Well, here’s another boy-meets-training tale, but this one a true period piece: instead of tough Brits finding out how tough they really are, we’ve got Americans of the last year or so of peace on our shores (1939) tackling Naval Aviator training. Soon after this movie hit, all of Europe was at war, and the United States was in a desperate rush to modernize its armed forces after two decades of neglect. This movie is often seen, in retrospect, as a propaganda film, but it is more nearly a classic Hollywood tale of sibling rivalry and a love triangle, set in a military setting, with the patriotic themes still seen in other nations’ movies — and often used by Hollywood before is shift to nihilistic anti-Americanism in the 1960s.
The mandatory love triangle has as its vertices submariner turned aviation cadet Cass Harrington (George Brent) , his brother, top aviator Jerry Harrington (John Payne), and Jerry’s girlfriend Irene (Olivia de Havilland).
In those days, Naval Aviators were srill required to master both land and seaplanes, and one of the thrills of this movie for a military and aviation history geek is to see the training aircraft of both types and some examples of the training lectures and aids.
Acting and Production
The acting and writing is B-movie, a little bit over the top. The actors are not big names, except Olivia de Havilland — and her greatness was in the future. The director, Lloyd Bacon, was a Warner Brothers journeyman who directed over 100 workmanlike films in all genres.
There are some pretty good flying scenes, shot with the real US Navy, although of course scenes of the stars in the cockpit were shot with the rear-projection technique of the period.
One warning: the DVD we bought at Amazon was a fair transfer from a good print, unencumbered by extras (typically for the “Warner Archive Collection”, which is Hollywood speak for “thrown-together crap monetizing the back catalog”). While it wasn’t as low-quality as the Warner Archive norm, it’s very overpriced at $18.
Accuracy and Weapons
While a little bit of weapons and gunnery training is shown, this is mostly about the aircraft and maneuvers that the pilot trainees must master. These were mostly shot on location at the Naval Air Stations in San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida, giving the viewer a rare look at training types (and operational types) that would be critical to the war — and some that would be gone.
To give you an idea of how pathetic US Naval preparedness was by 1939 (believe it or not, it made great strides before being caught napping in December, 1941), the “futuristic” experimental fighter-plane of the movie is played by a Grumman F3F biplane.
In the end, the naval cadet system shown here (which has its roots in the British Gosport system of 1916, established in response to terrible losses of ill-trained pilots) was able to expand and accelerate to meet the demand for aircrews in a global war. The Air Forces had a very similar cadet system, and in fact the cadet system lasted into the 50s and 60s before a bachelors’ degree became a must have for aviators in an increasingly credential-happy armed forces. The Army still trains its aviators using a similar cadet system, but they are all initially trained as helicopter pilots.
One interesting note is the presence of an actor portraying a foreign (Brazilian) student. Then as now, the US projects power in part by hosting the future leaders of friendly foreign forces. (The USSR also did this, in its heyday, and of course we all learned it from the masters of coalition and commonwealth warfare, the British Empire).
The bottom line
Wings of the Navy is good, plain, black-and-white, G-rated fun; not for juxtaposition-flick addicts or people wanting to empathize with the angst of the auteur (Bonus film school points for two foreign words in one clause!), but it’s as entertaining today as it was meant to be 76 years ago.
Yeah, 76 years.
It’s especially fun for anyone interested in flight training; the similarities and differences are enough to get a room of pilots talking and even thinking, which is pretty rare for pilots.
And the biggest issue they usually face remains, “Who’s gonna get the girl?”
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page (none):
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (no reviews):
- Wikipedia page: