John Wayne's first war film was one of his best, a solid actioner with Wayne giving great presence as the leader of a fighter squadron doing battle against the Japanese invader over the skies of China in the dark days before the U.S. entry into World War II.
Wayne plays Jim "Pappy" Gordon, a variation on the many flinty-commander-with-heart-of-gold characters he would play in films to follow like "Sands Of Iwo Jima" and "Fighting Seabees." Gordon is less flinty than most of them, maybe because his men are volunteers or maybe because his girlfriend Brooke (Anna Lee) is stationed on the same airbase. While the Japanese take their toll on his men, Gordon's toughest job may be keeping peace in his squadron when smug gloryhog Woody Jason (John Carroll) arrives.
When I first saw "Flying Tigers" as a boy, the on-screen gore made the strongest impression. In those days, before pay television, it was something to see a Japanese pilot grab his face, blood oozing through his fingers. Times have changed, of course, but one is still impressed by the well-rendered dogfight sequences, for which Ted Lydecker was nominated for an Oscar. Though it's troubling to be entertained by what amounts to real images of people getting killed, director David Miller manages to incorporate actual combat footage very well into battle sequences that alternate with Lydecker miniature work and shots of actors in their cockpits, better than the more acclaimed director Nicholas Ray later did in another Wayne air war film, "Flying Leathernecks."
"Flying Tigers" contains one key historical inaccuracy: While assembled in the months before Pearl Harbor, the Tigers didn't see action until December 20, 1941. This is an important caveat, but the inaccuracy allows for one of the very first and best examples of that classic movie cliche, where a dramatic scene ends with a glimpse of a desk calendar showing the date "Dec. 7." The scene that follows is one of those Wayne moments that resonated especially in theaters in 1942 and still packs a punch now: Pappy alone by a radio, standing expressionless while a cigarette smolders in his fingers, listening to President Roosevelt declare war.
Neither Wayne's iconographic stature or final victory against the Japanese were sure things when "Flying Tigers" came out in 1942; we tend to take more for granted and give films like this less credit. Wayne was 35 and not a real soldier, yet he came to define the war effort for many. Judging from the way some comments here attack him as a straw dog for present U.S. war policy in Iraq, Wayne's potency as a symbol remains undimmed.
Climbing off his P-40 after an early mission, Wayne is shown a row of bullet holes on his fuselage. "Termites," he says laconically, before striding away.
I give a lot of credit here to Miller, who knew what he had in Wayne before anyone else did, and uses the actor's terse authority to great effect. Miller was making propaganda, yes, but effectively and sensitively: We see Chinese children victimized by war, including one shot of a wounded child crying after a bombing clearly modeled on a famous war photo of the period. Unlike other wartime films which went heavy on ethnic stereotyping, the Japanese are seen as skilled, ruthless adversaries who require resolve to face down.
The film does lose altitude at the end, when Wayne goes off on a hare-brained bombing mission and Carroll has a "why-we-fight" epiphany that rings rather hollow. Maybe it's because he's playing a heel, but I find Carroll hard to take, with his Clark Gable mannerisms and the way he seems to always play to the camera rather than the other actors. There's also a little too much melodrama between Wayne and Lee that feels out of place in a war film.
But "Flying Tigers" has weathered the years better than most films of its kind, and is a historic landmark both for its effective action scenes and its pioneering use of Wayne as cultural touchstone. More than 60 years later, it still packs a punch.