Not rated, but folks die. I mean, that's really about it. If you really want to get into objectionable material, the worst thing in this movie is that 1939 is not exactly known for its wokeness. It's got some basically regressive ideas. Nothing that stands out for the era or even for some movies today, but it could be better. But basically, people die in this film and that's all that can be seen as objectively objectionable.
DIRECTOR: Howard Hawks
As of right now, I still teach a film class. In that film class, I discuss Howard Hawks. It's not very much. He gets a slide during his era of Hollywood. In that slide, I talk about how the textbook describes him as a macho director who is obsessed with flight and airplanes. My association with Howard Hawks has always been Bringing Up Baby. That movie is not macho and has the bare minimum amount of airplanes. Now, I'm not a Howard Hawks expert. I've seen some of the bigger ones, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I never really understood when he's categorized like this...until I saw Only Angels Have Wings. Okay, I get it. The textbook was right. I'm a good person for saying what the textbook told me to say. (That's all teaching is, guys.) (This is sarcasm. Teachers take things very personally.) (That last thing, not sarcasm.)
I'm never quite sure what Only Angels Have Wings is. It seems to constantly shift what kind of movie it really is. Look at the IMDB page. It's labeled "Adventure, Drama, Romance." You could throw some light comedy in there as well. The main thing I take away from the movie is that it really could be a much lighter accompanying piece to The Wages of Fear. It deals with the whole, transporting dangerous materials while focusing on the fragility of man element that we see in that movie. I want to kind of explore that a bit, but I do want to say that the movie doesn't really initially sell itself like a Wages of Fear movie. Instead, we have a couple of really tropey situation. We are introduced to Bonnie at the beginning of the film. Bonnie is considered tough as nails. Boy-oh-boy, do the fellas love her. But she won't take no guff. (I've written too many sentences in a row with this voice and I can't get out of it organically.) We're looking back to 1939 and I think that this is one of the movies that is the product of a regressive era. I think that the movie thinks that it is being progressive with the introduction to Bonnie. Rather than meet Bonnie directly, we see the terror she inflicts on the porter. There's the juxtaposition between the porter's injury and the petit unloading of Jean Arthur that kind of plays as a mix between a gag and character development. There is one really problematic thing that even probably 1939 shouldn't have gotten away with in terms of its introduction. I know that Hawks is probably selling Bonnie as a strong woman. Okay, I get that she can hold her own in a fight. But there are two different character choices being made in this moment. One scenario is that Bonnie won't put up with advances made by men. She doesn't need a man and will let them know by clawing and bruising. That's what is implied by the injury on the porter. If it was that, we could have let the whole thing go. But that doesn't really scan with the way that she acts for the rest of the film. The first thing that the men from the airport do is sexually harass her and she seems to absolutely adore the attention. Often, she's treated as lesser than the rest of the staff of the airport. She's considered strong in the sense that her sensibilities are aligned with Geoff and the rest of the crew, but she is often treated with kid gloves because she can't handle a lot. This puts her introduction into perspective. It can't really be that Bonnie is a character that doesn't put up with advances, so much as she is a character who was almost raped. That porter is no longer a good guy. Also, the fact that the guys are hitting on her after they see what she can do means that they have regressed the character as simply being "feisty." That's really icky in my mind. It's a romance. I get it. There needs to be an interesting character, but we're being fed two very different narratives in the story. Also, why does she like Geoff? Hear me out. The traditional romantic dynamic is that the characters start as pig-headed guys and they discover the vulnerability beneath. Okay, that happens here. But somehow he convinces Bonnie that he isn't responsible for the pilots death. From moment one, the pilot establishes that it is way too dangerous to fly. Geoff is the guy who is supposed to fly if things get too hairy. He doesn't fly. He still sends the guy up. I get that the pilot wasn't supposed to make dumb choices to impress a girl, but it totally is Geoff's fault that the pilot died. I know that is part of his job, but she ends up kissing him by the end of the night. Really weird choice.
