Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, Regis Toomey, Alexis Smith, Robert Armstrong, Craig Stevens, Allan Jenkins, Louis Jean Heydt
Screenplay: Robert Buckner and Frank Wead, based upon a story by Frank Wead
Warners’ Dive Bomber was produced during the “grey zone” of Hollywood’s pre-war attitudes, a time between its firmly isolationist policy of the 1930s, which suppressed and censored any films that attempted to deal with events in Europe, and the pro-interventionism of mid-1941 onwards…until the encouragement of frank propaganda understandably became the norm some months later. Dive Bomber consequently treads a fairly fine line. Except for one direct remark – flight surgeon Lt Douglas Lee (Errol Flynn) makes reference to, “Two kinds of blackouts, the kind they’re having in London, and this kind” – the screenplay resorts to the use of the oblique phrase the main event, and to qualifiers like if and when, rather than ever declare itself to be what it so patently is: a celebration of the US navy, and a rallying cry for preparedness.
Ironically, had the navy itself had gotten its way, the film might never have been made: naval command rejected without hesitation the studio’s request for access to their facilities. Jack Warner had no intention of being thwarted, however, and appealed directly to the US Secretary of the Navy, William Franklin Knox, in Washington, arguing that the film’s production would be a fine advertisement for his branch of the service, and an even better recruitment ad. Knox was convinced, and gave orders accordingly.
To the dismay of those compelled into cooperation, Michael Curtiz, his film crew and his actors were granted unprecedented access to Naval Base San Diego and its surrounds – Doug Lee’s first training flight takes him straight past San Diego’s iconic Del Coronado – and allowed onto an aircraft carrier for three days of filming; an arrangement that itself almost started a mini-war, with Curtiz and the others calmly taking over the crew’s accommodations and interfering in the daily operation of the vessel, and the carrier’s personnel retaliating by holding target practice in the middle of the night.
And the identity of the aircraft carrier pressed into reluctant service for the benefit of this film? USS Enterprise.
The guest starring of the Enterprise gives Dive Bomber a supplementary interest that, frankly, it rather needs. This is a film less likely to appeal to general audiences than to special interest groups, though this may not have been the case in 1941, of course. Warners certainly spared no expense in its production, filming in three-strip Technicolor – and thus capturing the bright colours used by the navy for its aircraft in the pre-war era – and using a modified “Twin Stinsen” plane for the aerial photography, fitting one camera in its nose and, after cutting a second side door in the fuselage, installing a dolly rail between the two so that shooting could be carried out from either side of the plane.
One positive outcome of the intrusive tactics used to make the film is that it functions as an extraordinary snapshot of the US navy pre-Pearl Harbor, with lengthy sequences of the fighter planes flying in formation, carrying out aerial manoeuvres, and landing upon their mother ship. For the aviation historian, or those with a fascination for the military hardware of the day, Dive Bomber is a rare treat.
The second group likely to be interested in Dive Bomber are those with an interest in the history of aviation medicine. Aside from being a visual love letter to the navy, the film is account of the approach taken in attempting to overcome the two deadly barriers to high altitude flying and successful dive bombing, blackouts and altitude sickness. It starts by opposing its naval fliers, in this case the all-too-typical Warners triumvirate of Lt Cmdr Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), Lt Tim Griffin (Regis Toomey) and Lt “Swede” Larsen (Louis Jean Heydt), against physician Douglas Lee. The attitude of the fliers to the naval doctors is hostile at the outset, partly because they are regarded as “vultures” (a major duty is to wait at the airfields, in case of a crash), but also because they hold the power to ground pilots, despite, in the fliers’ opinion, not truly understanding the difficulties and dangers of their aerial duties.
Inevitably, tragedy sets the dramatic wheels in motion: diving, Larsen goes into blackout and crashes. He is pulled alive from the wreck, retaining consciousness just long enough to demand of Lee, “Why don’t you doctors do something about this?” In the hearing of Blake and Griffin, Lee persuades his superior that an immediate operation is Larsen’s only hope; so that even though we learn that, “The spinal cord is almost severed”, the fliers are able to blame Lee’s hot-dogging for Larsen’s death on the table.
An angry public encounter between the men leads a chastened Lee to apply for flight surgeon training in San Diego, where Blake and Griffin are also stationed. In between taking flying lessons and abuse, Lee is assigned as assistant to Lt Cmdr Lance Rogers (Ralph Bellamy), who heads the base’s research division. Together, and in the face of scepticism and discouragement, the two set about finding ways to overcome the physiological barriers that limited the effectiveness of the dive bomber.
