The Millionaires’ Unit


Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King

 

Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Downstairs

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Once you've seen one awe-inspiring cave drawing, you've seen 'em all.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Directed by Werner Herzog

We are merely part of an endless unbroken line of vessels, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our earliest human ancestors. The line between us and them is not nearly so tenuous as you might think.

In 1994, rock climbers in the South of France discovered Chauvet Cave, a cave of unusual beauty and grandeur. That, however, is not why the great filmmaker Werner Herzog bothered to make a documentary. The cave is also home to the earliest known examples of cave art, dating back some 35,000 years.

The paintings are incredibly fragile and access to the caves is thus justifiably limited to only a few weeks a year, and only to scientists. Herzog had to receive special permission to film in the cave, and even then with a bare bones crew with lights that emit no heat and are battery operated as all his equipment had to be. They could only walk on metal planks two feet wide, and couldn’t touch the walls. They had to wear special suits that would prevent contamination of the fragile cavern eco-system and enter through a steel door that is locked electronically.

But the beauty behind that door! Scenes of horses, moving en masse; wooly rhinoceroses battling, the seductive form of a woman with a bison’s head, all drawn on curving walls and projections, giving the illusion of three dimensionality, which is why this documentary was filmed in 3D so that viewers could get the proper effect. It still gives me goosebumps that these are depictions of animals that have not walked the earth for tens of thousands of years but were witnessed by human eyes.

The drawings themselves are surprisingly sophisticated given the circumstance. The animals are shown to be in motion; you can almost hear the horses whinny. The cave sparkles with crystals from the calcification process of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites, adding an otherworldly air to a cave that is already locked in time. It was almost perfectly sealed off from the ravages of the elements when the cliff face collapsed and sealed it shut. That served to preserve everything inside it, allowing us to see these amazing drawings 35,000 years later.

There are a lot of interviews here with scientists, some of whom are a bit quirky (like the German musicologist who plays the Star Spangled Banner on an ivory flute similar to ones found in nearby caves, or the programmer who used to be a circus acrobat). All of them are clearly affected on a very deep level by the cave and the artwork within.

The interesting thing is that the cave wasn’t really a habitation. Cave bears lived in the cave (their scratches, footprints and bones are all over) and humans used it for what appears to be ceremonial purposes. We can only speculate at this point but some of the positioning of stones and skulls in the cave lead some scientists to theorize that religious ceremonies took place there.

This isn’t a scientific lecture however, although obviously scientists play an important role in the cinematic experience (occasionally too much – the movie might have been better served letting the images speak for themselves more often). Herzog isn’t interested so much in explaining things, but letting the audience come to their own conclusions. He is not asking questions like “what did they use to get those colors” or “what manner of worship was conducted there.” He instead asks questions like “When did humans first get their soul?” and “What makes us human?” which in my opinion are far more worthy and interesting questions to ask.

This is the kind of movie that is going to stay with you for a very long time. It will percolate in your head, change color and shape and lead you to examine greater questions about our place in history. Will it change your life? I can’t say that it will and I won’t say that it won’t, but it will almost certainly change your perception of life. A movie that brings out a genuine feeling of awe in the audience is rare enough and should be experienced without delay if it comes to a theater near you.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t help but be awed by the power of the cave drawings, and the scientists interviewed convey that awe.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES: Might be a little too tedious for those with short attention spans but otherwise great for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is co-produced by the History Channel’s motion picture arm, History Films. This is their first feature release.

HOME OR THEATER: This must be seen in a theater for maximum viewing impact.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity