William Wellman’s (Wings, The Ox-Bow Incident) final film is also his most autobiographical, combining his experiences as an American volunteer in the French Legion during World War I with the experiences of a friend who fell in love with a French sex worker. Lafayette Escadrille stars Tab Hunter as the pilot in love, an unruly youth who deserts the Legion and then fights to regain his honor. The film frames itself as a historical nod, then turns into a training film pointed toward combat, all while simultaneously struggling to be a passionate love story. It’s not entirely effective on any count, but still entertaining on some levels.
Despite his all-American good looks, Tab Hunter is not a charismatic leading man here. Wellman wanted Paul Newman in the role, but the studio forced Tab Hunter on him. Hunter is easily upstaged by his leading lady, the beguiling Etchika Choureau. While the romance is hastily forged and given short-shrift until the mid-mark, Wellman manages to turn Hunter and Choureau’s scenes together into some surprisingly moving and beautiful moments. In their first scene together, Hunter is distracted by his fellow volunteers. While he talks with them, Wellman keeps the camera on Choureau for the entire conversation. Without any words at all, we witness the magic of love at first sight. (The only other time I remember seeing this in a movie is with Patricia Arquette in True Romance.)
The training scenes are almost entirely comical, with a drill sergeant growing increasingly exacerbated by a troop that doesn’t understand his French. The climactic aerial dogfight is also a highlight (and a staple of Wellman’s career). If the ending doesn’t feel right to you, you’re not alone — Wellman fought the studio and lost after the original ending scored poorly with test audiences. Leonard Rosenman’s score adds some panache and George Nardelli is charming as a friendly hotel concierge. Look for Clint Eastwood among the ensemble of actors playing the flying legion, and William Wellman Jr playing the role of his father.