Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Dive Bomber


Here’s a story that was never destined for any acting or writing awards, but is worthwhile just for the airplanes. It was groundbreaking for its extensive use of color aerial photography, which was almost impossible with previous equipment. Before this, color film had been a three-strip process. They shot in B&W with a color filter on each film strip. This made the cameras very bulky. The new process was called Technicolor Monopack, and it used color negative film. It allowed some impressive shots to be done, in color, which was still a novelty. The moviemakers had the cooperation of the Navy, who wanted to show off their aircraft, so almost every exterior shot begins with a flyover of a wing or two, twenty to thirty aircraft, or shows whole flotillas lined up on the ground, engines roaring. These planes were in their pre-war colors, with bright yellow wings. The Navy began painting them in battle gray during filming, and director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) had to plead to keep a few yellow ones to match footage he had already shot. He also had the use of the carrier Enterprise for a week! This is really a great film for airplane buffs, of which I am one.

It’s rather awful to see some of these aircraft and realize that it was only months until Pearl Harbor. Half the planes we see are biplanes! They are mostly Grumman F3Fs. (These antiques never fought in WWII, but they were replaced by the Brewster Buffalo, one of the worst planes ever flown by the US military. Marine pilots at the Battle of Midway, where 20 out of 20 Buffalos were lost, called them flying coffins, and the “flying” part of that description was debatable.) The better planes showcased here are Douglas TBD Devastators and Vought SB2U Vindicators.

It stars Fred MacMurray as a really petty and small-minded aviator who bucks hero Errol Flynn at every turn, until he finally sees the folly of his ways. The story is about flight surgeons who are trying to figure out how to combat altitude sickness, in particular the blackouts caused by pulling ten gees coming out of a dive. It shows the development of oxygen masks and pressure suits. From today’s perspective there is a simple suggestion one might make to the pilots to keep them healthy enough to withstand the rigors of low-oxygen environments: Stop smoking! Everybody here smokes like a chimney, including the doctors peering into their microscopes. Half the scenes begin with one character offering a smoke to another, and it is always accepted. It was a very different world, wasn’t it? “Have a cigarette, doctor?” “Thanks, doctor, don’t mind if I do.”