Sunday, June 08, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

A fine cast stars in MEN OF THE FIGHTING LADY, a Korean War aviation drama just released by the Warner Archive.

MEN OF THE FIGHTING LADY, produced by MGM, tells of life among a group of fighter pilots on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. The screenplay by Art Cohn was based on two stories from the Saturday Evening Post, including an article by James A. Michener, who's portrayed in the movie by Louis Calhern.

The pilots include Van Johnson, Keenan Wynn, Dewey Martin, and Robert Horton, with Frank Lovejoy as their squad commander and Walter Pidgeon as the flight surgeon.

There's some interesting footage of planes being catapulted off an aircraft carrier and then catching the wire when landing, but the film tends to be repetitive, focusing on several bombing runs.

One might say the film successfully depicts the repetitive nature of what the pilots were tasked with doing, with life-threatening situations periodically shaking up their routines, but their characters needed a bit more development in between the flight scenes to make it more dramatically interesting. With a 79-minute running time, there's not a great deal of room for character development along with all the flying, though individual actors do manage to break through and have special moments here and there.

One of the interesting things about the film is the level of cynicism conveyed about Korea in a film of 1954. There's a great deal of angst about whether or not the men's work and sacrifices are accomplishing anything worthwhile.

The film also spends quite a bit of time questioning whether the low-altitude tactics of Lt. Commander Grayson (Lovejoy) are foolhardy or tactically necessary. Early sequences focus on Grayson bailing out of a plane and another character's fiery crash landing on the aircraft carrier. The film's overall mood is rather dejected and critical, depicting good men in a bad situation.

It's a noticeable contrast from MGM's WWII films of a decade earlier, such as Johnson's THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944). MEN OF THE FIGHTING LADY at times almost seems to be more of an anti-war film than something patriotically inspiring. As one of the characters says, "It's a police action, and nobody back home wants to read about it." It's a film which is perhaps reflective of the Dore Schary years at MGM, when the studio was more willing to tackle dark and difficult subject matter.

The last part of the movie is more uplifting, depicting the tricky rescue of a pilot blinded in mid-flight. This sequence was based on a true story which adds to its dramatic heft.

Lovejoy perhaps plays the most nuanced character, starting out as a cartoonish gung-ho, rah-rah pilot, who's seemingly blase about repeatedly bailing out of his plane. However, he has more going on underneath than is visible at first glance, and his character seems to grow over the course of the film.

Pidgeon and Johnson do their usual appealing work, and Keenan Wynn does well as a pilot who simply wants to go home to his wife (Dorothy Patrick) and three little boys.

Overall it's a film which I think could have been better, yet it's worth a look for the good cast and as a window into attitudes toward the Korean conflict 60 years ago.

MEN OF THE FIGHTING LADY was directed by Andrew Marton and filmed in AnscoColor by George Folsey. The score was by Miklos Rozsa.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website. MEN OF THE FIGHTING LADY is currently sold exclusively at the Warner Archive store.


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