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Red Tails

Lucas’s new film is good but not excellent. There were elements of it that disappointed me. But it may be worth your support anyway. Here’s why…

Red Tails is a movie just released honoring the Tuskegee airmen, an often unrecognized unit of black fighter pilots in WWII. For those who don’t know the backstory, George Lucas (sort of?) wrote and produced it, and has been working for over two decades to try and make this film happen, because studios just weren’t interested (he ended up paying for it himself, and it wasn’t cheap). Why? Because, he was told, a film with an “all black cast” was assumed to be a loser at the box office, especially in the foreign market, and thus not worth the investment a major film like this requires.

Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Black Skeptics here at FtB, gets you up to speed on this fiasco in Jim Crow Hollywood 101. Although one of the deciding factors causing studios to reject the film was apparently their belief that an all-black action film would flop in the foreign market, so it’s not just the fading ghost of Jim Crow America, but also the rest of the “We Used to Love the Atlantic Slave Trade” Western World and “Why Is Their Skin a Weird Color, What Are They Aliens?” Eastern World (oh, and I suppose we ought to add the “We Can’t Afford to Buy Your Stupid Movies Because of Your Agrosubsidies, Dumb Asses!” African market and the “We Have Our Own Action Movies With People of Color in Them, Thank You” Indian market, and so on, but I’m not a studio exec so I don’t know what supposed data they were looking at).

Other WWII Films to Compare

As for myself, I thought the movie might be awesome just because it was a WWII action flick; the fact that it was about the Tuskegee airmen was just a cool bonus. I was a little unsure, though, because ever since the 80s WWII movies either suck (Pearl Harbor, anyone?) or are beyond excellent but, as one might say, kind of dark. Das Boot, Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds, Miracle at St. Anna, are all superb films, some are brilliant on almost every measure. But they aren’t exactly ra-ra, “heroes rock!” action flicks. Yes, Basterds had a bit of that (and some would say a bit too much of it, and that on the “um, that didn’t happen” side, but let’s be honest, we all love a good revenge fantasy now and then), but overall even that film was, let’s be honest, dark. So can we have more feel good WWII films? Sure, people die even in those. Sad things happen. It’s war. But the overall feel is not “excuse me while I go shoot myself,” but more in the “yay!” category.

Once upon a time we had those movies, albeit often wildly fictional: Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Force 10 from Navaronne (all had a token black guy…who duly got killed; except in Force 10, where he’s only mortally wounded, demonstrating real progress in racial relations; until you notice he wasn’t depicted on any of the promo film posters, despite being Carl Weathers, hardly a nobody…). And of course there have been plenty of WWII-set pieces…that had nothing much to do with war per se. Like Victory, two of the Indianna Jones films (Raiders and Last Crusade), The Keep … (notice we are descending into even wilder fiction here). But they also used to write really heroic, sometimes even delightfully comic, WWII movies that, I have to say, would never get written today for some reason. I’m thinking of flicks like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Father Goose, and Operation Petticoat.

Red Tails: Bad News First

I name all of these so you’ll know what my point of reference is as far as what counts as a really good WWII flick (don’t make too much hay out of any omissions; there are tons of classics I haven’t seen). Red Tails doesn’t make this cut. And that’s mostly because George Lucas wrote it (the credits say two other guys did, but on The Daily Show he described himself writing it, and IMO either he did, or clones of him did, because it’s very Lucasy). George Lucas is kind of a shit writer, IMO, and the worst when he tries to write “for kids.” He talks down to kids. He apparently thinks kids are stupid. When I was watching Red Tails there were several scenes were I was pulled out of the film because of some stupid dialogue he’d put in (or allowed in, if he was just supervising the script; indeed the very first lines of the film will worry you as far as their dumbness…all I can say is, it gets better…mostly). Later I realized why that stupid, unrealistic dialogue was in there: he wants parents to take their kids to go see this movie, and he thinks kids are too stupid to follow realistic dialogue (as my wife said to me afterward, the opposite is the case: she learned how to speak and understand better by watching as a kid movies that were written for adults; but this is a guy who thinks kids loved Jar Jar Binks).

