Flying Tigers (film)

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Flying Tigers
Fying Tigers FIlm poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by David Miller
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Written by Kenneth Gamet
Barry Trivers
Starring John Wayne
John Carroll
Anna Lee
Music by Victor Young
Cinematography Jack A. Marta
Edited by Ernest J. Nims
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Release dates
  • October 8, 1942 (1942-10-08)
Running time
102 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Flying Tigers (a.k.a. Yank Over Singapore and Yanks Over the Burma Road) is a 1942 black-and-white war film, starring John Wayne and John Carroll as pilots in the mercenary fighter group fighting the Japanese in China prior to the U.S. entry into World War II.

Flying Tigers dramatized the exploits of Americans already fighting the enemy in the Pacific. It was unabashedly a propaganda film that was well received by a populace looking for a "flagwaver."[1]


Jim Gordon (John Wayne in his first war film) leads the Flying Tigers, a legendary unit not sanctioned by the American government at the time. His men fly Curtiss P-40 fighters against Japanese bombers and fighters in the skies over China. The pilots are a mixed bunch, motivated by money (they receive a bounty for each aircraft shot down), patriotism or just the thrill of combat.

One day, old friend Woody Jason (John Carroll) enlists. An arrogant, hot-shot aviator, he starts causing trouble immediately. When the Japanese raid the base, the enthusiastic new arrival goes after them, taking up a fighter aircraft without permission, not realizing until too late that it has no ammunition. As a result, he is shot down. He is unharmed, but the precious fighter is a wreck. As time goes on, he shows that he has little use for teamwork, alienating and endangering the other pilots. He abandons his wingman, Blackie Bales (Edmund MacDonald), to chase a Japanese airplane. As a result, Blackie is killed after bailing out of his crippled fighter.

Woody starts romancing nurse Brooke Elliott (Anna Lee), who is considered by all to be Jim's girlfriend. One night, they go on a date. When he is late getting back for a patrol, Jim's right-hand man, "Hap" Smith (Paul Kelly), secretly takes his place, despite being grounded by Jim because his vision had deteriorated, particularly at night. In the resulting dogfight, Hap is unable to judge distances accurately and winds up dying in a collision with a Japanese aircraft he is pursuing. This proves to be the final straw. While sitting at his office desk, Jim fires Woody, explaining that "It's out of my hands now. None of these men will ever fly with you again. And they have to fly." The date is Sunday, December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, which brings the United States into World War II.

A day later, Jim receives word that a vital bridge has to be destroyed. The target is so heavily defended, the only way that has a chance of working is to try to sneak in with a single cargo aircraft and bomb it, but it would likely be a one-way trip. Jim flies the plane, but Woody invites himself along, much to Jim's irritation. They bomb the bridge too late to stop a crucial supply train from crossing. The aircraft is hit and catches fire. Jim bails out, expecting Woody to follow. However, Woody has concealed the fact he has been hit by shrapnel from a flak burst. He crashes into the train, destroying it at the cost of his own life. Woody has written a goodbye letter which Jim and Brooke read; in the letter he has asked his scarf be given to the next pilot who thinks it will be "an easy racket." Jim does hand down the scarf to his youthful new wingman, telling him to "Take good care of it...It belonged to a pretty good flyer."


As appearing in Flying Tigers, (main roles and screen credits identified):[2]

Curtiss-Wright test pilots flew P-40E fighters in the live action aerial scenes.


Former Flying Tigers Lawrence Moore who was a clerk and Kenneth Sanger who worked in communications, served as technical advisers on Flying Tigers. Both had left the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in February 1942. None of the real Flying Tigers are mentioned by name in the film, which went into production when the original AVG was still in operation.[3]

Actual combat footage was used in some of the scenes. Movie models were used to portray the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk aircraft the Tigers actually flew, although they were only mock-ups which did no more than taxi. The covers protruding over the cylinder heads of the V-8 automobile engines that propelled the mock-ups are noticeable, and the aircraft lack elevators on the rear horizontal stabilizers. John Wayne's character arrives at the base on the one-off Capelis XC-12, a failed design that found a new life as a non-flying movie prop.[4] It also was used in Five Came Back and a number of other films.[5]

In 1942, due to wartime priorities that prohibited the use of military aircraft for Hollywood productions, Republic Studios approached Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo to recreate the aerial battle sequences required for Flying Tigers.[6] A number of P-40E fighter aircraft waiting for delivery to the U.S. Army Air Forces were repainted in AVG markings, and with the aid of Curtiss test pilots, flew in the film. Chief Production Test Pilot Herbert O. Fisher's screen role was in subbing for John Wayne.[7]

Most of the combat footage of the planes were in actuality miniatures on wires created by special effect experts Howard and Theodore Lydecker. This included the American and Japanese planes - and also included the miniature train and bridge for the climax, and the miniature of the Capelis transport plane that is seen flying through canyons and crashes into the train. No real, flying planes were used for the combat scenes.

