Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lafayette Escadrille

Lafayette Escadrille (William Wellman, 1958) Wellman's last film couldn't be more personal—the story of American flyers for the French Army during World War I. The director was in a similar squadron during the war, and he's even a character in the movie (played by son William Wellman, Jr., who would go on to make a documentary about his dad called Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick). It's your basic service adventure/comedy—part daring-do, part rollicking hi-jinks, part romance, with the first two provided by the collection of cocky Yanks dealing with the conditions (abysmal), looking for thrills (the flying and combat), and making a mockery of the de riguer training of the French military—the marching, the discipline, the rules—while simultaneously staying above the fray, plotting ingenious, diffident ways to get their flying hours while getting their way breaking the rules. The Americans don't even learn the language making drilling a fait accompli with their harried D.I. (Marcel Dalio) It's the most entertaining aspect of the film.
 It's a labor of amour, but it's bogged down with compromise. For the lead, Wellman wanted Paul Newman, but Newman wanted respect and did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof instead—and so was saddled with a Warners contract player, Tab Hunter, who is so wooden and inexpressive in the part that all the drama called for, the conflicts, the love scenes, simply do not "play."  To be fair, Hunter could be fine in films and only got better with age, and his best scenes are the slightly comic interludes with the Maitre d' of his French girlfriend's walk-up. That poor actress, Etchika Choureau, has to deal with emotional scenes where her co-star is no help, and evokes sympathy just from the wasted opportunity their scenes can't achieve, not that she doesn't try hard.*
But ultimately, despite Hunter, it's a good film, one clearly after the director's heart, as he lived it. And he gets good work out of his son, as well as the sons of Andy Devine and Joel McCrea, and a couple of upstarts named David Janssen (who was starring in the TV Series "Richard Diamond" at the time) and Clint Eastwood—he's usually the tall scowling one in the back.
I'd never heard of this film until seeing the story of its making—which made up a good chunk of young Wellman's documentary of his father. The other great chance to learn more about the man is the episode on him from critic  Richard Schickel's fine series "The Men Who Made the Movies." I'll always remember the section where Wellman talks about interference with his film Buffalo Bill, to make it more heroic and less true to life.  After a scene where a young audience member says "God bless you, Buffalo Bill!", Schickel cut to a pained Wellman who succinctly states "That made me want to throw up!"
Lafayette Escadrille is by no means his best film despite being his last, but it shows his gifts for pushing the envelope, tweaking the censors and, in general, being a creative professional pain in the ass.

"Wild Bill" Wellman at the time of his French service.

* According to Tab Hunter's frank auto-biography "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star," he has remained close friends with Choureau ever since.

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