Classic Film Review: McQueen’s a little bad and a tad kinky as “The War Lover”

The “Money Shot,” and that’s really the only way to describe it, in the WWII bomber drama “The War Lover” gives us something no other Steve McQueen movie dared to show.

In the first B-17 mission depicted in the film, McQueen’s Captain Buzz Rickson is calm, collected and all business on an air raid. Then the bombs are released and um, so does “Buzz.” McQueen gives us an orgasmic eye-roll behind that mask. The character literally gets off on the thrill of combat and the killing his bombs do.

This was two years before “Doctor Strangelove” made that martial/sexual kinky connection more overt, but here it is, in one of the lesser known McQueen movies.

That moment isn’t repeated in the film, and McQueen never played a character as twisted, amoral and cruel as this one, a man who manipulates crew, including his more level headed co-pilot, Lt. Ed Bolland, played with romantic dash by Robert Wagner.

The film, based on a John Hersey novel, hangs on this central conflict with McQueen and Wagner as ego and id dueling inside their Flying Fortress, symbolically-named “The Body.”

They’ll quarrel over crew, who should stay and who should be transferred out, and over a woman. Shirley Anne Field plays a version of the local lover who isn’t the chaste dreamer of earlier movies in this setting and of this genre. She invites Ed upstairs, and pretty much on the “first date.” They live together when he isn’t on duty and locked-down on base.

The semi-psychotic Buzz plays god games with his crew, recklessly risking all their necks on a low altitude flyby (a “buzz”) of the base to show his displeasure at a leaflet-dropping mission they’d just completed. A tiny miscalculation and he could kill them all and put his base out of commission, and that barely merits a scolding from the CO.

But Ed’s showing his independence, in the cockpit, with the rest of the crew and in town. If he’s got a lover, Buzz must have her.

I remember seeing this movie on TV as a kid and being jarred by two things. McQueen NEVER played genuine bad guys, on TV or film. “Conflicted” “good bad men” sure. Individualists to a one.

But here, he’s repellent. Any excuse the viewer makes for his behavior seems inadequate. And the script’s suggestion that the Army Air Force wouldn’t have busted him, no matter his skills as a pilot who hits his targets, seems off. Plainly he bullies his crew, which is why he kicks one member out.

Hollywood at the time ordained that even the irredeemable must be ennoble themselves by the finale, but that lands flat, too.

And then there’s the state of British special effects. Many combat films were shot in black and white years after the Technicolor et al Revolution simply to make it easier to use actual stock footage of fighters attacking bombers. It was cheaper.

But as you can see in “The Dam Busters” and other war-in-the-air thrillers, the Brits lagged well behind Hollywood in terms of state of the art effects. Models carelessly doused in lighter fluid represent crashing planes, and the stock footage never seamlessly fits in with nicely-detailed aircraft interior and exterior shots of gunners trying to chase off fighters.

The few actual flying scenes remind us there were plenty of air-worthy B-17s around 17 years after World War II ended.

Howard Koch, who had a hand in “Casablanca,” “Sgt. York,” “The Sea Hawk” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” was one of Hollywood’s all time greatest screenwriters. If this script feels like it pulls its moral, sexual and violent punches, that must have been because he was running up against the mores of the day and a director (Philip Leacock, best known for his later TV work) without the status to push back at studio and star efforts to water it down.

But “The War Lover” still has merits — its vivid, foggy nighttime black and white (DP Robert Huke did David Lean’s “Great Expectations,” Bond’s “You Only Live Twice” and superior air combat thriller “The Battle of Britain”) recreations of wartime London and the nerve-wracking nature of every mission to every “just doing my bit before going home” member of the crew who isn’t off in the head, a “War Lover,” in other words.

Rating: Approved, combat violence, sexual situations

Cast: Steve McQueen, Robert Wagner, Shirley Anne Fields, Ed Bishop

Credits: Directed by Philip Leacock, scripted by Howard Koch, based on a novel by John Hersey. A Columbia Pictures release on Amazon, Tubi, Movies! and other streamers and specialty channels

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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