Modern audiences are likely to assume Dive Bomber is a WWII air combat film, but it’s actually a docu-style chronicle of two military surgeons trying to lick the problem of pilot blackout during bombing runs, as told via the initially imperfect pairing of a caddish Harvard surgeon (Errol Flynn), a pioneering surgeon/ex-pilot (Ralph Bellamy) grounded after his personal experiments in the field nearly ruined his health, and a top pilot (Fred MacMurray) who’s own days as a flying ace are coming to a close from stress and pilot fatigue.
There’s no doubt every aspect of the production was approved by the U.S. military, but the trade-off was amazing access to planes, a flying school, surgeries, and an aircraft carrier – the U.S.S. Enterprise. Dive Bomber contains some of the most beautiful aerial cinematography ever put on film – a chunk of it supervised by then-special effects whiz Byron Haskin (War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space).
The gleaming cinematography focuses on vintage bi-planes, bombers, and training crafts. A huge effort went into choreographing eloquent shots of planes in various formations gliding around picturesque clouds, and even banal dialogue scenes are enhanced by perfectly timed takeoffs or fly-bys, making sure not one corner of any framed shot was wasted on a blank sky.
The script isn’t ground-breaking and the characters aren’t unique – Flynn’s Doug Lee upsets every superior officer he meets, and is then forced to work with them as karmic payback – but the standard melodrama, tragedy, and love interests are balanced by a procedural storyline that’s genuinely compelling, and watching the characters test various medical scenarios and aerial test runs at high altitudes provides a rare, Technicolor glimpse into the world of the U.S. military, circa 1941, just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
One can sense the filmmakers seemed aware the U.S. may get dragged into WWII – the need to solve pilot blackout feels like a portent of imminent, hands-on warfare – but the cast helps sell their familiar archetypes by portraying them as average men instead of iconic heroes. Flynn is surprisingly convincing as a surgeon, MacMurray provides a great nemesis, and Bellamy is wholly believable as a an aging surgeon hardened by the loss of flying privileges, and subjugating his hunger for the air while tending to younger, luckier pilots.
The chief love interest is a contrived effort to stick a female figure into what’s essentially an all-male story, but the role of recent divorcee Linda Fisher did introduce audiences to actress Alexis Smith, Flynn’s new screen love interest for a number of his Warner Bros. films. Glaringly inserted into the film’s midsection is second-rate slapstick humour, with Dennie Moore, trying to find her annoying husband in the base hospital, until he’s stuck in the isolation ward due to a possible case of the measles.
The film’s real attractions are the vintage planes, as well as the training and research sequences that pay off with aerial test runs, and Flynn looks typically dashing when he’s ‘surgeoning,’ or just smoking a cigarette (something every character does like a chimney. If the test runs and actual combat didn’t kill pilots in 1941, lung cancer was next in line 20 years down the road).
As a recruiting tool, Dive Bomber must have swayed a few youths into signing up, and Max Steiner’s score more or less beats the audience over the head with the Air Force theme in every emotional guise (though we’re spared any pop versions when Flynn & Co. are dancing with the women at a officers’ club).
Warner Home Video’s transfer is taken from good print that’s free from colour registration problems, but it’s still a film in need of proper restoration – if not for the cast, than for the rare plane footage that would look amazing on the big screen today. The mono sound mix is well-balanced, but it’s dry, and Steiner’s score becomes shrill whenever the orchestra goes for Full Bombast Mode.
The DVD’s extras include a theatrical trailer, and a short making-of featurette covering production basics, the cast, and the film being the last teaming between Flynn and director Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood), as both didn’t get along during production, and had a stern falling out..
This title is available separately or as part of The Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 2, which includes The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dive Bomber (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948).
Flynn’s WWII actioners are collected in TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures box, which includes Desperate Journey (1942), Edge of Darkness (1943), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), and Objective, Burma! (1945).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan