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A Movie A Day: FLYING TIGERS (1942)
How’d you get yourself mixed up in this anyway? You never used to like Chop Suey.

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day. [For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.] I haven’t fact checked this, but I’d be willing to bet that George Lucas patterned a lot of the dogfights in the original STAR WARS film after the opening air-battle of 1942’s FLYING TIGERS starring John Wayne. There is a checking in scene straight out of the approach to the Death Star. Instead of “Red 5 standing by!” we have Wayne in the lead and his airmen signing in “Blue 3, check!” and “Blue 2, okay!” The shot selection and pacing is straight out of STAR WARS, and the Japanese gunning windows look suspiciously like the TIE fighter windows. Now, I know Lucas patterned the Death Star trench run on DAMBUSTERS and that’s clear as day when you watch that film, but I’m sure some STAR WARS trivia super genius can comment below on whether or not Lucas has ever cited FLYING TIGERS as well.

The flick is set in 1941 as a group of American volunteers are in China, protecting the citizens from an unrelenting Japanese aerial bombing. They are mercenaries, I guess, getting paid for each downed enemy plane, but it’s dangerous work, with loses damn near every time they fly. John Wayne plays Capt. Jim Gordon (I guess this was before he moved to Gotham), leader of the brash young pilots. He’s got a thing going with a beautiful nurse on the base played by Anna Lee, who we follow over from yesterday’s THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR (she played the creepy George Sanders’ wife). Anna Lee is a gorgeous woman and she’s been very good in other work I’ve seen her in, but I have to say she was my least favorite thing about this movie.

Her performance is mechanic, by-the-numbers. She’s nice to look at, but her character really needed more personality and I think Lee had the material to do it, just couldn’t pull it together. But let’s not focus on the negative because I really enjoyed the flick, mostly for the camaraderie between the pilots. The structure is a bit weird, but not in a bad way. Being a Republic picture, I’m sure John Wayne was always intended to be the top star, but his Jim Gordon isn’t really the focus of the movie. Instead, the movie is centered on John Carroll’s Woody Jason, a brash show-off of a pilot. He has nerve, gusto, but he’s also greedy, in it for the money and he doesn’t like to play as part of a well-oiled machine. Instead he always rushes out of the group, taking down planes. It’s dangerous, but he’s good at it.

Unfortunately, these tactics end up weakening the overall defenses of the squadron, leading to the death of one of the more liked pilots in the squad. This changes Woody. They don’t make it explicitely clear if he could have done anything to prevent it, but we do know he was the closest to Edmund MacDonald’s Blackie Bales when he had to bail out. The dude opened his chute too early and left himself a giant white target for a Japanese fighter. It was up to Woody to protect him… he was closest and free at the time, but he didn’t. He says a Jap plane got in his way and he had to deal with him, but the other pilots suspect he saw another plane to add to growing bank account and went for that instead of playing defense for his comrade. Whatever is the truth we’re not told and we don’t need to know. That’s not important. What’s important is this “makes him a man” as he admits later to Wayne. It really hits him hard and he shows the first signs of real humanity, flying off to privately meet with Blackie’s wife, exaggerating Blackie’s accomplishments and giving her most of the money he’s made shooting down Jap planes.

Of all the characters, the only one who is at all different by the end of the movie is Woody Jason. Wayne’s Jim Gordon is exactly the same, as are the other pilots, so the real center of this film is John Carroll, not John Wayne. The effects work holds up really well still to this day. In fact, I’d say the full size planes on gimbals look more fake than the miniature planes. The effects were even nominated at the Oscars that year. The timeline of this film overlaps with Pearl Harbor, the final mission being one not of Mercs but of official US pilots taking out an important supply bridge. It actually made me wonder if someone could cut an epic movie together out of John Wayne’s WW2 Pacific movies, like a 6 hour movie that’d impress the shit out of Terrence Malick. Just in the films we’ve covered in the AMAD list you could do it… You have this one with Wayne as Merc the year before Pearl Harbor, IN HARM’S WAY where he’s a ship’s captain at Pearl Harbor, THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA where he’s a foot soldier on the ground… I’m sure a really fascinating movie could be drawn together, with Wayne essentially playing all the major roles himself.

The action in the movie is exciting and the stakes are real, but there’s a light tone to the movie I can’t quite explain. It doesn’t feel trivial, there are some real emotional punches, like hearing Blackie’s wife crying behind the door after she put on a brave face for Woody… but there’s a light tone to the whole thing, a sense of fun and adventure. Final Thoughts: Flying Tigers is an entertaining movie still to this day. The film broke box office records upon its release and I can tell why. On top of being a fun rollercoaster ride of a flick, it was released not even a year after the actual attack on Pearl Harbor when the US was glued to the progress of the war. Interesting moment in time and fascinating how quickly they churned these out back then.

Here’s what we have lined up for the next week: Tuesday, November 4th: EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973)

Wednesday, November 5th: THE BUSY BODY (1967)

Thursday, November 6th: IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963)

Friday, November 7th: LIBELED LADY (1936)

Saturday, November 8th: UP THE RIVER (1930)

Sunday, November 9th: DOCTOR BULL (1933)

Monday, November 10th: JUDGE PRIEST (1934)

So, I guess the movie gods have a rather twisted sense of humor making my Election Day AMAD EXECUTIVE ACTION, a political assassination flick. I swear I didn’t program it that way. We’re following director David Miller! I don’t need to remind you folks, I’m sure, but get out and vote today if you haven’t been able to vote early. I have my leanings and know what I want to see happen, but I won't urge you one way or the other. What matters is that everybody exercises his or her right today. See you tomorrow for EXECUTIVE ACTION! -Quint

Previous Movies: June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 4, 2008, 3:36 a.m. CST

    Lucas should credit

    by Fourthwall

    633 Squadron for the Deathstar run as well. See for yourself on Youtube

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 6:42 a.m. CST

    Remake this

    by YeahSureWhatever

    Keanu as Gordon and Shia as Woody.

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 8:04 a.m. CST

    Lucas and WWII connection and a old story

    by Tindog42

    If memory serves, Lucas cut together aerial combat footage from a number of WWII Movies to use as a moving storyboard for the spaceship battles. A very early version of the computer generated ‘Pre-vis’ technique used today. Would not be surprised if a good deal of the source material came from “Flying Tigers” it’s long been considered one of the classics of it’s type. Many years ago I had a friend who was a combat pilot in Vet Nam. He would tell the story about his old fight commander (lets call him Frank), who had been one of the pilot the military loaned to Republic for the production of “Flying Tigers”. During one of the flying sequences Frank’s plane developed engine trouble causing an emergency landing. After a very rough touchdown, Frank jumped out of the smoking plane, stumbles away as fast as possible and collapsed on the side of the landing field. On lookers came running up to check on his condition. As Frank looked up a tall figure leaned down and said, “Are you all right son”. Say the line with a John Wane voice and you have the picture. Twenty-five years or so later in Vet Nam Frank is returning to base, his plane develops engine trouble causing an emergency landing. After a very rough touchdown, Frank jumped out of the smoking plane, stumbles away as fast as possible and collapsed on the side of the landing field. On lookers came running up to check on his condition. As Frank looked up a tall figure leaned down and said, “Are you all right son”. Wayne was visiting the base as part of a USO tour or maybe prepping for “Green Berets” I don’t recall. True story, I have no idea. But is makes for a good story.

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 8:58 a.m. CST

    My great uncle was an on-set bodyguard

    by aboriginal

    Still have a Flying Tigers vintage flight jacket and scarf with a bunch of old set pics tucked away somewhere. A true Wayne classic it is.

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 9:08 a.m. CST


    by smorgasbord

    lucas did cut together ww2 footage to splice into early cuts. If I recall it's on visible in the bonus dvd with the original trilogy. Many of the shots were then recreated identically.

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 2:34 p.m. CST


    by berserkrl

    or not:

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 5:55 p.m. CST

    There were no working planes on this film

    by Bully Boy

    Hi, the story about the pilot crashing during the filming of Flying Tigers, while a nice tale, just can't be true. There was not a single working plane on the entire production. The full-size planes were actually pulled with cables attached to trucks to get shots of them getting into position to take off. All the footage of them flying (ALL the footage) is either actual newsreel type coverage (from other sources), or the brilliant miniature work of the Lydecker Bros (Howard and Theo). Other shots were mock ups with rear screens behind them.

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 7:39 p.m. CST

    John Wayne for the win

    by Napoleon Park

    that idea of editing together clips from all of John Wayne's Pacific War films into one long epic in which an army/navy/air force of Waynes almost single handedly wins the war is brilliantly bizarre or bizarrely brilliant. Some movie school student should get right on that.

  • Nov. 4, 2008, 10:16 p.m. CST

    633, yes!

    by The StarWolf

    Fourthwall - Exactly. I have the DVD of 633 SQUADRON. One of my favourite war films. Trench scene? Let's see ... narrow passage to target? Check. Lined with Anti-Air defenses? Check. Enemy fighters patrolling over? Check. Target which must be hit precisely? Check. Lots of losses among the good guys? Check. Hard to imagine this didn't have SOME influence in those last sequences of SW IV.

  • Nov. 8, 2008, 12:08 p.m. CST

    More Lucas reference footage

    by NNNOOO!!!

    The Millennium Falcon dogfight is drawn largely from William Wyler's B-17 documentary THE MEMPHIS BELLE.