Stuck somewhere between old-fashioned melodrama and modern realism, this adaptation of the R.C. Sherriff play Journey's End explores the horrors of war through the relationship between a cynical veteran officer and a naïve new recruit. Although Sherriff’s play concerns infantrymen, the reconfigured Aces High instead follows pilots in the Royal Flying Corps, the World War I predecessor to the RAF. (Screenwriter Howard Barker also integrated elements from an RFC flyer’s memoirs.) The story begins at the elite Eton school, where Major John Gresham (Malcolm McDowell) speaks to a graduating class that includes Stephen Croft (Peter Firth), whose sister is Gresham ’s girlfriend. Because of this connection, Croft requests assignment to Gresham ’s unit once he’s commissioned as an officer. Yet the wide-eyed Croft is disillusioned to discover that Gresham is actually an embittered alcoholic with little interest in building emotional bonds because of the high fatality rate among new pilots. The picture comprises scenes of Croft trying to ingratiate himself to his senior officers, interspersed with dogfights in which the Brits battle Germans in the skies over France. While the underlying material is basically sound, Aces High is lifeless. McDowell’s interest in his performance seems to wane periodically, and Firth lacks a leading man’s charisma. Most of their costars are equally indifferent and/or unimpressive, so only Christopher Plummer—as the genteel commanding officer of the flying unit—lends humanity to the proceedings. And while it’s true that some of the dogfights are dynamic, the aerial scenes in Aces High rely too heavily on cheap-looking special effects including stilted rear-projection shots. The post-production shortcuts are a shame, because other physical elements, such as costuming and set design, are persuasive.
Aces High: FUNKY