Tales of the Flying Tigers

Flying Tiger films, past and possible

Was there ever a year when a movie about the American Volunteer Group wasn't in the works? 2016 is proving to be no exception, with Variety reporting last month:

Skydance and Alibaba Pictures are teaming up on the World War II pic "The Flying Tigers," which chronicles the first American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force that fought alongside the Chinese in WWII. "Braveheart" screenwriter Randall Wallace is penning the script. Skydance's David Ellison and Dana Goldberg will produce along with Alibaba.

It all sounds very definite, though it's hard to know whether this is just a retread of the John Woo project that has been promised for several years. (Alibaba is a Chinese company. Skydance is a six-year-old Hollywood company that has produced two Mission Impossible and two Star Trek films and a remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, among others.)

The last time I visited this subject was 2012, another huge year for Flying Tiger films, or rumors of same. A film crew from China interview survivors and other interested parties (including me) for a documentary in cooperation with a company on Taiwan. It was released in China but so far has not made it to the west. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford was being touted for a made-for-TV feature film or mini-series about the Tigers, which apparently died on the drawing board.

Then there was John Woo, a Hollywood director who went home to China and spent two years making grand statements about Flying Tiger Heroes, which was to show the AVG as flying wing-to-wing with the Chinese Air Force. Tom Cruise and later Liam Neeson were mentioned as the star who would play Claire Chennault.

And of course there was the scriptwriter duo who bought the rights to my AVG novel, Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers. They wrote the script, pitched it to the usual suspects, and then fell silent. Similarly, in cooperation with Olga Greenlaw's sister, I once sold the screen rights to The Lady and the Tigers. That project too is in limbo. Too bad -- I love those Hollywood payouts, even though they're not as generous as they once were. (The same alas is true of book publishers.)

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

And so it went, year after year:

  • Morgan Creek in 2001 had a project entitled Flying Tigers, which went as far as the mockup of a bunch of Tomahawks. Filming was scheduled to take place in California and Mexico, but later was shifted to Australia. Alas, the movie doesn't seem to show any longer on the Morgan Creek website.

  • There was a serious effort to make a Chennault film in the 1990s. It had major backers and a title like Earth, Wind, and Fire. Supposedly it was based on the Chennault-Bissell feud, with Tom Cruise starring. This project too seems to have evaporated, though it may explain why Mr Cruise has been mentioned for Flying Tiger Heroes.

  • Wayne Adams Barker recorded a screenplay titled Flying Tigers Never Say Die in 1994

  • About 1992, a Chinese friend told me that she'd been hired to work on the script of a Taiwanese film involving the love affair between a beautiful Chinese girl and a gallant Flying Tiger named Johnny Blackstone. It was, she said, a dreadful script, and she soon went to work in China for the Disney Panda epic. I named one of the heroes of Remains in honor of this project.

  • Lewis Productions, Inc. and Embassy Productions, Inc. recorded a Flying Tigers screenplay in 1984.

    Extant films:

    And here's what I know about movies that relate to the Flying Tigers, broadly defined. If the film is available on video at Amazon, there's a hotlink to it.

  • The Flying Tigers (Republic, 1942). Here is the classic, a Republic "B" flick starring John Wayne in a hilariously wrong-headed account of the American Volunteer Group. Nice shots of small-mouthed P-40s (filmed at the Curtiss factory with repainted fighters not yet delivered to the USAAF) and fixed-gear Nakajima Ki-27s (taken from a Japanese film). The very odd bomber is the the only Capelis XC-12 'Safety Aircraft Transport' built. The movie ends with the lads hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor, which of course took place nearly two weeks before the AVG ever fired a shot in anger. Two "dishonorably discharged" AVG clerks had something to do with this project. Available at Amazon.

  • God Is My Co-pilot (1943). Dennis Morgan and Raymond Massey star. Strictly speaking, not about the AVG at all, since it was based on Scott's best-selling account of how he came to be commander of the 23rd Fighter Group. Filmed at Luke AAF Aux. Field #7. Curtiss P-40F's from 554 FTS Luke, B-25C/D/G Mitchells from 952 TS, AT-6's dressed up as Zeros, and a Republic P-43 Lancer. Available at Amazon

  • The Sky's the Limit (RKO, 1942). Fred Astaire (!) as a singing, dancing, romancing Flying Tiger veteran in New York before reporting for duty with the US military. His co-star is Joan Leslie, who plays an endearing photographer--and she can dance! (Leslie was later romanced in real life by Glen Edwards.) AVG veteran R. T. Smith was technical adviser on this film, which may explain why I enjoyed it far more than I expected. Available at Amazon (streaming download).

  • Hers to Hold (1943). An AVG pilot (Joseph Cotton) falls in love with a B-17 assembly worker (Deanna Durban). Available at Amazon

  • China's Little Devils (1945). Harry Carey and Paul Kelly as two AVG Flying Tiger pilots befriending Chinese orphans. P-40 mock-ups, footage from the John Wayne film.

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    Flying Tigers

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