Aces High (1976)
Director: Jack Gold.
Starring: Malcolm McDowell (Maj. John Gresham), Christopher Plummer (Capt. 'Uncle' Sinclair), Simon Ward (Lt. Crawford), Peter Firth (Lt. Stephen Croft), David Wood (Lt. 'Tommy' Thompson), John Gielgud (Headmaster), Trevor Howard (Lieutenant Colonel Silkin), Richard Johnson (Major Lyle), Ray Milland (Brigadier General Whale), Christopher Blake (Lieutenant Roberts), Gilles Béhat (Captain Beckenauer), Elliott Cooper (Lieutenant Wade), David Daker (Mess Corporal Bennett), Barry Jackson (Corporal Albert Joyce), Jacques Maury (Ponnelle).
RAF squadron and its high turn-over
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
There is a big ceremony at a school. Major John Gresham is there as the hero of the day. In the audience is a young man named Stephen Croft, who seems to admire the heroic pilot a great deal.
October 1916. A German plane attacks Major Gresham from behind. Gresham tries to shake him off but he is unsuccessful. So he decides to land in a big field. He plays dead or badly wounded. He keeps the plane propeller going. The German plane lands and the two pilots start walking over to Gresham's plane. Suddenly Gresham takes off. One of the Germans fires his pistol at him. Up in the air Gresham now goes to the attack. The Germans desperately try to get their plane into the air but they are hit by the machine gun bullets from Gresham's plane. The German plane can't get enough lift, crashes into the trees and blows up. One of the pilots gets out and starts running from the plane. Gresham buzzes him several times forcing the pilot to hit the dirt each time and then leaves.
Somewhere in France 1917. Stephen Croft is now a pilot in France.
Day 1. Lt. Croft reports to 76 Squadron Office. Most of the large office building has been damaged by bombs. He walks around looking for anyone. He finds Gresham's room. He is the commanding officer of the group. Mess Corporal Bennett comes over to greet Croft. He shows the lieutenant to his room. Most of the pilots are up in the air at this time. Croft does meet one pilot, Lt. Crawford. He is not friendly at all. He is also very sarcastic in his comments about virtually everything. Crawford explains that he has neuralgia and can't go up. He sees that Croft is all enthusiastic and can't wait to get into the air. So Crawford tells him the average time a newcomer lasts now in their unit is two weeks. Croft says that he pulled strings to get into the 76 Squadron. He and Gresham graduated from the same school. (What he doesn't mention is that Gresham is the boyfriend of Croft's sister.)
The patrol is coming in. Croft walks onto the airfield to see Gresham. He says hello, but Gresham doesn't give any indication that he recognizes Croft. Croft goes to the after-patrol party. Captain Sinclair plays the piano and sings. Often the pilots join in on the singing. Gresham arrives and after a few minutes finally speaks to Croft. He says: "Incredible coincidence your being here." Croft smiles. The talk is of Dixon who didn't make it. He was all burned up.
Gresham tells Croft that he and Crawford are going to take him up on his first flight. Crawford hears this and is very upset and scared. He has still not recovered mentally from being shot down. As he crashed, he screamed: "God, let me go home!"
Day 2. Crawford does not show up. Gresham sends Croft to go over and get Crawford. Crawford just shouts at Croft: "Get out!" He repeats that he can't go up because of his neuralgia. Croft reports to Gresham and the major has to get another man. He chooses Lt. Tommy Thompson. The mechanics and others watch as Croft takes off. They all agree it was very "shaky". Up in the air Gresham signs to the two other pilots to test their machineguns. As they approach German territory, the anti-aircraft fire gets heavy. And now the German aircraft arrive. One gets on the tail of Croft. Gresham in turn gets on the tail of the German pilot chasing Croft. Gresham is able to kill the pilot and down the airplane goes. Thompson also gets a kill.
Gresham's machinegun jams, so he has stand up in his seat and lean over the wing to get at the machinegun. He un-jams it, but is almost thrown out of the cockpit as the plane takes a sharp turn to the left. The two veteran pilots return to the airport, but Croft is not with them. Unbeknownst to the other two pilots, Croft is literally lost. He has to set down on the ground to ask directions from a British officer of artillery. The officer tells Croft to head southwest for twenty miles and he will find the airfield.
Landing on the airfield is another shaky adventure for Croft. Gresham is amazed at him. He had to land and ask a battery? And Croft didn't use the time to contact them? They were all worried about him. Gresham is also mad because he has been delayed in picking up the pilot he shot down. The downed airman is in the French section. Croft goes with Gresham to go get the downed man. A traffic sign has the word Theniers on it.
When they arrive at the French camp, the French tell him that the German pilot is gone. Gresham is angry and says the French know that a pilot has twenty-four hours to retrieve the pilot he shot down. Croft is busy looking around. He sees bloody men everywhere. Gresham looks around some and finds his pilot. He takes the pilot back with him to base. The men throw a party in his honor. There is a lot of boozing and celebrating.
Day 3. Croft has written a letter to his sister. He asks Gresham where he can put it to be mailed and Gresham tells him to give him the letter. As CO he has to read all letters going out and censor them for any sensitive material. Croft says then that he won't mail it. But Gresham demands to have the letter. Croft hands it over and leaves. Sinclair asks Gresham why he is being so hard on the young man? Because, says Gresham, there's no telling what he's saying to his sister about him (Gresham). Then he gets mad and says he won't even read the letter. Sinclair, however, will read it. He reads it out loud. It is filled with admiring comments about Gresham. Croft writes that he admires Gresham tremendously.
