The cyclonic roar of the airplane's engines. Rivetingly extended sequences of airborne tension. Terrifying dogfights wreaking mechanical and somatic carnage. Wartime astriction awkwardly finding itself the approbate condition of millions of different men, only a few of whom are followed in The War Lover. Romance and the fantastically interpreted periodical offering of new hopes and dreams that the rough, asperous tillage of life so rarely gifts the unsuspecting. Tightly controlled mise-en-scene, intimately composed and modulated within an expertly utilized 1.85:1 aspect ratio by director Philip Leacock. Light harnessed by cameraman Robert Huke as an invaluable tool with which to communicate the innermost demons of the people on whom the film focuses. A cogently detailed screenplay written by Howard Koch and based on John Hersey's novel, which rewardingly bases the filmic enterprise on the nearly innumerable hotshot pilot films churned out by Hollywood in the decades since William A. Wellman's Wings while dashing away from unspectacular expectations by probing an uncommon depth.
And yet, sometimes a single performance overshadows all other parts of the entire gloriously painted canvas of a film. Steve McQueen in The War Lover is a man suppressing a self-destructive volatility by imprisoning himself in the unreachable bubble of conceit and braggadocio. He is, to fulfill the singularly enhanced cliché in this instance, a ticking time bomb, a man so good at something it is impossible to live with him. Considered to be the best ace bomber pilot a World War II American air base has in England, Captain Buzz Rickson (McQueen) is the go-to man. He is an immediately polarizing figure, standing as he does as a kind of gregarious loner and grim farceur among his peers. Unlike his compatriots, who long for their twentieth and final run over Germany, Buzz hopes the war will never end. If it ends he loses the one thing at which he is magnificent.
The War Lover would be an engaging, well-crafted picture without McQueen at its center. With him, it is greater than simply another war picture: it is one of the films of this time period (along with films as diverse as 1964's The Americanization of Emily and the McQueen-starrer from the same year as The War Lover, Don Siegel's trenchantly bitter war saga Hell is for Heroes) that unabashedly questioned the amorphously gauzy triumphalism and unquestionable righteousness of nearly aspect of the Allied effort of World War II. Through McQueen's Buzz, the film prodigiously assesses the import of personal rectitude and in a manner of speaking openly debates with itself whether or not some of the best soldiers are truly the best men, and vice versa.
These are justifiably uncomfortable questions. The War Lover's aim may be read as limitedly expressive insofar as it merely points to the individual bloodlust and barbarism of one man belonging to the “good guys” of a war against a ghastly, irredeemable regime. However, though the film and novel's action takes place during World War II, it could easily take place during any war, with the moral implications remaining intact as soundly relevant. McQueen's dynamic turn haunts in an especially iconic way here—as it does in Siegel's Hell is for Heroes—partly because of McQueen's own personal history.
McQueen was abandoned by his father (a Navy flyer) when he was still a baby. His stepfather was, according to McQueen, abusive towards both McQueen's mother and McQueen himself as a child. Spending his childhood at a boys' reform school called Boys' Republic in Chino, California, he aimlessly ambling into jobs as a sailor, carnival barker, beachcomber, lumberjack and oil field worker among others. At the age of seventeen he joined the Marines but his strong, ingrained anti-authoritarianism did not mesh well with the Marine Corps. Consequently, he spent forty-one days in the brig on AWOL charges. Nevertheless, McQueen saved the lives of five fellow Marines in an arctic exercise.
Therefore, these intriguing complexities at hand in The War Lover, in The Great Escape (1963), in The Sand Pebbles (1966) and many other McQueen films that grappled with the often unforeseen face of wartime heroism were almost a piece of the star actor himself. Personally rendering performances that touched upon the antagonistic relationship McQueen found himself in when he was a military subordinate, lines like a particular one of Buzz's at his CO leaves a specially burning aftertaste. After disobeying orders to abort a mission in an effort to find a German military target before returning to base, Buzz's CO calls the star bomber to task for risking the lives of his men. “I risk the crew's life every time I take them off the ground, don't I... sir?” Buzz's hostility is summed up in the pregnant pause between his last two words.
