Perhaps the long and still-ongoing love affair between cinema and aviation was a matter of synchronicity: The two evolved together, after all, with both taking erratic, tentative flight in the late 1890s and early 1900s before truly starting to soar in the mid-1910s. By the time silent film was reaching its creative apex in the 1920s, pioneering aviators were similarly pushing flying’s limits, and less than five months after Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris, the first feature-length talkie, The Jazz Singer, debuted in October 1927.
Even without that parallel growth, however, airplanes would have proved an irresistible subject for the movies. Flight, with its intoxicating blend of graceful beauty and adrenalizing daredevilry, was custom-made for cinema, which exults in movement—they are called motion pictures—and delights in vicariously transporting audiences to seemingly unreachable places. And from a dramatic perspective, the dangers inherent in flying create a built-in suspense, with a cabin’s tight spaces generating further unease (as Samuel L. Jackson’s 2006 film, Snakes on a Plane, so pointedly reminds us).
Film’s ardor for stories set in the air is surprisingly consistent across the years1 and remains strong—examples from the last decade include Flight (2012), Sully (2016), Dunkirk (2017), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022) —but cinema especially swooned from the 1920s through the ’40s, when the risks of flying were stratospherically high and the public fannishly admired pilots as figures of glamor and romance (not unlike movie stars).
Several filmmakers of the era were particularly identified with aviation, including famed pilot Howard Hughes, whose own exploits in the skies were breathlessly chronicled by the press in the years before he became an eccentric recluse. Among his many businesses, Hughes worked periodically in film as a producer, studio owner (of RKO Pictures), and even—when dissatisfied with the work of his hired hands—director. Although multiple filmmakers cycled through during its agonizingly prolonged three years of production, the World War I-set airplane epic Hell’s Angels (1930) was eventually credited to Hughes, with James Whale (later the director of Frankenstein) handling the dialogue sequences when the film converted to sound mid-shoot. Hughes not only oversaw the spectacular aerial footage, he also took the plane’s controls in the film’s climax when the primary stunt pilot correctly deemed the required maneuver—a steep pullout from a dive—too risky. The subsequent crash, which fractured his skull and required facial surgery, was the first of four that Hughes survived during his storied but seriously disaster-prone flying career.
… cinema especially swooned from the 1920s through the ’40s, when the risks of flying were stratospherically high and the public fannishly admired pilots as figures of glamor and romance (not unlike movie stars).
Despite Hughes’s diverse aviation interests, which included the Hughes Aircraft Company and TWA, Hell’s Angels proved his solo flight as a director of airplane films, although he did produce and endlessly tinker with Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot in 1957. By contrast, director William Wellman—who earned the nickname “Wild Bill” during his days as a World War I fighter pilot in France’s Lafayette Flying Corps—returned frequently to the subject of flying during his four decades in Hollywood. Wellman’s substantial filmography covers a vast range of subjects —his best work includes The Public Enemy (1931), Wild Boys of the Road (1933), A Star Is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), Beau Geste (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and The Story of GI Joe (1945) —but flight clearly exerted a strong pull on his imagination: He directed a staggering nine aviation-related films, from the iconic Wings (1927), which won Outstanding Picture at the first Academy Awards, to his final film, the sadly compromised Lafayette Escadrille (1958), which was inspired by his own World War I experience.
Wellman is a legitimately fine director, and his career-long association with aviation films remains unrivaled. But another classical-Hollywood filmmaker — one of cinema’s greatest—arguably exceeds Wellman in his mastery of the genre: Howard Hawks.
