"I made it because I knew General Arnold. Christ, he even made me a general for a week." - Howard Hawks on Air Force
As Howard Hawks looked forward to the final month of 1941, one event was circled in red; his wedding day. After the emotional and financial strain
of divorcing his first wife, Athole, he was looking forward to marrying the vibrant, stylish, and fun-loving Nancy “Slim” Gross on December 11.
Hawks had planned an elaborate honeymoon trip that included stops in New Orleans, Miami, Cuba, and the Bahamas.
There is no evidence that any member of the Japanese government had Howard and Slim’s wedding date circled on a calendar. They were more
concerned with December 7; the day they bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.
Although the wedding took place on the scheduled date, the newly married couple experienced several problems with the planned honeymoon. Troop
movements made rail travel difficult and war time restrictions caused them to cancel the island portion of their trip.
Air Force (1943) Movie Trailer
Director: Howard Hawks Producers: Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner (executive producer)
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, William Faulkner (uncredited),Leah Baird (uncredited) and Arthur T. Horman (uncredited) Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography: James Wong Howe, Elmer Dyer and Charles A. Marshall
Editor: George Amy
Art Director: John Hughes
Warner Bros. Pictures
Air Force - 1943 (Original Poster)
Released: Febuary 3, 1943 Running time 124 minutes
When Hawks returned to California he found that the war had already made a major impact on Hollywood. Many of his friends and some of his foes were now in uniform. Studios were gearing up to make films heralding the war effort.
As a 45-year old veteran of World War I with a new wife, Howard had no desire to enter the armed forces. He would make his contribution on the home front doing what he did best; making movies. Since he soon signed a three film $100,000 a picture contract with Warner Brothers, this could hardly be considered volunteer work but few can deny the morale boosting power of his next movie, “Air Force.”
Major General Henry (Hap) Arnold had asked Jack Warner to help promote the Air Force’s role in the war. Arnold assured Warner that he could get the War Department to cooperate with his studio in telling the tale. The studio head quickly brought in Howard Hawks and screenwriter Dudley Nichols to meet with the general.
Hawks would later report that it was Major General Arnold who gave them the outline of the film. As Hawks told it Hap laid down a story “about the flight of B-17s that left Hamilton Field up in Northern California and gotten past the point of no return when they heard over the radio that the Japs had hit Pearl Harbor. They got in there that night, in all the smoke and everything, and were afraid of being hit again, so they were sent down to Manila.”
Although “Air Force” has its fair share of riveting action scenes, Hawks raises the bar by focusing on the crew. Using the claustrophobic confines of the B-17’s interior as his stage, the director portrays the crew as a tight interlocking family, each aware of his responsibility to keep the plane on task, each aware that his role is essential to their mutual survival. “Air Force” is one of the strongest examples of a Hawksian male group, a dynamic he would use through his entire career.
Like all major productions, “Air Force” faced numerous difficulties. Arriving in Tampa to shoot the flight sequences and exteriors, Hawks discovered that, despite the War Department’s best efforts to cooperate, the demands of the actual war made it difficult to obtain many items needed for making a movie about the war. They were short on electrical supplies, gasoline, lights, and planes. To compound the frustration, Tampa was experiencing its hottest summer in thirty-four years.
Despite pressure from Jack Warner and Hal Wallis to complete shooting immediately, if not sooner, Hawks was concerned about several flaws he now noticed in the later sections of the script. The part that bothered him most was the death of Captain Quincannon. He felt the scene Nichols had conceived was overly sentimental and not in keeping with the crew’s personality as a unit.
When Hawks expressed his concerns to old friend William Faulkner, the writer asked to take a look at the script. Two days later, Faulkner sent him a scene in which the crew gathers around the dying captain and eases his passage by running through the cockpit check list in preparation for takeoff. It became one of the most memorable moments in the picture.
While weighed down by the inevitable propaganda elements of its era, “Air Force” still manages to rise above its limitations and can proudly stand as an essential work by Howard Hawks.
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.