Still, there were really only three or four scenes that were that bad. The rest was at least decent, especially when the black performers were on screen (the cast is not devoid of white people, it just doesn’t have any in lead roles). But here I think the rest of what was wrong with this movie is that the director (Anthony Hemingway) kind of phoned it in whenever he was shooting white cast members. In almost every scene with a white person in it, their performance sucked. It looked like he always printed the first take, when a real director would stop and tell them, “Okay, you’re delivering your lines fine; now perform the lines. Okay, take two…” In contrast, the black actors performed solidly throughout, even R&B singer Ne-Yo, who was great, producing one of my favorite characters and adding something different to the film I’m sure would have been lost if they’d gone with someone else.

(I should also add my usual peeve about all contemporary cinema, that I’m sick of the over-use of CGI in movies today; it’s lazy and unconvincing and destroys most of the awe movies once could produce. I liked it back when we actually made movies, and not cartoons that we try to pass off as movies. But this is a minor point. I know it’s unrealistic to expect some real movie magic and actual aerial stunt work, especially when he wasn’t even getting funded properly, but I really do want to see real movies again some day. So, complaint registered. Moving on…)

Red Tails: Now the Good News

It’s a decent work of historical fiction that’s fun to watch in the classic sense. You will learn a lot about what went on and what they accomplished and how they were perceived at the start of the war and how that changed by the end of it, which is all in broad outline accurate. There’s humor and heroism. And it’s miles better than any crap film like Pearl Harbor. Note that I can’t compare Red Tails here with the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne, which covered the same unit, not only because I haven’t seen it (although now I am inspired to), but because it was not a studio released film; indeed, the fact that it was not is an example of what’s wrong with Hollywood (and accordingly, as I don’t have premium channels like HBO, I had never heard of it until researching this post today).

So what about Red Tails? Should you see this movie, and encourage others to as well? Your call. But let me play advocate: (a) it’s at least an okay movie (7 out of 10, and from me that’s saying something since most films these days don’t even rate a 5 for me); and (b) it will teach you shit about history you might not have known but would love to learn. And I don’t just mean the issues (or for some uninformed people, even mere existence) of black combat pilots in WWII, but, especially cool for a historian of technology like me, the fact that the Nazis invented jet aircraft and fielded a fleet of jet fighters during the war, and we had to fight them with ordinary prop planes (maybe someday I’ll blog about one of my old pastimes, weapons tech, and the fact that pretty much everything we fight with now was invented by the Nazis, including the automatic assault rifle, shoulder-launched rocket, and guided missile…and yes, jet fighters), and (c) it will flip the bird at the white-ass studio execs who wouldn’t pay for or to distribute this film because “no white people are in it.” They think white people won’t go see it because they aren’t in it (and it’s always supposed to be about us, see).

It would be worth it to prove them wrong. I’d certainly hate to find them feeling “vindicated” by the movie’s failure. Because studio execs are neurophysically incapable of registering a film’s quality at all, they won’t realize it failed (if it even does) because of the writing or directing, so they will think it’s because no white actors were in the lead parts. It’s this stupid false inference that has driven practically the whole industry since 1980. That’s why when one studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, every studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, because “obviously” that’s “in” now (rather than judging what to do based on whether a script is actually just good).

Next Move

If, however, you rankle at paying to see merely average movies just to learn stuff and support a cause, but you want to see what was actually the first all-black-lead WWII action movie, then rent Miracle at St. Anna (directed by Spike Lee). That got panned by the critics (mostly because Spike Lee didn’t direct it like a “Spike Lee” film, as critics had pigeonholed him, but actually demonstrated his skill and versatility as a director and made something quite different), and fans of “constant action” war movies hated it because it had a lot of boring “talking” and “emotion” and shit, and other people hated it because it was a little confusing and requires you to actually follow everything and be intelligent. But it actually rates as one of my top most favorite WWII films (in the “dark” category, that is), rivaling even Saving Private Ryan.

Why? Well, you might get it if after watching it, you have the balls to then watch it again, now knowing what happens and thus what all sorts of things really meant earlier in the film (the imaginary-friend scene with the boy in the barn will make you cry…once you know what was really going on in that scene). And if you have an eye for the decisions a director makes (editing, getting performances from the actors, where to put the camera) and just overall matters of quality (not much CGI here). It will also teach you about history (a central atrocity that occurs in the story is actually a true story). And it has literally the most intriguing opening scene of any war movie ever made (yes, even beating Saving Private Ryan). I know one critic who said it sometimes played too much into black stereotypes, but in fact it demonstrates how blacks themselves in the 1940s could play with those stereotypes, while some of them were based on cultural realities of the time, and in fact you actually get as much diversity of character among the men as you would in any “all white” WWII film (so if you don’t notice that, then you are the one obsessing on stereotyping…and I wonder if that was kind of Lee’s point).

