Movies – First Flight

Pilots and aircraft have long featured on the big and small screens. We look at some of the more memorable inclusions.

From the Land of Smiles to the horror of World War I

Cover of DVD of "First Flight" , a Thai-made movie

Thailand's aerial contribution to the Western Front in World War I is the backdrop for the domestically-produced "First Flight" movie.

First Flight
Language: Thai and French with English subtitles
98 minutes
Release date: 2007
Available at Tom Claytor’s website
Movie trailer (Needs Flash.)

By Paul Jansen

Hollywood has been rolling out blockbuster-budget western-centric tales of conflicts in the region for a long time.

Flying Tigers (1942), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Pearl Harbour (2001), are just a few of them.

But every once in a while, a locally-produced war film makes it to the big screen. And though lacking the millions of dollars Hollywood directors can play with, some of them are worth viewing for their different perspective or for uncovering some interesting history that many of us had not known about.

“First Flight”, a Thai movie about the country’s pilots flying and dying for the Allies in France in World War I (Yes, World War One), is one such nugget. “Siam” as Thailand was then known, had suffered the predations of Britain and France which had seized large swathes of the country and control of Cambodia and Laos. King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) threw in his lot with the Allied Powers and declared war on Germany. It was a move which paid dividends as the crushing of Germany was followed by the United States of America, Britain and France eventually giving up their extraterritorial rights.

The global strategy and tactics of kings and generals, politicians and power-seekers, are referred to obliquely in “First Flight”. The storyline – as most good ones do – boils down to a more digestible tale of poor boy has unattainable dream, chases unattainable girl, battles unbeatable foes, and (plot spoiler ahead so stop reading here if you want to be surprised with the ending) then overcomes all hurdles.

What really got my attention was the secondary storyline of the establishment of Siam’s air force 100 years ago.

Director Thanit Jitnukul sets the struggle of the supporters of this initiative against the similarly insurmountable problems of a farm boy who dares to believe that he can join a profession reserved for the upper classes.

Woven into this fabric is the attempts of the boy, as though he doesn’t have enough enemies, to woo a rich, snooty, man’s daughter.

Don’t worry, the chap does balance his romantic forays with working hard to gain entry into the flight training programme and becoming a pilot and Director Thanit’s portrayal of this effort is what will have aviation buffs glued to the screen.

Where we use computer programmes and multi-axis simulators today, the trainers of that time had to make do with ropes, barrels and swings. There are moments of hilarity as the trainees go through the course, but the pressure to pass then, as now, is captured in its intensity.

History records over 90 Thais graduating as pilots from the French Army Flying Schools in France. There is some controversy over whether they finished in time to join the fighting before the World War I ended. But not in the movie. In “First Flight”, they not only join the fight but do so heroically, making for some interesting aerial battle scenes.

Sornram Thepitak is convincing in his role of Duang, the farm boy who has as good a way with machines as he does with water buffalo and progresses to aircraft mechanic and then fighter pilot, against all odds. Kudos also go to Khajornsak Rattanisai for his portrayal of the senior officer who has to fight his own military and political establishment before being given a chance to fight the real enemy.

Archive picture of Siamese military aircraft, a Breguet 14

A Thai Breguet 14 which was replicated in the movie "First Flight". Copyright: Thai Air Force Museum

But the greatest pull for me was the shots of the aircraft the Thais flew, the Breguet 14, a French single engine biplane. The first ones used a 220hp Renault engine. The production aircraft used a 300hp engine. Weighing 4,300 lbs, they had a service ceiling of 18,900 ft and a maximum speed of 115 mph.

The Breguet 14 was adopted by many air forces subsequently after its successful performance in the war, thanks in large part to its ability to stand a great deal of punishment due to its use of metal in place of the usual wood parts in the fuselage. This is the same aircraft flown in 1927 by Antoine de Saint Exupery, a Frenchman whose autobiographical books showed the public that a pilot can be a poet at heart.

Movie-goers may find the computer-generated graphics (CGI) of “First Flight” not on par with “Flyboys” (2006), a western production with similar themes. “Flyboys” featured a group of youngsters (Americans) travelling to France in World War I to become fighter pilots, in the Lafayette Escadrille, before their country joined the war.

Given the relative budgets of each movie, this is not unexpected. Nonetheless, the Thai CGI crew put up a decent showing, as did the Props department, in their re-creation of the Breguet 14. They must have studied the actual plane being exhibited at the Thai Air Force Museum.

The movie replicas of the French aircraft which saw service in the war as a fighter, bomber and long-range reconnaissance aircraft, looked sufficiently realistic both on the ground and in action in the air. This is also due in no small part to Tom Claytor, an American bush pilot, who is co-producer of the movie, actor (he played Pierre, a Frenchman who helps train the Thais on their home turf before they set off for war), and who was also the technical advisor and pilot for the aerial cameras.

All the aerial photography was done in Thailand, highlighting the lush countryside which has drawn millions of tourists over the years.

“First Flight” gives them a chance to see the country in a new light.

Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.

What’s your favourite flying movie?

2 Responses to Movies – First Flight

  1. Albert Moo says:

    Hi Paul,

    Nice write up on the movie. An excellent introduction that stirred my interest to get a dvd on the movie myself. Over the years I have collected a few flying movies in vcd and dvd format namely Air America, Flyboys, The Aviator, Amelia Earhart, Pearl Harbor, Tuskegee Airmen and Battle of Britain. There is this movie that I have not laid my hand on and the first flying movie I seen on the big screen. Mosquito Squadron.
    (Starred by The Man From UNCLE)

    Keep up the good job Paul.

    • The Editor says:

      Thanks, Moo. Those are some of my favourite movies too. Miss the wind in the face days when we flew together in the Quicksilver MX at Nusajaya.

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