The story is ludicrous, the acting laughable, and the American accents of these British upper class people are way beyond hilarious … but boy oh boy, those airplanes! Never before or since have so many authentic aircraft been assembled and flown with such derring-do. Howard Hughes himself flew the final scene, when his stunt pilots refused to attempt it. He crashed the plane, but he got the shot. Very little of this stuff is faked up against a rear projection screen, folks, almost all of it is real cameras bolted onto real airplanes trained on actors and/or pilots who really are up there in those rickety old crates, many of them probably wishing they’d worn diapers. The final dogfight is probably the best recreation ever made of what it was like to fly during WWI, and we’re unlikely to see anything like it again. Oh, yes, I know Martin Scorsese recreated some of the dogfight flying in The Aviator, but ironically, that was all jazzed up with CGI and way beyond the capabilities of actual airplanes; we are now in the age beyond reality, and into hyper-reality. Now you can locate a virtual camera high in the air and motionless and have a plane come zooming by within a few feet of your viewpoint. Hughes had to put his actual cameras on actual planes which, for me, makes it much more exciting than the hyper-real, or, to put it another way, over hyped.
The stories of the making of this film are almost impossible to credit. Hughes had the film in the can as a silent, then decided to just junk all that and remake it with sound. The actress who had played the floozy was Danish, and her accent made it impossible to believe her as a British aristocrat, so Hughes replaced her with … Jean Harlow, who has undeniable talents, but a British accent isn’t one of them. She is unintentionally hilarious.
But if you can ignore all that—FFing through most of the story elements isn’t a bad idea—you will be rewarded with much more than just the dogfight. The first action sequence involves a German zeppelin attacking London. The model work here is extraordinarily good for the time. The fiery crash of this aerial behemoth has to be seen to be believed, would do credit to a modern SFX model shop, and pre-dated by seven years the explosion of the Hindenburg. And it looks very much like the real crash, which is astounding. Smoke, water, and fire are the hardest things to do in miniature; this model must have been enormous. (There are also ludicrous elements, as when the Germans determine they must lighten the ship to rise above pursuing British airplanes … so almost the whole crew line up, shout “Für Gott, Kaiser, und Vaterland!” and jump calmly out the bomb bay doors.) (Also, I defy anyone these days to watch the final scene, with a man holding his dying brother—who he has just shot to keep the yellow-bellied little coward from spilling his guts to the Germans—and not laugh.)
The DVD we watched was restored by UCLA from the last surviving print, which has many hand-tinted scenes, and one eight-minute sequence in two-strip color that is surprisingly good. It takes place at a fancy dance in a mansion, and I understand this is the only color footage of platinum blonde Jean Harlow in existence.