Men of the Fighting Lady, a Korean War film which was released in 1954, is admirably realistic and surprisingly (considering the political climate of the time) anti-war in tone. The based-on-fact screenplay by Art Cohn is an adaptation of two Saturday Evening Post articles: "The Forgotten Heroes of Korea" by James A. Michener and "The Case of the Blind Pilot" by Commander Harry A. Burns, USN. The film is now available as a very nice addition to the Warner Archive library of made-to-order DVDs.
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution and Encode: 480P/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.75:1
Audio: English 1.0 DD (Mono)
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 20 Min.
Package Includes: DVDStandard DVD Keep Case
Disc Type: DVD-R
Release Date: 07/23/2014
During the Vietnam War I served for nearly two years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, spending many long days and nights in the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. Although the name of the aircraft carrier in Men of the Fighting Lady is never mentioned, most of the carrier footage was shot aboard USS Oriskany, which like my ship was an Essex-class carrier. "Fighting Lady" actually was the nickname of USS Yorktown, another Essex-class carrier, but Yorktown never saw action during the Korean War, which likely explains why the screenplay does not refer to the ship by name. Because of my own Navy experience I was very interested to see how Hollywood would depict life aboard an aircraft carrier during wartime. I am happy to report that the film is authentic in most respects.The film opens with author James Michener (Louis Calhern) coming aboard the aircraft carrier while it is at sea. He is there to interview the ship's flight surgeon, Commander Kent Dowling (Walter Pidgeon), who has a story to tell about significant events which occurred during the recent Christmas season. The film introduces several of the pilots who fly daily combat missions over North Korea. Lieutenant Commander Paul Grayson (Frank Lovejoy) is the squadron commander, who has created some discontent among the other pilots because of his penchant to fly in dangerously low to attack his targets. The most unhappy of the pilots is Lieutenant Commander Ted Dodson (Keenan Wynn), who was decorated for heroism while a pilot during World War II. That war made sense to Dodson, but he openly questions why the United States is involved in a "police action" in Korea (suprisingly, the word "Commie" is uttered only once during the film). Other notable pilots in the squadron who play important roles in the film include Lieutenant (JG) Howard Thayer (Van Johnson) and Ensign Kenneth Schechter (Dewey Martin).The pilots are frustrated and somewhat disgruntled. Every morning they attack and inflict damage upon a North Korean railway yard, and by late afternoon the damage is repaired and the trains are back in business. The attacks are causing damage, and they require the North Koreans to spend valuable time and materials making repairs, but there does not seem to be any progress. This situation is reminiscent of my experiences during the Vietnam War. I was not a pilot, but I was responsible for sending out the ship's strike plans and bombing reports. As was the case in Korea, we repeatedly attacked the same targets, only to see them quickly repaired by the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. In some respects Vietnam was even worse, because many of the bombing targets were only "suspected” targets due to the fact that so much of the terrain was obscured by dense foliage.But I digress. The pilots aboard "The Fighting Lady" debate whether they should risk their lives and their planes by attacking at lower altitudes, or if they should fly their missions as safely as possible and ensure that they will one day be home with their loved ones. The debate goes well beyond an academic exercise when one of the pilots is temporarily blinded after his plane is hit by flak. It is one thing to talk about taking care of number one, but what must someone do when the chips are down for a fellow pilot, even against long odds?The footage of the carrier's flight operations is as authentic as I have seen in films of that era. As noted, most of the take-offs and landings were filmed aboard USS Oriskany (CV-34). Attentive viewers will observe that some of the stock footage was filmed on different carriers, but that does not distract from the story. Some of the footage is truly remarkable, including one spectacular and disastrous crash landing (be sure to take notice of how quickly the ensuing fire is controlled). Carrier pilots tend to be cocky, and that comes across in Men of the Fighting Lady. During the Vietnam War carrier pilots were allowed to paint nicknames of their planes. My favorite nickname among Bon Homme Richard's planes was one dubbed "Yossarian."Director Andrew Marton keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace, and the aerial footage is quite exciting. The cast includes some of MGM's most reliable character actors, all of whom turn in solid performances. The film raises questions about the wisdom of fighting in Korea, but in the end leaves those questions unanswered. Ultimately soldiers and sailors cannot get overly wrapped up in the big picture - they fight their wars one day at a time, focused on doing their duty and looking out for their comrades.
The Production Rating: 4/5
This made-to-order DVD is presented in anamorphic 1.75:1. I have seen some comments which claim that the film was shown in theaters at the Academy ratio, but online references such as IMDB say that 1.75:1 is correct. I leave it to the aspect ratio experts to argue over that, but the framing looks fine to me. Colors are accurate and pleasing, and the occasional uses of stock footage fit reasonably well with the rest of the film. Contrast is generally good. There is some occasional brief flutter, but overall the video is fine.
Video Rating: 3.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The mono audio obviously has inherent limitations, but the soundtrack is clear and clean and no anomalies were noted. The sounds of takeoffs and landings, as well as the combat scenes, actually have some surprising punch to them.
Audio Rating: 3/5
The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer, which is shown in 4:3 and is in very good shape.
Special Features Rating: 1.5/5
Men of the Fighting Lady is a welcome addition to the Warner Archive library, and it is recommended for fans of war films. It can be ordered at the Warner Archive website.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Reviewed By: Richard Gallagher
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