The World War I aircraft in “Flyboys” fill the European skies with a wobbly grace. No wonder, for though the airplane—as a modern invention—was still finding its wings, some young Americans had already found aerial delight.

Americans generally know much more about the Second World War than they do the First, but “Flyboys,” which opens nationwide today, will remind audiences about a spectacular chapter in American history.


Before the United States officially entered the war in 1917, some young American men volunteered to fight. They traveled abroad and joined ranks with French infantry, for example, but a small minority chose the fight in the sky.


The French assembled a special corps to train and oversee these Yanks: the Lafayette Escadrille. Under the direction of Capt. Georges Thenault (played by legendary French actor Jean Reno), the Escadrille birthed a new kind of hero: the fighter pilot.


“Flyboys” succeeds in celebrating the advent of the American flyboy—the calling, the honor, the humor, the romance, the sacrifice. Director Tony Bill (who won an Oscar for 1973’s “The Sting”) taps heartthrob James Franco to play Blaine Rawlings, a Texan who heads abroad to fly after losing his family ranch. Also on hand is Martin Henderson as Reed Cassidy, the “veteran” flyboy who won’t stop going up until he retires his archenemy: a German aviator known as the Black Falcon, who lacks the chivalrous code other pilots, regardless of nationality, share.


Also significant here is Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), an African-American flyboy who is based on the real person of Eugene Bullard, the first and only black combat pilot in World War I. The movie makes several references to racial attitudes of the day.


“Flyboys” is produced by Dean Devlin, purveyor of blockbuster spectacles like “Independence Day” and “Godzilla,” as well as the historical epic “The Patriot.” “Flyboys” actually feels like a cross between “Pearl Harbor” and “Top Gun.”


It takes the broad-audience, PG-13 approach, always cutting away before violence grows too graphic or themes too gritty. It does so successfully, and if preview crowds are any indication, the movie is likely to find both young and old audiences.


“Flyboys” veers off into melodrama a few too many times, and a couple of scenes that are rightly humorous are milked for effect too much. Those criticisms might be gunned down, however, by the splendid dogfights that take viewers into the aerial action punctuated by tracer ammunition, zeppelins, mid-air collisions, jammed guns and smart maneuvering.


Our flyboys live it up on the ground and die off while up. At Escadrille headquarters near Verdun, they reside in a chateau purchased for them by W.K. Vanderbilt, who also personally financed some of the Escadrille’s Nieuport aircraft.


The flyboys put their days—and losses—to rest with cognac and French women, though the Rawlings storyline puts the Texan in love with a young French woman who, in a well-worn war narrative—resists the attraction out of fear of losing Rawlings.


In fact, not all of the flyboys return safely. These combat pilots were essentially test pilots as well, and the combination of imperfect machinery and lack of experience simply compounded the risk.


“Flyboys” may spark some renewed interest in what was called the Great War. Director Tony Bill, himself a pilot, chose to tell a remarkable story from that conflict that is at once inspired by real events and perfectly Hollywood as well.


“Flyboys” hits more than it misses.


Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for war action violence and some sexual content. Reviewer’s Note: The graphic violence is intentionally curbed, though several pilots of various nationalities are shown killed in action.

Director: Tony Bill

Writers: Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward

Cast: Blaine Rawlings: James Franco; Capt. Thenault: Jean Reno; Reed Cassidy: Martin Henderson; William Jensen: Philip Winchester; Eugene Skinner: Abdul Salis; Lucienne: Jennifer Decker; Briggs Lowry: Tyler Labine.


The movie’s official Web site is here.

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