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Before exploring his half-dozen aviation films —The Air Circus (1928), The Dawn Patrol (1930), Today We Live (1933), Ceiling Zero (1936), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Air Force (1943)—a brief primer on Hawks might be required for the non-cinephile. Spanning more than five decades, Hawks’s career tentatively blossomed in the silent era (he began as a prop man in 1916 and directed The Road to Glory, the first of his seven silents, in 1926), achieved a glorious efflorescence during the height of the studio system, and finally withered at the dawn of the New Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Despite his longevity, unlike contemporary peers John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock—whose career trajectories followed similarly impressive arcs—Hawks failed to become a familiar name to the casual moviegoer. Never working consistently in a trademark genre or developing an easily identifiable stylistic signature, Hawks tended instead to blaze trails and then abandon them to lesser filmmakers. As many critics have observed, although Hawks claimed no single genre as his specialty, his films served as high-water marks or defining examples of the many types in which he dabbled, including film noir (The Big Sleep, 1946), gangster movie (Scarface, 1932), screwball comedy (Twentieth Century, 1934, Bringing Up Baby, 1938), newspaper film (His Girl Friday, 1940), adventure-romance (To Have and Have Not, 1944), western (Red River, 1948, Rio Bravo, 1959), science fiction (The Thing from Another World, 1951), and—most pertinently here—aviation film (Only Angels Have Wings).
That astonishing versatility masked an unmistakably Hawksian worldview that strongly unified his superficially disparate films. The director’s typical protagonist is a self-reliant professional—the essential Hawksian trait—who nonetheless usually works within the context of a group and finds true completion through the romantic love of a woman whose persistence and moxie earn his grudging respect (virtually any Hawks film you would care to name). Hawks’s movies portray the outside world as blackly threatening (even his comedies are often infused with a foreboding darkness), with temporary comfort found only with like-minded adventurers who live entirely in the moment, bravely tempting fate and refusing to dwell on either past or future. Although bleak in many respects, Hawks’s brand of adolescent existentialism is also an attractive, grandly romantic approach to life, one firmly centered on the limitless possibilities of self (people are defined not by society or family—both of which scarcely exist in Hawks’s films—but by their own actions) and predicated on the values of will, talent, and intelligence (the group is a meritocracy, not a democracy).
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Although virtually all of Hawks’s films engage, to differing degrees, with his interests—he was the rare Hollywood director who chose and developed his own projects because he was seldom tied to a particular studio—his work in the aviation genre seems especially, and often intensely, personal. Like Wellman, Hawks was himself a pilot. Though he never fought overseas, he served in the Army Air Corps during World War I, learning to fly and eventually training others at a Texas airfield. But perhaps more important than his practical knowledge of airplanes, Hawks was intimately familiar with the dangers of flying: His brother Kenneth, also a director, was killed in 1929 while filming a sequence for his own aviation film, Such Men Are Dangerous, when two camera planes collided, with a total of ten people dying in the crash. Nor was that the only flying-related loss that Hawks experienced. In his 1997 biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy writes: “Of his group of six best friends who had enlisted in the Air Corps together in 1917, two had been killed on the airfield at Issoudun in France, two had crashed into each other pursuing a balloon in Italy, and now his brother was dead—all killed in planes. ‘So I was the only one left,’ he realized. ‘I always thought of it as just the luck of things, you know. It never frightened me about flying.’” (111) That stoic attitude would soon figure prominently in Hawks’s death-haunted aviation films.
Despite his longevity, unlike contemporary peers John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock—whose career trajectories followed similarly impressive arcs—Hawks failed to become a familiar name to the casual moviegoer. Never working consistently in a trademark genre or developing an easily identifiable stylistic signature, Hawks tended instead to blaze trails and then abandon them to lesser filmmakers.
By comparison with his later movies in the genre, Hawks’s first film about planes, The Air Circus (1928), appears a somewhat larkish affair, a discursive, mostly plotless movie about learning to fly, although the perilous nature of early aviation creates an underlying tension. Unfortunately, viewers cannot judge for themselves because the film is considered lost, but we can take some small comfort in the fact that Hawks disowned its released version. The Air Circus, which began shooting as a silent, was converted partially to sound without his participation, and McCarthy notes that Hawks later dismissively remarked: “You have never known such bad dialogue.” It is a sad irony that Hawks did not supervise the sound in what technically qualifies as his first talkie, given that the director’s facility with dialogue—most famously, the supersonic speed and overlapping nature of its delivery in His Girl Friday—became a defining trait.
The Dawn Patrol (1930), which followed The Air Circus, is far more characteristic of Hawks’s other aviation films. As with most works of the classical-Hollywood era, multiple writers had a hand in the script, including Hawks and frequent early collaborator Seton I. Miller, but the story is officially credited to John Monk Saunders, a World War I flight instructor (who, like Hawks, never saw combat) and a go-to specialist in aviation films (Wellman’s Wings and The Legion of the Condemned, 1928, among a half-dozen others).
The film recounts the doomed missions of a squadron of World War I Royal Flying Corps pilots, whose attrition rate is sky-high. Flight commander Maj. Brand (Neil Hamilton, best known to those of a certain age as Commissioner Gordon on the ’60s Batman TV show) chronically objects to orders given by the disembodied radio voices of his superiors, but he dutifully sends his men up in inferior planes to engage with the formidable German airmen. Senior pilots and best mates Capt. Courtney (Richard Barthelmass) and Lt. Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) view Brand with disdain—not realizing the burden of guilt he silently carries—and lament the wasted lives of the young, ill-trained aviators who arrive with clockwork regularity to replace the recent dead. But they, too, obey their ranking officer, with Courtney responding to each new lunatic order with a terse, contemptuous “Right.” When the agonized Brand receives a liberating transfer, he gleefully names Courtney as the new flight commander. Like his predecessor, Courtney now must send his young charges to their inevitable deaths, and he soon understands the tight limits on his authority. Their relationship already strained by Countney’s new position, Scott is outraged after his friend dispatches his recently arrived younger brother—more fresh meat for the German grinder—on a fatal sortie. When the grief-stricken Scott later volunteers for a solo bombing run ordered by the distant generals—a certain suicide mission—Courtney surreptitiously replaces him, saving his comrade by sacrificing himself. The war’s wheel just keeps relentlessly rolling forward, and as another turn is taken at film’s end, it is Scott who finds himself compelled to shoulder the crushing weight of command.
The Dawn Patrol serves as Hawks’s first fully mature work. Its relentlessly grim nature is unusual for Hawks—in most of his dramas, he mixes moods by seamlessly interpolating comedy, romance, and music—but he provides welcome moments of relief as the pilots carouse and drink copiously between missions in their communal gathering space, which is a signature Hawks’s location. Even in this place of relative ease, however, there is a distinct fatalistic air: The tune the airmen repeatedly sing is “Stand to Your Glasses! (Hurrah for the Next Man to Die).” The absence of women—understandable in this context—is also atypical. The Dawn Patrol nonetheless serves as a template for many of the director’s future films and features several key elements that would recur throughout Hawks’s career: a central pair of male friends (Hawks’s movies often have a homoerotic subtext despite their hyper-masculine subjects); a group of professionals cooperatively engaged in a difficult, potentially deadly endeavor; the thrilling allure of risk; the tension between self-interest and the pursuit of a larger good (later expanded to include the conflict between individual freedom and mutual attraction); and a stoic refusal to dwell on loss (a pilot who obsesses over a friend’s death is treated with sympathy but told to move on quickly or risk the same bleak fate).
Like Wellman, Hawks was himself a pilot. Though he never fought overseas, he served in the Army Air Corps during World War I, learning to fly and eventually training others at a Texas airfield. But perhaps more important than his practical knowledge of airplanes, Hawks was intimately familiar with the dangers of flying.
The box-office success of The Dawn Patrol firmly established Hawks as a director of the first rank, making him attractive to multiple studios. In fact, enthusiasm for the film led to a nearly note-for-note remake, with Erroll Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone as the three principals, a mere eight years later. In a testament to Hawks’s accomplishments, the 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol—directed by Edmund Goulding—made little attempt to replicate his film’s impressive flying sequences but instead recycled footage from the original, including the climactic bombing of a German ammo dump.
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Given the positive reception of The Dawn Patrol and the public’s unsated appetite for films about the Great War, it is unsurprising that Hawks revisited World War I with Today We Live (1933), which splits its attention between two pairs of servicemen—American fliers and British sailors—with a woman caught between rival suitors in each duo. Today We Live has some modest charms but checks in as the bottom-dweller among Hawks’s surviving aviation dramas. Hawks lazily recycled flying and bombing-run footage from The Dawn Patrol, so the air sequences lack much freshness or vitality. The film’s most notable aspect is its status as the first collaboration between William Faulkner, upon whose story, “Turnabout,” the film is based, and Hawks, whose patronage would provide the Nobel-winning novelist with his most satisfying experiences as a screenwriter. The long-term friends would eventually work together on more than a half-dozen projects, including the classics To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep and several intriguing scripts that went frustratingly unproduced (such as the unrealized aviation film War Birds). No doubt one of the reasons that the two developed such a strong bond was a grim shared experience: Like Hawks, Faulkner lost one of his brothers, Dean, a pilot, in a plane crash.
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After Today We Live’s nose-dive, Hawks largely righted the plane with his follow-up flying picture, Ceiling Zero (1936), which U.S. Navy aviator Frank “Spig” Wead adapted from his own play (albeit with an assist from the uncredited Morrie Ryskind). Wead, who turned to writing after becoming paralyzed in a non-flying-related accident, later had his career chronicled in the hagiographic The Wings of Eagles, directed by his friend John Ford.
When a newspaper announces that Bogard is killed in an airplane crash, Ann is devastated, but the news allows her to continue her relationship with Claude without guilt, restoring equilibrium to the triangle of friends.
Although set nearly two decades after World War I, Ceiling Zero still centers on veterans of the conflict, now helping to establish commercial aviation in the U.S. An airmail-delivery operation headquartered in Newark, N.J., Federal Airlines is presided over, firmly but benignly, by manager Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien), whose employees include wartime comrades Tex Clarke (Stuart Erwin), still piloting aircraft, and memory-impaired Mike Owens (Garry Owen), now reduced to office odd jobs because of a brain injury suffered in a crash (his disturbing presence serving as a daily reminder of the profession’s dangers). Unfolding over only a few highly eventful days, Ceiling Zero shifts quickly into high gear with the arrival of pilot Dizzy Davis (James Cagney), Jake’s best friend, who has been invited to rejoin his World War I squadron mates at Federal. Although a gifted aviator, Dizzy is defiantly iconoclastic—even before landing at the New Jersey airfield, he announces his independence by performing some unauthorized stunt moves—and his compulsive womanizing creates endless issues.
Because of his longtime affection for Dizzy and admiration of his flying skills, Jake chooses to ignore all warnings about certain trouble ahead, and he almost immediately pays a dear price. From the moment that the attractive “Tommy” Thomas (June Travis)—a nineteen-year-old Federal employee who has recently soloed for the first time—enters his field of vision, Dizzy locks on and never loses sight of his target. Charmed by the attention of such a legendary flier, she agrees to a date. When Dizzy finds that his first flight for the airline conflicts with his rendezvous with Tommy, he duplicitously claims illness, and a generous Tex volunteers to take his place. After an uneventful outbound journey, severe weather complicates Tex’s return trip, with thick fog impairing visibility—conditions known as “ceiling zero”—and forcing the pilot to navigate by instruments, radio signal, and ground instruction. As Tex approaches the mist-enshrouded field, the tense, fretful Federal crew comes together to help guide him to a safe landing, but a glitchy radio prevents effective communication, and the pilot blindly overshoots the runway, crashing into a hanger. Although it initially appears that Tex will survive, the hopeful prognosis proves false, and he dies later that night. In a cascade of awful news, the guilt-ridden Dizzy also learns that the aviation authorities, for reasons unrelated to Tex’s accident, have opted not to renew his expiring pilot’s license. Faced with these two simultaneous disasters—his culpability in the death of a friend and his permanent grounding—Dizzy makes a typically impulsive decision and takes flight in the same deadly weather that cost Tex his life.
Crackling with energy, Ceiling Zero speeds along on the considerable power generated by the twin high-performance engines of fast-talking co-stars O’Brien and Cagney. On his final flight, Dizzy tests an experimental de-icer installed on the plane, an innovation intended to allow pilots to climb to an altitude above inclement weather. The promising system ultimately fails, but before the ice-weighted plane enters a death spiral, Dizzy relays technical information that will correct its deficiencies. Dizzy thus performs a legitimate service for future aviators, but there is no urgent danger to which he is responding, no one he is directly saving. In fact, Dizzy’s “sacrifice” seems more an act of nihilistic despair than of altruism or atonement: He simply cannot bear a future without flying.
