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Lafayette Escadrille (DVD Review)

12 Dec, 2011

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Tab Hunter, Etchika Choreau, David Janssen, Clint Eastwood.

Director William A. Wellman’s big-screen swan song has more compensations than he thought, given that the onetime Warner Bros. workhorse is said to have called it the worst movie of his 4½-decade career. Thanks to uncommonly specific World War I subject matter plus ahead-of-its-time casting, this pronouncement is something of a negative stretch — though, this said, it’s true that a picture into which Wellman put so much of himself was severely compromised and artistically bludgeoned by the studio. Or, more specifically, by the studio’s martinet chieftain, Jack L. Warner.

William Wellman Jr., who’s actually cast as his own father here, eventually made a 1995 documentary called Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick — one of the best ever on an American filmmaker. Ending wistfully, it tells of a one-on-one confrontation over this movie’s editing between the senior Wellman and Warner (not pretty). The two met outside the studio commissary one day, and Wellman (a frequent Warner employee in the ‘30s and ‘50s) told Warner he’d put him in the hospital if by chance they ever met in a men’s room. Of course, given the latter’s rep as a human being, the standing room line in the latrine of people wanting to do the same must have been longer than the ones you find at Big Ten college football games.

In real life, the senior Wellman flew planes for WWI’s French-based Lafayette Flying Corp. — a step down from the movie’s title bunch, which was super-elite. This was a biographical distinction the director tended to fudge throughout his career, but there isn’t any doubt that his feelings for the cream Escadrille were from the heart. Had things worked out as intended, this movie likely would have come out in 1957 — which, as it turned out, was the 30th-anniversary year of Wellman’s World War I flying classic Wings, the first best picture Oscar winner and one slated to get a DVD/Blu-ray release next month from Paramount Home Entertainment. But things didn’t (more on this in a minute).

The story here deals with a spoiled high school jock (Tab Hunter) whose father is something of a swaggering lout — a little akin, say, to the tough daddy Pat Hingle plays in Splendor in the Grass, though not as crude. On the other hand, this kid could stand to be humbled. After a serious brush with the law, the aggressively blond Hunter starts thinking about the French Foreign Legion — but instead ends up as a volunteer flyboy in France before the U.S.’s belated entry into the war. Cast as a couple of his Yank colleagues are David Janssen (who was never to a mustache born) and onetime Warner contract player Will Hutchins (popular for a brief while in TV’s "Sugarfoot"). Along the way, Hunter falls for a local euphemism (Etchika Choureau, attractively garbed) who cleans up her procuring act once the two of them fall in love. One of the studio-imposed working titles for this movie was reportedly With You in My Arms — so at least Wellman was able to avoid that.

Choureau also had a role in Wellman’s bloodless 1958 money-maker Darby’s Rangers at Warner, which gave James Garner the first big-screen lead of his career. Rangers was filmed after Escadrille but released before, due to the long delay in getting what became Wellman’s “Tab” showcase into theaters. By the time Escadrille got previewed in late ‘56, Hunter (who once cut an LP whose jacket art termed him “America’s Favorite Bachelor”) was a hot screen property who would also soon hit Billboard’s No. 1 with his Dot single of Young Love. Apparently, there was a huge artistic conflict over whether an idol of this caliber would be permitted to suffer a combat death on screen, which is just what Wellman intended before he was overruled. Interestingly enough, Elvis Presley was allowed to die in his December 1956 screen debut Love Me Tender, without any box office backlash. In fact, one of the great movie memories of my childhood is seeing adolescent girls run up the aisle right next to my aisle seat on their way up to the ladies room to douse their heaving sobs when the future King “got it.”

Despite the Warner-imposed death taboo, Hunter’s character does suffer a serious facial scar in a fight, itself an uncommon teen-dream fate in ‘50s movies. It is not, however, the same physical altercation (this one with an officer) that eventually lands him in scalding water during one of the picture’s training sequences. Some of these — specifically the aerial ones — provide some fun, and it’s tough to come down terribly hard on the movie, even if the imposed happy ending lead to substantial dramatic fizzle as the wrap-up approaches. One training-field scene in particular buys a lot of forgiving goodwill. The guys are playing baseball, and the pitcher drills the batter — who then charges the mound and chases his assailant to the outfield before heaving the bat at him. Meanwhile, one witnessing Frenchmen tells another that this is the normal way of how the game is played.

In a bizarre accident of screen history, the pitcher is Tom Laughlin, who a decade-plus later would capture the imagination of sociopathic hippies everywhere by playing the peacefully combative Billy Jack. The batter is Clint Eastwood, making his debut at Warner — still the dominant studio of his career, all the way through the current J. Edgar.

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