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Flyboys (9/22/06)
By Cathy Schultz

Popular culture hasn't been kind to World War I aviators. Though French and American fighter pilots captured popular imagination during the war, Hollywood has ignored their story for decades. In fact, their handiest cultural reference is probably … Snoopy, Charles Schulz's spunky beagle. If you recall, in the Peanuts comic strip, Snoopy often imagined himself a WWI flying ace. With snug goggles and cap, his red muffler streaming behind him, Snoopy would soar out on his doghouse to engage his arch-nemesis, the Red Baron.

Not to slam Snoopy, but Flyboys hopes to create a new, more realistic cultural reference for audiences. The film portrays the famous Lafayette Escadrille, an American squadron of combat flights who flew for France before America had chosen sides in WWI. Idealistic and inexperienced, these young men performed astounding feats in crude, open-cockpit planes made of wood and linen. Their war wasn't the gruesome and deadly stalemate of the trenches, but individual, acrobatic duels with their German foes high above the ground. Their story has romance and adventure -- qualities woefully lacking from the ground war, even though the rate of death was just as high.

Flyboys is as earnest and idealistic as the young pilots it portrays. And though the characters tend to behave more like stereotypes than real people, the aerial battles are spectacularly staged and shot. Here's an historical cheat sheet for an unfamiliar story.

Q. Were all the characters based on real people?
A. Only one real name is used in Flyboys -- that of Georges Thenault, the squadron's commander. But most of the film's characters are loosely based on real pilots. For example, the character of Reed Cassidy, the loner, is inspired by Raoul Lufbery, the squadron's star pilot who outlived most of his friends.

As the film shows, experienced pilots like Cassidy often ignored new pilots during their first month. That wasn't an act of hazing but of emotional self-preservation. Only half the new pilots survived the month. In fact, the average life expectancy for a WWI pilot was only three to six weeks. As Snoopy would say, "Curse you, Red Baron!"

Q. Where is the Red Baron, anyway?
A. Alas, he makes no appearance in this story, which is odd considering he was a real person. Manfred von Richthofen was the legendary German ace considered the best fighter pilot of the war. As his kills racked up (he eventually shot down 80 aircraft) he painted his plane bright red to flaunt his prowess. Nicknamed the "Red Baron" or the "Red Knight," he was eventually shot down in April of 1918, and buried in France with full military honors.

Q. Was a black man actually part of the Lafayette squadron?
A. Eugene Bullard, the son of a former slave, made history as the world's first black combat pilot. But his story is even more remarkable than in the film. In 1912, at the age of seventeen, Bullard decided to flee America's racism, and stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland. For the next two years, he worked throughout Great Britain and France in a vaudeville troupe and as a prizefighter. When the war began in 1914, Bullard volunteered for the French infantry, where he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery at the Battle of Verdun. Wounded twice, Bullard was eventually declared unfit for infantry duty. But he refused to quit the war effort, and requested aviation training, and a transfer to the Lafayette Escadrille.

Despite over twenty missions flown, when the war ended the U.S. Army's Air Service refused Bullard's attempt to enlist. In a segregated America, this war hero was still just a black man.

Q. A pilot had a lion for a pet? That has to be fiction, right?
A. I thought so, but it turns out to be true. A few pilots somehow acquired a lion cub in Paris, and brought it back to camp to be the unit's mascot. Dubbed "Whiskey," the lion for the next year was allowed to roam the camp freely. Though by all accounts gentle as a kitten, Whiskey did have a weakness for chewing on bright things. In late 1917 he was finally packed off to a zoo after he had knocked a French commander into the mud and cheerfully chewed off the gold braid on his uniform.

Q. Did the pilots really get hammers and pistols as equipment?
A. Some did. The hammers could be used to bang on malfunctioning weapons. And the pistols? As shown in the film, they offered an alternative to burning alive if one's plane was hit. WWI pilots, remember, took to the air in flimsy, inflammable machines which offered them little protection. And they did it without parachutes. Though deployable parachutes could -- and should -- have been developed, neither side bothered. Here's the excuse offered by the British Air Board: "It is the opinion of the Board that the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable of returning to base for repair." In other words, the planes were more valuable than the pilots.

Q. Where can I find more information?
A. Check out The Vivid Air: the Lafayette Escadrille by Philip Flammer.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies.

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...James Franco?


The pistols were given to avoid a grisly death


Every historical epic HAS to have a love story.
It's a rule.


© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu