A new and spectacular ARTE-Indigènes co-production takes a closer look at the hidden side of five star aviators who influenced the outcome of the First World War
The 2018 centennial of the end of World War I has been revisited from every conceivable angle. Military experts have lectured on successful (or not) strategic troops movements, history scholars have examined the reasons for this catastrophic event, and philosophers have mused on the lessons drawn. Even the arts thematized the landmark event in numerous films and plays. But hardly anyone paid attention to the fighter pilots whose exceptional aviation skills had the most imminent impact on the action in the field. In a new docu-fiction, award-winning French documentary filmmaker Fabrice Hourlier (Napoleon, the Russian and Egyptian Campaigns, For Athens, Supersonic Women…) tells the history of the Great War as seen from the sky, through the eyes of pilots who marked the history and birth of military aviation. La Guerre des As (The Aces’ War, or Soldaten der Lüfte in ARTE’s German version) is scheduled for broadcast on November 10, 2018, the eve of the 100th anniversary of the historic armistice.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the future of aviation lies in the hands of a few daredevils and visionaries. In two episodes (1914-1916, and 1917-1918) this film takes the spectator to the skies alongside the “Aces of Aces” to discover the Great War in a new way through the fate of five legendary German, French and British pilots: Manfred von Richthofen (better known as the Red Baron), Ernst Udet, Georges Guynemer, René Fonck and Edward Mannock. Five young men who against all odds became the Aces of Aces when nothing seemed to predispose them to do so.
In this documentary, we see the true face of military aviation and are deeply plunged into the intensity of the catastrophic battles of Verdun and the Somme. History was written here – not only war history but also that of aeronautics. And we sneak a peek into the private lives of these five extraordinary men of diverse origins and backgrounds who share one common desire: to stand out in the air while serving their country. And something else connects them: all young and far from being elite soldiers, they all had either been declared unfit for aviation service, or had to overcome considerable challenges to reach their goal.
The well-oiled trio of director Fabrice Hourlier (pictured below), writer Marc Eisenchteter and producer Stéphanie Hauville retraces the destinies of these exceptional pilots, barely 20 years old, through a lively mix of impressive 3D reconstructions of air battles, excellent actors, contemporaneous archival material, and expert historical commentary in signature Indigènes style. Parisian go-to sound designer Olivier Lafuma, who is also the composer of the film’s original music score, painstakingly recreates an authentic audio landscape rendering the sounds of battle fields and airplane engines, which only adds to the sense of full immersion into the aeronautical epic of the First World War.
Episode 1: 1914 – 1916
The First World War – which over its four year course would cost the lives of tens of millions military and civilians across Europe, and leave over 20 million wounded – has only just begun, but Allied ground troops are already getting bogged down in trenches. In France, Marshal Joffre declares: “The Air Force is no longer just a reconnaissance force. Their task will now be to destroy the enemy air force.” From now on, the war is no longer only waged on the ground, but will become the first one in the history of humanity to also be fought in the air. A remarkable challenge, given that aviation is barely out of its infancy.
Young pilots and flight students are recruited to defend the fatherland. The devastating battle of Verdun in 1916 marks a turning point in the course of the war. Control of the sky becomes essential. At the same time, a new chapter begins in the history of military aviation: the sky becomes the most important battle zone, the aircraft industry enters a new era and new prototypes are tested.
In the tragedy of the air battles, which have claimed almost a million lives in two years, pilots become celebrated heroes. Their victories are recorded and published in the form of downed enemies, almost like a sports score. In these difficult times, people need heroes almost as much as they need bread, and these daredevil pilots fill that need. Guynemer, who was initially regarded as an inexperienced greenhorn, is now a “flying ace” due to his air victories and wins the favor not only of high-ranking military but also of countless women; von Richthofen, dubbed “Red Baron”, becomes the darling of the empress and the feared nightmare of his opponents.
