Anthony's Film Review
Night Flight (1933)
This early aviation drama takes flight with a simple yet interesting story...
Night Flight, based on the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, centers on the early days of commercial aviation, specifically the business of overnight air mail in South America. This was a time before the many aviation safety measures that we take for granted were put in place, when flying at night without knowing what lied ahead was a very risky undertaking. But someone had to do it. Some pilot had to be willing to fly where no pilot has flown before. In some cases, there also had to be someone ordering the pilot to take those chances. Or else.
Here, the pilot is a young man named Jules Fabian (Clark Gable), who certainly seems to enjoy the thrill of being in the air. The man ordering Fabian to make an overnight flight, up the eastern coast of South America, is Riviere (John Barrymore), an authoritarian managing director whose sole focus is the air mail business's bottom line. These two characters provide the central conflict for Night Flight, which I will explain a bit later. Meanwhile, the film has interesting supporting characters, including Fabian's wife (Helen Hayes); Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery), a playboy pilot; and Robineau (Lionel Barrymore), the flight inspector who often questions the rationale of Riviere's strict orders.
The story simply involves several planes making their air mail flights toward Rio de Janeiro, after which a European mail plane can carry letters and packages to their final destinations. It alternates between two sets of scenes. There's the aerial and cockpit shots of Fabian's plane as it sails across the sky, a rather fascinating spectacle with little dialogue. In between are scenes in Riviere's office where a giant map of South America tracks the progress of each plane. Riviere is constantly thinking about how time is of the essence, as any delays in night flights are the equivalent of land and sea travel in the daytime. The character definitely stands out thanks to John Barrymore's solid performance.
Late in the film, the story reaches its climax. Fabian winds up in a storm, gets thrown off course, and depletes his plane's supply of gas. Down below, Riviere comes to grips with the likelihood that Fabian will not reach his destination by midnight and that, with only half an hour's worth of gas remaining on the plane, Fabian will crash at precisely 11:40 PM. But the one who is truly tormented by this impending disaster is Madame Fabian. The one scene that features both Riviere and Madame Fabien in a heated verbal exchange brings the story's conflict to the forefront. Does the safety of just one pilot not matter in the overall picture? Is it worth sacrificing one individual for the benefit of the entire business?
With gripping drama and a sense of wonder with aviation, Night Flight worked for me when I saw it. It's amazing that this film had never been released on video for over seventy years since its release. And it's a good thing that it finally has. While Night Flight doesn't fall into my definition of a classic, it's good enough that I would suggest it to anyone who is interested in the history of aviation and/or has read the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novel. This is a movie that soars above the average film.
For more information about Night Flight, visit the Internet Movie Database.