Dive Bomber (1941)
Call me a sucker for some good old-fashioned old-time military aviation, but 1941’s Dive Bomber is a superb and often overlooked gem of a movie. I can’t say it any other way.
It’s full of that pre-Pearl Harbor optimism and enthusiasm, with just enough bite and bitterness to even it all out. Not to mention a rare technicolor look at the world of naval aviation, and particularly, aviation medicine. The “specialization” involved here, in my opinion, makes it even more of a classic.
Lt. Doug Lee (Errol Flynn) is a doctor in the navy, who has the unfortunate task of pronouncing the pal of pilots Blake (Fred MacMurry) and Griffin (Regis Toomey) dead after a crash of his dive bomber. This incident pushes him into the Flight Surgeon school, where he quickly becomes the prodigy of Instructor Rogers (Ralph Bellamy). His goal is to pursue the problems of “altitude sickness” and of blackouts under high G-forces.
Of course to become a Flight Surgeon, you must first become a pilot, and who should Lee draw as a flight instructor but Blake. The conflict between these two, and in fact between all pilots and the flight surgeon corps, is heavy throughout. The responsibility of the doctors to keep tabs on all the pilots vs their willingness and need to fly is made quite evident.
But where the real meat of the movie is, is the scientific endeavours. We witness the birth of the modern flight suit, which pushes blood from the lower part of the body towards the brain during high G maneuvers to combat blackouts. We also see some early attempts at defeating altitude sickness, with pressurization suits, and in fact fully pressurized cabins, which just didn’t exist back then. Maybe its not for everyone, but seeing the experiments and whatnot of the time was something else.
You also have to give a bit of a chuckle at the sheer amount of chain smoking going on here. I’ve got nothing against it per se, especially in a picture of the time, but here it almost becomes humorous the amount of times the main characters are lighting up. Especially when they jump out of an airplane on the tarmac that just got refueled!! Almost spit out my beer on that one. I could imagine a rather horrific drinking game based on the amount of Lucky Strikes consumed in this picture….by doctors no less…. what? oh, yeah, the movie.
The bits with the enlisted man and his ex-wife are somewhat strange, but provide a well-placed and needed bit of comedy relief at points in the film.
Ultimately Blake and Lee come to terms with each other, and realize that they’re both fighting for the same thing. Blake’s sacrifice in the name of science is an honorable tribute to the real men who lived on the edge of discovery and invention during this time.
Dive Bomber turned out to be a lot more entertaining and interesting than I had expected, and I absolutely recommend you see it if you’re an aviation buff or at all into the science behind it all….