Aces High (1976)
My first encounter was quite different to now with Aces High (1976), catching only a few minutes of the anit-war film. Instead of being on the more memorable trenches of the great war, we are out in the quiet of France with squadron 76 who about to receive a new pilot, fresh out of training a wet behind the ears to his outlook to war. Lt. Stephen Croft (Peter Firth) is eager to join the squadron lead by his former school house captain, inspired even more by his rousing speech at his school, hoping to enlist more young men.
The tone of hope and glory soon fades when we meet once more the now jaded Maj. John Gresham (Malcolm McDowell) who needs a stiff drink before taking to the skies. The trials of war have taken their toll on this once excited man. The Boy has become a man in the space of a few short years. Unlike the young Croft who pulled strings to get into this squadron, to be alongside his role model. Whilst the older friend Capt. ‘Uncle’ Sinclair (Christopher Plummer) welcomes Croft with open arms, seeing the youth as a breath of fresh air.
We spend a short week with squadron 76 and from day one we see that Croft is learning and growing, when he meets petrified Lt. Crawford (Simon Ward) who wants only to go home. A man who is unable to contain his fear of fighting in the air, dicing with death on an almost daily basis. Using any excuse he can to avoid another day in the sky. Something the other men could deal with far better; singing and drinking in the company of the other pilots.
Away from the squadron we the top brass in a world of their own, discussing rumours and women, not tactics and missions. Even deciding that parachutes for the men would be too much of a distraction. Something that really struck a chord with me. We see in countless WWII films the men landing with parachutes to safety. Today the reason given to with-hold them is sheer lunacy. Probably one of the many issues that can be laid with the out-of-touch generals. Its the men on the field of war who their decisions effect.
As the week progresses we see Croft the boy grow before our eyes into a man. The glory of going to war and fight the enemy is worn away. He becomes more competent a pilot as time progresses but still doesn’t understand much of the world around him. Something which most of the men still are learning themselves. However our focus being on the rawest level, allows us to see the war and conflict from his perspective, played against Gresham who has come out the other end a changed man, who reluctantly begins to play the house captain once more, the rules of school no longer apply.
With a script with little dialogue the emphasis is on the action in the sky, where all men are at risk, not just from hails of bullets but the laws of physics which could take any of them away. Using WWI as metaphor for anti-war is even stronger at the moment as we come up the centenary of the outbreak of the war to settle all wars. When machine became stronger than men, a tool of the greatest and bloodiest war to that date. To see countless thousands of men who gave themselves to fight. For younger men the gesture could be seen as hollow, having not lived to the full before doing their duty for king and country. It’s the loss of young blood against the thoughtlessness of old which we see only for a few scenes, shaping their future. For the pilots who took to the skies are inside machines that gave them such power yet could easily take away life from themselves or others.
The message itself still rings true, even more so this year when we will remember like never before. Having a minimal look to the film, taking place in France it could easily have been filmed in the U.K. Allowing us to focus on the action. Being an anti-war film the ideas will be seen in a different light, as we mark the beginning, the loss and the repercussions of war, its place maybe unsure for a time.