MOVIE – Kato Hayabusa Sento-tai (1944)

Kato Hayabusa Sento-tai (1944)

There’s no escaping it. Every country makes some kind of propaganda movie especially during wartime. We may look at these movies more cynically with the benefit of hindsight but if you take a moment to step back to those dark times and consider the position of civilians who had loved ones fighting far away in the field. They didn’t want to see the brutal reality of what their loved ones were going through. They wanted to see them living it up in between daring escapades if only to give them a reprieve from worrying for an hour or two.

This movie falls well in to that category and is one of the few Japanese propaganda movies to have survived in to the 21st century. It tells the story (albeit loosely) of Colonel Tateo Katō, a Japanese ace of the early war period as he leads his men in to combat for the first time in their new mount, the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon); the title actually translates in to “Kato’s Peregrine Falcon Squadron”. Katō’s real story is a fascinating one and I would recommend anyone with an interest in military history to research him on the internet. Despite all his skill in the air he was killed in a fluke by a gunner aboard a Bristol Blenheim in May 1942. His heroism and attractive physical attributes made him an ideal tool for the Japanese propaganda machine who commissioned this movie less than two years later.

Let’s be clear on something; this is not a biopic of Katō’s life and death. The movie is more about honour, duty and selflessness – essentially all the things the Japanese leadership wanted from it’s people as the noose around Japan’s neck tightened. The characters rarely display any other attributes and when they aren’t in the air annihilating the Allies they are fooling around on the ground or giving grandiose speeches about what it means to serve the Japanese Empire.

I can put up with all this (although being a patriotic Brit seeing the Union Jack desecrated was a bit hard to swallow) but what I found unsettling shall we say is how the pilots treat women in the few scenes where there is one. There is an early scene with a Chinese servant where Katō asks if she understands what he is saying and it feels downright threatening. In a later scene concerning a woman who only works at the base as a maid, the pilots are disappointed hinting that they hoped she was one of the notorious “comfort women”. Anyone who knows more than the average person when it comes to the war in the Pacifc knows just how brutal the Japanese were especially to women who were raped and murdered on a whim by Japanese soldiers without punishment. On the contrary it was expected of them to “dominate” their defeated foes. It was this more than anything that left a bitter taste with me and I can’t dismiss it. Don’t get me wrong here I am not being biased. I watch the film Zulu and while I thoroughly enjoy it my sympathies are actually with the Zulu warriors who at the end of the day were defending their homeland.

Moving on to something more positive, the production values of this movie are exceptionally high even compared to Hollywood propaganda movies of the day. Stunning footage of actual Japanese warplanes are intermixed with painstakingly recreated models to produce some rather epic dogfight sequences. Of particular note is a scene involving an RAF Brewster Buffalo in a very low level dogfight. Quite amusingly, the RAF pilot is animated(!) because they obviously didn’t have any Caucasian actors for the role. Just as fascinating is the fact they used a captured Brewster Buffalo and P-40 Tomahawk for a ground scene where a few engineers are looking them over.

A fascinating movie that is probably tainted by my own views of the war but well worth a try.

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RAF Movie – High Flight (1957)

High Flight RAF Hawker Hunter 1957

High Flight takes its name after a poem written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who lost his life in 1941 over RAF Cranwell where the film is set. Excuse the cynicism but there is something apt about that, for this film appealed more to American audiences than it did British who largely dismissed this film.

The story revolves around a new cadet to RAF Cranwell named Tony Winchester (played by Kenneth Haigh). Winchester is forever making a nuisance of himself as he believes his own skills as a pilot means he is exempt from the same rules as everyone else. Normally this would get him thrown out of the RAF but his senior instructor has history with Winchester’s father who was killed during the war and so a lot of his antics end up getting tolerated. In the end a team is put together to display the Hawker Hunter at the Farnborough air show and Winchester must learn to put his ego aside and work with the others in his unit.

This film, like a lot of contemporary American movies, prefers to look glitzy than realistic with all the flight scenes while playing on the myths of military life. It has all the excitement young boys dreaming of flying in the RAF would have in the 50s but this results in a movie that feels detached from reality. Winchester would be thrown out of the service in his first scene when he lands his personal plane at Cranwell without permission and almost colliding with a De Havilland Vampire but is kept on!

The flying sequences are brilliantly filmed however. There is logic in the progression from Provost basic trainers up to Vampires and then on to Hawker Hunters. There is also a fascinating scene where the cadets are flying in a Vickers Varsity navigation trainer but the rest of the movie is then just high-jinks and light heartedness all of which contrast to what is supposed to be a serious undertone regarding the instructor and Winchester’s father.

Give it a try. There is some enjoyment to be had out of it but fans of The Dambusters may be a bit disappointed.

RAF Movie – Conflict of Wings (1954)

Conflict of Wings 1954 De Havilland Vampire

The great thing about YouTube is that sometimes it will open you up to movies forgotten by time and this is one such movie. Set in 1950s Norfolk the story concerns the local population of a village as they learn that a nearby stretch of land called the Island of Children is going to be used as a weapons range by the RAF. The once pleasant relations with the nearby RAF base quickly turn sour as both put forward their arguments leading to a surprisingly tense climax.

This is a simple movie that has that 1950s innocence to it with undertones of the serious nature of the early Cold War world. From a military enthusiast’s point of view there is plenty here to keep you interested such as footage of an active RAF base in the 1950s and an albeit brief glimpse at squadron life. One of the most interesting scenes is a training session covering the use of rockets against ships and tanks.

The flying eye-candy primarily concerns the squadron’s De Havilland Vampires that are being re-roled from a fighter to a ground attack tasking hence the need for a new weapons range. Other aircraft that feature include a Gloster Meteor T.7 and perhaps best of all a pair of pre-production Supermarine Swifts that visit the base. The two Swift pilots joke about the Vampires being museum pieces which is somewhat ironic since the Swift’s career was nowhere near as successful as the Vampire’s.

The rest of the movie addresses an important topic that is as relevant now as it was back then; the military’s impact on the environment. This is not an action packed movie although it has some nice flight scenes. It has good pacing and at just under an hour and a half it’s not too long. Got a quiet afternoon and like aeroplanes and local history then this might be for you.

MOVIE – The Flying Lesson

A truly beautiful short film about a woman who wants to honour her pilot-grandfather by going up for a flight in the same De Havilland Tiger Moth trainer that he did. Aided by the distinctly old fashioned instructor known as Douglas she experiences the feeling of a true stick-and-rudder aircraft – the closest any of us will get to flying like a bird.

Well made, moving and featuring stunning in-flight footage of the Tiger Moth this is a must-see for fans of a true British aviation icon.