Investigating blackout, Lee take to the skies in a plane equipped with cameras. Analysing matters afterwards, Lee observes that, struggling with a jammed camera, he spent the dive awkwardly bent over, and did not black out, as Blake (reluctantly acting as his pilot) did. This leads to the consideration of blood flow, and in time to the development of a “pressure girdle”, intended to prevent to the pooling of blood in the legs and abdomen. This is successfully trialed, but every one of the test pilots returning from their flight is suffering altitude sickness.
This leads to what is – for me, at least – the highlight of the film, a lengthy sequence in which, a handful of pilots having volunteered as experimental subjects (including Joe Blake, for reasons we shall return to), Doug Lee and Lance Rogers lock them into a hypobaric chamber and put them through a battery of experimental tests, in order to define the parameters of their difficulties. The upshot is the design of a full-body pressure suit, which must be tested at battle altitude; a deadly dangerous mission, should the researchers have overlooked any detail, or the test pilot be in less than optimum health…
It has to be stated that Dive Bomber is far from an accurate depiction of the way the twin dilemmas of blackout and altitude sickness were really overcome, taking liberties with both the details of the research and its account of who and where the problem-solving occurred. However, as a “potted history”, it serves its purpose; besides, it is quite possible that various pieces of necessary information were still classified at the time of the film’s production, although this hardly accounts for such touches as its curiously dismissive attitude to the concept of the pressurised cabin. However, what the film does do quite well is define the problem, with its various aspects – hypoxia, decompression sickness, embolism, alkalosis – being dealt with in turn, even if the terms themselves are not always used; as well as giving appropriate weight to the various influences of pressure, temperature and oxygen supply, and the body size of the individual.
It is, however, sadly obvious that this film’s makers feared either talking over their audience’s head, or boring it. Progress is therefore made less through slow and painstaking effort, than it is as the result of Doug Lee’s capacity for Lightbulb Moments©, which are served up no less than three times (twice in response to wisecracks, once to the handling of a lipstick!) to help the researchers re-start some stalled line of inquiry.
The quality of the film surrounding the scientific aspects of Dive Bomber is also problematic. There is hardly a likeable character to be found anywhere in this production. Ralph Bellamy’s Lance Rogers is morose and stand-offish, although there turns out to be a good reason for his introversion. Errol Flynn is beautiful to behold in Technicolor and naval whites, but his Douglas Lee is conceited and self-satisfied without, strangely, any of the usual mitigating Flynn charm. However, it is Fred MacMurray’s Joe Blake, a snide, irritable, sulky tantrum-thrower, who really sets my teeth on edge. (And yet we keep hearing from others about what a “great guy” he is: talk about an Informed Attribute©!)
Lee and Blake’s dominance of the story turns Dive Bomber into something of an exercise in endurance. Of course, this is another one of those films where hate at first sight eventually turns into grudging respect and then into friendship, but it takes a mighty long time for it to do so. Blake’s initial antagonism towards Lee is understandable, but later on, when he must understand that Lee was in no way responsible for “Swede” Larsen’s death, he continues to jeer and snarl at him whenever the two cross paths.
Then Lee is compelled to ground Tim Griffin, due to pilot fatigue. This, too, Blake chooses to take as evidence of Lee’s arrogance and/or incompetence, even though his verdict is backed by his superior, Rogers, and is made following strict naval protocol; and so off we go again on another round of childish insults. Griffin himself reacts to his grounding by quitting the navy and heading for Canada, where he joins the RAF. He briefly visits his former base (chiefly, it seems, in order to join Blake in another round of ridiculing Lee) before flying off to join his new outfit…only to crash on the way.
It is this that – very belatedly – suggests to Blake that Lee might in fact know what he is talking about; and that prompts him to volunteer himself as a subject for Lee and Rogers’ research. Forced to work together, the two finally move into the “grudging respect” chapter of their acquaintanceship. After the failure of a pressure cabin that is the hope of aviation designer Art Lyons (Robert Armstrong), Rogers, Lee and Blake design a full-body pressure suit, equipped with an oxygen line and a two-way communication system. The suit passes with flying colours in the hypobaric chamber and is set to be tested in the air, but first Joe Blake must undergo yet another physical examination…and this time it is he who receives some very bad news. Faced with grounding, Joe immediately heads for the clouds, determined to test out the pressure suit himself whatever the cost.
And this, I’m afraid, is where Dive Bomber loses me completely. The screenplay makes various solemn speeches about grounded aviators being better off dead, and sure enough, Joe’s approach to the suit test is to turn a merely dangerous mission into a suicidal one. He gets the information they need in time to pull out and land; instead, he pushes on past the point of no return, blacks out, and crashes. Incredibly, considering when and why this film was made, this is presented as noble self-sacrifice, rather than an act of monstrous selfishness. What on earth kind of message is this, to be found in a film of this kind? – that the correct response to being thwarted is not to take it on the chin and find another path, but to chuck it in altogether?
And it is all the more bewildering considering the subplot of Lance Rogers, whose gloominess turns out to be caused by his grounding, after ruining his health by acting as his own experimental guinea-pig. Yet the film gives little weight to this; it does not laud Rogers in any way for dealing with his disappointment by channelling his talents into another, equally valuable field of work, nor compare Joe Blake with him unfavourably. By killing himself, Blake succeeds only in robbing the navy of an experienced and talented flight instructor. That his action is treated as justifiable – hell, as right – in a film that obviously considered America’s entry into the war as only a matter of time, is staggering.
And I can’t – no, really, I can’t – leave this without commenting on Dive Bomber’s handling of its female characters. Women are marginalised in many war-era films, and often rightly and necessarily so; and far better they should be than treated as they are here, introduced only to be ridiculed and insulted, and then dismissed. Truthfully, there’s no reason there should be any women in this story – unless they figured they couldn’t make an Errol Flynn film without a woman to swoon over him. In this case it’s Alexis Smith as Linda Fisher, an air-headed socialite who evidently has nothing better to do with her life than run around the world after Douglas Lee, as good as begging him to treat her like dirt – which he does. “Here I am, throwing myself at you again!” she trills during one encounter, and brother, she ain’t kidding!
In parallel with this we have an allegedly comic subplot about Lee’s assistant, “Lucky” (Allan Jenkins), who starts the film moaning that after three weeks, he’s, “Had marriage up to here,” and who spends every payday hiding in the isolation ward as his wife storms the base, demanding shrilly that he sign over his allotment cheque to her. (Three solid repetitions of that “joke”.)
The whole screenplay, right from its earliest scenes, is peppered with sneering references to the female sex, which is regarded as a distraction at best, a noose at worst. Naval command doesn’t like married officers: “They always want to go home for lunch.” When Larsen is killed, his best friends briefly consider visiting his fiancée, then shrug and don’t bother; we hear nothing of Tim Griffin’s wife and children, until he needs a counter-argument to being grounded (and then he gets himself killed flying against advice, rather than take a ground job that would support them); marriage, Blake observes, is at least better than the penitentiary: you might get one night off a week…
The tone of this is—well, I can’t even call it “adolescent”; it isn’t that advanced. You honestly expect that any moment, one of these guys is going to start talking about cooties. The cumulative effect is a sense that the armed forces are being sold to the American male as a refuge from the female of the species; and joining up, as an ostensibly noble pretext for abandoning wives and families. The only question is whether the planting of this subtext was conscious or unconscious on the part of the film-makers.
One more aspect of Dive Bomber that might jar on contemporary viewers is the astonishing consumption of cigarettes. Yes, yes, a different time, a different place; but even by the standards of its own era, Dive Bomber is pretty extreme. It’s hard to find a scene where the characters aren’t puffing away. Pilots light up on the tarmac; surgeons, as soon as they step out of the operating theatre; physicians, in the presence of their patients; scientists, in their laboratories; dying men, in ambulances. The matching cigarette cases owned by our original triumvirate of fliers are practically characters in their own right. The whole drama plays out through a blue-grey haze.
And you know – and consider this revenge on the film for its treatment of my gender if you like – I can’t help thinking there’s more to all this inhaling than meets the eye. Of course, Hollywood’s ultimate depiction of “romantic smoking”, Now, Voyager, was still a year away, so the makers of Dive Bomber couldn’t know what construction later audiences would come to place upon such scenes. These days, however, it is very hard to watch this film, with its endless shots of men lighting cigarettes for one another while gazing into each other’s eyes, and not begin to suspect there was an alternative reason why women were given such very short shrift…