The effects were nominated for an Academy Award - but many people voting didn't realize the planes were miniatures on wires, and passed it by for an award.

Elements of plot and character were virtually lifted wholesale from the 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings - without any acknowledgement, leading some to suggest that Angels director Howard Hawks should sue.[8]

Historical accuracy[edit]

The film only loosely represented the story of the real American Volunteer Group. Unlike the movie characters, the AVG pilots were all recruited from active or reserve U.S. military forces, were in Asia with the approval of the U.S. government, and did not see combat before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The first AVG combat mission was December 20, 1941 - nearly two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. (Chennault had seen combat in Chinese service earlier, though.)

John Wayne's character is nicknamed "Pappy." This was also the nickname of Gregory Boyington, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot who flew with the AVG until early 1942. Boyington returned to the U.S. to rejoin the Marines, and became an ace while commanding VMF-214 (the "Black Sheep", which inspired the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep). However, Wayne's character was not based on Boyington, who was not commander of the AVG, and not known as "Pappy" until he commanded VMF-214 in late 1943. "Pappy" was a common nickname for older military commanders.

The goggles worn by John Wayne in the promotional posters are actually a set of tank crew goggles.

Another ahistorical detail is in the scene where Jim Gordon discharges Woody Jason. Gordon stresses to Jason that the other pilots "have to fly." The camera shows the date on the calendar, which is 7 December 1941. The unspoken implication is that because Japan has attacked the U.S., the AVG pilots must fly - they are no longer mercenary volunteers. But the time zone difference is not considered here. China time is 18 hours ahead of Hawaiian time, so when Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December, Hawaiian time, it was already 8 December in China.

The footage of Japanese soldiers firing anti-aircraft guns during the bridge bombing sequence was actually of Chinese soldiers. They are wearing M1935 Stahlhelm helmets, only used by elements of the Chinese Army and not by the Japanese.

The death of Blackie Bates in the movie is based on a real AVG combat incident. On 23 January 1942, Flying Tiger Bert Christman's fighter was hit in the engine, and he had to bail out. While descending to the ground in his parachute, he was strafed and killed by a Japanese fighter. Christman was hit in several places and probably died as a bullet passed through the back of his neck. The cruel manner of Christman's death was widely publicized in 1942. The Associated Press published an illustrated feature article about it and Paramount Pictures made a short documentary about his life. Later in the year, Christman was featured in War band advertisements that read, "He gave his life. What will you give?"[9]


Coming out just after the United States entered the war, Flying Tigers was received well by both public and critics alike, mainly because of the exciting flying scenes. In The New York Times review, the film was characterized as "On a patch-work story frame, Republic Pictures has strung a first-rate aerial circus chock-full of exciting dogfights."[10] The review in Variety was more exacting, commenting, "Handicapped primarily by a threadbare script, production also suffers from slow pacing while John Wayne, John Carroll, Anna Lee and Paul Kelly are barely adequate in the major acting assignments. Some of the scenes look repetitious, the same Jap flyers apparently being shot down and killed three or four times over." [11]


Flying Tigers was nominated for three Oscars: Best Effects, Special Effects for Howard Lydecker (photographic) and Daniel J. Bloomberg (sound); Best Music for Victor Young; and Best Sound, Recording for Daniel J. Bloomberg.[12]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 59.
  2. ^ "Credits: Flying Tigers (1941)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: May 20, 2012.
  3. ^ Orriss 1984, pp. 58–59.
  4. ^ Orriss 1984, pp. 59–61.
  5. ^ "Flying Tigers (1942." IMDb. Retrieved: November 25, 2011.
  6. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 60.
  7. ^ Maurer, Neil L."Letters from the Editors." CBI Roundup, Vol. 34, No. 8, October 1979.
  8. ^ "Turner Classic Movies Film Article: Flying Tigers." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 21, 2014.
  9. ^ Glaess, Andy. "Christman biography." The Flying Tigers - American Volunteer Group - Chinese Air Force. Retrieved: November 25, 2011.
  10. ^ T.M.P. "Movie Review: Flying Tigers (1942); At the Capitol." The New York Times, October 23, 1942. Retrieved: May 20, 2012.
  11. ^ "Flying Tigers." Variety, December 31, 1941. Retrieved: May 20, 2012.
  12. ^ "The 15th Academy Awards (1943) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: November 25, 2011.


  • Dolan Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.

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