When Dr. Doug Lee fails to save the life of navy pilot Swede Larson, who blacked out and crashed after entering a steep dive, the flyer's friends take an immediate dislike to him and disparage his efforts to learn more about the problem by becoming a flyer himself. Lee's new superior officer, Dr. Lance Rogers, also exhibits resentment toward the presumptuous newcomer. They ultimately become friends and form a mutual bond of personal and professional respect when their research develops a high altitude flying suit which they hope will prevent the kind of blackouts that killed Swede. Unfortunately the process of experimental testing of the new device proves to be a dangerous undertaking.
The real stars of the film are the pre-World War II navy aircraft featured in full color
Errol Flynn ... Lt. Douglas S. 'Doug' Lee, MD
Fred MacMurray ... Lt. Cmdr. Joe Blake, squadron commander
Ralph Bellamy ... Lt. Cmdr. Lance Rogers, MD, Flight Surgeon
Alexis Smith ... Mrs. Linda Fisher
Robert Armstrong ... Art Lyons - aviation designer
Regis Toomey ... Lt. Tim Griffin
Allen Jenkins ... Corpsman 2nd Class 'Lucky' James
Craig Stevens ... Pilot Trainee Anthony
Herbert Anderson ... Lt. Markham MD - assigned to Norfolk
Moroni Olsen ... Senior Surgeon at San Diego
Dennie Moore ... Ex-wife of Lucky James
Louis Jean Heydt ... Lt. Swede Larson
Cliff Nazarro ... Corpsman - Lucky's fast-talking buddy
The real "stars" of this movie are the actual aircraft the US Navy had in 1940, both old and new. Those aircraft are all in their original markings and complicated paint schemes, during the time the Navy was converting from colorful to subdued colors. Every color was part of a complicated plan to identify each aircrafts place in squadron formations allowing quick identifications of exactly where each aircraft "belongs". All the planes are here, Vought Vindicators, Helldivers, Buffalos, F4Fs, PBY's, and even the little used and known Northrup dive bomber competitor of the Vindicator. The US Navy went all out with massed formations in the air and on the ground, close ups, long shots, all of it the most impressive I've seen on the screen, and every foot of it in living glorious color. No attempt to censor or exclude anything, almost as if the US Navy was saying, "Don't underestimate us".
There is only one thing better than seeing this film on VCR or DVD, and that's seeing it on the large screen as I have thrice in my life. If you find the chance to see it on the large screen, don't miss it.
The frosting on the cake is the stirring and patriotic score by Max Steiner, parts of which show up in his other film classics like Fighter Squadron. This movie may have been made made over sixty years ago, but you'll find yourself ready to go running off to your local Navy recruiter, the effect it must have made on its audiences at the time.
When you view this film try and imagine the actions most of these airplanes were in against the Japanese less than two years later, at places like Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Coral Sea and Midway Island.
Too bad Germany, Japan, Russia, and most of the other warring powers didn't leave a color documentary of their air forces of the time.
Taken by itself, DIVE BOMBER is a routine tale of the efforts of Navy doctors to find solutions to major issues facing aviators (countering the effect of G-force on pilots, and functioning in a high altitude environment), written by Naval aviator Frank ('Spig') Wead (who would, himself, be the subject of a later film, John Ford's THE WINGS OF EAGLES), photographed in glorious Technicolor, and teaming top WB 'draw' Errol Flynn with two legendary actors, Fred MacMurray and Ralph Bellamy. Filmed at the eve of the war, the film was one of many military-themed pictures Hollywood's studios were producing, to generate public acceptance of an inevitable U.S. involvement.
While the movie was successful when released, the passage of time has dated it, and the issues addressed; as a result, DIVE BOMBER has not retained the luster of Flynn's swashbucklers. But in the seventies, the film took on a new significance, as allegations were made that Flynn had committed treason, working for the Nazis at the time of the shooting.
According to 'secret' documents that an author said were made available to him, Flynn aided two known Nazi agents, helping them perform espionage by demanding DIVE BOMBER be shot 'on location' at Pensacola Naval Air Station. While the spies were arrested and deported, Flynn went unpunished, and his participation 'covered up', for morale reasons. The revelations were published in a Flynn biography, and the actor's already tarnished reputation became the butt of a new round of derision (a thinly-veiled version of Flynn served as the Nazi villain of the 1991 film, THE ROCKETEER).
