We’re off to war this month. Every Friday in March we will look at a classic World War II film. This week Adam and Samantha look at Robert Florey's God Is My Co-Pilot.
ADAM: Based on the 1943 memoir by Brigadier General Robert Lee Scott, Jr., God is My Co-Pilot is about the flying ace’s meteoric rise from a childhood in Georgia to a Colonel fighting against the Japanese from a base in China.
SAMANTHA: He grew up in the burgeoning days of aviation when stunt fliers graced newsreels and Charles Lindbergh became a national hero. He joined the Army because it was the easiest route to flight.
A: He was certainly a legend in his hometown, but more on that later. This is a thrilling, comic book-style war film meant to bolster morale as the war lurched into its final year. It moves at a fast clip and has some genuinely breath-taking aerial fights. It’s orchestrated very simply to elicit cheers for the good guys.
S: For a movie with God in the title, it is surprisingly violent, kind of a Michael Bay-style action film full of gratuitous explosions. We also see pilots getting hit, and blood spilling from their mouths as they die suspended in the air.
A: From today’s perspective, I can understand that feeling but by 1945 there must have been a palpable eagerness to get our boys home. From that perspective, I’m sure there was some boisterous whooping and hollering as that mayhem unfolded on the screen. This movie certainly activated that old savage feeling in me; I was yelling myself hoarse during the dogfights. Hopefully the neighbors didn’t hear!
I agree with you on the title—the titular co-pilot is a fairly minor character. The movie is Hollywood hokum; a rip-roaring yarn of rat-a-tat machine guns, big explosions, and professional actors playing for the broadest audience in the States. Surprisingly, Humphrey Bogart was originally announced in the lead role, which would have been as disastrous as casting El Brendel in Casablanca. OK, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but Dennis Morgan was definitely the right choice here. The movie has a couple obligatory moments of reflection on the brutal nature of war—and these may have felt more poignant with Bogart’s haunted eyes and weary demeanor—but Morgan is well equipped to deliver the winning smile and brazen heroics required of this part.
S: I know Morgan best for his lighthearted films like Christmas in Connecticut and One Sunday Afternoon, so this was a nice change. There is something eternally optimistic about his smile, like nothing can break him, not even the war.
A: The supporting cast is very good. Raymond Massey plays General Claire Chennault (nicknamed “Old Leatherface,” the real life General was a legend in his own right) with the assurance of someone familiar with military order. A Torontonian, Massey was in the Canadian Army for both World Wars, his military career ending a year prior to this film. Although his performance is for the most part quite restrained, watch closely when he announces a surprise attack to his pilots. For just a split second, his eyes look completely psychotic. Just like every film that takes place in the European theatre must have an evil Nazi, every film in the Pacific needs a crazed Japanese soldier. Richard Loo as “Tokyo Joe” delivers some of the films best lines as he taunts the Americans through the radio. “O.K., you Yankee Doodle Dandies! Come and get it!”
S: They alternate shots of the American planes with Japanese flag tallies on the sides with Tokyo Joe’s many American flags painted on the side of his plane. It is interesting to me that the Japanese characters were such caricatures, because there are a few black characters, like Clarence Muse, and they’re allowed to play their parts straight.
I was disappointed that although Dane Clark gets second billing, he is barely in the film. I got a kick out of seeing Dizzy AKA Charles Smith as one of the pilots though.
A: According to Brian Taves’ meticulously researched book Robert Florey: The French Expressionist, an Army survey showed that God is My Co-Pilot was the most popular movie shown to servicemen between 1942-1945. It does seem like this movie would be as morale-boosting as a pack of Philip Morris cigarettes in a K-ration. In its 88-minutes, the movie never drags. There are moments where Florey’s direction, Franz Waxman’s lively score, and the typical Warner Brothers clipped pacing pull the viewer along like a rollercoaster (I can’t avoid the cliché). The 4th of July bombing sequence is the obvious example, but late in the film when Scott is feared dead his wife Catherine (Andrea King) is sitting in their house worrying. The servant Frank (Muse) attempts to console her while bringing her a glass of warm milk. Waxman’s violins and oboe hover fretfully over his gentle monologue, before a startling cut to the night sky is accompanied by the first of a series of five ominous orchestral hits. Each hit brings with it a static shot of soldiers staring up into the empty sky. The film has returned to the battleground of the Far East. It’s a beautiful example of the way music and editing can tie together two settings. After it played out, the little Frenchman in my head whispered, “Cinéma.”
S: I have a confession to make. I fell asleep several times while watching this. During one of the aerial battles, I dozed off, only to be startled awake by the loud train whistle in Macon.
For me the movie never quite gets going, and the bookends make the point all the more confusing for me. What is the story here? Is it one man’s passion for flying that culminated during the war? Is it a story about a soldier hoping to return home to his family in Georgia? Is it Morgan’s rivalry with Tokyo Joe? Is it a commentary on the war from a religious perspective? The filmmakers attempted to pursue all of these plot lines but in doing so they didn’t successfully accomplish any of them. The film is entertaining but scatterbrained.
Speaking of the religious perspective, Alan Hale as the missionary gives a speech about an RAF pilot’s beliefs and recommends that Morgan look around and note all the times God has helped him pull through. It reminds me of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem “High Flight,” a beautiful piece that celebrates flight. I liked it so much I had it printed and framed on the wall in my youngest son’s room, which has an airplane theme.
That’s the real reason to watch this movie. The story is secondary to the amazing and varied aerial shots. We get dogfights looking up from the ground and from the cockpits of the planes, planes taking off on the runway as the camera sits behind them, planes on the ascent, etc. Cinematographer Sidney Hickox makes flying look glamorous and exciting.
A: It’s interesting how different our reactions were. Despite the lack of depth, I was riveted by the action. Afterwards, reading articles in the Atlanta Constitution about the premiere in Macon, Georgia maintained my good mood. With the war still raging and resources scarce, the small Southern town did its best to welcome home their local hero and rub shoulders with the celebrities in attendance, including stars of the film Dennis Morgan and Alan Hale along with Janis Paige (in lieu of Andrea King). While the traditional possum hunt was cancelled due to rain, the following day’s parade was a success with its Chinese dragons, rickshaws, and military bands—no motor vehicles were used in the parade due to oil and rubber shortages. Macon had a paltry ten Chinese people in their population, so they enlisted the help of neighboring city Augusta’s Chinese Boy Scout Troop with the festive decor. The city was given a 24-hour respite from its brown-out so that it could host the $10 per seat premiere with all proceeds going to the Army Air Corps Relief Society.
This movie is a rush and a fascinating look at the way Hollywood framed the war while it was happening. I recommend it. Three stars.
S: I’m giving it two stars. I wanted to like it more but I can’t see myself watching it again or remembering much about it in a year.