In 1927, Howard Hughes began production on a epic featuring the pilots of World War I that would be heavy on aeronautical thrills much in the same vein as "Wings". However, Hughes just could not stop tinkering with his pet project, eventually running the production cost up to four million dollars. This movie is a good example of not being able to tell where Hughes' OCD ends and his desire for perfection begins. However, it all paid off in the end, although it took years. Eventually the film did make eight million dollars, making it one of the top money-making films of the 1930's.
There are two major flying sequences in the movie, part of which were actually filmed by Hughes since he couldn't get a professional cameraman to take the kind of chances involved. 1927's "Wings" had some great aerial combat, and had actually won a special Academy Award for engineering, but this film really outstrips it in daring and realism. For example, there are thirty or forty biplanes spinning around one another in one breathtaking combat sequence. Hughes pulled these scenes off largely by employing actual veteran flyers and ex-doughboys eager to show off their skill on camera in return for the big bucks Hughes was offering. However, after three of them died in the extreme sequences, the rest refused to fly for the final scene, saying that they were sure to crash. Hughes decided to fly the scene himself, getting the needed shot. However, just as the pilots had predicted, he also crashed the plane, although he escaped with relatively minor injuries. The main dirigible model was built on a vast scale, and when it explodes (in partial color) the effect is impressive. For the final aerial scene, Hughes used an authentic rebuilt German Gotha biplane bomber.
Politically, this film has quite a bit of anti-German sensationalism. For example, the German dirigible commander decides to lighten his ship by ordering his own crew to jump to their deaths. In this film, although there is one "good" German - Roy and Monte's Oxford pal Karl - the women are all faithless. There are no adoring mothers or girlfriends waiting for our airmen to return home in this movie. This is especially true of Jean Harlow's character, Helen. She toys with Roy's heart while every man in uniform becomes her target of opportunity. Helen's outfits are all very revealing and definitely pre-code. There is also plenty of rough language between the pilots, especially when they are aloft. Although this is probably quite realistic in terms of what went on, this also could only happen in the pre-code era. Hughes knew the so-called "code" had no teeth in the era in which this film was made, although his stunts caused him real trouble in his later films.
It's hard to tell from the film if Hughes had any real hard and fast feelings about World War I or war in general, or if it was just him inserting the right sense of showmanship at appropriate places to stir up the audience. For example, in one scene a man demonstrating in the street preaches that it is folly to fight a war that is really about capitalism being impeded by the petty inter-fighting of the various European powers, and is beaten by the crowd as a result. But strangely enough, when that line of reasoning is later adopted by the "bad" brother Monte, although much less eloquently, he is deemed a coward. Monte tries to redeem himself by volunteering for a dangerous aerial mission, but even then he has to be dragged to execute the assignment by his brother. When both brothers are captured and Monte wants to tell everything about the pending British attack to his German captors in order to save himself, brother Roy comes up with a clever but unpleasant solution.
This is really great entertainment if you are at all interested in either film or aviation history.