I will just throw this out there right now, if Dive Bomber (1941) did not feature my man, Errol Flynn, it’s more than likely that I would not have watched this film. While I don’t mind WWII films, I’m not particularly interested in films that depict the war aspect of the war. I’m more interested in stories about the homefront, or at least a central story that takes place adjacent to the war scenes. And one type of war film, I’m especially not that interested in, are stories about planes, tanks, submarines, or other war-related machines. With that said, the central story of Dive Bomber is interesting, as it deals with the effects of being a pilot and the efforts taken to combat a common issue, altitude sickness.
However, let’s be real here. I watch Dive Bomber because it features Errol Flynn wearing a myriad of different uniforms, and I am here for it.
Dive Bomber starts off with a plane crash. A Navy pilot, Lieutenant “Swede” Larson, is practicing dive bomb maneuvers over the US Naval Base in Honolulu. During a high speed dive (from a high altitude), Swede blacks out (presumably from altitude sickness) and crash lands at the base. At the hospital, Swede’s colleague and friend, Lieutenant Commander Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), is concerned that his friend will not survive. The US Navy Doctor, Lieutenant Doug Lee (Flynn) convinces the senior surgeon to operate. During the operation, Swede dies. Blake, distraught over the death of his friend and convinced that the operation was done in haste, blames Lee for Swede’s death.
This incident convinces Lee to become a flight surgeon. He relocates to the US Naval Station in San Diego to start his training. He goes through a rigorous course and is trained by a myriad of different Navy personnel, including his nemesis, Blake. After completing the program, Lee is promoted to the position of Assistant Flight Surgeon to Senior Flight Surgeon, Commander Lance Rogers (Ralph Bellamy). Rogers is working on developing a solution for combating altitude sickness. We observe multiple pilots, including Blake, being grounded due to failing their recent physicals. The film makes it appear that pilots who regularly fly at high altitudes seem to have a shelf life of sorts, and there comes a point for every pilot when he’s no longer in good enough physical condition to fly. I’m not up on the technical aspects of aviation and military protocol, but that’s what I assumed.
Much of the film involves Lee, Rogers, and Blake performing various tests trying to determine the altitude at which pilots start to black out, and how the aircraft itself is affected when the oxygen level and temperature start to fall. The men develop a harness and later a flight suit that help to provide oxygen to the pilot when he starts his ascent into higher altitudes. I find the scenes of them testing the harness to be funny, because it basically looks like a rubber version of what sumo wrestlers wear. The flight suit resembles something a scuba diver would wear, which makes sense, since scuba divers would deal with oxygen and water pressure issues.
Outside of the main storyline involving altitude sickness, the subplot of the film involves the rivalry between Lee and Blake. Aside from the grudge that Blake holds against Lee for causing the death of his friend (or so Blake thinks), Lee also seems to beat Blake to the punch when it comes to women. Blake meets a young divorcee, Linda (Alexis Smith), and thinks he’s found a hot number to date. However, Linda is already acquainted with Lee previously, so she’s excited to see him when he shows up at the same party Blake is attending. This incident only increases the tension between the two men, which at first affects their altitude sickness experiments. It was fun seeing Ralph Bellamy in a role where he isn’t just the schmuck boyfriend, cast aside by the leading lady for the more dashing leading man. Bellamy’s character plays a crucial role in the plot of this film. There is also an annoying sub-subplot involving Allen Jenkins’ character being hunted down constantly by his ex-wife. At one point, he fakes quarantine to get away from her. It’s not very funny though and completely unnecessary to the overall film.
While I don’t know entirely how accurate Dive Bomber‘s depiction of WWII, the Navy, altitude sickness, and all that is, I do find this film enjoyable as a whole. Though like I said, if the film did not star my favorite actor, Errol Flynn, I don’t know that I would have made a point to see this film. The film is worth watching however, if only to see the gorgeous Technicolor photography and to watch a unique war film that deals with the very real issue of altitude sickness. I also enjoy films that feature current technology, as it’s fun to see what was considered cutting edge at that time.