I remember seeing Howard Hawks's AIR FORCE (1943) during the summer of 1977. It played on the UT campus, back when numerous auditoriums around the forty acres featured regular screenings of classic films. I loved it when I first saw it and I enjoyed watching it again yesterday.
The story focuses on the crew of the Mary-Ann, a B-17 bomber on route (with other bombers) from San Francisco to Honolulu. Hawks takes his time to introduce each crew member and establish their respective personalities. The crew is composed of Harry Carey, Charles Drake, John Ridgely, Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, John Garfield, James Brown and George Tobias. But it's only after the plane is in flight do we learn the date of this fateful voyage: December 7th, 1941.
The plane lands at Pearl Harbor, refuels and takes off for Wake Island, which has also been hit by the Japanese. They barely have time to resupply before they're forced to take off again, this time for Clark Field in Manila. They arrive to find the base under siege and short of planes. They gear up and take to the skies along with a ragtag squadron of fighters. The Mary-Ann suffers major damage and the crew abandons ship, except for the mortally wounded captain and gunner Garfield who somehow manages to land the plane in one piece.
There's a dramatic death-bed scene where the men say their goodbyes to the captain. Then they all decide to rebuild the Mary-Ann, using parts scrounged from other planes. It's a sequence reminiscent of FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as the men put together a makeshift aircraft. But they succeed, the Mary-Ann once Aggi takes flight and discovers a massive Japanese naval armada. They call in the reinforcements (other bombers and fighters) and lead the successful attack on the Japanese fleet.
AIR FORCE is a terrific piece of wartime propaganda. Made while the war was still being fought, it's an old-fashioned, flag-waving tribute to the men of the United States armed forces in combat around the world. Beautifully shot by James Wong Howe, AIR FORCE features claustrophobic scenes on the plane, convincing model work and a judicious use of stock footage. Hawks focuses on the men and their relationships, how they react under stress and fear. Hawks understood the unique fraternity of men in perilous situations and managed to bring these individuals to vivid life.