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Examining the bomber movie genre

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From gung-ho wartime propaganda to the fashionable antiwar statements of the ’70s, the bomber movie has flown a lot of missions. Now, with Memphis Belle, the genre comes full circle. Here are four notable stages in the round- trip, all available on video.

Air Force (1943)
Howard Hawks’ tough film follows a B-17 crew from day- before-Pearl-Harbor callowness to weary proficiency, with an interest in nuts and bolts that will delight some and bore others. The real subject is the unspoken pleasure of teamwork. B+

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Van Johnson leads the first attack on Japan, while Phyllis Thaxter stays home dreaming up names for their unborn child: it’s the bomber movie as high MGM corn. The raid itself is stunning, but more typical is Johnson exhorting his men to glory while flying toward an absurdly fake Mt. Fuji. C

The War Lover (1962)
The Wild One with planes. As a yank ace in England, antihero Steve McQueen flies brilliantly but disobeys orders, nearly rapes his copilot’s girlfriend, and finally fireballs straight into the White Cliffs of Dover — all illustrating what his flight surgeon calls ”the fine line that separates the hero from the psychopath.” B

Catch-22 (1970)
Mike Nichols and an all-star cast bludgeon Joseph Heller’s lyrical bitterness with trendy ’60s nihilism, turning a dark, daft look at American bombers in Italy into an endless bad trip. And on video, the wide- screen visuals are trashed. C-

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