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The War Lover.

Directed by Philip Leacock, written by Howard Koch from the book by John Hersey, starring Steve McQueen, Robert Wagner, Shirley Ami Field, Gary Cockrell, Michael Crawford, 1962, 105 minutes, black and white, not rated.

B-17 aficionados will find a lot to love in The War Lover, an adaptation of John Hersey's novel about the pilot and co-pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress and the woman one of them loves. The pilot is Buzz Rickson (Steve McQueen), a man with "his heart set on blowing up the continent." The co-pilot is Bo Bolland (Robert Wagner), and Daphne (Shirley Ann Field) is the English rose for whom Bo falls at a dance.

Buzz reveals his character in the movie's first mission. Clouds obscure the target and the flight leader orders an abort. Buzz refuses. He takes his wing below the clouds and bombs at low altitude, his face betraying an orgasmic sense of release when his explosives detonate. On another occasion the bombers drop propaganda leaflets, and he is so enraged by the non-lethal cargo that he buzzes the airfield to show his contempt. (It's a great sequence for anyone who likes to watch B-17s.) In the air, Buzz is confident and capable, and his men trust him to bring them back alive. On the ground he is broken and dangerous. As the squadron's doctor tells an increasingly worried Bo, "There's a fine line between the hero and the psychopath." When navigator Lynch (Gary Cockrell) dares to stand up to him, Buzz files a report claiming Lynch is about to crack. Bo's protest over the false allegation gets Lynch transferred to another plane, rather than grounded, but he is killed on his next mission. Once Buzz senses that Bo is challenging his authority, he attempts to have his way with Daphne. Back in the barracks, Buzz hints to Bo that Daphne succumbed to his charms. Then the two men leave on their most dangerous mission yet, a 1,000-bomber raid on Leipzig, hundreds of miles inside Germany.

Other than the B-17s, McQueen provides the best reason to watch the film. He brings a sense of damaged menace to the role of Buzz. Maybe that's because it cut close to home. "Steve was such a complicated man: always looking for conflict and never really at peace," recalled Wagner. The same is true of the character he plays.

The movie's weakest link is the romance. Field is easy on the eyes, but she serves mainly to underscore the movie's themes. "You are on the side of life," she tells Bo. She tells Buzz, "You can't make love. You can only make hate." By resisting Buzz's advances and making him look at his own twisted soul, she cracks his hard exterior--and the cracks deepen during the Leipzig mission, threatening a full-blown breakdown.

Filmed in black and white so the production could use B-17 footage from Twelve O'Clock High (including a spectacular belly landing by legendary stunt pilot Paul Mantz), The War Lover had only three B-17s for the shoot. The planes, all B-17Gs, were refurbished in the United States and flown to the shoot location in England. "It was a flight replete with minor but maddening mechanical failures," wrote Martin Caiden, one of the pilots. "We arrived finally in England despite the dire forebodings of our fellows in the aviation community--predictions abetted by several engine fires that at times threatened to disturb our peace of mind. The weather was consistently opposite to the forecasts; instead of predicted clear skies, we encountered howling storms in which the strength of the B-17 was tested severely." Unlike the missions portrayed in The War Lover, though, all of Caiden's bombers made it through.


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Author:Huntington, Tom
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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