Brigadier General Whale is studying maps in preparation for a British offensive. He wants to know about a little dent in the German line and he requests that Sinclair do the aerial photography of the area before he sends troops in there.
The pilots talk about how one can hear the guns in the south of England. Croft and Sinclair have developed a good friendship and they go out on a motorcycle with a sidecar to have a picnic and some rest away from the noise of the airfield. Croft is anxious for combat and Sinclair tells him that when the offensive starts, "we'll be in the thick of it."
Day 4. Crawford goes to Gresham and asks if Gresham is spying on him? He says he is going to a doctor for he is going home. "I've had enough. I can't stand it here." Gresham tells him firmly that he will have Crawford shot for desertion. This makes Crawford think. Gresham softens and asks him to stick it out with the men.
Gresham talks with Brigadier General Whale and asks him about the report he wrote of the need for parachutes for the men. Whale tells him that nothing has been done about the report so far.
Gresham tells Sinclair that the offensive begins in three days, but they want aerial photographs. Sinclair says he wants Croft to be his "driver".
Day 5. Three planes go up for the aerial photography. Two of them will protect Croft and Sinclair while they take photographs. Once again, over German territory, the anti-aircraft fire is thick and heavy. The British escort planes shoot down a German aircraft. Sinclair tells Croft that he wants to take one more photograph. As they do, a German plane strafes their aircraft.
Croft lands the plane and is all enthusiastic about the success of their mission. Sinclair is not getting out of the cockpit so the men go over to see what's going on. Sinclair is dead, killed in the strafing incident. Croft is very upset over the loss of a friend. He runs across the field to be alone.
Gresham sends the mess corporal to go find Croft and tell him to come back. Croft is with the mechanics in the hangar. They even share their food with him. Meanwhile, the pilots are flashing up French postcards on a screen. The men are enjoying themselves tremendously. Gresham goes to the hangar and asks Croft what he is doing with these enlisted men? There is supposed to be no fraternization between officers and enlisted men. Croft asks Gresham how can be be expected to sit with the other pilots when Sinclair is dead?
Croft goes out with some other pilots to a French cafe where there are lots of prostitutes. The pilots tease Croft by asking him when did he last have sex. Women come over to the table, but there is not one for Croft who sits a little outside the circle of chairs around the table. A French woman takes pity on the young man and says she will get someone for him. She goes over to speak to a young woman. She returns to tell Croft that when the woman leaves the cafe, he is to follow her. When the pretty young woman leaves the joint, Croft follows her. She takes him up to her room.
The French woman tells Croft that this is very dangerous. She has a friend that is very jealous. She asks him if he still wants to stay and he says yes. They kiss.
Day 6. Gresham gathers everyone in the mess to tell them they have been given a rotten job to do. Their offensive has bogged down. So they have given the job of shooting down the balloons from which the Germans are doing surveillance of the offensive. Gresham explains that it is very hard to get near the balloons. They are protected by heavy anti-aircraft fire and German fighter pilots. So he is dividing the planes into two groups. The first group of three (Thompson, Croft and Crawford) will be the attackers. The second group ( Gresham, Wade and Frampton) will be their defenders.
Croft goes back to the cafe. He catches the attention of the French woman he was with the previous night, but she just ignores him. Dejected, he turns around and leaves. At the airfield Crawford seems to be cracking up. Like a little boy, he pretends to be flying while running around the real airplanes. Gresham watches Crawford. When Croft comes over, Gresham tells him: "Steve, Crawford won't be with us, I'm afraid."
The six aircraft go up the next morning. And, as usual, they have to fly through heavy anti-aircraft fire. One of the British planes is hit and goes down, exploding on impact with the ground. The German balloonist jumps out with his parachute. Croft fires on the balloon and it explodes. The survivors go after another German balloon. Six German planes go to the attack. Thompson is hit and goes down. He jumps out of the plane all aflame and dies on impact with the ground. Gresham is angry now and he manages to shoot down a German plane. A British pilot is hit in the head by machinegun bullets and goes down. Soon afterwards, the same thing happens to another British pilot.
Croft is able to shoot down a German plane. Gresham flies up to him to congratulate him. But as Croft flies away from Gresham his plane collides head first with a German plane and both planes explode in mid-air. Gresham is stunned by the finality of it all.
Gresham is having a hard time writing a condolence letter. The replacement officers are brought in. They are three very young pilots with only fourteen hours of actual flight apiece. Looking at the youngsters, Gresham thinks of Croft. He walks over to the window and stares into the distance. He sees Croft walking toward him. As Croft stops at a stream, he suddenly disappears. It was all a mirage. Gresham tells the mess corporal that the windows are dirty. Get them clean! He then asks if any of the three new guys play the piano? One of the guys says that he does. Gresham says: "That should liven things up." He looks out on the airfield and sees only one plane there.
Good anti-war movie. Spoiler. Young Stephen Croft comes into the war as a pilot anxious to get up in the air and start fighting. This distresses a pilot who suffers from battle shock and he tells Croft that the average life expectancy for new pilots is two weeks. This does not discourage the youngster. Along the way, he sees some terrible things. Dead and dying men and pilots shot out of the sky. But still his spirits are high. He is sobered up a bit when a friend doing aerial photography from the seat behind him gets hit and killed and Croft doesn't even know about it until others at the airfield discover it. Croft is still ready to go when they are given a "rotten" job of attacking German balloons form which surveillance is done. It all ends with a big bang and the commanding officer has to take in three new replacements, all just as young and inexperienced as Croft had been when he first started with the squadron.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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