Aces High (Jack Gold, 1976)
Centering around the daily strains on the members of an isolated British fighter squadron during World War I, trying to keep their spirits up against the mounting death rate hanging over their heads (well, those who manage to stay alive that is), Aces High comes out of the same cinematic camp as Roger Corman’s classic Von Richthofen and Brown from five years earlier (with “Aces” going so far as re-using some of the aerial footage from the Corman film, as well as from The Blue Max from 1966); however, where the underlying narrative/thematic concerns of “Richthofen” emerge powerfully (ie, the contrast between the Red Baron himself, Richthofen, vs the guy who shot him down, Brown, as well as the archaically gallant nature of squadron fighting vs the wholesale slaughter of the rest of World War I), “Aces” ends up satisfied with being more episodic in nature, making it a somewhat less gripping experience than the Corman classic.
There is a narrative through-line to “Aces” from which the portrait of the world of the fighter squadron drapes off of – that being the ascension of the young naïve 2nd Lt Croft (Peter Firth, a relatively unassuming performer who nevertheless shall ever be granted lifetime points by me for appearing as the mentally troubled horse-blinding naked rider in Equus as well as – and even more importantly — the Colonel caught up in the whirlwind of Tobe Hooper’s wonderfully bonkers Lifeforce) from wide-eyed schoolboy to military pilot – but it’s told without enough emotional depth or ‘statement’ to make it as compelling as it could have been.
“Aces” does get a lot right that makes it definitely worth a look. A few of the characters dotting the base are well-drawn and interesting, from the idolized fighter ace Major Gresham (Malcolm McDowell, who I can never seem to get over how much he – with large bug eyes that seem to take up his entire upper face and string-bean countenance – resembled an insect in his younger days), who hides his decreasing moral behind heavy alcohol consumption (even before heading off into battle), with his combat stress growing even greater with the arrival of acolyte Croft, as Gresham happens to be the boyfriend of the eager boy’s sister (leading to a comically observed moment of Gresham receiving an alcohol flask from his love for his birthday, destroying the illusion he had that he had been hiding his alcoholism from her), to the sneering, neuralgia-suffering Lt Crawford (always interesting character actor Simon Ward), deeply contemptuous of the fighting and desperate to be free of the place, as well as the always-the-best-foot-forward Captain Sinclair (Christopher Plummer).
With long time vet from the Hollywood studio days, thespian Ray (The Long Weekend and, naturally, X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes!) Milland showing up briefly as one of the less-than-sympathetic military higher-ups callously giving orders from his safe perch (barely even pretending an attempt at a British accent), as well as cameos from other acknowledged (genuinely British) aging figures as Terence Howard and John Gielgud, the producers clearly decided upon shelling out a few sheckles for some familiar faces a bit past their prime (the less sheckles to which to acquire them, naturally), and they’re all welcome attendees.
There are some fascinating bits and bobs that my flying aficionado buddy I watched the film with tells me are quite historically accurate – such as that the British Army refused to give parachutes to their own pilots (even though the Germans had them) as allowing them the quick ability to escape was ‘unseemly’, as well as the overall chivalrous nature amongst the fighters, respecting each other to the point of taking a captured ‘enemy’ into their barracks and getting drunk together (something also shown in “Richthofen”).
It’s the airborne fight sequences, not all cribbed from other films, that are by far the most impressive and exciting aspect of “Aces” (which is true even of “Richthofen”, in which apparently one of the pilots was actually killed during the making) and are, thankfully, plentiful (I have to say… I was surprised to realize after that “Aces” was almost two hours long, as it went by quite quickly).
It’s a well-enough put together portrait of a type of aerial dueling long gone (and the kind of strange war game engagement that, at least from the impression of these types of films, almost seem to be happening entirely separate from the rest of the war), only… when the final ironic tragedy occurs, in the form of a final death… it doesn’t quite capture the deeper resonance it should. Still… more than worth a look.