Films about films are an endless source of fascination for moviemakers and audiences, and this is something that goes back to the early days of cinema. With a script that blends stunts, comedy and melodrama, and combines the behind the camera story with themes of friendship and betrayal, The Lost Squadron packs a lot into an entertaining 75 minutes. It also has a great appearance from legendary director Erich von Stroheim, playing up to his reputation as an unhinged despotic genius.
Set at the end of World War I, three US army pilots and their mechanic, 'Gibby' Gibson (Richard Dix), 'Woody' Curwood (Robert Armstrong) Red (Joel McCrea), and Fritz (Hugh Herbert) find themselves back in civilian life, where things are less than rosy. Gibby discovers his girl has run off to marry tyrannical film director Von Furst (Stroheim), Woody’s business partner has absconded with all his money, Red quits his job rather than watch a friend be fired, while elsewhere newspaper headlines tell us that political squabbling means Congress fails to pass a package for veterans benefits, forcing men onto the breadlines. Eventually, all four manage to find work, working on aerial stunts for pictures by Von Furst - but the director is seething with envy at his wife’s old flame, and plots a nasty on set accident for him.
The screenplay, which is partly written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) is based on a book by real life stunt pilot Dick Grace. Despite a synopsis that includes war, jealousy and attempted murder, the majority of the film is relatively light-hearted, especially the character of Woody, played as an archetypal comic drunk, admittedly, perhaps not the best person to be doing hair-raising stunts in a plane.
Many of the real life flying sequences are well done, using a fleet of war surplus aircraft. Back on ground, the dialogue is snappy and the camaraderie between the four friends believable, even if the performances are a little broad and hammy at times.
The other star is Stroheim, playing himself, or at least a version based on his reputation as a maniacal and visionary filmmaker, with no regard for other people’s money or lives.
It is his character that drives the second half of the story, which sees the upbeat tone turn dark, with murder and revenge taking over from thrills and stunts, leading to an ending that seems tragic but inevitable.