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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

Long before America officially entered World War I, Americans were volunteering to fight in the "Great War" alongside the French, English and Italians. Set in 1916, Flyboys tells the inspired-by-actual-events-and-people story of the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of 38 young Americans who sign up to learn to pilot some of earliest fighter planes. Their mission? To go head-to-head with the German aces.

Blaine Rawlings is a Texas cowboy who just lost his family's ranch to foreclosure. William Jensen is a Nebraska farmer following in the footsteps of his war hero fathers. Harvard dropout Briggs Lowry joins under pressure from his severe and wealthy father. And while living in France, the American-born boxing champ Eugene Skinner determines to pay his debt to his adopted country—a country that doesn't hold his black skin against him the way America does.

These and other new recruits have varying motives. But they all share the same prospects: The average lifespan of a fighter pilot is three to six weeks.

After a brief-but-intense crash course on the basics of flying and fighting, the group is thrown into air battle behind the leadership of loner Reed Cassidy, a standoffish American ace driven to avenge the deaths of his fallen friends. The squadron grows closer as casualties and kills mount. While some thrive on the thrills of aerobatic maneuvers and close-range combat, others are deeply shaken by the deaths of their buddies and the tremendous effort required just to survive each new mission in their fragile biplanes.


Positive Elements

Flyboys displays many of the positive elements born of the camaraderie of men in combat together—courage, honor, purpose, discipline, self-sacrifice. Although they fight for adventure and glory, these guys clearly risk their lives for each other and, presumably, because most believe in standing up against the German aggressors. (Cassidy's a bit of an anomaly; more on him in "Other Negative Elements.") In spite of their differences, they learn to treat each other with respect, kindness and forgiveness.

In addition, they demonstrate a degree of honor even in battle with the Germans, giving and receiving respect in the fight—to a point. An interesting, discussion-worthy thread that runs through the film is its depiction of the shattering of battlefield "honor." It's proposed that at the beginning of WWI, that honor ran so deep that a pilot wouldn't think of killing a downed airman in the other uniform. By the time it's over, however, another (more modern?) sort of mentality prevailed.

Initially displaying insulting racism to Skinner, a white pilot eventually recognizes the wrongness of his attitude and reaches out with respect and acceptance. Rawlings risks his life and standing in the squadron for the safety of a local French woman and her family. (His methods raise questions, though; more on him, too, below.)

Spiritual Content

A cast of secondary pilots are given character "hooks" to help us tell them apart. One is really young. Another can't shoot straight. Another is identified simply by his Christianity. He says he "keeps his Bible close" (and is seen reading it during his free time). He kneels in private prayer before battle. And he chooses to paint a Bible reference on the side of his plane as his personal logo. He also militarizes his faith (for better or for worse), singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" while gleefully shooting down enemy planes. A point of weakness is revealed when, although he has made it clear he doesn't drink, he quickly gives in and takes a small swig to honor a squadron tradition. How is he treated? The guys regard him and his beliefs with respect, one asking what a "man of God" is doing in battle and another conceding to a religious funeral service out of genuine deference.

Elsewhere, one character claims to have no religion at all. Another crosses himself (with a "good luck" toy) at a crucial moment in battle.

Sexual Content

At a French brothel, a pilot is seen with his arm around one of the girls, many of whom wear period lingerie. When Rawlings is asked to remove his pants so that his wounded leg can be bandaged (after he crash lands nearby), he assumes the woman doing the asking to be a prostitute, and seems quite uncomfortable complying with her bidding. He also expresses displeasure at the crude sexual comments that are made about the girls and when a married pilot grabs his "nurse's" backside disrespectfully.

On a later visit to the brothel, one or two prostitutes are seen kissing soldiers. One pilot, known to frequent the place, is seen entering with a group of prostitutes.

A chance encounter with a local French girl named Lucienne sparks a romance for Rawlings, giving him fresh reason to fight the Germans. He and Lucienne share a few passionate kisses.

