In the so-called “Last Gentleman’s War,” dog-fighting pilots were the noble rowdies. So asserts the Flyboys, Tony Bill’s paean to the American volunteers in the Lafayette Escadrille, circa 1916 (before the U.S. entered the war). Trained in France and sent forth to do airborne battle with Red Baron-ish villains, the boys all have individual and familial “issues” to resolve through their service. And so the war becomes the occasion for each to engage in a personal growth experience.
Flyboys begins by introducing its squad members one by one, establishing their good and not so good reasons for signing up. Robust and naïve, Texas rancher Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) strides into frame with his eyes squinting against the sun, frustrated and angry at the loss of his parent’s land to the bank. He can ride a horse and rope a steer, but he can’t keep up with newfangled business practices. And so, he figures, he might as well head to Europe, where he can put his flair for cowboying and earnest energy to use on these brand new “flying machines.” That, and, the sheriff advises he get out of town owing to some local trouble he’s caused while drunk.
As much as Blaine embodies a kind of rugged masculine ideal, some of his fellow fliers-to-be are less instantly fit for duty. Still, their choices—like Blaine’s—suggest the reasons that young men go to war, aside from the claim to patriotism most often made by fighting men. They’re poor, they’re unhappy, they’re oppressed: they need the military to remake their lives, prove something, or feel like men. Just so, puffy-faced, painfully youthful Briggs (Tyler Labiner) enlists in order show his wealthy snob of a father than he’s a worthy individual. A cavalry officer’s son, William Jensen (Philip Winchester) seeks to continue his family’s military tradition, even though he’s not precisely inclined to such activity himself. And Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis) is a black expatriate boxer who enlists in order to defend France, whose citizens have treated him with respect and generosity compared to his birthplace, the United States.
These and other team members are greeted at the training facility—an expansive, well-appointed estate converted for their use—by Capt. Georges Thenault (Jean Reno, in epaulets and boots). The fact that Blaine arrives late on the scene and instantly pronounces himself the best of the bunch doesn’t precisely win him new friends, but it does set him apart, making Flyboys the latest in a series of movies trying to make Franco a star, of the action or romantic variety. Here both modes are in play, as he soars through the air (long, sweeping shots, big music), and also meets a local girl, Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), valiantly looking after her dead sister’s kids in a rustic home just down the road from the whorehouse.
In fact, Blaine first spots Lucienne at this business establishment, whose workers have taken him in after he’s been shot down nearby. He’s struck by her beauty, and their lingering looks at one another as she tends to his injured leg make clear they’ll be a couple; thank goodness, the film dispatches with his qualms about her moral status soon thereafter, when he learns she was just a visitor at the bordello, not a worker. Phew for that.
More pressing moral questions arise concerning the war. First, there’s the life expectancy for dogfighters: flying lightweight, open-cockpit biplanes, they tend to be killed within three to six weeks of their first flights. Still, they dedicate themselves to their missions, believing in their cause, or at least in their captain (and Reno makes for a fairly alluring paternal stereotype). They engage in expected montages of practice, in rudimentary wooden models of the planes and golden light, learning to fly and shoot at the same time, and then, learning to keep each other in sight while actually flying. Dogfighting, it turns out, is not only an occasion for individual acts of valiance and violence, but a group effort as well.
At least this is the nominal lesson to be learned. The most charismatic role model at the estate is designated team leader Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), who not only holds some legendary (though unknown) record of enemy shoot-downs, but also keeps a full grown lion in his room. While the guys all look up to Cassidy, seeing his excellent and shooting and firm-seeming resolve as indications that they are indeed, fighting a good fight. In turn, he marvels at their enthusiasm, as he sees what he’s doing as part of an insidious machine of state violence. “Truth is,” he says, “I was a lot like you, full of idealism, maybe even a sense of honor.” But now, he continues, he’s realized “This war won’t ever be won by either side. It’ll just end.” The war, he concludes, is “useless.”
Blaine tries to counter such depressing logic, and so, ignore the history that Reed has cited, by challenging Reed. How come he goes on so many missions, if he thinks the war is “meaningless”” Ah, proclaims the sage one, “You gotta find your own meaning in this war,” by way of not explaining himself or his rejection of attrition as a means to measure victory. He’s the film’s only voice against war—as cultural institution and global industry. Alas, the flyboys don’t quite come around to understanding his cryptic advice, or accept the meaning that is thrust upon them. As they become men, movie-made and heroic, they duly exalt their beloved Cassidy, just as he wouldn’t want them to do.