But for a few turns of fate, Steven Spielberg could have made his feature directorial debut with this drama about a former WWI pilot barnstorming across America with his young son. Spielberg wrote the story with an eye toward directing, but he was replaced, with Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson becoming the project’s driving force. Whatever charms the original story possessed must have been lost in translation, because the final film is such a misfire that the director, producers, and screenwriters all used pseudonyms in the credits. Can’t blame them. The central relationship, between the flyer and his son, is hopelessly underdeveloped. The main subplot, about a romance between the flyer and a woman he meets during his travels, is nonsensical. And the main character, the flyer, behaves so inconsistently that it’s as if he becomes a new person in every scene. The film’s choppy rhythms suggest that some overzealous tinkering occurred during post-production, but because many individual scenes is murky, it’s unlikely anyone could have made a worthwhile movie from the footage that director John Erman (credited as Bill Sampson) collected. About the only praiseworthy elements of Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies are the aerial scenes, the cinematography, and the detailed re-creations of 1920s America.
The story begins awkwardly, with “Ace” Eli Walford (Robertson) crashing a plane and killing his passenger, who also happens to be his wife. After a brief funeral sequence, Eli starts building a new plane and telling folks that he wants to become a barnstormer and take his young son, Rodger (Eric Shea), with him. The obvious fact that Eli is s dangerous maniac never even gets lip service. One day, tired of Eli’s procrastinating, Rodger burns the family house to the ground, so Eli just smiles and starts up the plane, beginning their adventure. And so it goes from there. Eli cheats and lies to potential clients, sleeps with every available woman, and disappoints his kid on a regular basis. Improbably, the story expands to include Shelby (Pamela Franklin), a stalker who chases Eli from one town to the next until she finally seduces him. None of this stuff makes sense, though the picture sure looks swell. As for the project’s star, Robertson is terrible, playing a cocksure daredevil in one scene, a cowardly swindler in the next, and a vulgar cad at other times. His performance is as discombobulated as the movie itself.
Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies: FUNKY