Flying Tigers (David Miller, 1942) 🇺🇸

Flying Tigers |

November 20, 2021

What is the strange bird fallen from the sky setting the night ablaze on this marvellous poster? The jagged teeth and killer stare suggest a shark bearing down on its prey in the midst of strange, phosphorescent creatures, dwellers of the ocean depths. But the action is all happening in the air: what looks like a sea anemone hatching is actually an explosion lighting up a starless sky. The Second World War is raging and a fighter plane, gleaming as brightly as the famous aircraft flown by the Red Baron (the German Air Force ace-of-aces during the First World War), is diving nose-first as it hunts down Japanese pilots. You have to admit that as camouflage goes, it's not terribly discreet. But it’s not accidental: the plane’s decoration is designed to intimidate the enemy. And since the enemy comes in the form of a coastal, island people supposedly scared of sharks, the plane's nose has been given a shark's mouth.

This was a period that saw nose art flourishing, specifically on fighter plane noses to entertain the people on the ground. Tigers, dragons, Disney characters – Hello Kitty hadn't yet been born! – personalised many of the fighter planes flying then. A number of pilots took the bold choice of decorating the phallic snout with iconic pin-ups, a nod to the rewards awaiting the returning warrior, who accompanied them symbolically on their most dangerous missions. 

A wonderfully effective art form to judge by its destructive power on the Japanese plane literally in pieces on the poster's left-hand corner. But these planes also needed extraordinary pilots. Dubbed the Flying Tigers (rather than Flying Sharks!), this squadron of American pilots was made up of "brave men flying in the face of death" as they are described on top of the poster like a sort of epitaph, the white capital letters standing out against a black background. The title led me to expect yet another Kung Fu film, but this is a war film released in 1942 to glorify the patriotism and spirit of sacrifice displayed by the legendary Curtis P-40 pilots. 

The film's opening moments show us Chiang Kai-Shek's face overlaid by a succession of Chinese characters. They are the words of his declaration paying tribute to the "bravery and victories" of the aptly named Flying Tigers. As China was invaded by the Japanese enemy (in greater numbers), the Generalissimo called on this squadron of mercenaries, called "volunteers", before the US Air Force could officially step in. In real life and in the film, these flying aces were often hotheads whose greed and thirst for adventure meant that their methods tended towards the unorthodox. As a leader, they need nothing less than a fearless, irreproachable cowboy – personified here by John Wayne (who never fought in a war!), alias Jim Gordon. 

However, his mission is complicated by other, more earthly, combats. Because under the shell of an invincible hero beats the heart of a man. A heart that is troubled when a bold and handsome aviator signs up to the Tigers. The new recruit is played by John Carroll and, as you might guess, attempts to snatch away the leader's girlfriend, exemplary nurse Brooke Elliott (Anna Lee). To make it worse, the newcomer indirectly causes the death of another Tiger (Hap in the film, who disobeys orders and takes to the skies one time too many) by inviting Brooke on a date. "I hope you had a good time," comments Captain Gordon, because "Hap paid the price." Will the magnanimous Captain forgive him? Love, friendship, courage, cowardice and loyalty form the backbone of a tale that shines a light on the strengths and weaknesses of these "heroes”. The Flying Tigers is therefore more than just a war film.

Humour sometimes takes the upper hand, with non-stop jokes on the ground lifting the troops' spirits. One notable example is the laughter of the Chinese restaurant owner as he smilingly pretends his Chinese dishes are American specialties. Another is Captain Gordon's reply to his mechanic who is concerned about the holes in the plane's fuselage: "Termites!"

And what about the Japanese? Without taking a totally uncompromising approach, the film represents them as brave but cruel soldiers – capable of shooting a parachutist in the air! Unflinching close-ups of their faces show them splattered with blood during combat shooting. The blood is particularly chilling as it looks black (the film is black and white). An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the Flying Tigers make them pay for the families they slaughter and all the orphaned children they leave in their wake. While I didn't like these rather unsavoury scenes, I did very much enjoy the aerial acrobatics of the kings of the skies – though not enough to sign up for an inaugural flight!  

There are of course other ways and means to get your kicks, but you could do a lot worse than buy this poster, which will definitely rev your engine!

Director: David Miller

Check out the French version of this article.