Episode 2: 1917 – 1918
Spring 1917. The Battle of the Sky is a major turning point: the United States enters the war, forcing the Germans to change their tactics. It is the end of solo flights and knightly duels that have made Guynemer famous. Ernst Udet receives praise from the Red Baron who integrates him into his famous squadron, “the Richthofen circus”. Mick Mannock, who at 29 years old is the oldest, is a born leader, attentive to his young teammates whom he covers and protects during the fighting. In September 1917, Guynemer is shot and killed. His body will never be found. René Fonck chalks up several victories and becomes the new “ace of aces”, celebrated by French president Clemenceau. He will be leading the decisive 1918 “airmen’s charge” over the Somme, the battle that dismantles the German offensive. Von Richthofen, for his part, suffers the same fate as Guynemer, and his death is a tremendous moral blow to the Germans.
Why yet another WWI documentary, Fabrice Hourlier?
Asked what motivated this film, the highly acclaimed director of numerous other epic historic docu-fictions tells us he wanted to shed new and human light on this period, to analyze the complex personalities of these elite pilots and to show the enthusiasm of the crowds for these men who have become international celebrities. He also offers a new perspective of the 1914-18 war, one which emerges from the trenches, and flies over battlefields to discover Verdun and the Somme from the sky. The WWI era, we are reminded, also coincides with the beginnings of photography and cinema, where we witness a mechanization of society ready for industrialization.
But there is also an underlying personal reason for this documentary, says Fabrice. “I have always been fascinated by the pilots of the First World War, perhaps it is also linked to my family history in memory of Léon Hourlier, a volunteer pilot who died tragically in a plane crash on 16 October 1915. Like all these young men, my ancestor was an aviation enthusiast, and a fervent admirer of top aviators Roland Garros, Jules Védrines and Louis Blériot. Young madmen, drunk with freedom and driven by a thirst for adventure that pushes them to take control of these funny flying machines. Intrepid young men who only dream of one thing: to become pilots!”
On her part, producer Stéphanie Hauville-Hourlier wanted to understand what motivates young people to get involved in aviation when an active fighter pilot’s life expectancy on duty averaged only 3 weeks. She was also intrigued by the extraordinary progress of business over these four war years: While in 1914, the entire French fleet only comprised about a hundred planes on the entire territory, it had at the end of the war 12,000 planes left, despite a loss of 52,000. And finally she wishes to pay tribute to these greatest of the great, most of who perished so young.
Richthofen the god, Guynemer the star, Fonck the Ace of Aces, Udet the challenger, and Mannock the squadron leader. Who were those pilots? Madmen, as Fabrice says, or rather naïve youths, valiant knights in air suits, daredevils, or passionate specialists? A fair question. It turns out, there were all of the above to some extent… and the documentary unveils what made them tick.
In order to become an Ace, a pilot needed to rack up at least five aerial victories. Every single ascent to the skies is a potentially deadly affair but these fighters exceeded the required number by multiples.
René Fonck, French, 1894 – 1953 (played by Antoine Ferey)
Not as widely known as Guynemer, René Fonck was nevertheless the French ace with the highest number of victories (75) and one of the few airmen to survive the war. Prudent and thoughtful, and much more reserved in nature than Guynemer and Richthofen, he would prove one of the most flamboyant attackers in these battles of a new kind. This son of a worker, eager not only for aerial but above all social ascent, had to work his way up from the trade of mechanic. Quickly becoming the well known “Ace of Aces”, he perfected his hunting technique: calculating danger and aiming right. Thus, one or two bullets in the head were enough to kill his opponents. His competitive spirit would push him to launch incredible challenges that would consolidate his legend, such as on May 9, 1918, when his mission was to shoot down five enemy aircraft in a single fight, and he managed to reach a score of six, an achievement that would earn him the Legion of Honour medal. When the war ended in November 1918, he dedicated his victories to his hero, Roland Garros, who had died in the air a month earlier, one day shy of his 30th birthday.
