Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ace of Aces

One more movie from last week. Turner Classic was showing a bunch of 1930s war films on Friday. There was one submarine film with Walter Houston, but I never got the name of it, so we'll stick to Ace of Aces.

The film starts with Rocky Thorne, sculptor (played by Richard Dix), and Nancy Adams (Elizabeth Allan), wealthy heiress maybe, she's doing all right for herself at any rate, engaged and very much in love. Then war intrudes, as it usually does in these stories. What's somewhat different is Rocky has no interest in getting involved. He doesn't want to die, obviously, but more critically, he doesn't want to kill. Certainly not for something like nationalism, or because someone else commands him to. For this, Nancy condemns him as a coward and breaks things off. After that, Rocky can't tune out the marching and the shouting outside his studio window, and he joins a flying squadron.

A flying squadron where seemingly everyone has an animal mascot. One guy has a dog, another a pig, a third a parrot. OK, normal enough. But one guy has a monkey and Rocky brings a lion cub with him. Where the hell did he get that, and how was he able to bring it into France with him? Did he steal it from the Paris Zoo? Anyway, Rocky goes up and manages to down an enemy plane on his first sortie, after some hesitation. Back on the ground, his commander chastises him for that hesitation. At which point, a switch seems to flip in Rocky's head. He becomes obsessed with flying and more so with shooting down enemy planes. When someone loads his guns incorrectly, he chews the guy out and declares he'll load his own guns from now on. When he complains his plane is a piece of junk, he's told he's stuck with it as long as it can fly. So he goes on a mission and gets it shot up to where he can't land it without crashing, and it's beyond repair. Presto! New plane for Rocky. Soon he's the top ace on the Allied side.

But he's no longer much of a jovial sort. When one of the other pilots shoots himself, the others all rush to staunch the bleeding, Rocky sits on his cot, preparing his belts of ammo. He cares not a bit for his wingmen while in the air, only for finding and downing the enemy. He runs into Nancy while he has some time off (she's in medic corps), but doesn't care to resume their romantic relationship. He only has a couple of days off, and doesn't want to waste it on that. Physical enjoyment will be sufficient for him. Personally, I wouldn't have wanted anything to do with her, since it was her browbeating that brought him to this, but Rocky seems to love the flying and killing, so I guess he doesn't hold a grudge.

Then he shoots down a young German pilot who was simply delivering a message that one of Rocky's wingmen had survived being shot down over enemy lines. Rocky himself was returning from a solo "hunting" mission, and was wounded, and the two wind up side by side in the hospital. Which brings Rocky face-to-face with the results of his actions in the air. After that, he and Nancy start to reconnect, Rocky accepts a transfer to train new pilots, but can't help going up again when he learns some new hotshot has surpassed his kill total. Interestingly, the movie doesn't punish him for this pride by having him downed by a superior pilot. Instead, he gets in position to strike, then finds he can't do it, and while he hesitates, is noticed by the wing he's following and jumped by all five of them. He survives, though he loses a leg, and he and Nancy return to their prewar life. Except Rocky claims he can no longer sculpt. Creation is beyond him now, only destruction remains.

Ace of Aces is kind of a different war film from what I'm used. My dad had explained that the submarine film I mentioned at the top was made prior to some Code they implemented which restricted certain things from being shown (in that film, the main character was fooling around with a paralyzed pilot's wife, and he said after the Code, people who committed adultery would not been allowed to be shown profiting from it), and I assume this was as well. The cynicism makes sense, considering by 1933 we're into the Great Depression, plus the people who went through the war having some justifiably negative feelings about it. Still, most of the war films, even the other ones TCM showed that day, were about how awful it was to watch the friends you made in battle keep dying, and how hard it was for the commanders to keep sending them off, knowing many of them were going to die.

Ace of Aces doesn't worry about that at all. It looks like that's the direction it'll go early on, when he's being introduced to the other fellows in the squadron, but once Rocky settles into his hunter mindset, that fades away. Instead of war being awful for the emotional toll it exacts from the losses one experiences, it's war being awful because it makes it easy to kill without experiencing the emotional cost of that. Until he meets that rookie pilot in the hospital, Rocky never met anyone he shot down. It's like they were abstract concepts, no more real people than a computer-generated foe you or I might shoot down in a video game. And that made it easy. Rocky could throw away the hesitation he was chided for, the empathy that made him unwilling to enlist initially. Someone becoming unconcerned with the suffering of their enemy in war films isn't unusual, but it's frequently combined with the combatant being greatly concerned with preserving the lives of their comrades. This film ignored it entirely.

I'm also a little surprised he didn't die in the end. That was what I expected. He would let his pride get the best of him and it would kill him. And Nancy, who had reconnected both of them with the man he used to be, would be left to mourn, and she could live with the fact she pushed him to this.I didn't like Nancy much, and I'm not sure I was meant to. She seemed to stand-in for all the people who insisted it was proper to go fight in World War I, to defend God and Country, many of whom did not actually go off to fight and die for God and Country. She might have been sincere in her belief it was a "necessary" war, but that didn't make her telling Rocky his unwillingness to kill was actually cowardice. But he didn't die, and he and Nancy are together again. However, Rocky is still scarred, having lost that leg, and perhaps more critically (depending on how you value things), his inspiration. He can't think of anything to sculpt, or at least can't think of how to represent it. He presents it as his ability to create having been driven out by the military's necessity he destroy. It might be worse in some ways, to live knowing exactly what he's lost, but he is still alive, so he's got that going for him.

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