Not a Standard Shot Man: Howard Hawks' "Air Force"

An overview of Howard Hawks' 1943 _Air Force_, with attention to Hawks' action style and to the keynote of cruelty in his films.
Dan Sallitt

Air Force screens on October 19 at the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective, The Complete Howard Hawks. For more of Dan Sallitt's writing on Hawks, go here and here.

Air Force occupies an unusual place in Howard Hawks' filmography. As a war propaganda film, its subject matter is necessarily tendentious, with an overt message that is not only coercive but also repetitive. Hawks, whose control over his choice of material was quite unusual by Hollywood standards of the time, shows no sign of resisting the project's wartime agenda, and willingly accepts the character stereotyping and up-front ideology that comes with the package: the eager young recruits, the cynic to be converted, the proud parent set up for loss. In addition, Hawks' streak of dark humor combines with the project's built-in tone of righteous vengeance against the Japanese in a way that can strike peacetime audiences as callous.

On the other hand, Hawks is clearly at the top of his game here. Though he did not authorize the released version of the film (which Warner Bros. shipped with a much longer assembly of battle footage at the end than the director wanted), the evidence on screen suggests that he was fully engaged. Certainly Hawks works against the emotionality of the subject matter with scaled-down acting and a brisk, unemphatic rhythm; but no more than he would do with any other genre. So the viewer is presented, not with an attempt to redeem or subvert problematic material, but rather with a work that might as well be considered organic, with its most powerful emotions linked to dubious premises. Modern audiences are likely to wince at gunner George Tobias's gleeful "Fried Jap going down!" in the middle of a fierce air fight. But it's easy to make the connection from such jokes to the potent interlude where John Garfield machine-guns a Japanese pilot trying to leave his burning plane, moments after the pilot relentlessly strafed and killed a helpless American parachutist. Here the thirst for blood, strongly motivated by the rapid pace of the narrative, is presented with some nuance: the execution is unpremeditated, its aftermath stark and joyless, with Garfield given a rare, quiet closeup as he looks down at the fallen parachutist amid the burning plane's smoke. Nothing about the moment undercuts Garfield's angry revenge, but the etiology of the emotion is laid bare in a way that even pacifist viewers may understand.

And it's not hard to free-associate from "Fried Jap going down!" to the heroes' light-hearted non-reaction to the burning, pleading villain in Rio Lobo ("Let him burn." "Don't let him burn till he signs these papers.") or even to the gleeful detonation of Nathan Burdett's fully occupied warehouse in Rio Bravo. A few moments before that warehouse attack, Hawks plays an uncomfortably brutal scene for wild comedy, as three of the five Burdett henchman who try to cross a creek are shotgunned by Stumpy and roll down the creek bank like figures in a first-person shooter game. From which one continues to free-associate to His Girl Friday and Louie's account of ramming into a car full of cops: "They came rolling out like oranges." There is in Hawks a rebellion against empathy that at times can overflow the banks of fictional detachment.

Many of the greatest moments in Hawks' films involve action, but these moments tend to be over quickly: Hawks invariably sets up dramatic situations that would normally motivate an elongation of cinematic time, then surprises us by playing out the action with a speed that sacrifices a full exploitation of the drama. Air Force, however, belongs to a genre that mandates protracted action scenes, and therefore gives one of the best opportunities to examine Hawks' action direction. Interestingly, the editing of the air fights and battle scenes in Air Force is not particularly distinctive: I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Hawks left the editing to the studio. One must look to Hawks' compositions, blocking and camera movements, undemonstrative though they always are, to get a handle on his qualities as an action director.

I'd sort Hawks' ideas for action scenes into three general categories, some of which suggest connections to other aspects of Hawks' work.

  • Hawks likes to cram a lot into each composition, and this trait is noticeable in action sequences, where rapid cutting combined with the dense compositions results in an excess of visual information. He makes frequent use of foreground-background opposition: gunner/plane juxtapositions in the air fights; activity in multiple focal planes during the frantic effort to save the Mary Ann; jeep/parachute juxtapositions in the scene of the Japanese strafer. Somewhat more surprisingly, Hawks often pans from one side of the plane to the other during the air fights, showing action on both sides of the plane within the same shot. Though he doesn't call attention to it, Hawks is by default something of a synthetic director who naturally organizes events within the depth and duration of shots. (I say "by default" because this tendency to fill out the frame does not seem to be a principle: when he indulges his taste for organizing scenes around glances, for instance, Hawks is happy to sacrifice density of composition for clarity.) Christian Nyby, who would begin editing Hawks' films shortly after Air Force, said in a 1991 interview: "Howard wasn’t a standard shot man: long shot, close-up, over-the-shoulder, and so forth. Every set-up he made was a picture, as an artist would frame it, more or less."
  • Hawks' distinctive compositions tend to express a muted romanticism. His groupings of people, or his images of people against backgrounds, are conceived with a heroic aspect that gives individual figures prominence and compositional weight, and often use brilliant backlighting and high-key effects to reinforce this aspect. And yet Hawks prefers to soft-pedal his romanticism, temper it with realism: he doesn't allow his visual presentation of his heroes to veer into mythologizing, refrains from promoting his admiration into idolatry with expressionist elements. Thus the foreground-background oppositions in his action scenes are shot from a judged distance and a neutral camera angle, with a margin of empty space padding the frame: in Air Force, a good example is the sequence of Garfield and Harry Carey distributing themselves across the foreground of the shot in an identifiably Hawksian composition as they machine-gun the strafing Japanese planes that approach the camera from background.
  • Overlapping dialogue is one of the most obvious attributes of Hawks' style. Its function seems to be to break down or counteract a set of fictional expectations we have about the genres within which Hawks works, expectations that Hawks underlines at first in order to increase the impact when he abandons them. The briefest glance at Hawks' action sequences in Air Force reveals that the principle of overlap is carried out on the level of action as well as dialogue, and that it serves exactly the same function. Again and again two events are compressed into the same shot at dramatic moments, not separable by editing: for instance, Ed Brophy taking a bullet then warning Tobias of an approaching plane, or Tobias jumping on the engine to tighten bolts after the Mary Ann starts to taxi. The entire sequence depicting the effort to save the Mary Ann, from the conception of the plan to the cliffhanger takeoff during the Japanese attack (divided into two parts by the sequence of the strafed parachutist), is a brilliant orchestration of repeated within-the-shot action overlaps.

If Hawks seems to regard the propaganda film as a genre suitable for habitation, he is no more reverential toward its conventions than with any other genre. Carey's repeated "Shut up!" to John Garfield during one of the latter's cynical anti-service tirades serves almost the same function as Kenneth Tobey's thrown-away "Get him out of here" as scientist Robert Cornthwaite pleads for the alien's life in The Thing From Another World: in both cases, the genre itself is cast in the role of straight man, deprecated by a more realist and immediate mode of behavior. Similarly, the admirable scenes in which Carey must spring into battle action immediately after hearing of the death of his son amount to nothing less than a revision of genre. Hawks makes a feint at a genre convention – namely, that a minor player's death is merely a note of melancholy to be harmonized with a symphony of other stimulants – then follows it with a modest but firm rejection of the convention in favor of a rewardingly unwieldy mixture of emotions.

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