I kind of see this film as a cousin (or, I guess, great-uncle) to Top Gun (1986). Both films feature a main character who starts out cocky and has to learn humility. Both films were designed as propaganda or at least recruitment pieces to get young people to sign up with the Air Force (resp. the Navy, since the Air Force proper did not exist in 1941). Both films are full of patriotic fervour; rivalries, camaraderie, and male bonding; dangerous stunts and delayed teenage rebelliousness; rousing music; adventure and tragedy; women interested in men in uniform, and a pointed disinterest in women by those men. Both also have heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause, but Dive Bomber lacks a proper on-screen “bad guy” — the war has not yet begun, though the coming action is alluded to a few times. People who accuse Hollywood of having always been anti-war haven’t watched enough movies like this one.
If there is a villain here, then the obstacles nature throws in the way of those who wish to fly. Erroll Flynn plays Douglas Lee, a fast-talking and at first insufferably glib military doctor stationed in Honolulu. The plane design used at the time isn’t up to the extreme demands expected from both aircraft and pilot; some dangerous but necessary manoeuvres cause more than a few pilots to black out and lose control of their planes. After a pilot dies on his operating table after another of these incidents, Lee decides to learn how to fly himself to find out what causes the men to lose consciousness, and to help develop a remedy.
The other lead character is Joe Blake (played by Fred MacMurray of Double Indemnity fame), the squadron leader of the pilot who died in Hawaii. He blames Lee for his death, and when he is ordered to train him at flight school, he decides to make it as difficult as possible.
It’s hardly a spoiler to give away that the two eventually reconcile and work together to find a way to stave off blackouts.
The plot is serviceable enough, I suppose; it managed to hold my interest for the ground-based scenes. Still, the film’s most memorable sequences remain those where the characters are in the air, testing their hypotheses and devices. I appreciated that there are no super-geniuses around; there are wrongheaded ideas and false starts until the characters hit on the right direction. It’s a (very) streamlined and abbreviated version of the scientific process, but at least the attempt was made to stay realistic and show that research is hard work.
I have no major problem with the film’s story, except for a silly subplot featuring a medical assistant in constant fear of and escape from his overbearing wife. It’s played extremely broadly and in contrast to the rest of the film, which isn’t exactly somber, but certainly isn’t a comedy. These scenes are also an unwelcome distraction because the movie is rather long to begin with (over two hours) and didn’t need to be padded out with farcical comic relief.
More ridiculous and comic than that subplot – but only from a modern perspective – is the fact that the main characters light up cigarettes at almost every opportunity: before surgery, after surgery, while refueling a plane, after taxing one’s respiratory system in an experimental flight… No wonder these pilots get burned out quickly and/or have trouble breathing at high altitudes — their lungs are carrying an extra load!
The way Flynn’s character – a doctor! – is introduced is particularly striking (and it makes you wonder whether this was intentional, the director’s way of getting at the famously chain-smoking actor): Before we ever see his face, we see him holding a half-smoked cigarette in one hand and a medical bag with a cross on it in the other.
Despite its propagandistic nature (or maybe because of it), this movie is quite enjoyable. If you can ignore minor blemishes like the ones mentioned in the last two paragraphs (and some people might also criticise the lack of proper romantic subplot), the film features likable characters, a fairly interesting and unusual story, and spectacular aerial photography.