The historical accuracies and inaccuracies found within the 2006 film Flyboys can be found within both the broad elements and specific details. It is important to ask a few questions before analyzing historical films, which have brought up multiple times throughout the semester and in this course. Such questions address the role of the filmmaker, the juxtaposition between the point of historically oriented films and other films, and similar considerations. For instance, a filmmaker’s role is not to be a historian, but if they are going so far as to make a historical film, should it be? Does the degree of responsibility for portraying accuracies outweigh the responsibility to entertain when the topic is not one that commonly appears in education’s curriculum and textbooks? Most importantly, at what point does a filmmaker’s creative liberty obscure and cloud historical accuracies? Where should the line be drawn? For example, a filmmaker may have a desire or necessity to add or remove certain broad or specific details, as seen in the infamous addition of redwoods and waterfalls to the geographic scenery of Pocahontas. Yet historically, Pocahontas and her tribe lived on the marshy swamps of the East Coast in what viewers and historians alike know as Jamestown: a place where there is not a single sweeping mountain, cascading fall, or majestic wooden giant to be seen. These types of tensions and compromises between storytelling and historical storytelling, between entertainment and accuracy should be carefully considered when analyzing a historically oriented film. The accuracies and inaccuracies can be observed both in spite and in the light of these considerations.
So how about the accuracies? Arguably the most accurate aspect of Flyboys is its depiction of the composite character of the Escadrille. The fourth chapter’s title of Braclen Flood’s First to Fly asks the question “What manner of men?” And the men’s mannerisms, characterizations, and motivations were noticeable throughout the entire course of Flyboys’ through the film’s historically inspired pilots.
“Who were these young Americans who began flying above the bloody battlefields of France? Sharp clear eyes look out of healthy faces. The expressions are confident. Many of these men played … sports that required courage, endurance and superior reflexes. Others were gifted in fields as varied as architecture, music, painting, electronics, and writing. Many proved themselves capable of putting forth remarkable mental and physical energy.”
“For many high-spirited, energetic young Americans, an inner voice said, ‘I need to meet what is coming. I need to equal, defend against, and if necessary defeat those who can use … force against me and mine‘”
“They were actors in an epic drama — a mere handful of men … crossing an ocean to fight for a foreign land in an unprecedented venture. Theirs is the encompassing story: theirs is a revealing drama of that era. They experienced it all — valor, terror, cowardice, instinctive skill, love of comrades, colorful appeal to women, fatal decisions made when split-second actions determined whether a pilot lived or died” (Flood 2015, 24-26).
And even as the weeks wrought with war waged on, the men’s bravery never wavered. On June 17, 1917, The Washington Times commended two ace flyboys, William Thaw and Rajoul Lufberry:
They “never ceased to give an example of courage to all” and “were warmly complemented as ‘adroit and courageous’ pilots”. (The Washington Times 1917)
The following sentiment from The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille: Told By Its Commander Captain Georges Thénault, perfectly encapsulates the image of the knights of the First World War.
“They who look beyond the night,
They who see in dawn’s pale light,
One more day in which to fight —
Those no death can stop.” (1921, xi)
Not only did Flyboys capture the character of these American men accurately, but it also took care to fit in and accurately illustrate the America from which they came. When the film begins, the budding flyboys depart their hometowns, board the trains now made accessible through the advent of the transcontinental railroad and travel onwards towards France. This scene directly depicts the “immensely vigorous young nation seeking its identity, consumed by its industrialization and just coming onto the world stage, [who] saw an expansion of its destiny in the skies” (Flood 2015, 24). When they arrive abroad, they really do enter a setting that seems like something out of a movie! The beauty that the men encountered at Luxeuil-les-Bains is accurate and well shot as a posh locale in northeast France.
Pilot James McConnell even said, “I began to wonder whether I was a summer resorter or a soldier”, as Luxeuil was an incredible beautiful and surprisingly peace-filled place. The airmen did indeed live in a villa, each with “a private room with a feather bed and a window overlooking the hills beyond”, all details depicted in Flyboys (Mason 1964, 55-56).
However, Flood mentions that these knights of the air faced unprecedented ventures. Part of the risks of these ventures pertained to the fact that the airplane was even younger than some of the men were!
By the end of the war, major advancements in the development of the airplane had taken place, but “initially they remained largely made of canvas and wood, held together by metal components such as metal pipes and baling wire. An Escadrille pilot wrote, “With only slight exaggeration, it seemed as if they were merely gathered-up odds and ends of wood, discarded matchsticks, and the like… wired together, catch-as-catch-can fashion” (Flood 2015, 9).
