Howard Hawks’s Air Force and John Ford’s They Were Expendable are the cream of a very abundant crop of Hollywood World War II films. Predictably, Hawks (1896–1977), a former member of the Army Air Service, was fixated on airplanes (in this case the B-17 Flying Fortress), while Ford, a Navy admiral (in his spare time) had a love affair with boats, in this case PTs. Hawks had already lost two brothers in a crash and made four airplane films, including The Dawn Patrol, an early-talkie masterpiece, and Only Angels Have Wings. He wouldn’t return to the subject of flight again as a director, unless one includes his un-credited directorial contribution to The Thing from Another World.
As we have discussed before, Hawks was a master of practically every film genre, so the quality of Air Force should not come as a surprise. Dudley Nichols, a Ford regular, wrote the screenplay—one of the three for which he was nominated for an Oscar—and this was pretty close to being his best work. As I have argued previously, a writer best serves a film by submitting to the needs of a director, especially, of course, if his name happens to be Hawks or Ford. Nichols had worked with Hawks on Bringing Up Baby, and they would later collaborate on the Western The Big Sky.
In all his genre films, Hawks’s focus was on a group and the professionalism of its constituent members, their willingness to sublimate their diverse personalities to the requirements of the task at hand. Because of this, his films depend on expert ensemble acting—but this did not prevent him from frequently using the biggest Hollywood stars (James Cagney, Paul Muni, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne) as the groups’ leaders. In Air Force, there are no stars, although John Garfield would soon become one, and Harry Carey had once been one. Thus the film is one of the purest “Hawksian” movies in the director’s oeuvre. As the critic Robin Wood wrote, this is the film in which “group unity becomes the central theme… (I)t proved to be one of his greatest works; in feeling perhaps the noblest…only Hawks could have made it.”
In its own way, the current exhibition Crafting Genre: Kathryn Bigelow (curated by my colleague Jenny He) is a kind of tribute to Howard Hawks. One could argue that the bomb-disarming unit in The Hurt Locker parallels the bomber crew in Air Force or other small units with a job to do (The Dawn Patrol, Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, Rio Bravo). It is also a measure of how far auteurist criticism has brought us that someone like Bigelow can no longer be dismissed out of hand for not wearing her art on her sleeve. Only decades of hard writing, mostly by French and American critics, made serious people realize that somebody like Howard Hawks was more than just an entertainer. The collapse of the studio system and today’s penchant for expensive blockbusters aimed at teenagers make it all the more difficult to direct intelligent and personal films. So it is gratifying that someone like Kathryn, a Hawksian woman by all accounts, is carrying the torch.