One extensive showcase scene for McQueen is a night off, marred by an air raid. Buzz wishes to melt his better self away with alcohol, and in one of the film's cruelest moments, selects a homely, kind English woman as an object he can demean. A ring of Americans encircle the woman who reveals her name is Hazel (Louise Dunn). “You Yanks are all the same,” she says before he can cut her down. Her knowing the particulars of her fate before actually meeting it makes the scene all the more melancholy and nauseating. McQueen's performance never misses a single beat, judiciously spilling over unto itself like molten lead as he dares the oncoming bombs to destroy him, speaking to no lesser authority than God.
Meanwhile, the picture supplies a complete contrast to Buzz in Robert Wagner's Lieutenant Ed Bollard. Shy, sensitive and self-consciously introverted, Ed is possessively drawn to Buzz—because of the profound gulf separating their respective personalities. As Buzz's copilot, he cannot argue with the flying virtuoso's effectiveness, and it is here where the film only enlarges upon its germinating seedling of quiescent candidness. In a relationship that reminds of the following year's between brothers Hud and Lonnie Bannon in Hud: one, a womanizing heel, outwardly sure of himself while resorting to alcohol and self-pity in the withering assault of the collected pangs of conscience that intermittently arise; the other, unsure of himself, and unhealthily obsessed with trying to emulate and follow the big brother.
When Ed meets a lovely, sweet English lady named Daphne Caldwell (Shirley Anne Field), the film fashions an impressive bargello. Ed and Daphne slowly fall in love with one another and the resentment of Ed's supposed friend, Buzz, is immediately perceptible. Earlier, in one memorably sad scene, Buzz, having just talked himself up before Ed, admonishing him for not chasing women as he so winningly does, simply stares at the wall adjacent to his bunk bed. Ed and the other men have all left and Buzz is all by himself. The wall is entirely coated with numerous pictures of the faces of women Buzz regularly sees. Unable to choose which woman he will spend this evening with for any substantive reason he covers his eyes with his hand and with his other spins it about, finally, unemotionally landing on one picture. The scene speaks volumes about what kind of fire is missing in Buzz's life. When Ed sees an effulgent flame in the distance in Daphne, Buzz's jealousy of what she represents is greater than the routine, fatuously narrow romantic love triangle storyline.
The tracking shots Leacock employs on the ground create a dreamy, disorienting incandescence, which, when broadly married to the hectically frantic airborne pyrotechnics (the effects of which are usually less impressive, but largely well-conceived) create a plenary world. On one sidewalk stroll, Buzz randomly walks into a pretty blonde English lady. Normally, Buzz would pursue her—especially as she seems quite friendly—but after having been exposed to the suffocating reality of his situation through his proximity to Ed and Daphne's blossoming happiness, he hands the woman some money and tells her to buy a new dress and call herself Daphne in the mirror. The mise-en-scene is entirely apt, conclusively dramatizing just how lowly Buzz has metaphorically crashed, as the tracking shot surveys him continuing his quixotic walk towards Daphne's home. It is surprising that Leacock would soon find himself a perennial journeyman of television directing considering the tact he employs in sequences such as this.
Fulfilling the considerable obligations of a war film, The War Lover's denouement is nail-bitingly intense with a terrible corollary. The prolonged final skyward conflagration is superbly shot and edited, compelling the viewer to continue watching through the ebb and flow of the set-piece. This keenly realized final passage fiercely portrays the senseless anarchy of battle coupled with the madness of unbridled personal ferocity, so wholly carried by McQueen. And finally the picture almost serenely echoes the Greeks, mournfully pronouncing the immeasurable folly of those twin bedeviling forces of man: narcissism and hubris.