Thursday, December 10, 2015

Waiting Game

Film: Wing and a Prayer
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Watch enough propaganda films and eventually you start to discern interesting shades of difference between them. There are the out-and-out jingoistic propaganda films. There are those who try to assert their message more subtly, and there are those that attempt as much as possible to depict war as the brutal necessity is sometimes is. Wing and a Prayer (also called The Story of Carrier X) is that sort of film. The movie used real war footage—not a rarity—but uses it effectively. In a lot of ways, Wing and a Prayer is pretty standard fare for a war film made during wartime, but it attempts to be more and sometimes succeeds.

The film begins a few months after Pearl Harbor with the premise that the American people are desperate to figure out why the American Navy has not retaliated against the Japanese. The truth is that the attack weakened the Americans and the desire is to prevent the Japanese from learning the extent of the damage. To this end, a plan is developed. A single carrier, the one that we’ll be spending time on for the length of the film, will be sailed around the Pacific to make it appear that the American fleet is dispersed throughout the ocean. The goal of the plan is to get the Japanese to commit their forces to Midway, allowing the Americans to strike at a large part fo the Japanese fleet with the element of surprise.

The plan, of course, is top secret. Only the men in charge on the carrier are aware of even part of the goal. On board, the pilots are instructed that any time they encounter Japanese aircraft, they are to pull back and not engage, essentially running from the fight. In several cases, this causes the deaths of a few pilots, since they are not allowed to retaliate even in cases where their fellow planes have been shot down. This takes a slow toll on the men’s morale. The tough-as-nails, no-bullshit commanding officer Bingo Harper (Don Ameche) doesn’t help much, either.

Harper maintains an iron grip on his men, wanting them to do everything as commanded and by the book. The man in charge of the squadron, Edward Moulton (Dana Andrews) does his best to rein his men in, but often to no avail. The men are headstrong, cocky, and frustrated. One of the men, a former Oscar-winning actor named Hallam Scott (William Eythe), enrages Harper by landing on the carrier despite being waved off. Another, Malcolm Brainard (Harry Morgan), disobeys orders and destroys a bombing target on a practice run and is grounded. “Cookie” Cunningham (Kevin O’Shea) ditches a plane immediately after launch.

Slowly, frustrations build until the moment that the Americans have gotten the Japanese exactly where they want them at Midway. The final 20 minutes or so of the film depict the battle, with fires on the American carrier and massive destruction of the Japanese fleet. Many of the men we’ve come to know don’t make it back, but many others do. All in the name of war and of world peace, don’t you know.

One aspect of the film’s attempt at realism works against it. There is a section of the film where we know essentially the American battle plan but the men on the ship do not. We’re witness to their frustration. But in a cinematic shorthand, we see the carrier travel by dotted line around the Pacific with a couple moments of footage at a few different points on the trip. To indicate losses of planes, names are erased from the chalk board of active duty. But this is a film where we know the men by their quirks of character rather than by their names. Seeing a particular name crossed off means very little when we’re not sure which of the men it is. So when we discover near the end of the film that Brainard has been lost, it comes as something like a shock. Harry Morgan, after all, was distinctive in both appearance and voice.

But this is a real problem. One of the men on board has a desire to grow vegetables on the ship hydroponically so that the men can enjoy fresh food instead of the canned vegetables that would be far more common. During the attack on Midway, a radio report followed by a slow pan to the growing vegetables indicates that the man evidently in danger is the one obsessed with his vegetable garden. But until the slow pan, I had no idea that was the case.

To a modern film viewer, the biggest problem is the obvious scenes of rear projection. I tend to be a little more forgiving for older films when it comes to the technology, but there is some very obvious rear projection here as well as some very obvious use of models during the final conflict. When scenes of model ships blowing up are used side-by-side with actual combat footage, the discrepancies are even more glaring and problematic.

Ultimately, the characters of Wing and a Prayer are straight out of central casting, but the film genuinely tries to do something different in showing the frustration of the men and the fruition of the strategy being attempted. It’s more interesting than it is good, but you could do a lot worse with a World War II actioner.

Why to watch Wing and a Prayer: A very different form of propaganda film.
Why not to watch: The technology doesn’t hold up at all.

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