The Lost Squadron (1932)
I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’m a sucker for anything with biplanes in. Or airships. Or any other form of vintage air travel. So a movie about a bunch of Air Force buddies who become Hollywood stunt pilots after the First World War is right up my street. Sadly, it's not available on DVD or even VHS, as far as I can see. I watched it on a tape recorded off TCM some years back, so finding a copy may not be trivial.
Four guys (three pilots and their mechanic) come back to America to find they have nothing waiting for them – one’s lost his business to a crooked partner, one’s lost his job, one’s lost his girlfriend to another man. So they decide to stick together and use their skills. Cue a fairly predictable plot about an unscrupulous movie producer who not only is sending his pilots up in dodgy planes, but is also the man who married our hero’s girlfriend. She’s an actress, and guess what, she now has to work with her ex. And her husband doesn’t even like her – she’s just a trophy wife. Suffice it to say, it’s about what you’d expect for this type of film. Strangely, although many reviewers refer to the movie as a comedy, it isn’t. It’s more like a Dick Barton thriller.
The opening sequence is really unusual. It sets the scene with an air battle. However, when all you can see is a helmeted head with goggles in a cockpit surrounded by rigging and machine guns, you have no idea who’s who, or even which side they’re on. If the movie were in colour, you could probably work it out; after all Flyboys and The Blue Max don’t seem to suffer from that problem. But in black and white they all look the same. So they superimpose a roundel or a cross in the corner of the screen so you know who’s on which side, which makes it look rather like a computer game. The aerial battle also looks very static. As is brought out so effectively in The Aviator, unless you have some background, you can’t tell that the planes are moving. Hughes had the luxury of delaying shooting until he had the right cloud conditions, even though waiting around for cloud in California was costing him a fortune: RKO obviously didn’t have that option, and the planes are shot against a dull grey background. Worth a look, though, just out of curiosity.
However, the rest of the flying sequences are wonderful. There’s a great range of different aircraft on show, which is enough to pique my curiosity. Some of the stunt flying is really quite hairy, particularly a sequence where they are strafing a village. And the great thing is that because the movie was made in 1932, they’re all real, genuine planes. No replicas, no models, and no CG.
(Quick aside, speaking of CG biplanes – have a look at Faith, Hope and Charity, by Wingmen Productions, which is a dramatized documentary on the air battle over Malta in 1940, where three Gloster Gladiators saw off wave after wave of the Italian air force. What makes this a special film is that it’s machinima. The entire thing is shot using a commercial flight sim game, and the quality of the models and the flying sequences is right up with the kind of stuff you’ll see on Discovery. Most machinima gets painful to watch after 20 minutes: this keeps you hooked for an hour and leaves you wanting more. It’s a free download, and if you like it you can make them a donation or buy the DVD.)
Anyway, back to The Lost Squadron. There are a few well-known names from the 1930s in the cast and crew, including Mary Astor (as actress Follette Marsh), David O. Selznick (producer), Max Steiner (music) and Herman Mankiewicz (dialogue). However, this isn’t their best work. The only really memorable performance is from Erich von Stroheim, perfectly typecast as the tyrannical producer. The character was clearly based on Stroheim himself – in fact, in the first draft of the script, the character was actually called "von Stroheim". The name was later changed to "von Furst" at Stroheim’s request. While I’d always thought of von Stroheim as a director, it turns out that while he only shot 12 films in 14 years, almost all silent, he acted in over 50 films in a career that lasted over 45 years, right up to his death.
While The Lost Squadron isn’t in any way comparable to Hell’s Angels, which is superior in just about every way imaginable, or Wings, which was the first movie ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture, it's an interesting look at an era of Hollywood where health and safety was a non-existent concept. It’s a fairly workmanlike run-of-the-mill story, with no particular flaws, but no nothing that makes it a must-see film for anyone except film buffs or biplane freaks. Which, I guess, is me, on both counts.
Here's what others have said about it:Oh, OK.