Both machine and man had to mature, and the boys had to learn quickly that the aircraft in their hands were no longer the shiny toys from their childhoods. In his first hand account of the efforts and escapades of the Escadrille, Captain Georges Thénault describes how risks came with simply getting accustomed to mastering the plane:
“The spin is a rapid and jerky gyration of the machine round an axis generally vertical. The machine is entirely out of control. If one doesn’t get out of the spin a crash is inevitable. How many pilots have been killed in the early days of aviation because they did not know how to stop a spin” (Thénault 1921, 22-23).
And still these men found their destiny in the air, not willing to let the fear of the unknown in the air and the known enemy surrounding them on all sides keep them from doing what was right.
One of the most entertaining things to do when watching films, historical or otherwise, is to consider the details: placements, movements, directions, props, and the like. Two specific and intriguing details in Flyboys included the introduction and use of the revolver, and the lion serving as the Escadrille’s mascot. Were these actual occurrences in the lives of the flyboys, were they the symbolic choices of the filmmakers, or were there elements of both?
There is always deeper symbolism to be found within all aspects of a film, however both of these details were historically true details. Reed hands Rawlings a revolver and explains to his men,
“Plane catches fire you have three choices: You can stay in it and burn with it all the way to the ground, you can jump from several thousand feet, or you can take the quick and painless way out” (Bill 2006).
Although this scene was a little on the nose and seemed to be added more for dramatic effect than exact accuracy, the use of the revolver in the air was introduced as a tool and weapon due to the advent of “the technical competition [of inventions and improvements] that warfare always stimulates” (Flood 2015,11).
Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects of the film was the constant presence of a lion at the boys’ compound. A lion did serve as the Escadrille’s mascot. Sergeant pilot James McConnell explains what seems to viewers as a strange use of the lion in his account Flying for France:
“Every aviation unit boasts several mascots … the Americans managed, during their stay in Paris, to add to their menagerie a little lion cub named Whiskey” (Page 2010).
Though there are numerous accuracies in Flyboys, it is more important to discuss the inaccuracies of historical films, as they have a much larger impact and even an added one when the film portrays figures in history that not many viewers know about.
Inaccuracy number one has to do with the fact that Flyboys unfortunately pulled a Pocahontas when it came to the geography of the film’s setting. There was a noticeable lack of mountains whenever the boys went up in their planes to give viewers a bird’s eye view. This may have had something to do with the fact that the film was shot in England. However, film technologies, especially green screen, were rapidly developing during the 21st century, when production of Flyboys took place. Therefore, it can be argued that a larger effort towards accuracy could have been made by the filmmakers. However, were there budgetary concerns in mind? Overall, is this lack of one aspect of the geography as glaring of an accuracy as the blatant addition to Pocahontas’s geography? This inaccuracy prompts viewers to again consider how and when creative liberty goes too far, where the line should be drawn, and where filmmakers should make more of a concerted effort.
Another general inaccuracy is the fact that the film pretty much only showed the positive experiences the Lafayette Escadrille had. Though loss, death, and injuries were illustrated in some scenes, Flyboys choose to emphasize the romanticism and heroics over the struggles that the men did in counter. It was never mentioned that the men’s choices to fly for France put their American citizenship in jeopardy (discussed in the historical context), and none of the men seemed to think much of the fact that “statisticians worked out the average combat life expectancy of a fighter pilot as approximately two weeks” (Mason 1964, 74). Pilot Kiffin Rockwell puts it best in his writings home:
“We are certainly living an incongruous life. We live like princes when we are not working. An auto comes to take us to the field; we climb into our machines … they fasten us in and fix us up snugly, put the motor en route, and away we go for two or three hours to prowl through the air, looking for an enemy machine to dive on and have it out with” (Mason 1964, 67).
Flyboys completely glossed over any major struggles the Escadrille encountered, especially the one when stone villas changed to typical barracks as they became attached to the French Groupe de Combat:
“They gazed with dismay at their quarters. Instead of being shown to a cozy villa or installed in a first-class hotel, the Americans were directed to a slab-sided, tar-papered portable barrack erected in a sea of mud … The pilots stood in the hut, their voices echoing hollowly off the thin, bare walls, discussing their apparent fall from grace” (Mason 1964, 149)
Yet the romanticized heroics are exactly what makes Flyboys so entertaining. This suggests that there are positives to be found within the inaccuracies, negatives within the accuracies, and reasons behind the typical stereotypes and storytelling tropes used within films.
