One was a boxer already in France because the French treated blacks better than whites did in the States. One had to flee America or be arrested on a bench warrant for trashing the office of the banker who foreclosed on his family ranch in Texas. Another was a Harvard drop-out who was forced to enlist by his father, who flat-out told him it was about time he did something with his life to uphold the family honor. Like the Americans who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, they all had pasts and stories behind them. But it wasn't the Foreign Legion. This was the Lafayette Escadrille, a French squadron of fighter pilots composed of mostly American volunteers who were trained by the French and who fought in French squadrons before the United States entered WWI.
That's right. The first air powers were Germany, Britain, and France. By the end of WWI, the top ace for the Germans was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. The Red Baron, who had 80 kills. For the French it was Capt. Rene Fonck, with 75 kills, and for Britain it was Maj. Edward Mannock, with 61 kills. By comparison, the top American ace was Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, who had 26 kills. But he had an excuse. The Americans didn't enter the war that produced the first fighter pilots until three years after it began.
The Lafayette Escadrille was to WWI what the Flying Tigers were to WWII: a unit composed of American volunteers who fought before the United States officially entered the war. "Flyboys" is set in 1917, shortly before the U.S. finally joined the Allies. Flying these small wood and canvas planes that you could poke a foot through if you made the wrong move was just as dangerous as anti-aircraft fire or a burst from a rival fighter. This is a fascinating time for military warfare buffs, because there were so many developments within such a short time. When the war began in 1914, the planes were capable of flying 75 mph, but by the time the war ended four years later the planes were already attaining speeds of 120 mph. What made the planes effective war-weapons, though, was the invention of a Dutchman named Anthony H.G. Fokker, who perfected a machine gun that could be mounted in front of pilots and timed so that it could fire between revolving propellers. None of the significance (or romance) of the era is lost on the filmmakers.
Using actual and replica WWI planes and employing the new motion-capture technology on planes--the first time it's been used on mechanical objects--director Tony Bill produces a combination of real/CGI effects that looks as seamless as it does visually stunning. Bill also manages to create a look for the film that makes us believe we're time-traveling, without sacrificing picture clarity. Largely, that's because of the overall color of the film, which is close to sepia but has more saturation.
James Franco is the lead character in "Flyboys," playing Blaine Rawlings, a Texas rancher with no living kin who, with the ranch a foreclosure and a warrant out for his arrest, had to get out of Aberdeen. The boxer, Eugene Skinner, is played by Abdul Salis, who, we're told on a pop-up trivia track devoted to history and flying, didn't know he and the other "pilots" were actually going to have to fly planes until they were several weeks into production. Tim Piggott-Smith plays the Massachusetts' lad, Briggs Lowry. Other prominent flyboys are played by Philip Winchester (William Jensen) and David Ellison (Eddie Beagle), with ubiquitous French actor Jean Reno posing as Capt. Thenault, the squadron commander. Thenault and the other main characters were either based on real historical figures or on a composite, the trivia track tells us, and the filmmakers went to the trouble of studying old photographs and whatever newsreel footage was available in order to recreate air bases that were identical to those in WWI.
Every war film covers familiar ground, with "green" soldiers coming of age and proving themselves. But there's also often a romantic interest and a villain. In "Flyboys," Jennifer Decker plays Lucienne, a French woman that Blaine falls for (and eventually rescues). Don't expect the Red Baron (or Snoopy) to make an appearance, but do look for an all-black aircraft among those Fokker tri-planes. It's piloted by the Germans' top ace in this film, The Black Falcon (Gunner Winbergh), who follows the code of honor these opposing pilots have when it suits him and violates it just as easily, gunning down an Allied pilot after he had survived a plane crash and was standing, still stupefied, on the ground. In a way, we've seen this film before. All the old war movie tropes are here. The fighters keep rookies out of their bar, which is reserved for "killers," those who've shot down or caused an enemy plane to crash. Aces (those with five kills or more) are treated like stars, but they drink even more than the others. Everybody drinks, and nobody blinks when one of the pilots is killed. That's a lesson the new pilots must learn. There's also a discredited and mistrusted pilot who has to earn a place again in the squadron's good grades, that romantic interest between Blaine and Lucienne, the almost obligatory visits to dance halls and brothels, and plenty of footage of the planes in action looking pretty spectacular because of motion-capture.
But as familiar as the storyline is, what makes it fascinating is the era itself and the men who became the first air war heroes. Bill and screenwriters Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans, and David S. Ward had the good sense to stay close to the facts, and so it's hard not to warm to a film when you know it's based on a true story--or rather, a number of true stories. "Flyboys" is rated PG-13 for action violence and some sexual content.
"Flyboys" looks great in Blu-ray. Though there's a slight graininess in hazy-light scenes, Blu-ray handles the film's slightly yellow-orange cast well. The film was transferred to a 50-gig dual-layer disc using MPEG-2 technology at 24MPBS, preserving the original theatrical aspect of 2.35:1.
The audio is also strong, with the featured option a DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless and additional options in Spanish and French (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround). Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish. My only complaint is that I kept having to turn the volume down during battle scenes and up again when there was dialogue. The gap is huge, but then again it's that way in the theaters too. At home, though, it seems more noticeable.
What a nice package of extras this has. Director Tony Bill and producer Dean Devlin team up on a commentary track that starts out hesitant ("I don't know if we should share our secrets") but then picks up steam. The pair tells us how they got certain shots, and they point out the seams in the CGI/reality blend. The squadron's mascot, an African lion, turns out to be one of the filmmaker's highlights--or rather, the fact that they actually got to pet it. They talk about Internet flak they got from "people who weren't knowledgeable" and assure us that it was a historical fact that every fourth bullet was a tracer to help pilots gauge their shots. There are also plenty of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the most amazing a close call involving the steadi-cam operator. In the scene where The Black Falcon guns down the American pilot on the ground, the plane flew so low that it missed the cameraman's head by only inches. And that was the day the man's wife was visiting the set. Bill tells how the woman got immediately in his face and threatened to kill him if he ever put her husband at risk like that again. That's the most extreme anecdote, but others are just as fascinating.
I also really liked the trivia track, which named actual names of pilots who inspired the characters in the film and gave some background on them, as well. Some trivia tracks are just plane silly and pop up every second to tell you something inane. This one has fewer pop-ups, but it's all good stuff--no filler. The deleted scenes are pretty average, as is the theatrical trailer (in HD), but a couple of behind-the-scenes and historical features will satisfy the curious.
More than twice as many special effects shots were used in "Flyboys" than in the film that Tony Bill previously directed, "Independence Day." The good news is, you don't notice. With great flight sequences and a storyline rooted in facts, "Flyboys" provides some pretty good entertainment and recreated history.