Bemoaning the state of Soviet film in the early 1930s, Sergei Eisenstein asked if the term “sound-film” meant that “what you see while you’re listening does not deserve attention?” He demanded a return to silent cinema’s “great severity of form” in which each shot was admitted into a sequence “with as much care as a line of poetry is admitted into a poem, or each musical atom is admitted into the movement of a fugue.”
On the face of it, we wouldn’t expect Eisenstein’s call to be heeded by Howard Hawks, Hollywood’s master of rhythmic speech. This severity of artistic form might seem even less likely in a propaganda effort like Air Force (1943), but the film evinces the deliberate precision of a carefully crafted poem. Hawks achieves this visual grace without announcing it, exemplifying what David Bordwell calls the “quiet virtuosity” of Hollywood cinema.
Consider the brief sequence in which the crew of the Mary Anne (a B-17 bomber caught up in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor) listens to Roosevelt’s declaration of war over their radio headsets. [You can find the scene here.] In 15 shots Hawks unites the group, signals their personal stakes in the mission, and connects this crew to the war as a whole. The scene cuts between the crewmembers grouped in their assigned parts of the plane. Captain Quincannon (John Ridgely) and his co-pilot Williams (Gig Young) share the cockpit;
bombardier Lt. McMartin (Arthur Kennedy), navigator Lieutenant Hauser (Charles Drake), and pursuit pilot/passenger Lieutenant Rader (James Brown) gather around the navigator’s desk at the nose;
Corporal Peterson (Ward Wood) and Private Chester (Ray Montgomery) listen at their radio post in the mid-section;
and mechanic Sergeant White (Harry Carey) joins gunners Corporal Weinberg (George Tobias) and Sergeant Winocki (John Garfield) near the tail.
By this point, just under an hour into the film, we are comfortably familiar with the characters and the layout of the Mary Anne. It is a testament to Hawks’ handling of a multiple-protagonist plot that we recognize each crewmember on sight, know his job on the ship, and understand his personal stakes. We have learned the ropes, joined the unit.
Having laid this physical and psychological groundwork, Hawks reduces his means of expression. He cycles through the character groupings three times during the speech as they react silently, save for a single line of dialogue. During the first pass, the men settle in, take up their headsets, and begin to listen.
When applause interrupts Roosevelt’s address, White remarks: “I hope he tells us something about the Philippines, my son’s at Clark Field.” Hawks prefers medium double and triple shots but cuts twice to a medium single of Winocki, the rebellious sergeant who plans to quit the military played with cool ambivalence by Garfield. An understated exchange activates the scene’s dramatic, personal thread. Winocki and White are at odds: the young man sees no future for an enlisted man, while the weathered mechanic remains devoted to advancing his family name in the military by way of his pilot son. In our first single of Winocki he glances from White to Weinberg, checking their reactions as we watch his.
White mentions his son in a two-shot that groups him with Weinberg who shoots him a look of concern, and then we return to Winocki.
He glances up, holds his gaze for a moment on the off-screen White, and glances down.
With this Hawks establishes a parent’s concern for his family, the group’s concern for White, and Winocki’s awakening to the stakes of the fight. All this with 13 spoken words, a glance up, then down.
Having broadened the sequence’s formal repertoire just enough to sound these notes, Hawks narrows his means. From here on, no character speaks to or elicits a reaction from another. Instead, glances around and out of the frame, small gestures, and gentle camera movements tell the story. Hawks’ second rotation groups actors in wider shots. In the cockpit Quincannon glances in Williams’ direction when the copilot adjusts his posture.
At the navigator’s desk Rader exhales a puff of smoke and glances back toward McMartin who straightens his back a bit.
At the radio, Peterson adjusts the controls while Chester leans forward and glances off down the plane’s corridor.
Where the other characters are occupied with the speech and with their immediate surroundings, Chester’s look reaches out, connects space, and registers concern for the crew. It is a minimal hint of group empathy that builds on Weinberg’s glance to White at the start. We know from the layout of the plane that Chester is looking toward the tail, but rather than complete the circuit with a point-of-view shot or eye-line match, Hawks returns us to the cockpit. Sealing the glance to its object would seem too firmly sentimental, perhaps too personally focused, for this sequence. The point is that the men care for one another, not that Chester is worried about White. Hawks asks viewers to lean in and watch carefully for the emotion beneath the procedure.
But distance isn’t indifference. At the same time he teases and denies the easy empathy, Hawks amplifies our investment. The final round through the plane begins with characters in close-up. Back in the cockpit, Gig Young scales his performance as Williams to the tighter frame. He moves his hand from his ear and looks rightward. Hawks’ camera follows this gaze, panning to discover Quincannon whose reaction is even more minute. Where Williams looks to his leader, the Captain fixes on the horizon. Ridgly limits his acting to a slight wince.
The pattern continues when we cut back to the navigation desk where the camera frames McMartin in medium close-up before dollying back to reveal first Hauser and then Rader. At shot’s end McMartin grips his headphone cord and glances down while Hauser tilts his head upward catching an eyelight.