More specific inaccuracies had to do with the portrayal of training and tactics of some of the first aviators. Flyboys’ training montage shows the all too expected visual transformation of the Escadrille from a stereotypically rag tag bunch of men into a force to be reckoned with. Though the men did come from all walks of life, they also stepped into their new roles with more skills and experiences than those that ended up stereotyping them. Yet isn’t it always more entertaining to root for the underdog?
Another specific inaccuracy involved the way Flyboys’ Escadrille was portrayed as a team that navigated the skies together. This contrasts with Thennault’s description of the actualities of fighting in the air:
“Fighting in the air requires the highest qualities of combat for in the fuller sense the aviator contends alone. He is not in touch with his commander or his comrades. he has not the influence of the close contact, the shoulder to shoulder morale [found in battle] … no word of warning or command can reach him. He must depend upon himself and above all upon his machine” (Thenault 1921, xii)
However, Flyboys’ most glaring inaccuracy has to do with the fact that the sole black character and the sole female character are once again always the plot devices, never the plot points.
I should take care to clarify what I mean. I think of a plot point of more an event that continues the action, so a character who serves as a plot point is essentially just used to further the action, rather than actually performing the action. Whereas a plot device does just that; moves the action forward, is directly involved in the action.
It was infuriating that the character of Lucienne solely served as Blaine Rawling’s love interest; although it was true that these foreign heroes swooping in from abroad did intrigue the native women, she probably had a lot better things to worry about when the war was literally taking place right in her backyard . It would have been interesting to see a touch of what the women back in America were experiencing through the eyes of the “military wives and American women who threw themselves into activities such as volunteer work at the American Hospital … of Neuilly” (Flood 2015, 8).
And yet for all the cringe-inducing, damsel in distress moments that viewers are forced to endure, there is a duality to the reasons behind her portrayal. On one hand, it was almost more cringe-inducing that the foreign character had to be portrayed as stereotypically weak and in distress. Perhaps this was a subtle influence of the early 2000s, a time when wars abroad were also happening and patriotic sentiments were increasing. To a more positive end, Lucienne could have also served as a characterization of France herself. If she is a symbol of the literal love for France that the American men showed the country, then naturally, Rawlings is a symbol of America. Looking at Lucienne in this light at least provides Flyboys’ sole female character a bit more agency.
The character of Eugene Skinner was inspired, first name and all, by Eugene Bullard, the sole African American Escadrille pilot. The below documentaries illustrate the struggles he encountered because of this reality, note the high honors and achievements he experienced as one of the first black pilots, and provide background on his life.
Yet even with all of Skinner’s inspirational one-liners and the breakthroughs he was able to evoke in his comrades, Flyboys still portrayed him as a stereotypically angsty and aggressive black man. To so clearly base a character off an actual historical figure, Flyboys could have arguably done Skinner a little more justice.
However, Skinner’s monologue during his late-night talk with Rawlings does directly compare with the introductory description of Lentz-Smith’s Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I; in that moment, viewers indeed see Skinner “imagining a world beyond Jim Crow” (Lentz-Smith):
“I came here ’cause I heard they treated Negroes better. I like flying … hell, if you’re not fighting, it’s nice and peaceful up there. Nobody can touch you. Nobody can make you feel low. I figure as long as I’m up in the air [and] can’t see me, they won’t mind if I’m black. (Bill 2006)
Only further questioning and continued dialogue can lead towards concrete conclusions, as there are multiple perspectives to be looked at when considering the role of historically oriented films. Some final questions to consider: How important is it that this film was made? Is it better that it was made into an entertaining piece with some inaccuracies, or should the filmmakers have “made it right or not have made it at all”? Conversely, if the film is so accurate that it loses the thread of entertainment, how does that affect the ultimate purpose of film? Can a historically oriented film be equal parts accurate and entertaining?
With some of the accuracies, inaccuracies, and questions having been expanded upon, the ultimate question remains: How successful was Flyboys as a modern portrayal of The Lafayette Escadrille? A positive argument can be made when comparing the fact that the film perfectly captured the character, heart, motivation, skills and bravery of a group of men that history textbooks and AP US History normally gloss over. Flyboys does an exceptional job of not just introducing viewers to the individuals of the Lafayette Escadrille, but also putting them in their shoes, allowing them a fairly accurate glimpse into what they experienced. In this way, and as exhibited in the analysis, research, and observations conducted, Flyboys is a successful and entertaining secondary source through which we can step into the shoes and enter the cockpit of some of country’s very first fighter pilots, aviators, and heroes of the air.