Flight of Fancy

Flyboys offers a sanitized version of World War I.

War is swell for the boys of the Lafayette Escadrille.
War is swell for the boys of the Lafayette Escadrille.
Anyone who wants to start feeling good about war again -- and hey, pilgrim, isn't it about time? -- would do well to take in Flyboys. In this elaborate, computer-generated fantasy, the plucky volunteer pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille are once more cast as "knights of the sky": dashing young Americans who soar aloft in flimsy wood-and-canvas biplanes, shoot down a glowering Hun or two over the verdant fields of France, and then return to the château to quaff cognac and sing bawdy ballads in tribute to their fallen comrades.

In this glossy version of the War to End All Wars, belief in mission rarely wavers, fear and battle fatigue are momentary aberrations, and there's always a gorgeous mademoiselle living down the next tree-shaded lane who's endlessly thankful that the Yanks have come over to make the world safe for democracy. For that matter, their mustachioed commanding officer, Captain Thenault (played by the elegant veteran Jean Reno), is pretty thankful himself. This is one Frenchman who loves Americans: Without them, he'd probably be eating wienerschnitzel and polishing the Kaiser's boots.

As for that other, less convenient World War I -- embodied in the grim, futile slaughterhouses of Verdun and the Marne -- well, there's no point in revisiting that old mess, no use even thinking about the hundreds of thousands of dismembered corpses rotting down there in the mud. Because the romantic heroes of Flyboys are figuratively and literally above it all. You won't find them much vexed by the despair that pervaded All Quiet on the Western Front. This is aerial spectacle in the service of myth, wherein the paths of glory are unsullied by doubt or disillusionment. "You gotta find your own meaning in this war," one veteran pilot advises, certain in his heart that one actually exists.

The real history of the Lafayette Escadrille -- a corps of mostly American volunteers who started flying for France a year before the United States entered the war, in 1917 -- contains as much screw-up and absurdity as actual heroism (for instance, the squadron's first casualty lost his life while flying a crate of oranges to a wounded friend), and the three screenwriters on Flyboys predictably pick and choose from the bright side. Their fictionalized, composite pilots include rawboned Texas cowboy Blaine Rawlings (Spider-Man's James Franco), whose family has just lost the ranch back in Aberdeen; a stuffy rich boy from Boston (Tyler Labine), who has a few things to learn about social equality; a world-weary flying ace (Martin Henderson), who worries that the newcomers won't survive; and -- probably because the filmmakers would like to herd everyone into the tent -- an expatriate African American prizefighter (Abdul Salis), whose father was a slave. The squadron actually did have one black pilot, Eugene Bullard, but his story was quite different and might make a good movie in its own right.

For now, director Tony Bill is concerned less with individuals than with esprit de corps. Handsomely decked out in tailored leather trench coats and, in some cases, the kind of flowing silk scarves Snoopy used to wear when he did battle with the Red Baron, the flyers of the Escadrille make for a suave bunch. This despite the fact that one of them is portrayed as a meek, teetotaling Bible-thumper and another as a buck-toothed hick who fled to Europe after he got caught trying to stick up a Wisconsin bank with a toy gun. Going against the blood-red Fokker triplanes of German Jagdstaffeln, the boys are uniformly intrepid, and Bill directs the exciting aerial combat scenes with great verve. He gets a lot of help, of course, from CGI technology, which neither the crazed perfectionist Hughes nor the makers of 1966's The Blue Max had at their disposal.

Back on earth, Bill plumps up the proceedings with a superfluous romance between Franco's handsome Texan and a startlingly beautiful French girl named Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), culminating in a preposterous rescue scene in which the young hero spirits his lady love away from a platoon of growling Germans in his trusty single-engine Nieuport. For this dubious act Rawlings is sternly reprimanded by the imperious Captain Thenault, then promptly awarded the Croix de Guerre.

In the end, after 139 minutes, Rawlings must also do battle with the movie's arch-villain, a ruthless German ace who flies a jet-black Fokker with a fierce white falcon painted on the fuselage, and that encounter turns out just as it would in any Hollywood air-combat epic. World War I may have been the bloodiest, most useless atrocity in the history of mankind, but not tonight, not in this movie.

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