The exploits of American pilots who fought in World War One before their country entered the conflict were the subject of director William A Wellman's autobiographical 1959 film 'Lafayette Escadrille' and are dusted off once again for 'Flyboys', a based-on-true-events action movie with some strong combat scenes but a storyline that goes on too long.
The men of the Lafayette Escadrille are American expatriates who signed up to serve alongside French airmen and ground crews on the Western Front. Their reasons for putting their lives in danger are various. Texan Blaine Rawlings (Franco) has been evicted from his family's ranch and has nothing to lose; the well-heeled Briggs Lowry (Labine) has been forced by his father into the service; country boy William Jensen (Winchester) is continuing a family tradition while African-American Eugene Skinner (Salis) wants to fight for a country which has shown him the tolerance he is unable to experience across the Atlantic.
With the most basic of basic training, the odds of any of them racking up double hours in the sky are slim. But with veteran squadron leader Reed Cassidy (Henderson) up there with them, they will at least learn from the best.
Financed outside the studio system by private investors and filmmakers, the $60m 'Flyboys' fared poorly at the US box office and is never the romance-meets-derring-do epic that it so desperately wants to be. It's watchable, but never heart-stopping.
Best known for his role as Harry Osborn in the 'Spider-Man' movies, Franco plays the time-honoured headstrong young hero who here falls in love with a local woman (Decker) and discovers just what it takes to survive from Henderson's haunted loner - a character that never feels anything more than a load of clichés thrown up on the screen. With one notable exception, you can guess how the story is going to turn out from the moment silk scarves are first knotted. You'll spend most of the film lamenting the fact that Donegal actor Keith McErlean – Barry from 'Bachelors Walk' – isn't onscreen for longer and that his comedic gifts remained untapped.
Where 'Flyboys' fares far better is the special effects. The dog fights are well-worked, in particular the final showdown involving the biplanes and a zeppelin. And while all the encounters may have the feel of a video game, they make up somewhat for the sluggish scenes down on the ground.
Ultimately, this will probably appeal more to grandfathers and fathers than it will to today's young sons.