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The Forgotten: J. Walter Ruben's "Ace of Aces" (1933)

A pacifist becomes a bloodthirsty flying ace in this pre-Code war drama.
John Monk Saunders is a good example of the screenwriter-as-auteur in the sense that he had a tone (mordant, tragic) and a set of concerns (WWI aerial combat and its effects) that were consistent throughout his work, almost to the point of claustrophobia. Saunders was an airman himself, and like his characters, he just couldn't leave it behind. A recurring theme of his work is that war is not only traumatic, but addictive.
Ace of Aces is a typical work: Saunders would achieve greater glory with William A. Wellman (Wings, 1927), Howard Hawks (The Dawn Patrol, 1930) and, best of all, with William Dieterle and The Last Flight in 1931. Ace of Aces is a relatively minor-league outing. Though director J. Walter Ruben delivers a few elaborate tracking shots, the film belongs mainly to the writer and the RKO effects team—Vernon L. Walker, who worked on Citizen Kane and King Kong, stitches together vivid dogfights comprised of rear projection footage, elaborate model shots/wirework, actual location footage and inserts of bits of fuselage being ripped apart by machine gun fire.
This doesn't compare to the murderous intensity of Wings and Hell's Angels, which risked and sometimes lost numerous stunt pilots' lives, but it is impressive nonetheless, and allied to a simplistic but powerful story. Richard Dix, beefy, growly, melancholic star of the twenties and thirties (and later in Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship) plays a pacifist sculptor, Rocky Thorne, quietly insufferable in his righteous devotion to art. Then, war is declared (in Grady Sutton's camp, Tennessee twang, incongruously enough) and he's jilted by his girlfriend, displaced Brit Elizabeth Allan, enlists, and the film can actually begin.
The most interesting stuff in the film deals with the fliers on the ground: all grim humor and sardonic world-weariness. Also, their mess hall is a menagerie, as most of the men have lucky mascots, including a parrot, a dog, a pig, a goat and, less probably, a chimpanzee and a lion cub. Apart from the zoo creatures, this all has the ring of truth about it and ought to, given Saunders' experience. Though the movie brushes aside the fact that all American fliers who saw action in WWI were flying with the French: the American army never managed to get any planes into combat
Dix is soon a flying ace, holding the record for his unit and eventually for the whole air force. He's also a lone wolf, preferring to fly alone and barely socialising with the other squadron members (a shame, as these cynical death-dealers are the film's best actors, particularly Theodore Newton). When Dix isn't overplaying, which he does a lot, one does sense the inner doubt and shame that compel him to indulge his bloodlust flying solo.
An unfortunate set of circumstances lead to him shooting down a German cadet who was just delivering a message, and then being wounded and placed in the next bed to the dying kid in hospital. Now, Dix has an up-close image of the damage his bullets cause, and the fight goes out of him. But, when offered a soft teaching post, he can't take it. Because teaching other men to kill would be intolerable, or because he still feels the need to kill himself?
Scholars of really bad tacked-on studio endings need to see Ace of Aces, for a final scene that's the most deplorable betrayal of everything that went before it. Interestingly, it doesn't quite manner to be gung-ho, despite serving up a miraculous resurrection, an eleventh-hour redemption and a final clinch. Saunders' vision was just too bleak to be effectively ameliorated, so the last minute of the movie is best experienced as some kind of crazy death-dream. It's just unconvincing enough to work on that level.
Saunders hanged himself in 1940.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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