Many of Flynn's surviving co-stars, and his official biographer, Tony Thomas, came to the long-dead actor's defense, and research into the extensive, now declassified file the FBI kept on the rowdy actor (files were kept on virtually everyone of importance in the entertainment industry) reveal no more than a social involvement with the agents (the pair socialized with many 'movers' in the film industry, and Flynn was a major 'party animal' in the forties). The idea that the actor could have 'demanded' and gotten a location to be used would have been unlikely (the studio carefully budgeted each film, and actors were only rarely involved in the production end). Had the charges been true, no studio would have ever hired Flynn, again (this was a very patriotic period), and Jack Warner would have PAID, if necessary, for Flynn's one-way ticket to Germany!
Despite the lack of any real evidence, there are still people who cling to the belief that Errol Flynn was guilty (he was far from the noble cavalier that many of his early films portrayed him as, and his critics would love to add treason to his long list of sins). DIVE BOMBER has become the cornerstone of one of Hollywood's great mysteries...
Seven years earlier Warner Brothers did a film called Here Comes the Navy which launched the buddy film genre and the teaming of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien. It was shot entirely on location at the naval base there.
This time it's a more sophisticated story about Navy test pilots and flight surgeons trying to lick the problems of flight. Dive Bomber takes for granted the fact that very shortly the USA will be in a shooting war.
What is unusual is the reverse casting in Dive Bomber. Normally Errol Flynn would have been the test pilot and visiting from Paramount Fred MacMurray would be the doctor. My guess is that Errol probably asked Jack Warner for the change to do something a little different. Errol told many a tall tale in his memoirs, but one thing that was consistent was that he did get bored with his heroic image.
It works out fairly well for both guys. In fact later on Fred MacMurray played Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I air ace in another film and I'm sure he was cast there as a result of what he did in Dive Bomber.
Of course a lot of the film is phony. Our pilots or no one else's pilots ever used those diving suit like contraptions that Flynn and fellow doctor Ralph Bellamy designed for high altitude flying during combat. That did come post World War II however.
Nice aerial footage done in gorgeous technicolor is another positive feature of Dive Bomber. Howard Hughes couldn't have done it better.
One other thing, leading lady Alexis Smith met and married her husband Craig Stevens on the set of this film. Stevens was a contract player doing secondary roles for Warner Brothers. He would wait for stardom much later on as TV's Peter Gunn.
Dive Bomber should still have appeal for aviation fans everywhere on the planet.
The carrier U.S.S. Enterprise was used in the film while docked in San Diego. The Enterprise would go on and become one of the most famous ships in history for her battles she took part in during World War II.
The Navy Department allowed filming on the U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier at sea for only three days.
One of the pilots who flew the planes in the film footage was Navy Lt. Edward "Butch" O'Hare. O'Hare served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific and shot down five Japanese planes in his first battle, earning ace status and the Medal of Honor. O'Hare would go on to down 12 planes total and become one of the top heroes of the war before he was killed in action off the Gilbert Islands in November, 1943. O'Hare International Airport in Chicago was later named for him.
Pilot Paul Mantz was seriously injured on his way to San Diego; Frank Clarke substituted for him during his convalescence.
Byron Haskin designed special mounts for a heavy Technicolor camera to allow it to move back and forth inside an airplane, in order to film the squadron while diving.
All stills and publicity shots had to be approved by the Naval Intelligence Bureau.
When the movie was released, the Navy Department provided the new Douglas dive bomber to be displayed in principal cities, and set up recruiting booths by the theaters.
Jack Benny did a parody of this movie on his radio show which aired 10/26/1941
According to author Charles Higham in his biography "Errol Flynn: The Untold Story" and an April 2000 "New Statesman" article, "The Missing Errol Flynn File," Errol Flynn functioned as a German agent during the time he was in San Diego and Hawaii during the shooting of this picture, and his Pearl Harbor pictures were passed along to Fascist agents. These allegations remain unproven.