Anyway, that’s an excellent film, and thoroughly anti-Lucasy (which does mean, not for kids). But what I want now are good, action-fun WWII films. Like Inglorious Basterds with an all-black infantry unit; or Operation Petticoat style antics in an all-black motorpool unit near the front lines (“When the air raid started he just took off. All he said was ‘In confusion, there is profit!'” … if you didn’t just laugh, you either have no sense of humor, or you haven’t seen Operation Petticoat recently; one of those is easy to remedy). Why not? The potential would be awesome. If you want to see that happen, though, you may have to start small and go see Red Tails. Then studios will start listening to pitches for similar films, and inevitably something awesome will get made that never would have otherwise.

In other words, maybe we should make Red Tails the next hybrid talking vampire shark movie.

Comments

    • says

      Ramel: Minor nit-pick, the Indiana Jones movies were set before the war in the 1930′s

      That’s true. 1936 and 1938. But chock full of Nazis, submarines, warplanes, tanks, and combat nevertheless. Go figure.

  1. kyoseki says

    I actually really enjoyed the Tuskegee Airmen movie with Laurence Fishburne, but I only saw it on TV, I hadn’t realized it was never released in theaters – which is why I guess almost everyone talking about Red Tails talks as though this is the first movie on this subject.

    I don’t know that I can sit through another 90 minutes of George Lucas dialog though.

    I will say, as a professional visual effects artist, I’m getting a little tired of the CGI bashing that’s de rigueur among movie critics these days.

    When CGI is done well, it’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing – the CGI in Apollo 13, for example, looks almost exactly like file footage, which is why it lost the academy award for visual effects to a movie about a talking pig – and that was 15 years ago.

    Nobody EVER bitches about well done CGI because they don’t notice it, only the crap CGI gets noticed and the only reason crap CGI makes it into movies is because studios aren’t willing to put the money in to do it properly.

    It’s not uncommon to have to go from raw plates to delivered effects in as little as 3 months, and we’re talking hundreds if not thousands of shots, each of which has multiple elements that all need to be massaged to make them fit together seamlessly, that is a phenomenal volume of work and no, the computer doesn’t do it all any more than Microsoft Word writes your term paper.

    There’s usually a few guys working R&D for a while, but when the plates come in, we’re usually expected to make it look awesome in as little time as possible, this invariably results in having to work 80,100 even 120 hour weeks for months at a time – January through April finds most CG artists stuck in darkened rooms from sun up to sundown 7 days a week and you can’t get top notch work out under those conditions.

    It’s relatively easy to get CGI 90% of the way there, the remaining 10% takes an awful lot of work and an awful lot of time that the movie studios invariably refuse to pay for, particularly when they know that that 90% is good enough to rake in a fortune from the average moviegoer.

  2. lordshipmayhem says

    I have seen The Tuskegee Airmen repeatedly, and liked it both for its historical accuracy and for the quality of its acting. The best scene has to be where the unit commander advises one of his senior airmen that their next mission is to escort bombers to Berlin. “And we weren’t assigned. We were requested.”

    By a good ol’ boy from Texas (who came into the war with all the prejudice that you’d expect from someone white who grew up in that part of the country at that time in history), who learned that the black man could, and would, fight.

  3. fastlane says

    If you haven’t seen the HBO movie ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’, you should. I think it was quite well done, and it focused on the characters, and the development of the squadron. As much of a WWII (and especially WW2 aviation) buff as I am, I think the story about the squadron is interesting and important enough that it doesn’t need to be glitzed up and dumbed down.

  4. grung0r says

    Richard:

    As someone who liked and could apparently follow Miracle at St. Anna(count me out on both counts. I thought it was disjointed, hackneyed, cliched, full of find mindbogglingly bad dialogue, and at some points showed a distinct lack of technical prowess, all of which is shocking for Lee) can you tell me what the titular “miracle” is? I’ve seen the damn thing twice(don’t ask), read the reviews and asked everyone who has seen it, and no one seems to know. Few will even hazard a guess. Please enlighten me.

    Indecently, if you like “dark” WWII movies from an oft ignored perspective, Check out City of Life and Death(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1124052/). It is a Chinese movie about the battle and subsequent massacre at Nanking, shot from the perspectives of both the Chinese and the Japanese soldiers involved. It is a truly spectacular movie, although it may be one of the most brutal films I’ve ever seen.

    • says

      grung0r: I thought [Miracle at St. Anna] was disjointed, hackneyed, cliched, full of find mindbogglingly bad dialogue, and at some points showed a distinct lack of technical prowess, all of which is shocking for Lee.

      The idea that it is “full of mindbogglingly bad dialogue” alone discredits you as a reviewer of that film. I can no longer believe you know what you are talking about. Even Red Tails did not have “mindbogglingly bad dialogue.”

      Can you tell me what the titular “miracle” is? I’ve seen the damn thing twice (don’t ask), read the reviews and asked everyone who has seen it, and no one seems to know. Few will even hazard a guess. Please enlighten me.

      [Warning: spoiler alert for anyone who doesn't want to hear plot details before seeing it] That Negrón (indeed, anyone at all) survived the German assault–because a Nazi officer gave him a gun to defend himself rather than killing him. (That’s the real miracle, and a blatant one at that, so it’s appalling that you or anyone would miss it; the naive are supposed to think it’s Train being the Sleeping Man who would save the town, but of course he doesn’t, and in fact he’s just killed and doesn’t fulfill the prophecy at all, again quite blatantly, so again that was clearly deliberately written; it’s funny, because I know one critic thought the movie was promoting the supernatural, when in fact it very blatantly smacked that down and represented the only real miracle as a human act of decency and kindness that was wholly unexpected, which makes this a rather atheistic film. The end result, of course, was that Negrón would then live to recognize and kill the town traitor forty years later–with the very pistol the good Nazi gave him to defend himself in the siege.)

  5. Phillip IV says

    Because studio execs are neurophysically incapable of registering a film’s quality at all, they won’t realize it failed (if it even does) because of the writing or directing, so they will think it’s because no white actors were in the lead parts. It’s this stupid false inference that has driven practically the whole industry since 1980.

    It always irks me a bit when movie executives are readily labeled as stupid or lacking vision – that’s not the problem at all. Most of them are remarkably clever, it’s just that they’re businessmen. They are well capable of registering a film’s quality, they just don’t care – because it’s irrelevant to the performance of their jobs.

    And their job, as too many people fail to realize, does not only involve increasing profits, it just as much involves reducing risks. Type-casting, for example, doesn’t result from an inability to “realize an actor’s full potential” – it’s simply a risk-management strategy. The lowest risk choice for any part is an actor who already played a similar part with success, it’s as simple as that.

    I’m pretty sure the studios’ reaction to Lucas’ request of $ 60 m in marketing was based on similar considerations. It’s about Return on Investment, not art – even if the exec believed that Lucas’ movie might become a success, they obviously saw lower risks and higher returns in other projects with broader or more proven appeal. And they were probably right. With an $ 19 m opening weekend (after Lucas paid for the marketing himself) “Red Tails” is on course to become a modest success, but every dollar invested into marketing the newest “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie will have a higher return.

    It’s not stupidity and lack of vision, it’s just cynicism and business sense. (Not saying that that makes it better, just pointing it out.)

  6. bbgunn says

    But they also used to write really heroic, sometimes even delightfully comic, WWII movies that, I have to say, would never get written today for some reason. I’m thinking of flicks like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Father Goose, and Operation Petticoat.

    Don’t forget Mr. Roberts. It was the first WW2-based movie that I bought. Great cast and great performances in this fictional tale aboard a WW2 naval supply ship.

    And even though it may not qualify technically as a movie, I think Band of Brothers is a better character-driven action WW2 film than Saving Private Ryan. Just my opinion.

  7. F says

    WWII story, film, and some light sciencey goodness. Just because it came up a bit before your post here.

    http://throughthesandglass.typepad.com/through_the_sandglass/2012/01/tom-dick-harry-and-george-sand-and-the-great-escape.html

    I’ve read a couple blog posts, including yours here, which inspire me to see this. I normally don’t pay much attention to popular movies, but I have to respect the reactions I’m reading (and reading about). I’ll have to make sure I’m paying attention when it is released to forms of distribution other than theaters.

