In a way, it’s a bit disingenuous
to complain that this movie could have been made better.
Of course it could. They all
could. But the flaws in this one
are so glaring that they’re difficult to ignore, despite the important
subject matter. The movie is OK.
You just wish it were better.
“Red Tails” is the story of the
332nd fighter squadron during World War II.
Yes, that one, the one that trained at Tuskegee, the one that
consisted entirely of black pilots and ground crews at a time when blacks
were not only segregated in the military, they were still considered
inferior by many ignorant whites. The
film begins with a quote from the 1925 U.S. Army operating manual, about
how blacks were to be regarded as inferior in intelligence as well as in
courage under fire. That’s not
entirely the context of 1944, but you get the idea.
Thankfully, the movie avoids
dwelling too much on the racist context in which these brave and
resourceful men were forced to work. Yes,
there was a lot prejudice out there, but inside the squadron, they were
focused on doing their jobs. And
their job was to fight “Jerry”---the German Luftwaffe.
At first, the all-black squadron was
not allowed any duty except reconnaissance, then behind-the lines patrols,
where an exciting day would be to strafe a stray supply train or a random
German truck. But the exigencies of
war began to work in their favor. The
American Army Air Corps was engaged in around-the-clock bombing runs of
German industrial centers and military bases.
The bomber squadrons needed fighter escorts to stave off the German
Messerschmitts, but their own fighters were so quick to engage the enemy
fighters that they often left the bombers unprotected.
So they were in need of a fighter escort that would stay with the
bombers, and protect them, even when tempted to do otherwise.
And the “Red Tails” were chosen.
As soon as they were given the
opportunity, they quickly proved their bravery and skill, and the military
commanders, somewhat reluctantly, recognized that the “Red Tail”
squadron was actually as good as any they had.
At the end of the War, the entire Unit was given a distinguished
service citation (happily re-enacted at the end of the movie).
It’s a golden tale of triumph, not only in combat with the enemy,
but also over the adversity within.
And yet, there are so many quibbles.
First, historically, the Luftwaffe is presented as much healthier
and much more capable than it actually was by the end of 1944 (new
Messerschmitts hadn’t been delivered to the front for some time, because
of Allied air superiority, and the constant bombing of the factories).
But although the “dogfight” sequences are well-orchestrated,
the cockpits sound like a sound studio (c’mon, a P-40 couldn’t
possibly have been that quiet). Even
worse, the character interplay on the ground is stilted, stagey,
self-conscious, and just plain amateurish.
They interact like a bunch of Boy Scouts, all warm fellowship and
benign camaraderie, crisp uniforms and even crisper salutes.
Cheers in the clubhouse and group prayers on the tarmac.
We get the clear sense that this is how they would have made things
appear for a propaganda film, but it probably bears little resemblance to
how it “really” was. Yes,
there’s a bit of a “racy” (pun intended) sequence about one of the
fliers getting involved with an Italian civilian, and some awkward
attempts at humor with the language barrier, but those scenes are even
more stilted than in the barracks. And
the sequences with the commanding generals standing over their maps
aren’t very convincing, either—they also feel like they’re shot on a
sound stage, rather than in a real theater of War.
Sure, it could have been done a lot better, but despite all the
cinematic flaws, we still want to root for these guys on the screen.
And we do. In the hopes that
both the constant-combat context and the cultural disparity are part of a
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim
Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,