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Tuesday, November 12, 2013


My first real cinematic brush with James Harold Doolittle, one of the most decorated fliers in U.S. military history, was from watching Alec Baldwin rather broadly pretend to be him in the "Doolittle Raid" segment of Michael Bay's PEARL HARBOR.  A considerably more accurate and in-depth account of the raid would come later with my viewing of the Military Channel's excellent documentary "Missions That Changed the War: The Doolittle Raid."

Still, I had zero knowledge of the man's life before and after this one historic event, which I now realize--thanks to the 2013 documentary WINGS OF A WARRIOR: THE JIMMY DOOLITTLE STORY--was as packed with spectacular feats of courage and daring as any fictional character such as Indiana Jones. 

While other accounts begin and end with the celebrated Tokyo raid--America's answer to Japan after their infamous December 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II--WINGS OF A WARRIOR introduces us to the adventurous little boy whose family traveled from California to Nome, Alaska in the early 1900s just in time to miss the gold rush. 

Both his early interest in flying and his nerves of steel become apparent during his first harrowing glider experiments as a teenager in Seattle, and later in 1919 when he joins the Signal Reserve Corps Aviation Section.  During the formative years of military aviation Doolittle would display a bravery sometimes verging on recklessness which tended to rankle his superiors even as he racked up numerous flying records and achieved such milestones as being the first person to fly from coast to coast in less than a day.

Death-defying plane crashes and other thrilling deeds of daring-do lead, invariably, to the aforementioned raid on Tokyo.  Considered by many to be a suicide mission, it involved Doolittle and his fellow bomber pilots actually taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier at a much greater distance from the Japanese coast than originally planned, which seriously lessened their chance of survival. 

But the story doesn't end there.  After leading over 20 missions, Doolittle would eventually earn the rank of general along with an endless array of decorations including both of the United States' highest awards,  the Medal of Freedom and the Medal of  Honor.  Alternating between military and civilian life during his remaining years, his triumphs would be tempered  by tragedy in the form of his son's mysterious suicide in the late 50s. 

WINGS OF A WARRIOR is a labor of love by Jimmy's cousin Gardner Doolittle, who produced, wrote, and directed as well as serving as on-camera narrator.  It has the roughhewn look of a low-budget project with none of the slick production values familiar to viewers of A&E or the History Channel.  Yet there's an infectious earnestness to the project that keeps it watchable even when it tends to drag. 

This applies to Gardner Doolittle as well--his folksy quality makes up for a lack of professional polish, and the fact that he knew the subject personally adds heft to his words.  But the film never lapses into "talking head" mode, offering a continuous wealth of old photographs and motion picture footage which depict the actual events whenever possible.

The DVD from Shelter Island is in 1.78:1 widescreen with 2.0 sound.  No subtitles.  The sole bonus feature is a ten minute interview in which Gardner Doolittle engagingly recounts his meeting and working with the film's charismatic subject.

Low-key and leisurely paced, WINGS OF A WARRIOR: THE JIMMY DOOLITTLE STORY  is short on flashy production values or snappy storytelling--you might even call its narrative rather dry at times.  Still, it's a worthy effort, and Doolittle's life was so inherently fascinating that one feels compelled to learn more about it while forgiving the film for whatever minor shortcomings it may have.

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