PILOT NO. 5
US, 1943, 71 minutes, Black and white.
Franchot Tone, Marsha Hunt, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Alan Baxter, Steven Geray, Howard Freeman.
Directed by George Sidney.
Pilot No. 5 is a war propaganda film, filmed immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour and focusing on the Japanese attack on Indonesia.
The film has a brief running time but contains a lot of material. On the war level, it focuses on a Dutch commander played by Steven Geray who has five pilots available but only one plane to attack the Japanese air force or to bomb the carrier ship. He chooses Franchot Tone and the film then explores why he has chosen this man, George Collins, and learns his story and about his determination.
The film then has a great deal of flashbacks, some substantial amount of material about George Collins, his studies in law, his friendship with Vito Alessandro (Gene Kelly), partnership, the influence of the corrupt governor (played by Howard Freeman in the vein of Huey Long of Louisiana, immortalised by Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men). There is also the story of George Collins’ love for Freddie Andrews (Marsha Hunt in a sympathetic role). They build a house together, she disapproves of his work for the corrupt governor, they clash, he goes to work for the governor ousting people from their homes for a redirection of a river, putting money into the pocket of the governor because of land sales. When he witnesses the death of a mentally impaired young girl who is afraid and climbs a chimney and dies of fright, he changes his life completely, offering to unmask the governor, suffering a bad reputation for people who don't believe what he has done for them. He finally enlists, meets Vito again, and they find themselves in Java.
The other pilots also have known George Collins and give some stories about him and his early life. Van Johnson also appears as one of the pilots, an early role.
After this complicated story about George Collins, there are some strong aerial battle scenes as he goes towards the Japanese carrier, encounters Japanese pilots, and does his own kamikaze landing on the ship with an improvised bomb to blow it up. The Dutch major has the opportunity to make the point, eyes to camera, about heroism and the war effort.
The film was the first feature directed by George Sidney who had made a number of short films. He then made Thousands Cheer and went on to make a number of musicals including Anchors Aweigh, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat. He also directed a number of period costume dramas including The Three Musketeers, Scaramouche and Young Bess. His last film (thirty-five years before his death) was the British musical, Half a Sixpence with Tommy Steele.
1. A propaganda film from World War Two? MGM cast and style? Earnest appeal for patriotism? How well does it stand now? The patriotism, the aerial war scenes, the complex story about American politics and corruption during the Depression and the 1930s?
2. Black and white photography, the Java setting? The contrast with the American city, building homes, education, the governor’s house? Ordinary bars? Recruiting officers? Los Angeles? A comprehensive range of settings?
3. The situation on Java, the Japanese invasion of 1942? American presence after Pearl Harbour? The Dutch and Java? The major, in charge, his talking to the pilots, the mission – and its dangers? His asking each of the pilots why they wanted to go on the mission? His wanting to know about George Collins? Vito’s anger at this? His explanations? His satisfaction at hearing the story, understanding George? Listening to George on the radio on his mission? His speech of patriotism to camera?
4. George Collins, Franchot Tone and his screen presence? His wanting to go, the idea of the improvised bomb? His strong demands to go from the major? Blackmailing him? The major deciding that he should go? His flight, the radio information? The lack of fuel?
5. The other pilots? Davis and his stories about George? Claven and his knowing George in the past? George as a boy, growing up? His connection with Durban and the government of the state? His studies at university, the dean, his topping the class? His friendship with Vito? His getting ordinary jobs? Love for Freddie, their building the house together, the blueprints? The visits from their friends? Vito and his uncle, the partnership? George accepting? Freddie’s disapproval? The clashes? The ousting of the owners of the homes? The money for the governor? Their visiting the governor and his treatment of them, his employing George? The incident with the family, the girl and her fear, in the chimney, her death? His change of heart? Going to the anti-Durban organisation, their refusing to accept him? His undermining Durban with these documents? People still thinking of him as the enemy? His jobs over the years, menial, wanting to enlist, the interviews, the officer following him to the bar, the fight, getting some of the information? His meeting up with Vito? Going to Java? His reconciliation with Freddie, the marriage at Las Vegas, Vito organising it? The mission?
6. Vito, Gene Kelly’s style? Studies, lawyer, success, his uncle? The partnership? Freddie working for him? His wanting to marry her, fighting for her? But not wanting to undermine George? Their work together, witnessing the death of the girl? Vito and his going to New York, joining up? His anger at hearing about George’s life? His then telling the story?
7. The other pilots, Davis, Claven, Everett Arnold? Their wanting to go? Their listening to the story?
8. The scenes of battle, aerial combat, the Japanese pilots, the bomb being stuck, George and his diving into the boat?
9. Brief, but effective war propaganda – and interesting in later decades?