Friday, May 14, 2021

Lafayette Escadrille

Another of the movies that I recently watched off the DVR is director William Wellman's final film, Lafayette Escadrille.

Tab Hunter plays Thad Walker, a young man from a well-to-do family in Boston circa 1916 who obviously feels the pressure of being the good son in a prominent family like his, and frankly, he can't really handle the pressure. He keeps getting into scrapes until finally, he steals a car for a joyride, in which his accidentally runs down a cyclist in full view of a policeman. That's an obvious problem, so he decides to do what adventurous young men of the era did, which is to go to France to be part of the French Foreign Legion, fighting for France in the Great War against Germany; after all, American still hadn't entered the war.

On the ship over to France, a stowaway Thad meets a couple of other Americans, including Duke Sinclair (David Janssen), Tom Hitchcock (Jody McCrea) and Bill Wellman (yes, the director as a young man, and played by William Wellman Jr.), who are willing to put him up. The get to France, where they're going to join the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of Americans fighting up in the air as pilots. But before they even get to the training grounds, they have a night out at a French bar, which is where Thad meets Renée (Etchika Choureau). She's a woman with a past who's now working as a conductress on the Paris metro, and she and Thad immediately hit if off despite not having any language in common.

The guys all go off to train, with Thad showing up some days later after having spent time with Renée. The training is rather comic, with a Vietnamese cook serving as reveille, the pilots having trouble taxiing in straight lines, and the men not being able to understand the French drill sergeant (Marcel Dalio). Eventually, though, they do get off the ground. Or at least, most of them do.

Thad doesn't becuase of that rebellious nature we saw at the beginning of the movie. The drill sergeant treats him badly one too many times, and That responds by decking him, which is a serious no-no. That gets put in the base jail, and his friends eventually break him out. But of course there's no way that he's going to be able to serve since they'll put him right back in jail first to complete his sentence.

So Thad runs off to Paris to meet Renée again, hoping to get enough money for the two of them to flee to South America. But he can't even really get a job with his poor command of French and his being a wanted man. Renée had worked at a brothel before, so the madam gets Thad a job as an escort, she being able to provide him a modicum of protection. One of the people he escorts is an American general (Paul Fix), which is how Thad learns America has entered the war and he'll get his chance at redemption by signing up with the Americans.

Lafayette Escadrille, or at least, a movie about the original squadron, is an idea that has a lot of potential, and you can see that this was a highly personal project for Wellman. However, it winds up falling flat, in large part because it doesn't seem to be able to decide what it wants to be. A movie that's fully a war movie probably would have been worked well, but with Tab Hunter in the cast, we get a romance tacked on to it that doesn't particularly work. The comic relief also doesn't work quite as well as it could have. The little flying we do get it nice enough, but you leave wishing there were more.

Lafayette Escadrille is definitely fairly far down the list of William Wellman movies I'd recommend.

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