  8. timberwoof says

    I learned about the Tuskegee Airmen from a PBS documentary a long time ago. I think that at HBO, the Hysteria Channel and Discovery, and in movie studios, there are people whose job it is to watch PBS for potentially interesting subjects for movies. Next up on the Hysteria Channel or the SyFy Channel: Radioactive Werewolves of Chernobyl. Watch for it; I called it here.

  9. bodie425 says

    I most certainly enjoyed this movie though it was unbelievable in places. It did tell the underlying story of racism in the ranks during WWII. I do wish it had noted some of the vile racism that these men faced once home in America.
    My preference tho is a good documentary on this subject. I’ll have to hunt up some books also.

  10. Shawn Smith says

    Just curious, where does Midway fall in your list of WWII movies? I remember seeing it as a kid with my aunt in a Senserround equipped theatre (vibrators in the seats or very substantial subwoofers that would go off on every explosion.)

  11. Aliasalpha says

    Its weird how my interest in seeing that film increased markedly when I saw that shot of an ME262 just now. Damn I love those planes, most fun I’ve had in IL2 was in the cockpit of a 262, boom & zoom strikes against bomber formations, strafing trains with rockets, accidently breaking the sound barrier in a hard dive and tearing the wings off… good times

  12. says

    I fully agree about the clunky dialogue in Redtails. Yep, I thought, it is a George Lucas Movie. He then aggravated an already bad feature of the film by making a B17 pilot and copilot a kind of Greek chorus–and they typically had the worst lines of all.

    I thought the CGI was great. I think it would be very hard to do the same thing with real planes and not risk the lives of scores of people.

    I will now look up Miracle at St. Anna for sure.

  13. jimmy60 says

    I’m a fan of war movies and own a fair collection of them myself. It’s been a while since I last saw Midway but it’s quite good. Fairly accurate in the same way that movies like ‘A Bridge too Far’ or ‘The Longest Day’ are.

    For any fan of war movies ‘Come and See’ (1985) by Elim Klimov is a must see. Hollywood has taken many ideas from this film. ‘Defiance’ pretty much has some whole scenes lifted from this film.

    I like films with a strong anti-war message and my favourite go to film for this is ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. It leaves a scar.

    The best war film I’ve seen from Hollywood lately is ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’.

    I’ll be checking out this ‘Red Tails’ sometime. Thanks for the review.

  14. Shawn Smith says

    Richard,

    I would definitely NOT call it excellent, they way the first 20 min. of Saving Private Ryan was excellent. It was somewhat comparable to Tora! Tora! Tora!, and probably used some footage from that movie, but I’ve only seen TTT once and I don’t remember all the details. I like to think of it as a more expensive Baa, Baa, Black Sheep / Black Sheep Squadron. Yes, I saw that show on NBC when it originally aired.

    As far as I could tell, it wasn’t completely, laughingly inaccurate, but they had to use some dramatic license and made a few errors that the Wikipedia article on the movie covers. It was interesting to have so many stars in the movie, including Charleton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Henry Fonda, Toshiro Mifune, Pat Morita, and even Erik Estrada. Its pacing was good, without too many story stopping moments.

    Over all, I would probably give it a 7/10, but only because I find WWII stories interesting. I would give Aliens and those first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan a 9/10 in the action movie department.

  15. grung0r says

    That Negrón (indeed, anyone at all) survived the German assault–because a Nazi officer gave him a gun to defend himself rather than killing him. (That’s the real miracle, and a blatant one at that, so it’s appalling that you or anyone would miss it;

    I know I’ve been discredited as a reviewer of this film and all, but…no, you are simply wrong. The film is called miracle AT St. Anna. The village where the battle takes place and Negrón is given the gun is not St. Anna. St Anna is the village where the atrocity shown earlier in the film took place.

    • says

      grung0r: I know I’ve been discredited as a reviewer of this film and all, but…no, you are simply wrong. The film is called miracle AT St. Anna. The village where the battle takes place and Negrón is given the gun is not St. Anna. St Anna is the village where the atrocity shown earlier in the film took place.

      Which was liberated by the Americans in the same battle. The title comes from the novel of the same name, about that specific battle in Tuscany (which actually occurred, although the lead characters are all fictional). Military actions are routinely named for a conspicuous point that is then associated with the whole action. The “Battle of St. Anna,” in this case. (Analogously, the Battle of Waterloo wasn’t fought “in” Waterloo; it was fought “at” Waterloo, in the sense of nearby.) As the title comes from the novel’s original military author, you can be forgiven if you didn’t know military idiom.

