Although focused on the commercial realities of film-making, Hollywood is, at its most basic level, concerned with the telling of stories and, unfortunately, it seems that war has been fertile ground from which to draw material. Being no exception, the Second World War has spawned countless films covering a myriad of subjects. However, there seems to have been only three films that either dealt with or touched upon the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP).
That this number should be so low is not surprising. The BCATP, with its assembly line-like approach to aircrew training, was a vital contribution to the war effort but it lacked the visceral drama of combat. As well, the BCATP was a foreign endeavour and although it had a certain glamour – gathering individuals from many lands together against a common enemy – it was definitely not American and so was of limited interest to Hollywood. That being said, at least two of the films are American-centric.
Just before its entry into the Second World War, the United States was a nation divided. A large portion of the population, supported by official government policy, favoured staying out of what was viewed as a “European War”. Yet there were also many Americans, often supported by unofficial government policy, who were sympathetic to the efforts of the countries fighting against the Axis powers. Between September 1939 and December 1941, a small number of them made their way across the Atlantic to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). But for almost 9,000 American citizens, the path to war led them to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the BCATP. Sadly, almost 900 of them lost their lives while wearing an RCAF uniform.
Sympathy for the fight against fascism, the participation of thousands of young Americans and the still thrilling “newness” of flight made an attractive mixture for a Hollywood looking for film ideas. With an initial script provided by Canadian screenwriters and the full support of the RCAF, Warner Brothers Studio agreed to undertake a picture that highlighted the BCATP. Called Captains of the Clouds, it was the studio’s first Technicolor film, and featured James Cagney, Dennis Morgan, Brenda Marshall and Alan Hale, Sr. There was even a spot for Canada’s Air Marshal W.A. “Billy” Bishop, playing himself.
Filming took place from July to August 1941. The plot centres on a group of bush pilots who volunteer to join the RCAF once war has been declared. Various military scenes were filmed at RCAF Stations Uplands, Trenton, Jarvis and Mountain View (all in Ontario), with the climactic scene of the movie shot at RCAF Station Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Although it did not premiere until February 21, 1942 – well after the United States had joined the war – it was generally well received by audiences if not by all the critics. Although it is definitely a “war-time” movie with some heavy-handed doses of patriotism thrown in, it is definitely worth watching, especially for its flying sequences featuring (now) vintage aircraft.
In contrast to Captains of the Clouds, the second Hollywood movie deals with the BCATP only in a peripheral manner. A Yank in the RAF, starring Tyrone Power and Betty Grable, was produced by Twentieth Century-Fox and filmed entirely in California.
The opening sequences show aircraft, vital for the BCATP, being towed across the Canada-United States border to avoid contravening the United States’ neutrality law. This is followed by Power as a brash, young American pilot (is there any other kind in Hollywood?) “mistaking” Trenton, Ontario, for Trenton, New Jersey, and delivering an aircraft directly into the hands of the RCAF.
Filmed with complete support from the RAF, the film goes on to tell how Power joins the RAF for selfish reasons, but inevitably finds love (Grable) and his patriotism by the end of the film. If anything, the film is even more heavy-handed in its pro-Allied message. However, it does feature some song and dance numbers from Grable.
Fifty years passed before another commercial film dealt with the BCATP, but this one came with a distinctive Australian-Canadian perspective rather than American. For the Moment tells the story of an Australian trainee, up-and-coming actor Russell Crowe, who finds love and adventure in Canada while undergoing pilot training.
Primary filming took place in August and September 1992, using former BCATP airfields in Brandon and Rivers, Manitoba. Many of the sequences were shot using aircraft from the BCATP Museum at Brandon, or within the museum itself. Although war-time training takes a backseat to romance in the film, it does provide excellent insight into the human aspects of air training in Canada during the war.
In many ways it is a shame that Canadian, or for that matter foreign, filmmakers have not paid more attention to the BCATP. These three movies are the ones that I am aware of that at least touch on air training in Canada during the Second World War. Two of them, Captains of the Clouds and A Yank in the RAF are available on YouTube, but you will need to work a bit harder to find a copy of For the Moment.
In the meantime, if you are aware of any other commercial films (not documentaries) that look at the BCATP, please let me know at [email protected]