The gesture is in precise coordination with Roosevelt’s speech. As the president intones “So Help Us God,” Hauser glances up. We know, however, that he is also looking in the direction of the picture of his father that he has taped above the desk, just off screen. Hawks’ tactile environments enable spatial precision and subtlety. We know that Hauser lives in the shadow of his father, a WWI ace. He may be looking to God, and certainly the film’s propaganda mission benefits from connecting the soldier to a higher power. On the other hand, Hauser’s gaze activates a meaning within the sealed world of the airplane (if just out of frame). White’s vocalized concern for his son echoes in the navigator’s desire to live up to his father’s image.
These choices build to an unexpectedly powerful four-shot climax. To appreciate his achievement, it helps to imagine alternatives to Hawk’s style. A director might play up the content of Roosevelt’s speech with pregnant cutaways. In this regard, it seems significant that Hawks omits the most famous line of the address, in which Roosevelt refers to a “day that will live in infamy.” But what remains could support more pointed imagery. The president’s line “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost” is ripe for embellishment, from a close-up of the wincing captain to a crosscut back to the burning airstrip we’ve just left in Hawaii. Hauser’s glance off screen might lead to an insert shot of his father’s photo, a reminder that an earlier generation also gave their lives. The characters, lost in somber reflection, might still exchange a few words during Roosevelt’s pauses, helping to articulate their resolve or anger. If Hawks were willing to break from the world of the airplane, the speech could be the occasion for a sweeping montage of Americans from different walks of life, all posed next to their radios in nervous anticipation.
In fact, Hawks does relatively little to align specific images with specific lines from the address. The president’s words float through the plane as a general, shared experience. Roosevelt sets a rhythm for movement and cutting, but doesn’t dictate the content of the shots. This leaves room for emphasis. As Hauser glances upward we get a first indication that word and image are drifting into alignment.
When we return to Winocki, Weinberg, and White in the tail, Hawks lands his punch. The composition holds the characters in medium shot, White in the foreground right, Winocki at midground left, and Weinberg further back and between them.
Our attention is free to wander between listeners. Light and movement favor Winocki as he polishes his gun, but White is largest in the frame and Weinberg the only figure facing the camera. As Roosevelt nears his conclusion, “I ask, that the Congress declare…”, background movement flags Winocki’s portion of the frame. Private Chester, who has heretofore been leaning unnoticed against the fuselage near the radio, takes a seat directly behind Winocki.
The moment is a “Hawksian” reminder of continuous space and action; it makes concrete the contiguity implied by Chester’s earlier glance. At the same time, this bit of staging guides the viewer’s eye to Winocki exactly at the moment of Roosevelt’s conclusion: “…a state of war.” The sergeant who began the film declaring that he was quitting the army looks up, but only slightly.
More meaningfully, White shoots Winocki a quick glance, checking the impact of Roosevelt’s words on him, and then looks away. The wizened old-timer doesn’t waste much time contemplating the soldier’s awakening, and neither do we.
All of this transpires in the final second of an unmoving 9-second shot. With more or less static and unspeaking characters, deliberate pacing, and compositional precision, Hawks attunes the viewer to minute change. Drama is nearly microscopic.
After the slow unfolding of our previous compositions, the sequence closes with startling directness. The lengths of the previous three shots decrease from 15 to 9 seconds, but now Hawks keeps them under 5 and trades staging and camera movement for cutting. With applause on the radio, we return to a close-up of Williams in the cockpit. He turns, glancing once again toward Quinncannon and we cut to the captain, gaze still fixed on the horizon.
Without moving his head, Quinncannon shifts his eyes rightward and we cut to the object of his look: the tiny toy aviator charm that his son gave him, dangling from the control panel.
These decisive edits complete the pattern of glances off-screen and provide the scene’s few unambiguous eyeline matches. Williams’ glance to his captain ties off the thread of crewmembers looking to one another, and Quincannon’s eyeline match crowns the sequence’s paternal theme. The military unit’s inward compassion, their care for one another carried by glances and look, will culminate in the cutting around Quincannon’s deathbed late in the film. [You can see that scene here.] Meanwhile, the allusions to sons and fathers signal concerns that reach beyond the plane and reinforce the quasi-familial structure among the crew. If Roosevelt speaks to and for the nation, the images anchor patriotism to the group’s love for family and one another. The toy aviator, the scene’s most emotionally specific shot, dissolves to a transitional exterior long shot of the Mary Anne slicing through clouds and into a storm. Hawks leads us to the individual in order to emotionalize the whole. It is going to hurt when the Mary Anne breaks apart. We are primed for Winocki’s attempt to save it.
The scene’s premise is simple and its means elemental. It works as a cinematic haiku. Untold depths of feeling emerge from austere form. Hawks could easily have given viewers something to watch while they were busy listening, treating the image as an adjunct to sound. Indeed, we might not recognize the filmmaker’s care, attributing the scene’s emotional energy to Roosevelt’s speech or to our personal historical experience. This is Hawks’ (and Hollywood’s) own version of cinema’s great severity, made all the more potent by going unnoticed.