Georges Guynemer, French, 1894 – 1917 (played by Jeremie Duvall)
Few know that the most emblematic French pilot of the Great War had faced an uphill battle to even join the army, having failed the recruitment test five times for being considered too frail with his slight frame of 1.68 m and 48 kgs. Once in, he is also one of the clumsiest ones, destroying several aircraft during his classes. Nevertheless, when his feet are held to the fire, the 20-year-old former volunteer reveals his qualities. On July 19, 1915, Georges Guynemer’s virgin air battle, within the mythical Stork Squadron, ends in victory, the first of 53. His repeated killings quickly earn him the nickname “Môme de Fer” (Iron Sparrow) and celebrity status in the media and in the eyes of society. His fame would, however, not remain without consequences, leading to a nervous breakdown in 1917, which perhaps influenced his tragic end. On September 11 of the same year, during a solo mission over Ypres, he is lost at the age of 22 in the middle of the sky of glory. His body would never be recovered.
Manfred von Richthofen, German, 1892 – 1918 (played by Thomas Debaene)
As if by a mirror effect, the German camp produces a prodigy with a profile almost identical to that of Guynemer. Manfred von Richthofen, of aristocratic descent like his opponent, and barely two years his senior, is also a fervent student pilot, but after a series of spectacular crashes early on, only very few observers, apart from his mentor Oswald Boelcke, still believe in his skills. But his status as his comrades’ laughing stock changes when he racks up victory after victory – 80 all in all. He becomes known by the mythical nickname “Red Baron” for his triplane painted in red, his squadron’s colour, intended to provoke the opponent. An ever-hungry hunter, he builds a collection of souvenirs, cut from pieces of the enemy plane’s fuselage. He is the most respected pilot of the two opposing camps, and his death in the sky on 21 April 1918 at age 25 plunges soon-to-be defeated Germany in national mourning.
Ernst Udet, German, 1896 – 1941 (played by Fabian Wolfrom)
Dubbed “the professional”, Ernst Udet is just 18 years old when the war begins, and he finances his pilot training himself. Like Richthofen, he crashes a good number of aircrafts, which lands him in prison for a while in order to learn to respect the rules. But then he faces Guynemer and his squadron in the skies of Verdun during a memorable encounter. His skills as a pilot allow him to join the “Richthofen Flying Circus”. There he discovers the Red Baron’s tactics, favouring dive attacks with the sun on his back in order to remain invisible to the enemy. Brave and determined, Udet loves to fly, honoured to serve his country in the Luftwaffe. This outstanding pilot succeeds the Red Baron at the head of the famous Jasta 4, earns an order of merit, and like his French counterpart René Fonck, survives the war. But he is destined to meet a tragic fate later in life. Called to arms by Göring in World War II, he enthusiastically serves in the Luftwaffe but, realizing the atrocities committed by the Nazis, plunges into depression and commits suicide in 1941.
Edward “Mick” Mannock, British, 1887 – 1918 (played by Thomas Ancora)
Despite his acute astigmatism which would eventually lead to the loss of his right eye, Edward “Mick” Mannock is one of the legends on the other side of the Channel, with 61 certified victories. He is considered the greatest British ace. Due to his vision problem he should not even have been able to join aviation but he beats the medical test by arriving earlier and memorizing the letters on the visual examination board. Shooting is not his forte, but with hard work, training and perseverance, he improves his skills to eventually reach remarkable levels. Very protective of the members of his squadron, to whom he teaches the art of surviving in the skies, he dies in combat at the age of 31 and posthumously receives the Victoria Cross on July 18, 1919.
– Manfred von Richthofen
Docu-Fiction by Fabrice Hourlier
Writers: Marc Eisenchteter and Fabrice Hourlier
Coproduction: ARTE France, Indigènes Productions
Producer: Stéphanie Hauville-Hourlier
ARTE, Saturday, November 10 at 20.15 h (Germany) and 20.50 h (France), two consecutive episodes of 52 minutes (available in replay for 7 days)
All photos courtesy of Indigènes Productions