The back story of “Red Tails” is almost as interesting as the movie itself. For some time George Lucas, creator of some of the biggest box office epics of all time, had been planning to make a film about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black squadron of fighter pilots whose heroic exploits in World War II won them 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and paved the way for Harry Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
The only problem was that Mr. Lucas could not get a Hollywood studio interested. Apparently the studio chiefs did not think there was much box-office potential in the material, or perhaps they did not have much faith in Mr. Lucas’s vision of the film. So Mr. Lucas, as executive producer, reportedly sank nearly $100 million of his own money into the project to get it, like the airmen themselves, off the ground.
The film opens in Italy in 1944. The all-black 332nd fighter group (dubbed the Red Tails because of the distinctive markings on the P-51 Mustangs they eventually flew) is stuck hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, reduced to bombing trains and truck convoys, because of lingering Pentagon prejudice about their capabilities. As “proof,” the generals back in Washington produce a 1925 document from the U.S. Army War College that concludes “blacks are unfit for combat.”
“War is hell,” says one Red Tails airman. “What we’re doing is just boring as hell.”
When they do get some flying time, they are consigned to old Curtiss P-40 retrofitted biplanes. “I feel like I’m driving my grandfather’s Buick,” one of the pilots complains.
Nevertheless, finally given the chance to square off against German fighter pilots, they excel in combat. They conquer not only the Nazis but also the prejudice and ignorance of white American pilots and the Pentagon poobahs. The characters (played by stars such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard) are sharply delineated and well acted. The dialogue is snappy and crisp – if sometimes a little too cute and overloaded with exclamation points – and the many aerial dogfight scenes realistic and exciting.
Critics have complained that “Red Tails” is too much like a shoot-’em-up cowboy movie, with fighter planes instead of pistols and Nazi flyboys instead of Indians – a black Indiana Jones Meets the Red Baron.
But that misses the point. Mr. Lucas and his director, Anthony Hemingway, did not set out to produce “Macbeth” or “Citizen Kane,” or even “Of Gods and Men,” the ultra-serious 2011 film about the Algerian civil war. Instead, Mr. Lucas said, his model was the 1951 “Flying Leathernecks” with John Wayne. As he has described it, he wanted to film a true “Star Wars”-type story that would appeal especially to African American boys. What he has produced is a fun, exciting and reasonably accurate depiction of the heroes who made military history and broke color barriers to do it.
The impact of the Red Tails’ heroism continues to echo down through the generations. Roger Allen, manager of transportation for District 65, knew all about the Red Tails from his father, Clarence William Allen III. Lt. Allen fought with the Fighting 99th, one of the first Red Tails fighter squadrons to go to Italy, and was credited with “half a kill,” that is, shared credit, in the Battle of Anzio. He was sent home in March 1944 after being shot down twice, once behind enemy lines.
“I was able to relate to the movie on many levels,” said Mr. Allen. He said his father, who passed away in 1970 at the age of 55, did not talk much about his war exploits. “So I was glad to see his story come to life,” Mr. Allen said. “This is a story that needed to be told.”