  16. timberwoof says

    I just remembered a snippet from long ago, possibly from the HBO movie.

    A WWII bomber squadron were just briefed on an extremely dangerous mission from which few were expected to return. The crews said they wanted the Red Tails to back them up.

    A general stood up and said something asinine like, “Now you men all know that the Red Tails are a bunch of niggers, don’t you?”

    The bomber crews shrugged and said “We don’t care. We want the Red Tails.”

    My reaction was, “What an asshole that general was. And here’s a Band-Aid for his foot.”

  17. cbleslie says

    “Force 10 from Navaronne”

    Uhh. Excuse me, that movie had a dam blowing up. A *dam* blowing up. You should have just understood that no movie can compete with a film that has a dam blowing up.

    Did I mention it had a dam blowing up? No? ‘Cause a dam blew up.

  18. DLC says

    Midway is … up and down. the details of the first few battles are more or less technically correct, but they massively screw it up by injecting this whole drama subplot.
    Personal favorites among ww2 dramas: Battleground (1949), Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban.
    Twelve O’Clock High (1949) Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlow.
    For pure over-the-top “Get ‘Em” action, Where Eagles Dare (1968)Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood.

    And yes, I agree about the lazy cgi.or the overdone cgi. some movies I’ve seen recently were simply the actors reacting to cgi events. Entirely boring.

  19. says

    pretty much everything we fight with now was invented by the Nazis

    Add to that the the Soviet and American space programs and it does make one raise one’s eyebrows a little. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that up to that time, most Nobel Prizes in the sciences were won by Germans. I’ll have to re-check that though. I think that these days the Americans are winning most of those.

    I will eventually see it, I think. Lucas is indeed an awful writer. he excuses himself by saying that ‘popcorn movies need corn’ which is illegitimate because corny dialogue doesn’t have to be bad dialogue. FFS.

    His early movies like American Graffiti, THX (both) and A New Hope were absolutely excellent films, showing him to be a virtuoso. Too bad he got too comfortable.

    I also agree that lazy CGI should be rejected. What was great about the first Star Wars trilogy was that most of the visual effects were models. Real, tangible models that you lit with real light and photographed with real cameras.

    Also, Lucas made a mistake by going digital too soon for the second two prequels. I’m not against digital cinema, but I am against using a technology which is too limited. And back then, digital movie cameras were not very good – and not very practical, either.

  20. Zachary Smith says

    Richard Carrier,

    Since you have have some knowledge of weapons tech, hopefully you can answer this.

    It seemed to me that the ME 262’s were too easily dispatched by the P-51’s. How did the ME 262 fare against Allied prop fighters – was the movie accurate in this regard?

    I recently saw “The Battle of Britain” for the first time since I was a kid. Vintage surplus aircraft were used and man, did it look great to see real planes on film. Although I must say I was impressed with the CGI planes in “Red Tails”. Much better than the usual CGI fare.

    “Red Tails” is also the only movie I know of that has a dogfight scene with ME 262’s.

    • says

      Zachary Smith: Regarding ME 262s vs. P-51s, the movie oversimplified (the kill ratio in a match-up was 5:1 in favor of the MEs), but did attempt to show some of the actual tactics American pilots developed to dispatch the jets (they emphasized two in particular: tactical crossfire and descent velocity; the first is setting up a wall of bullets where the jet will go, as that exploited a weakness the jets had: they couldn’t turn as nimbly; the second gave the prop planes jet-comparable velocities by using gravity to add speed in a long hard descent, then taking advantage of that boost rapidly before engagement slowed them down). Likewise, P-51s could evade the line of fire of an ME 262 more easily precisely because they were slower (imagine an F-14 trying to take down an aerobatic prop plane, without radar gunsights or missiles: it is not as easy as you might think). They used this to maximum advantage. The ME 262s could either chase P51s around until they got lucky, or make a run at a bomber thereby creating an obvious path of travel the P-51s could crossfire. So it wasn’t a cake walk for the jet fighters. But they did have a huge advantage. And actually got better as pilots figured out how to use them better (thus near the end of the war the ME 262s were far more formidable than they were in their first engagements).

