World War I heroes immortalized in ‘Flyboys’

They became the country’s first fighter pilots. With little known about this historical group and the current war situation, producer Dean Devlin (“Independence Day”) knew it was the right time for this film to be made.

“It’s been 40 years since ‘Blue Max,’ the last movie about World War I dogfights, was made in Hollywood,” he said.

Air flight is relativity new in 1916, and when some planes are made into war planes, the invitation to fly strikes a chord with a diverse group of young men who head to France to become flying aces and fight against the the German air force.

Blaine Rawlings (James Franco) has not had an easy life on his Texas ranch. With both parents now gone, the ranch goes into foreclosure and Blaine gets into trouble. He sees the Lafayette Escadrille as his escape and joins up right away.’

Once there, Blaine falls under the command of Capt. Georges Thenault (Jean Reno), a conventional leader who makes sure the men are well trained before they enter battle action. Fellow fliers include Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), a flier who doesn’t mix well with the guys but is quite effective in the air; Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a snobbish rich kid who came to France under pressure of his tyrannical father to make something from himself; Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a black American and up-and-coming young boxer who’s been living in Paris to escape American racism and is tired of the punches; hot shot William Jensen (Philip Winchester); and Eddie Beagle (David Ellison), a somewhat timid guy who is not sure why he volunteered.

As the boys learn to fly, their personalities unfold. They quickly learn this is not a game. The planes offer little protection, and the pilots know most of them will die. Co-star David Ellison said most of the original fliers lived less than 72 hours in the first years of service.

Blaine is a cocky flier who stands out and goes toe-to-toe with Reed Cassidy and his mascot Whiskey, a lion. During his flight training, Blaine meets Lucienne (Jennifer Decker), a young French girl who is left to raise her brother’s children, and a romance develops.

Franco (“Tristan and Isolde,” “The Great Raid”), quite charismatic and often compared to James Dean, was so into making this film that he learned to fly.

“I went up with (director) Tony Bill in a Steerman PT-17 trainer airplane,” he said. “We did loops, and it was a blast. I said I might as well learn how to do it myself so four months before we started filming I went every day and got my license.”

Ellison was already a great flier.

“This was my passion most of my life,” he said. “I started flying at 13, did my first solo flight on my 16th birthday, started flying nationals and at 20 got invited to fly the Oshkosh Air Show.”

Tony Bill insisted Ellison be in the movie.

“I wanted my actors to be comfortable in what they do in the movie, so we had them all learn to fly,” Bill said. “There’s a passion that develops with flying, and we needed the actors to get that bug.”

The cast is secondary to the story. The film resonates on several levels. It has a nostalgic feel about a time when honor was inherent and young men gave up their lives to protect their country.

“It was a much simpler time, but if you compare it period-wise to what we have now, it would seem just as complicated to the people living in that era,” Frano said. “These guys volunteered before the U.S. went into this war. Then it was about losing the world. The conflict now is very different, but the similarities are the people that put their lives on the line, these pilots and soldiers volunteering to do what they think is right, but once they’re there, it’s about standing by the person that’s next to you and protecting them.”

The filmmakers bravely chose to make the film independently, which meant a low budget, but the movie still delivers in the action department. They shot 22 real airplanes for three and a half months, then augmented the footage with computer-generated images to create the major battles. The flying battles are realistic, intense and engaging.

“Flyboys” is a well made and action-filled film that includes human elements and even a romance.

“Flyboys” is playing at AMC La Jolla 12.