Monday, July 09, 2007

Ocean flight

Last May the eightieth anniversary of Charles A. Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris came and went without much notice. Last week, Turner Classic Movies got around to showing The Spirit of St. Louis, the film released back on the thirtieth anniversary. I had forgotten it was in color -- and splendid WarnerColor, indeed, in the video transfer. Usually I have the same problem as Orson Welles in sitting through movies more than two hours long -- my back starts to hurt -- but I've decided the extra length conveys the tedium and exhaustion of the non-stop flight which lasted more than thirty hours. Imagine how much Lindy's back must have hurt.

I never understood why Billy Wilder, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, agreed to direct a movie about this arch-isolationist, anti-Semite and cheerleader for the Luftwaffe. True, Lindbergh served with distinction in the Army Air Corps once the United States got into the war (I believe as a test pilot). And the Cold War demanded that his image be burnished, just as it required the denigration of those deemed "prematurely anti-fascist," meaning they had signed the wrong petition or attended the wrong meeting before December 8, 1941. But surely that was a job for Raoul Walsh or John Ford, not the director of inky melodramas like Sunset Boulevard and Ace In the Hole. Of course, the answer was right there in the title: it's not called The Lone Eagle, after all. The Spirit of St. Louis tells the story of the profound relationship between a plane and a man.

We see the Spirit being designed, being built, and finally being modified for its flight. We hold our breath waiting to see if it will clear the trees and power lines at the end of the foggy runway. We descend with it through the clouds to skim the roofs of St. John, Newfoundland, before heading out to open water. We see it nearly ditch as ice coats the wings and propellers, only to live through the night and amaze the hands on an Irish fishing boat. With only the crudest navigation aids, Lindbergh is not always sure where he is, but the Spirit seems to know the way, even when its dozing pilot lets it circle aimlessly. The movie ends (tacked-on newsreel footage aside) not with the delirious reception at Le Bourget, but with man and slightly tattered craft alone in a hangar. Wilder ignores the turbulent life that followed that pure achievement.

Lindbergh's background as a World War I flier, barnstormer and mail pilot is folded into flashbacks and dream sequences. Yes, Jimmy Stewart was too old by 1957, but for the life of me I can't imagine James Dean in the role (the first choice according to the Internet Movie Database). The very young Gary Cooper would have been ideal, but you go into production with the actors you have. Perhaps the weirdest episode has Lindy giving flying lessons to a priest (the playwright and Algonquin Round Table regular Marc Connelly, of all people) who doesn't care if he never learns to land because God is watching over him. I defy you to watch this post-9/11 without a tiny chill. Of course, his St. Christopher medal will make a miraculous appearance in the closing moments of the Paris flight and help the disoriented pilot to land. Yeah, right. As a New Yorker, I don't care for faith-based aviation.

Around 1930, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote a cantata about this episode called "Ocean Flight." When Lindbergh went over to the dark side, they simply removed his name, just as Beethoven had deleted Napoleon from the Third Symphony. Heroes have a genius for breaking our hearts, if we let them. It seems we need them more than they need us. But the Spirit -- you can see it in the Smithsonian -- never let anybody down.


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