Violent Content

Bloody bullet wounds to shoulders, torsos, tops of heads and an eye are on display. Wounded soldiers, some missing limbs, are seen bloody and bandaged. Pilots are killed in their planes by bullets, by fiery crashes and by falling. One pilot is seen near death bleeding from the mouth and torso. At least two pilots take their own lives, one to complete his mission. The camera looks away when the other raises a pistol to his head to avoid burning to death. Repeated dogfights prepare the squadron survivors for an ultimate attack against the best German pilots defending a huge zeppelin bomber.

On the ground, men are shot to death in combat. Trench warfare is observed. Punches are exchanged. In an intense scene, Rawlings chops off a trapped comrade's hand to save his life. Lucienne and her young niece and nephew, among many other villagers, are forced to flee for their lives in front of the advancing and pillaging German troops.

Crude or Profane Language

One use of "g--d--n" and one "good lord." Several milder profanities are heard, including "d--n," "h---" and "a--." Understandable yet uncivil epithets are often assigned to the Germans.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Maybe strangely given the time period, very few men are seen smoking cigarettes. The same sentiment cannot be expressed, though, when it comes to alcohol. The pilots drink heavily after their missions. They honor the memory of their fallen comrades in drink and song. They also celebrate killing the enemy with drinks from a special "bottle of death." A pilot who has had a nervous breakdown attempts to overcome his jitters with constant drinking.

Other Negative Elements

Cassidy's drive to avenge his friends' deaths seems to cloud out all other motivations for going to war, including that of fighting for justice and defending the world against tyranny. He flies extra missions alone, desperate to take out a cruel German flyer known as the Black Falcon. And he waxes eloquent about war being only about personal revenge, and not ever for the greater good—a concept he claims to have abandoned.

Accused of a robbery back home, one of the flyboys is brought before his squadron mates for them to determine his fate. They give him a second chance, which he may very well deserve. But their hearty laughter over how badly he bungled the burglary gives the impression that his biggest transgression was stupidity, not theft. Similarly, Rawlings' superiors let him get away with using his military aircraft for personal reasons (ostensibly stealing it) because of his bravery and selflessness on the battlefield.

The American recruits react to public urination at a French train station. A man vomits onscreen. One pilot calls Skinner, who is black, "chocolate." (Quick with his fists, Skinner punches him in the face.)


Director Tony Bill, reportedly a stunt pilot himself and collector of WWI memorabilia, brings an obvious passion and all the latest CGI technology to re-creating aviation's very first dogfights on the big screen. What works best in Flyboys is Bill's attention to the details of the planes, the pilots' equipment and the feel of the airborne shootouts over the French countryside. Though created independently, the combination of live action and digital imaging often looks amazingly crisp and "weighty" here. It stunningly recaptures the boyhood rush of imaging oneself locked in 3-D air duels with the Red Baron or, more likely, piloting an X-Wing fighter against Darth Vader in deep space.

It's no accident that these aerial encounters bring Star Wars to mind. And it's not because Bill was trying to pay homage to the likes of Luke Skywalker. It was George Lucas who based his sci-fi dogfights on WWI pilots and their bi- and tri-wing planes. Now that visual circle gets completed with Flyboys' maneuvering and close-range combat.

Where the film loses altitude is in its human-to-human direction, character development and acting. When earthbound, these pilots mostly feel two-dimensional, keeping the story from ever achieving a real epic quality. The one surprising exception is the remarkably innocent romance between Rawlings and Lucienne, who is caring for three small children orphaned by her brother and his wife in the war. These scenes between actor James Franco, the lovely young French actress Jennifer Decker and the kids give the film an unexpected emotional center that is underutilized.

Much more interesting than most of the characters in this story are the real-life men they're based on. Take for instance Eugene Bullard, the inspiration for Skinner. Apparently Bullard, the son of a former American slave, stowed away on a ship to Europe, became a French boxing champion, and then served as one of these American WWI pilots before being rejected by the U.S. Air Service for his skin color. The other pilots in the story are composites of a cadre of other airmen, as is the squad's king-of-the-jungle mascot, based on a pair of real-life lions kept by the group.

That doesn't mean Flyboys is a dull ride. The heroics of the American flying aces of World War I are little known to many of us nearly a century later. And this relatively restrained film (for a war actioner in a post-Saving Private Ryan moviemaking world), does a superior job of reviving interest in and respect for these brave men and their captivating era.

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