Despite not being released theatrically in the US, Jack Gold’s 1976 WWI action movie is one of the best war films of the 1970’s, and while this impressed me as a teenager when I saw it as a Saturday Night Movie on the BBC, it looks even better now. War films hold a difficult line between lecturing us about the futility of the fight and creating notable action scenes for us to cheer; Aces High somehow finds a sweet spot between the two.
Croft (Peter Firth) is the baby-faced new recruit who turns up at the base of a Royal Flying Corp based on the Western Front circa 1917. His life expectancy is short, not more than a few weeks, and will be even shorter if he doesn’t learn quickly from his follow fight-place pilots. The men in the barracks are exhausted; Christopher Plummer keeps a stiff upper lip, but Simon Ward is incapacitated by fear, and Ray Milland and John Gielgud are amongst the big-wigs behind lines, and seemingly in another movie.
The synopsis above might tip off the reader that Aces High’s screenplay, written by esteemed playwright Howard Barker, makes some use of the classic WWI play Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff, but Gold lifts this from the stage and tent-poles the whole enterprise with elaborate action sequences. Even better, Croft’s mentor is John Gresham, played by Malcolm McDowell fresh of a run of anti-establishment figures in If…, O Lucky Man and A Clockwork Orange, and his presence makes Aces High more than just another musty tribute to British bravery and public-school ‘fagging’. There’s a sense of self-doubt about Gresham that McDowell does brilliantly with, through the highs of derring-do to the lows of grief, McDowell does a great job of making Gresham the reflective Han Solo of this story, the real hero if not the central figure.
Unlike most war movies, Aces High manages to have its cake and eat it. It’s an all-star, all action film that’s hard-wired into sacrifice and sadness, and the ghostly coda is well-handled. It’s a shame this film isn’t better known; in pandemic times, WWI seems closer in 2020 than in any time since, and it’s an eye-opener to see the technology and attitudes of war from a hundred years ago.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this film. Link below…