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Ceiling Zero served as a dress rehearsal for Hawks’s next excursion into the air, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), which ranks as his aviation masterpiece and perhaps serves as the purest distillation of the director’s worldview. More than eighty years later, the film remains a bracing intoxicant, though some contemporary viewers might find it an acquired taste because of a few hokey story contrivances and musty classical-Hollywood tropes.
A richly atmospheric melodrama, Only Angels again chronicles the perilous exploits of mail-carrying aviators, but instead of prosaic New Jersey, this band of aviators operates out of a backlot South American banana republic, with the changeable weather and dauntingly high peaks of the Andes serving as ever-present threats as they navigate a narrow mountain pass on their to-and-fro journeys. Cary Grant—one of Hawks’s favorite actors—stars as the impossibly handsome Geoff, a fair-minded leader, but resolute and harshly judgmental, heavily armored against emotion. Also known as Papa—a respectful nod to his unquestioned authority and superior piloting skill—Geoff runs the airmail operation for kindly, worry-prone owner Dutchy (Sig Ruman), whose combination bar/restaurant/hotel serves as a convivial retreat for the aviators between flights. Best friend Kid—played by the great character actor Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach, It’s a Wonderful Life, Gone with the Wind)—supports Geoff as his indispensable aide-de-camp, always hovering nearby and ready to provide whatever assistance is required.
When performer Bonnie (Jean Arthur) disembarks from her ship for a brief stay in the port city of Barranca, she unknowingly disturbs the careful equipoise of Geoff’s world. Lighted on by two of the fliers, Les (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe (Noah Beery Jr.), as soon as she strolls onto the dock, Bonnie at first resists their pestering entreaties for her attention, but after sampling some of Barranca’s exotic charms while the pilots doggedly trail along, she finally relents and accompanies them to Dutchy’s. Delighted to share drinks and a meal with Bonnie, Joe is dismayed to be rudely pried from the table and dispatched on an airplane run by Geoff. Soon after takeoff, however, Joe receives an apparent reprieve when quick-moving weather closes the mountain pass, and he eagerly returns to resume his seduction. But the same fog that made the pass unnavigable has also reduced visibility to zero at the rudimentary airfield, and Geoff—surrounded by anxious fliers, local bar patrons, and Bonnie—must attempt to talk Joe down by locating and guiding the plane onto the runway through its engine noise alone. After two unsuccessful descents, Geoff orders the pilot to remain aloft until the fog clears, but Joe refuses to forfeit his time with Bonnie and insists on another attempt, which this time results in a fatal crash.
This sequence obviously recalls the circumstances of Tex’s death in Ceiling Zero—and echoes Maj. Brand’s counting of losses by listening for plane sounds as pilots return from their missions in The Dawn Patrol—but the aftermath of Joe’s demise is among the most celebrated and definitively Hawksian in the director’s filmography. Soberly returning to the bar, the pilots gather together and, after taking a beat, simply resume their normal routine, joking and drinking. When a steak that Joe had ordered before takeoff is then delivered to the table, Geoff claims it and tucks in, and an appalled Bonnie confronts him:
Bonnie: How can you do that?
Bonnie: Eat that steak.
Geoff: What’s the matter with it?
Bonnie: It was his.
Geoff: Look, what do you want me to do? Have it stuffed?
Bonnie: Haven’t you any feelings? Don’t you realize he’s dead?
Geoff: Who’s dead?
Les: Yeah, who’s dead?
At this point, a harassing chorus of aviators responds—“Who’s Joe?” “Joe?” “Anybody know Joe?”—and Bonnie flees the table in tears. Eventually, Bonnie comes to recognize that the pilots’ seemingly casual acceptance of death is an essential means of coping with its unceasing imminence: Embracing life is the only proper response. Returning to the bar, she rejoins the group and then leads it in a rollicking song. Now far from critical of the fliers, she instead longs to remain with them and finds herself specifically attracted to Geoff.
