVD and even blu ray via Olive Films which is exactly what sits on the shelf here at Mike’s Take.