They all could. But the flaws in this one are so glaring they’re difficult to ignore, despite the important subject matter. The movie is OK. You just wish it were better.
“Red Tails” is the story of the 332nd Fighter Squadron during World War II. Yes, that one, the one that trained at Tuskegee, the one that consisted entirely of black pilots and ground crews at a time when blacks were not only segregated in the military, they were still considered inferior by many ignorant whites. The film begins with a quote from the 1925 U.S. Army operating manual, about how blacks were to be regarded as inferior in intelligence as well as in courage under fire. That’s not entirely the context of 1944, but you get the idea.
Thankfully, the movie avoids dwelling too much on the racist context in which these brave and resourceful men were forced to work. Yes, there was a lot prejudice out there, but inside the squadron they were focused on doing their jobs. And their job was to fight “Jerry” – the German Luftwaffe.
At first, the all-black squadron was not allowed any duty except reconnaissance, then behind-the lines patrols, where an exciting day would be to strafe a stray supply train or a random German truck. But the exigencies of war began to work in their favor. The American Army Air Corps was engaged in around-the-clock bombing runs of German industrial centers and military bases. The bomber squadrons needed fighter escorts to stave off the German Messerschmitts, but their own fighters were so quick to engage the enemy fighters that they often left the bombers unprotected. So they were in need of a fighter escort that would stay with the bombers, and protect them, even when tempted to do otherwise. And the “Red Tails” were chosen.
As soon as they were given the opportunity, they quickly proved their bravery and skill, and the military commanders, somewhat reluctantly, recognized that the “Red Tail” squadron was actually as good as any they had. At the end of the war, the entire Unit was given a Distinguished Service Citation (happily re-enacted at the end of the movie). It’s a golden tale of triumph, not only in combat with the enemy but also over the adversity within.
And yet, there are so many quibbles. First, historically, the Luftwaffe is presented as much healthier and more capable than it actually was by the end of 1944 (new Messerschmitts hadn’t been delivered to the front for some time, because of Allied air superiority and the constant bombing of the factories). But although the “dogfight” sequences are well-orchestrated, the cockpits sound like a sound studio (c’mon, a P-40 couldn’t possibly have been that quiet). Even worse, the character interplay on the ground is stilted, stagey, self-conscious and just plain amateurish. The pilots interact like a bunch of Boy Scouts, all warm fellowship and benign camaraderie, crisp uniforms and even crisper salutes. Cheers in the clubhouse and group prayers on the tarmac. We get the clear sense that this is how they would have made things appear for a propaganda film, but it probably bears little resemblance to how it “really” was. Yes, there’s a bit of a “racy” (pun intended) sequence about one of the fliers getting involved with an Italian civilian, and some awkward attempts at humor with the language barrier, but those scenes are even more stilted than those in the barracks. The sequences with the commanding generals standing over their maps aren’t very convincing, either. They too feel like they’re shot on a sound stage, rather than in a real theater of war.
Oh well. Sure, it could have been done a lot better, but despite all the cinematic flaws, we still want to root for these guys on the screen. And we do. In the hopes that both the constant-combat context and the cultural disparity are parts of a distant past.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.