      Apart from the fact that the American losses should have been higher (although perhaps they did intend to show that by downing a bunch of redshirts in the final battle sequence–which IMO was more bad writing because the “named” pilots didn’t even seem to notice or care about those losses), the only other thing I thought was unrealistic (although that was more in the writing) was that no American pilot would intentionally engage an ME 262 head-on, precisely because its gun mount was where the prop’s engine would be, rather than the wings, thus guaranteeing suicide. The movie depicted a pilot doing that as if he had no idea he was killing himself. A better writer would have set it up so he did that knowing he would die, specifically to save his friend (or set it up so that the head-on duel happened by accident or by the tactical intent of the German pilot, coming upon the American too quickly to avoid it so he had to ride it out and hope for a mutual–which would not be easy, because the German pilot could easily kilter his plane and thus avoid all incoming fire while taking out the P-51 pilot, so the P-51 pilot would have to be pretty good to match the German’s roll enough to get bullets on target).

      What the movie didn’t show was that most MEs were dispatched by two other more humdrum tactics: hitting them at takeoff and landing (when they had poor thrust and maneuverability; likewise, of course, hitting them on the ground) and forcing them to flameout in a dogfight. Over-aggressive dogfighting maneuvers could cut out the MEs engines (so often, in fact, the Germans tried developing automated throttles to prevent pilots from doing that); so American pilots used the P-51s maneuverability to frustrate German pilots into over-throttling to get them in their gun sights, then dispatching the dead plane after its engine went out.

      There is a really superb tactical analysis of all this on Wikipedia. It doesn’t deal with everything, but it’s quite ample and well sourced.

  21. Tedd says

    More about a final head-to-head engagement(262 vs 51) being suicidal for the 51 pilot. The 262 had four 30mm cannon in its nose. This is the same size gun that the A-10 currently has for tank-busting(the single A-10 gun has a much greater rate of fire). This armament was designed to take on bombers, and just four high-explosive cannon shells was usually enough to bring down a bomber.

    If one of those shells hit the cockpit of the 51(as depicted), hamburger would remain. Certainly nothing left for the dying last-words scene that results.

    • says

      Tedd, just FYI, comparing the Mk. 108 to the A10 is not entirely apt here because (a) A10 rounds have a larger shell and thus deliver a lot more energy (the German gun may have had a 30mm bore, but it had only a 90mm case, that’s just three and a half inches, which is more comparable to the M2 .50, whereas the A10’s 30mm is twice that length, and probably wider than the German casing as well; and accordingly, I see the Mk. 108 apparently had an infamously low muzzle velocity) and (b) the A10 does its infamous damage by accumulated kinetics, i.e. it fires seventy rounds a second (which, as one analyst put it, “literally dismantles its target”), and no German weapon had anything near that ROF (the Mk. 108 fired 10 per; and in aerial combat, at that rate serial delivery to a man-sized target is much less likely).

      One thing that really would make a difference is that they preferred to load incendiary explosive ordinance in the Mk. 108s, but IMO that kind of shell would not likely detonate in a body–either it would detonate in the forward fuselage (and down the plane outright) or pass through the canopy and the body (which, impact-kinetics-wise, would be invisible to a bullet like that) before detonating in the interior of the plane (unless deflected free; there are stories of tank shells passing through entire vehicles before detonating, for example). But all in all, you’re right, they certainly under-displayed the effects of a hit in the film. Not only from incendiary damage, but also we’re still talking about probably four times the impact force of a 50 caliber.

  22. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The general outline of Midway is pretty good and almost historical. The code breakers at Pearl Harbor managed to read the Japanese JN25 code* and had a bogus message sent which identified “MI” as Midway. Nagumo ordered his planes’ bomb loads changed twice, which resulted in large amounts of ordnance being in the hanger decks when the American dive bombers attacked. The American torpedo bombers were all shot down but brought the Japanese fighters down to low level so the dive bombers could make relatively unopposed attacks.

    The major problem with Midway was the completely unnecessary love story between Charlton Heston’s son and a Japanese-American. This brought nothing to the movie (the conflict between father and son was also unnecessary) and was, IMNSHO, boring.

    *The code was broken after the Pearl Harbor attack, not before, as some historical revisionists claim.

  23. David Evans says

    For the record, it is generally agreed that the world’s first turbojet engine was designed by Frank Whittle in the UK, some years before its German equivalent. The UK also had a twin-jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, in service only 3 months later than the Me262. It was used successfully to shoot down V1 flying bombs and for reconnaisance and ground-attack.

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