Director William Wellman’s big breakthrough motion picture was 1927’s Oscar-winning Wings, a tale of WWI flyboys. Wellman then ended his career 30 years later with Lafayette Escadrille, a much different take on the same subject. Where Wings is operatic and expressionistic, Lafayette Escadrille is mundane and personal. (Wellman even has a character in the film named “Bill Wellman,” played by his son, Bill Jr.) Based on Wellman’s own memories of the French Foreign Legion, the film stars Tab Hunter as a Boston aristocrat who looks to prove himself to his abusive father by running away to Europe to fight, but then gets sidelined after he takes a swing at an officer. Hunter makes for a weak leading man, and Wellman grew so agitated by Warner Bros.’ restrictions and tinkering that he quit the business when the film was finished. But Lafayette Escadrille is much better than its reputation as the movie that drove Wellman out of Hollywood. Its climatic aerial dogfight is breathtaking, and the film’s early scenes are filled with fine, offbeat details about life in the Foreign Legion, from being hollered at in French to being catered to by Vietnamese servants.
Lafayette Escadrille capped a productive decade (and career) for Wellman. Post-Wings, Wellman spent the ’30s pumping out low-budget melodramas and crime pictures, noteworthy for their toughness and terseness. In the ’40s, Wellman’s work became more ambitious and sophisticated, and then in the ’50s, he became one of the handful of big-time Hollywood filmmakers given the relative freedom to instill genre pictures with psychological depth and visual punch. (Even Lafayette, which suffered from heavy studio interference, still bears Wellman’s mark.) The 1952 melodrama My Man And I, for example, is about as straightforward a look at class and race conflict as the times would allow. Ricardo Montalban plays a Mexican immigrant who proudly brandishes his letter granting U.S. citizenship, until he gets a taste of what some people in his new home think of him. A layabout farmer hires him for work then refuses to pay, knowing that the system won’t give Montalban’s financial claims much credence. The script—co-written by John Fante, who poached some details from his own novel Ask The Dust—relies too much on broken English and wide-eyed naïveté to bolster the hero’s nobility, but it’s also remarkably honest about the universal dream to live better, and the entitled jerks who squelch it. Even the small details ring true, such as when one of Montalban’s jailers gets frustrated that a Coke machine is stuck, until he taps it gently and is rewarded with a bottle of pop and handful of coins. Fortune just seems to favor some people.
One of the best of Wellman’s ’50s pictures is the offbeat 1951 Western Westward The Women, which was originally developed by Frank Capra before Wellman asked his old friend if he could take it for himself. Robert Taylor stars as a guide leading over 100 “good girls” from Missouri to California, where they’re to become wives for paying customers. Following the lead of Wellman’s proto-feminist collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck in the ’30s and ’40s, Westward The Women avoids the titillating aspects of the story (aside from one lingering take of the ladies washing their legs in a lake), and instead focuses on the will of his heroines as they fight the elements and learn to do “men’s work.” Wellman was no liberal—politically, he fell to the right of John Wayne—but he enjoyed his maverick status, and didn’t like telling the same old stories the same old way. Westward The Women has a multi-ethnic, multi-generational cast, and the film pointedly preserves the characters’ dignity, whether Taylor is shooting rapists dead on the trail or Wellman is panning between survivors and corpses after an attack, giving everyone her due.
Key features: Nothing on Lafayette or My Man, but in a rarity for a Warner Archive release, Westward The Women adds a wonderfully analytical commentary track by scholar Scott Eyman, along with a vintage promotional featurette.
Grade: Lafayette Escadrille: B; My Man And I: B; Westward The Women: A-