George Lucas first wanted to make a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen in 1988, but it’s taken until now to get it to the screen. That’s partly due to the fact that every studio turned him down, feeling a big, historical war movie with a largely African American cast wasn’t commercial enough. They were wrong, but unfortunately Red Tails isn’t the film to prove it.
After Lucas stumped up the budget himself the film was finally made with Anthony Hemingway directing, but it was plagued by delays and reshoots, and finally got released over two years after it was first shot. The result isn’t a bad film, but it’s one that’s so clichéd it never rises above the passable.
The Tuskegee Airmen really were a remarkable bunch of African Americans, who in the Second World War went off to fight for their country, even though many in the armed forces still thought they were lesser beings, who were innately cowardly and incapable of taking part in real warfare. Red Tails picks up the story after the pilots have gone from the Tuskegee training grounds to be stationed in Italy. The army is thinking of disbanding the unit, feeling they’re not really much use, even though the reason they haven’t done all that much is because they’re stationed 100 mile behind the frontline and not allowed to do any of the more dangerous stuff.
When the chance finally comes to prove themselves, the men must step up, take to the skies and fight not just the enemy, but the racism all around them, even from their fellow pilots and the bomber crews who don’t think black people will be any use protecting them.
They really were trailblazers, but in Red Tails the incredible true tale is surrounded by such a hackneyed storyline it makes it difficult to really engage with the core of what’s going on. Indeed it’s difficult not to wonder whether Lucas thought that to remedy the fact film has largely ignored black people’s contribution to the Second World War, he thought they ought to get a film encompassing every war movie cliché they’ve missed out on for the past 70 years. And this film really does run the gamut, from escaping a POW camp in a hand dug tunnel to the fact mentioning you have anyone who might care about you is a fast track to the big airbase in the sky. It’s a problem George Lucas has always had, but with the likes of Indiana Jones he had others to steady his cornball tendencies and with Star Wars it didn’t matter, however here his penchant for cheesiness and the fact the only dialogue he likes is bad dialogue, really undermines the movie.
However there is of course something else anything with Lucas’ name attached to it is guaranteed to have, and that’s excellent special effects. While a lot of the scenarios are pretty implausible (the Tuskegee Airmen were great pilots, but WWII planes did not manoeuvre like an X-Wing), the air sequences look incredibly impressive. It’s a slight shame the dialogue of the pilots is abysmal and there only seems to be one pilot who flies all the Luftwaffe planes (it’s almost like a clone army, I wonder where they got that idea?), but the effects are top notch and the dog fights are incredibly effective and thankfully quite plentiful.
If you want to know more about the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, there’s a fascinating 15-minute précis of the documentary Double Victory on the DVD, which gives you an overview of their story and the importance of not just for their place in the Second World War, but also the legacy they left which helped push forward the Civil Rights movement. There’s also a featurette about the tough military style boot camp the actors were forced to go through, which turned out to be a surprisingly emotional experience for all of them.
Overall Verdict: A great true story and some excellent special effects are undermined by a script that mines every cliché and toe-curling piece of dialogue, which results in a movie that never really gets to the heart of it subject.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac