is a 1976 World War I feature film
starring Malcolm McDowell
, Christopher Plummer
and Simon Ward
, with Screenplay
by Howard Barker
. The film is based on the 1930s play Journey's End
by R. C. Sherriff
and the memoir Sagittarius Rising
by Cecil Lewis
of the Royal Flying Corps
. It tells the story of an RFC squadron in the first war and the high turnover of pilots and the strain on the survivors and includes aerial dogfight
scenes impressive for the time it was filmed.
The film follows the plot of Journey's End
quite closely, albeit set in the RFC rather than in an infantry battalion.
The film opens with fighter ace
Major Gresham (McDowell) speaking to a class of students at his former British public school. Back at his base, a batch of new recruits shows up and one of them is the younger brother, Lt. Croft (Firth) of his girlfriend. Already Gresham relies on alcohol to cope with combat stress and bring himself to continue flying. Now the strain of being responsible for his, we assume, fiancee's brother further weighs on him. Croft has to learn how to survive not only in the air, but on the ground as well as he initially makes some minor mistakes in squadron etiquette. The film also follows Croft's rapid rite of passage from naive schoolboy to adult fighting soldier. We also see Croft's initial hero-worship of his commanding officer crumble as he realises the realities of combat, yet regains a new respect for Gresham and the stresses he has to cope with.
The film reaches its tragic conclusion when Croft finally scores his first air victory and seems to have made the leap in skills necessary to survive but is suddenly killed in a collision with a German aircraft. This seems to be the final straw for Gresham, though he will continue to do his duty.
There are many positive aspects on this film regarding the authentic atmosphere and the French scenery. The squadron depicted is loosely based around No. 56 Squadron
, one of the more famous SE5
squadrons. The airfield facilities, barracks and motor transport are very authentic looking World War I era and the planes flown, although not real SE5's but converted Stampe SV.4s
, are similar enough and the camouflage used generally authentic.
The film reused aerial sequences from The Blue Max and Von Richthofen and Brown.
There is a real Avro 504 used in the film, while the Nieuport 17 plane that 'Uncle' says is the one preferred by Gresham is nothing but another film SE5. A mistake the film makes is the presence of a two-seater reconnaissance aircraft within the same fighter unit; RFC squadrons by this time were usually dedicated to one aircraft type and operational purpose and had no 'composite' equipment or multi-role capability.
Some other parts in the film come from real stories of the RFC, like the pilot who prefers to jump from his burning plane rather than being slowly roasted in his cockpit (no parachutes were issued during the conflict to Allied aircrew). The fatalistic mess room songs and the often juvenile, 'public school' attitudes of the young pilots are considered authentic portrayals of the time.
The role played by Christopher Plummer (‘Uncle’) is characteristic of the Edwardian upper-class warrior stereotype, who tries to overcome the cruelty of the war with civility and a gentle manner.
(Name in brackets gives the character's equivalent in Journey's End.)