England, 1943. Two US Air Force bomber pilots, Buzz Rickson (Steve McQueen) and Ed ‘Bo’ Bolland (Robert Wagner), are best friends, room-mates and regularly go on missions together during World War Two. When a bombing run is called off mid-flight due to heavy cloud cover, Buzz completes it anyway, and causes the death of several airmen in the process. His insubordination becomes a problem, but because he’s the best pilot they’ve got, the army is forced to keep him on. Meanwhile, Bo hooks up with Daphne (Shirley Anne Field), a girl dating one of the men in the downed plane. Buzz’s irresponsibility and Bo’s relationship pulls the two friends apart, especially when Buzz looks set to make a move on Daphne.
So far I’ve watched seven Steve McQueen films from his early career. Of those seven, this makes the third notch of war films, and there appears to be a damn sight more to go with titles like Soldier in the Rain, and of course The Great Escape. However, this also marks the third war movie starring Steve McQueen to be something of a disappointment, another mediocre film devoid of any reasons to be recommended, but also without much cause for damning. They’re all just a bit, well, dull. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case with The Great Escape, the next film on McQueen’s resume, as I generally recite that as being one of my favourite films (always top 3, occasionally #1), although it has been a few years since I’ve seen it.
The War Lover – a clever title with an ambiguous meaning, eventually describing both Buzz and Bo, but for different reasons – begins on a negative point, showing these two good ol’ boys sharing their love of warfare, with their only complaint being they have to get up early for a briefing. We are then treated to seeing every single step involved with the mission, from the briefing, boarding and being signalled to take off, to the landing gear being raised, mounting and testing the guns and reaching the height for oxygen masks to be worn. Whilst I’m sure some people will find these little moments to be interesting, I feel they have a more deserving place in a documentary covering a similar topic. We also see most of the different roles and duties within the bomber plane, from the pilot right down to the operator of the ball turret in the belly of the plane. The actual aerial combat scenes were OK, but it was very evident when models had been swapped in for the real thing. I understand this was made in 1962, but it wasn’t realistic enough for me.
There were some unexpected moments of attempted titillation, clearly aimed to entice a younger male audience into the cinemas during the days before the Internet. The most blatant of these is a scene where Daphne, at home wearing her nightclothes in her apartment, goes to answer the door. As she approaches, the camera makes a lunging, awkward zoom into the cleavage of her nightie, and makes a valiant attempt to follow it for the rest of the scene. Now that’s some classy film-making.
There are also some almost lethally trite lines of dialogue such as “Afraid to die? You’re damn right I am! And you’re afraid to live!” and “I’m good, that’s what makes me special!” This, along with many other aspects, inescapably mire the movie in a cloud of cliches. In fact, one character even admits to using a cliche at one point, saying “I guess I was using a cliche because there was nothing better to offer.” I’m positive director Philip Leacock took this sentiment to heart, although I’m sure many aspects of this film have become far more eye-rollingly common in war films since this film’s release. Like the guy who carries a dog around in his jacket and has a wife and kids waiting for him at home, who may as well have been credited as Cannon Fodder.
These cliches all mounted up to an unbearable level, especially when compared against one more modern film that I wasn’t necessarily fond of. You may be able to guess what it is. Like The War Lover, it features aerial combat, and the primary focus is on a reckless yet incomparably talented pilot, who at one point even buzzes the tower of his base. His commanding officers have a problem with his attitude, and it costs the life of at least one of his friends. You could even say he’s a bit of a maverick, as he cruises around in his plane. Cough. Top Gun. Cough. Anyway, I can’t blame The War Lover for being too similar to a film made 24 years after it’s release, but I can add that comparison to the reasons why I didn’t get on with the film.
The one thing I did like about the film was the initial misdirection. If you see Steve McQueen in a film, even back then, you kind of assume he’s going to be the hero, and as the film opens this is very much the case. He is the film’s main protagonist, and Wagner’s Bo is almost sidelined, Goosed, if you will, until a little after the halfway mark, when Buzz becomes the villain the film had been missing. I loved that, as the rug was really pulled under me in a similar way to how Looper did the same thing last year. The acting was also OK, and it was nice to see McQueen be menacing for a change. Also, look out for a young Michael Crawford of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em as the crew’s youngest crew member, imaginatively named Junior.
Choose life 4/10