But in terms of The Wages of Fear element to the movie, I think I like that. Listen, I'm always going to advocate for the value of a human life in everything I say, act, and do. But there's something really interesting when a story talks about people who do the most dangerous things in the world and find value in those things. Okay, Free Solo doesn't really apply. But I like Man on Wire and stuff like that. If I asked all of my students about money over survival, I think my answer, for the most part would be that money isn't as important as being a good person and surviving. But that argument would turn something into a binary that really isn't. I mean, these guys aren't itching to die. But they are constantly surrounded by death. In fact, death is so prevalent with what they do that they actually make up odd coping methods for dealing with death. Why? Because the next day, they need to be so focused on their task that any kind of distraction like that is likely to get them killed. It's almost superstitious. What makes a movie like this so interesting? I suppose it is the fact that not only is it unrelatable, but it is wholly and completely unrelatable. It's a sideshow circus. Why would someone do this? Because they can. Yeah, Hawks touches a little bit on the fact that this is the only way that these characters can live. Geoff needs to fly. In fact, the central theme of the movie is that life without flying is not a life at all. He is keeping Bonnie at a distance because he has had a relationship that has attempted to draw him away from the life that truly motivates him, despite the fact that the life is wrought with danger. It is a bit bizarre that Judy ends up acting as a cautionary tale for him. Bonnie is just Judy Part II. Hawks does a solid job of making Judy just unlikable enough to make Bonnie Geoff's object of affection, but what is there in that? This is where the movie becomes a bit of a stretch for me. There are a string of coincidences that are almost beyond belief for the film. Because I overall liked it, I'm going to say that these coincidences can be written off with a suspension of disbelief. But I also know that if I had to be completely objective, these moments are absolutely absurd. The fact that Judy comes into his life and is married to Bat, the one guy who was a bad guy before. He also got Kid's brother killed? I mean, we get that she has to be a bad guy, but that seems a bit much. But for a movie that is all about the low cost of human life, there's another message that is the complete opposite trying to wedge its way in there.
Bat's redemption almost flies in the face (like a condor) of everything that the movie up to this point has been preaching about. I like a good redemption storyline and this one is pretty great. Bat, a coward who left Kid's brother to die, does all that he can to rescue Kid, even putting his life at stake and taking on burns. But Bat isn't a character until really the final third of the film. So many different things have to happen to get Bat and Judy into the story that I just kept on reevaluating what this movie was really about. There's a balancing act going on with the elements of the plot and Hawks kind of pulls it off. If you want to have people believe something absolutely absurd, make them focus on a sense of urgency. In terms of scripting, there's a very concrete goal that probably doesn't really exist in the real world. Geoff has to have so many mail flights consecutively to earn a contract to keep the airport open. They are risking their lives, after all, and they want to get paid. But it is such an all-or-nothing situation that they have to hire this guy that they recognize as a coward and a liability. It's odd. Bat is a character that we are told is bad. From the description of him, he actually does sound pretty rough. But he is instantly likable. The story initially was about Geoff and how we were trying to redeem him. He actually gets redeemed far too early in the story and has to backpedal some of his behavioral growth. Honestly, that happens. In the first half of the movie, Geoff tones down the whole macho act and decides to return Bonnie's random affections. I know that I'm overly simplifying it. I'm a bit of a Strawman right now, but that's kind of what happens. In a gross way, he kind of wants that one-night-stand, tragic relationship rather something of substance. It makes sense with his character, but it is really gross. He can't fall in love again because the same problems that happened with Judy would just repeat with Bonnie. But Geoff gets kind of a clever moment that really takes the legs out of the movie. SPOILER FOR THE END OF THE FILM: By offering her the double sided coin, yeah, the Chekhov's gun is fired. Yay there. But it also gives him a cake-and-eat-it-too moment. He's allowed to make enough of a change that his character would technically be considered dynamic without actually having to be vulnerable in the moment. Instead of actually communicating with Bonnie, he gets to run away and be both a pilot and a significant other. He made the big change, but is too proud to actually admit that major change. It's a cop-out. Regardless, it is what it is. I think the movie kind of needed the clever ending, but that is a problematic character to begin with.
I guess the movie is fine. I loved Bringing Up Baby and Only Angels Have Wings does the job it signed up to do. But it also has the problem of trying to be a dozen movies and has a bit of a Jack of All Trades problem. Every single genre represented in here has been done similarly somewhere else and far better. If you want a bite of each genre, it appeals. But I would love to see this movie really address the value of human life on a scale of The Wages of Fear. I would love to see a redemption arc throughout the course of a film. I want Geoff to make some real changes and allow the female character to have the upper hand for once. It's a lot of cool moments that feel vapid as a final product. That doesn't meant the movie isn't worth watching.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.