It may not have won Martin Scorsese an Oscar, but his epic period biopic The Aviator does, at least, seem to have had a bit of an impact on Hollywood.
The spectacular flying sequences during the recreations of the filming of director Howard Hughes’ classic First World War film Hell’s Angels were amongst the best in Scorsese’s impressive film, and they appear to have revived the film industry’s interest in the heroic dogfights of the age of biplanes.
Flyboys is just the first of a new glut of films about the pioneering aviators of the First World War, with the Joseph Fiennes-starring Der Rote Baron due later this year, and sets the special effects bar high.
For anyone who grew up on the Biggles stories, the idea of a new film about biplane pilots swooping and diving through the French skies – battling the bright red planes of the German air force and trying to shoot down massive airships and barrage balloons – is certainly one to be relished. Even when you know that, in order to get American cinemagoers in to the theatres, history may have had to be tweaked a little, the knowledge that modern computer effects are easily capable of producing adrenaline-packed scenes of daredevil perfection is something to get hearts racing in expectation.
Does it matter that, as with so many American films about the World Wars, Hollywood has decided to make Americans the centre of attention, despite them being but a minute presence in the actions depicted? Not overly, no, as long as the storyline and action are up to scratch. And here, the action certainly is – beautifully-rendered dogfights high above Flanders fields, ridiculously fast stunt flying, explosions and shrapnel bouncing off all over the screen make this a genuinely impressive technical achievement, and one that’s bound to excite the passions of fans of this long-forgotten genre.
Of course, there were indeed a few American pilots who volunteered to join the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, just as there were a small number of Americans flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain, as amusingly poorly depicted towards the start of the dire Pearl Harbor. The politically correct inclusion of an African American pilot to include a racial tension subplot is also pandering to as wide an audience as possible, no doubt, but to be fair, there were a large number of non-white fighters on the Western Front – certainly more than there were Americans – and they have largely been ignored by cinema to date.
But although the history may be a tad stretched, it has to be asked why the director and stars are so low-key for a project that could, with the right approach, easily have attracted its fair share of A-listers. To give an indication, taking the lead is none other than James Franco, best known as Harry Osbourne in the Spider-Man films – hardly a big name, nor someone who has shown themselves as an overly brilliant actor. The rest of the cast are people with faces that may look vaguely familiar, but whose names will barely register.
The best known actor in the entire cast is Jean Reno, once again playing a stereotypically gruff Frenchman and seemingly performing on autopilot. Had they managed to rope in a few bigger names, this could easily have become blockbuster material. As it is, the plot strays dangerously close to cheesy territory and the stars aren’t quite up to scratch – but all this is more than compensated for by the gloriously choreographed aerial battles.
We need more of this sort of thing.
Picture caption: James Franco as Blaine Rawlings.