At the Movies: Take Two

World War I airplanes star in a feature film about the Lafayette Escadrille.

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A Nieuport 17 biplane is skimming over the countryside, weaving between ancient oaks, buzzing meadows, and bobbing over the occasional sheep. The 110-horsepower radial engine groans as the pilot pulls the airplane into a tight turn, dipping the wing under the bough of a giant tree.

One could imagine that it's 1917, that the rolling landscape is French farmland, and that the Nieuport is piloted by one of a select few Americans who, even though the United States is a neutral country, has volunteered to fly for the French against the Germans. But the spell is broken by the sound of a jet-powered helicopter not 40 feet from the Nieuport's tail.

The Nieuport is not the French-built fighter that helped end Germany’s domination of the air during World War I, but a recently built replica; the countryside is not French, but English; and the pilot is not a World War I ace; he’s Andrew King, a native of upstate New York who, between 1982 and 1986, flew World War I-vintage aircraft at New York’s famous Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

As the helicopter chases his Nieuport, King hears a familiar voice in his headset: "That’s great. Let’s go around and do it one more time. Only this time, can you make it lower?"

Welcome to the set of Flyboys.

The first movie torealistically portray World War I aviation since Jack Gold’s Aces High in 1976, Flyboys is based loosely on the experiences of the volunteers who made up the Lafayette Escadrille. The privately funded flying squadron comprised 38 wealthy young Americans who were anxious to enter the war in support of the Allies. In 1917 and 1918, the group shot down 57 aircraft, and was used as a valuable propaganda tool in getting the United States to fully enter World War I. The film stars famous French actor Jean Reno, and a lesser-known young American, James Franco. Set for release in October, Flyboys will, its producers promise, thrill its audiences with aerial stunts and dogfighting. More to the point, it will do so using real airplanes and real flying.

Increasingly, technology has made real airplanes obsolete in the movies. Audiences who marveled at the swarms of fighters in Pearl Harbor (only six of the aircraft in the film were real) or at the flying scenes in The Aviator have computer graphics artists to thank. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has taken over, changing both the way films are made and what audiences expect from them.

When asked to name their favorite aviation films, however, pilots and aviation aficionados typically list classics such as The Battle of Britain, The Blue Max, or Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines—movies made in the 1960s and 1970s, before computer-generated imagery took over. To these moviegoers, computer-generated images simply cannot convey the complexity and nuance of real flight.

Director Tony Bill, a 3,500-hour commercial pilot with experience in gliders and aerobatics, first thought about making such a film 30 years ago. In the late 1960s, Bill and aviation writer Richard Bach spent a summer barnstorming in Kansas, giving demonstrations and selling rides in Bach’s vintage biplane, a 1929 Parks P2A. A few years later, when Bill was a young producer, he pitched director George Roy Hill an idea that came from his experience: a movie about a couple of former World War I pilots barnstorming around the Midwest. Hill made the movie—The Great Waldo Pepper, starring Robert Redford—but without Bill.

"I’ve wanted to make an aviation movie my entire career," says Bill. And when the chance came with Flyboys, Bill insisted that the film rely, at least in part, on real airplanes. Using modern filmmaking technology like miniature "lipstick" cameras and gyro-stabilized camera mounts, Bill would make the airplanes the true stars of this film. But flyable airplanes from the early years of aviation are very rare, and the moviemakers’ first challenge was to find enough of them to put together a mock squadron.

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