Recently the film world was buoyed by the news that Modesto merchandiser and movie magpie, George Lucas, was to retire. The announcement came too late to save his reputation: many years too late. If this is the end, he leaves our imaginarium a diminished figure; a man who returned to the well he’d drank dry in order to urinate into it. The dandelion liquid was subsequently sold on to fans, billed as a fresh spring, and was greedily consumed, but no one who let it pass their lips forgot that aftertaste. Suspicions grew that George had been a piss artist all along.
Red Tails, Lucas’ swansong as producer (we hope), is less a parting gift, more a parting shot. Ostensibly it’s the true story of a unit of African American airmen in World War II, who battled bigotry for the right to fly dangerous missions and do their bit for an ungrateful Uncle Sam. In reality it’s a cynical grab for what Lucas imagines to be an untapped cash reserve, black American teens: a movie that uses history as an unused background prop. That Lucas’ bid at creating what the demographists call “an urban blockbuster” resolutely failed, is attributable to one insurmountable fact: his target audience had eyes. Those that turned up, expecting a grand account of this proud moment in black history, ogled a lifeless dud: World War II for droids.
The same audience possessed a trait fatal to any modern Lucas project: brains. It’s unlikely they’d have enjoyed the irony of a man championing a film whose heroes are initially caricatured as thick and inattentive, making the same assumption of his audience. Few films in recent years have been so sermonic, while simultaneously showing so little confidence in the cognitive reach of sympathetic ticket buyers.
Whatever the director credit reads, this is a Lucas joint. Red Tails is a real oddity. Between sterile and machine edited visual effects sequences lies the live action equivalent of animatics. There’s a placeholder feel to these scenes, as though they were filmed and cut together for the fledgling director’s reference.
‘Look,’ said Lucas to Anthony Hemingway, his puppet, ‘I’ve done it for you, with a few computer generated actors and a real one, Cuba Gooding Jr, so you can get a sense of where the players could stand and how long each dialogue scene should last. Now get shooting and direct these scenes.’ But it seems as though Lucas didn’t like Anthony’s footage, so his were the only dailies to be dumped into a computer and roughly assembled. No one, on this evidence, thought further editing was required, despite a long average shot length, maintained no matter what the demands of the scene – in the air, on the ground – and those awful two second dissolves, the kind amateurs drop into their timeline on Final Cut Pro the first time they use it, but take out later, once they see how bad it looks.
Then there’s the dialogue, allegedly written by two men who aren’t George Lucas. That’s hard to believe when the film contains lines like “die, you foolish African”, something no human would say, not even a Nazi stereotype. The movie opens with an equally toe curling exclamation: “Look, Germans! Let’s get ‘em!” You know something’s wrong from that moment. The film isn’t yet a minute old, but already it seems doomed.
Lucas’ old wingman, Steven Spielberg, is often credited with injecting realism into America’s contemporary cinematic relationship with The Third Reich (whatever realism looks like). That’s been rolled back here. The 1940’s are the Sith Lord’s point of reference but ’40’s cinema, even wartime propaganda, was never so crude and lifeless. The Hays Code forbade realistic depictions of sex and violence; there was no profanity in wartime. Writers compensated with invention, creativity; they lit to add psychological depth to the frame, they barbed their dialogue, they experimented with moral ambiguity. Red Tails is clinically framed, evenly lit and the characters talk like robots. Despite words seemingly written for tots, there’s the odd, awkward expletive and momentary flashes of gore; bullet wounds and blood splashes fleetingly arrest the screen. It’s like watching a character in a kids’ TV serial take a bullet in the head. You can’t reconcile the clash of styles. Who’d conceive such a film? Only a man who’d forgotten how to make one.
Red Tails‘ worst offence isn’t even cinematic, it’s historic. Movies are powerful myth making machines. Those that depict historic individuals and events often supplant fact; such is their materiality and the means to revisit the screen story. It’s an advantage that memory can’t compete with. Lucas’ calamity makes the accomplishments of these pilots so monotonous and limp that it almost undoes their achievement. I imagine they’d have jumped for joy if told that many decades hence, one of Hollywood’s old mavericks would dramatise their struggle against bigotry and Hitler’s war machine. The finished product makes a great case, perhaps the best yet filmed, for remaining anonymous and achieving nothing.