Review: David Miller’s “Flying Tigers,” Starring John Wayne

Anna Lee and John Wayne in “Flying Tigers”
Anna Lee and John Wayne in “Flying Tigers”

John Wayne took on his first ever war movie midway through 1942 with Flying Tigers, a heavily fictionalized telling of the first American Volunteer Group in the Chinese Air Force. The Republic Pictures film is little more than a shameless ripoff of the 1939 Howard Hawks classic Only Angels Have Wings, with elements of the war added in for a patriotic box-office boost. Wayne plays the leader of the squad of fliers, who prior to Pearl Harbor sign up to help defend the Chinese against attacks from the Japanese. Wayne has a cursory love story with Anna Lee, and a played-out feud with a brash pilot new to the crew (John Carroll, a supporting player from Only Angels Have Wings). The film is inundated with white savior complex; as the pilots shoot down cartoonishly evil Japanese fliers, simplistic Chinese characters cheer them on and praise them endlessly. Still, the formula pulled from the Hawks film works, and the weakness of most of the cast can be ignored for how well Wayne’s role allows him play to his strengths as the tough but charismatic protagonist. It also helps that the generally cheap Republic Pictures spent a great deal more money than usual on this production, the impact of which can be seen particularly with the outstanding Oscar-nominated effects that elevate the battle scenes. It was good investment for the small studio; the film was the only one in the box office top 20 in 1942 not produced by one of the majors, reinforcing Wayne’s power as a box office draw.1 There are missteps aplenty—from the racist caricatures to some unnervingly violent moments—but Flying Tigers still remains one of the key early WWII pictures, whose stolen structure would be emulated by countless subsequent films.

Where to Watch

Buy it on Blu-ray / DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

For More on Flying Tigers

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

References   [ + ]

1. Randy Roberts, John Wayne: American (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1995), 220.