Though not a true story, Howard Hawks’ ridiculously exciting WWII film “Air Force” was inspired by a little-known true event from 1941 when a group of B-17s from California inadvertently flew into the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. From there the director and his writers craft an exciting (but fictional) story that finds a single B-17 crew determined to take it to the enemy.
The film stars The Mighty John Garfield, Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, Harry Carey, and George Tobias as our intrepid flight crew, whose can-do American fighting spirit must have done wonders to state-side morale in February of 1943, some of the darkest days of the war. But even without that context, “Air Force” is so well structured and so full of exciting set-pieces, it is still an action-packed, moving, and inspiring spectacle every bit as fast-paced as anything being released today.
Seventy-years later, some of the characters might come off as a little boilerplate, but keep in mind that “Air Force” was one of the first WWII films, and its box office success helped to create that boilerplate. Still, thanks to the quality of the actors — especially Garfield, whose above-it-all character learns about a thing called duty — and Hawks’ remarkable ability to stage dialogue scenes, you actually haven’t seen this movie before.
As soon as the credits rolled, “Air Force” earned its place among my favorite war films actually produced during the war; right there with “Destination Tokyo,” Objective Burma!,” and “They Were Expendable.”
“Air Force” is available for purchase at the Warner Archive.