"I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above" (Yeats). It kicks off with airborne ferocity, mid-dogfight with a spiraling pilot engulfed by black smoke. On the ground, the Major (Neil Hamilton) paces his dungeon-like office, ashen from having ordered young men to certain doom. The squadron leader (Richard Barthelmess) returns, and the mechanic cheerily contemplates the shrapnel hole in the airplane’s tail: "Five inches from your behind, sir!" Thus Howard Hawks’ existential void, death and gags side by side under the same taciturnity, a world crystallized in the barricades and trenches of the Great War. Life in the air base is pitilessly circular: people come and go, reduced to names scrawled and erased on chalkboards or condensed into the roar of their flying machines, the defiant rogue inevitably becomes his disgusted superior. The survivors gather at the makeshift saloon for an impromptu chorale (cf. Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory) dedicated to "the next man who dies," then take flight into the gray sky. Impending mortality is everywhere but so is impulsive exhilaration, the sudden joy of sharing a motorcycle sidecar with a sloshed Frank McHugh, warbling terrible songs while zipping between trucks on the road. "Stout fellows, aren’t they?" A vision out of Mallarmé (Toast Funèbre), a gallant salute exchanged between early-talkie theatricality and elating silent-movie action, a thoroughgoing blueprint for Hawksian valor. Ceiling Zero brings on the girls, Only Angels Have Wings achieves abstract perfection, and Air Force restarts the circle. With Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clyde Cook, James Finlayson, Gardner James, William Janney, and Edmund Breon. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce