John Wayne leads a group of American ace pilots against Japanese planes in China, prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A highly conventional military film from the World War II era, a band of American mercenaries take on Japanese planes in thrilling aerial fights. Flying Tigers was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1942, the action wowing audiences in its day with clever FX using models and heightened levels of movie realism.
Captain Jim Gordon (John Wayne) is the leader of the Flying Tigers, an American squadron of ace pilots. Paid a bounty of $500 for every Japanese plane they shoot down, the eclectic group of Americans share one thing, a universal level of respect and admiration for Gordon. The Duke gives his standard performance as a heroic leader in the role, one he carries with typical swagger. In a pre-Brando Hollywood, there isn’t much room given in the script to explore Gordon’s inner psyche. This is John Wayne leading a group of men into pitched battle, standard stuff for the era.
The more interesting character in Flying Tigers is Gordon’s old friend, Woody Jason (John Carroll). Brought into the unit at Gordon’s insistence, Woody is a crack pilot interested in collecting bounties and bedding women, but not necessarily in that order. He immediately starts flirting with Gordon’s supposed love interest, Brooke (Anna Lee). Woody also has a troubled past with another member of the Flying Tigers, Blackie Bales. Woody’s selfish and abrasive behavior starts disrupting morale in the squadron, despite racking up an impressive number of bounties. It starts putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Gordon, who is attempting to keep the squadron from falling apart after a number of pilots are shot down in action.
One goes into Flying Tigers expecting John Wayne to dominate the film. He is nominally the leading man. Solid storytelling by director David Miller turns the more colorful character of Woody into the central character, a ladies’ man with unmatched skill in battle. It is his character arc from reckless pilot to unselfish hero that is most intriguing about Flying Tigers.
Flying Tigers gives us a fairly standard Hollywood treatment on American warfare in the 1940s. It takes a jingoistic view of the conflict with Japan, especially once the events of Pearl Harbor unfold. The squadron switches from a group of mercenaries looking for cash to patriotic soldiers doing their American duty. Aerial dogfights are a marvel considering this film’s age, a mixture of clever editing and then state-of-the-art FX combine to produce convincing footage of the Flying Tigers locked in deadly battle with Japanese planes.
Flying Tigers is solid entertainment but most definitely a product of its time. Containing an average John Wayne performance, it will find fans amongst World War II buffs and action lovers of the period.
Making some allowances for the stock footage used at times in Flying Tigers, Olive Films gives the black-and-white movie a satisfactory presentation in 1080p resolution. Framed at the proper 1.37:1 aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition, the transfer appears to be a relatively new telecine made from unrestored film elements. Some reels have more frequent and obvious print damage, including noticeable gate scratches. Both positive and negative debris are present in some form, which most will recognize as white and black specks.
The AVC video encode nicely handles the grain structure of Flying Tigers with appropriate weight and density, averaging a solid 26.60 Mbps on a BD-25. The black-and-white cinematography by Jack Marta is typical Hollywood for this era, softening actresses in close-ups while maintaining better sharpness and detail for the scenes shot in a studio set. The film transfer has not been filtered to any degree and only a couple of scenes have anything approaching notable ringing. Its film-like authenticity produces a solid-looking experience outside of the occasional stock footage, which does have a heavier contrast and more problems with black levels.
Flying Tigers did not receive a state-of-the-art film restoration but substantial portions of the film look good for a movie employing a number of dated special effects. The newer film scan reveals moderate detail in consistently pleasing quality. Olive Films took a serviceable film print and turned it into a solid Hi-Def transfer that holds up well in 1080p resolution.
Recorded using the RCA sound system, the 1.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack has dated fidelity. The dialogue is cleanly recorded and comes off sounding better than some of the Oscar-nominated Foley work. The sound design often relies on the rumble of airplanes and loud hails of bullets, but it all pales in comparison to modern soundtracks. Everything is congested with a boxy sound.
One should keep in mind the limitations of action-heavy soundtracks when viewing movies from this period.
Olive Films does not give us any special features for Flying Tigers. A short insert for other Olive Films’ release is included and the disc itself does feature snazzy art of a Flying Tiger airplane. Unlike the major studios these days, it comes in a standard Amaray BD case without holes.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.