Ceiling Zero served as a dress rehearsal for Hawks’s next excursion into the air, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), which ranks as his aviation masterpiece and perhaps serves as the purest distillation of the director’s worldview.
Bonnie’s deepening infatuation, and Geoff’s frustratingly stubborn resistance to her, threads throughout Only Angels, but their will-they-or-won’t-they? romance is only one of the many story strands that make up the film’s weave. Bonnie actually recedes into the background in the film’s dense middle section, which is chockablock with exciting incidents and fresh complications, prominently including the arrival of a new pilot, Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmass of The Dawn Patrol), and his ravishing wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth in one of her first screen appearances). It is at this point that the contrivances referenced earlier begin to pile high: MacPherson is working under an assumed identity because he has been ostracized from aviation for bailing out of a plane and leaving his mechanic behind to die. That mechanic? Kid’s brother. And Judy is revealed as Geoff’s lost love, the woman whose departure helped create the man whose life is so unfettered that even carrying a box of matches seems too burdensome. If we can accept that all these related characters somehow converged in the remote South American backwater of Barranca, Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman offer us multiplying delights as they deftly untangle the crisscrossing plotlines and tie them in a lovely bow of an ending.
Only Angels Have Wings contains such a vast diversity of pleasures—including the often breathtaking flying sequences, the velvety black-and-white cinematography of Joseph Walker, the spectacular mountaintop landing and takeoff, and the subtle use of the lighting and sharing of cigarettes to establish intimacy—that new ones are revealed with every viewing.
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Given Only Angels’ masterwork status, Air Force (1943)—Hawks’s final aviation film—inevitably fails to soar to the same lofty heights, but it still serves as a fine farewell to the genre from its director. The story of a bomber crew whose Flying Fortress, the Mary Ann, is en route to Pearl Harbor when Japan attacks, Air Force has a loose basis in real life but deviates freely from fact for dramatic effect. The film’s climax, for example, time-shifts the Battle of the Coral Sea by five months to provide the Mary Ann with a starring role and to conclude Air Force on an uplifting note after a bleak series of American defeats. Perhaps most egregiously, from a contemporary perspective, the film falsely asserts several times that members of Hawaii’s own Japanese population collaborated with the enemy in the Pearl Harbor assault.
As the Mary Ann hopscotches across the Pacific from Hawaii to Wake Island to the Philippines to Australia—always hustling to stay ahead of the Japanese—the crew members coalesce into a tight unit, with the men setting aside former conflicts and grievances to work cooperatively. Made during wartime, when victory was still very much in doubt, Air Force was purposely designed to rally the public behind the troops and extoll America’s can-do spirit, and it proves undeniably inspirational. But the film’s propagandistic intent and relentless pace do not allow Hawks much latitude for nuance or character development, and most of the crewmen are only differentiated from each other by a single and often stereotypical background trait.
Within its circumscribed limits, however, Air Force is quite effective, and because the film was made with the military’s active cooperation, its battle scenes and the lengthy sequences within the claustrophobic environs of the bomber display an impressive documentary verisimilitude. Hawks’s directorial personality also remains very much in evidence: Air Force’s professional-group setting obviously plays to the director’s strengths, and he finds opportunities to reconstitute familiar elements from his previous aviation films, with Only Angels Have Wings exerting a particularly strong influence. Embittered aerial gunner Joe Winocki (John Garfield), who washed out as a pilot when blamed for a collision that killed a fellow trainee, follows a similar path to redemption as MacPherson, and his character’s arc is the most fully developed in the film. Most memorably, the Faulkner-ghostwritten scene in which the Mary Ann’s crew gathers closely around the bed of their dying pilot (John Ridgely) rivals Kid’s death scene in its emotional potency: As the commander succumbs to delirium, he leads the men in a checkdown to takeoff—an apt metaphor for the dying process—and they compassionately indulge the fantasy.
After Air Force, Hawks never again took to the skies in cinema, but the themes and approaches he both introduced and perfected in his aviation films continued to inform his high-flying career over the next three decades.