'Red Tails': History, George Lucas-Style

Simplifications and flashy effects aside, the extraordinary story of the Tuskegee Airmen gets its due.

Simplifications and flashy effects aside, the incredible story of the Tuskegee Airmen gets its due, and some of the squad's veterans are pleased with the film.

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I understand why George Lucas became so passionate about telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II that he spent 20 years and some $58 million of his own money bringing Red Tails, which opens today, to the big screen. Both the story, and the Tuskegee pilots themselves, are extraordinary.

At the beginning of World War II, blacks were not allowed to serve as pilots in the military. A 1925 U.S. Army War College report had gone so far as deeming them not just inferior, but also incapable of operating complex machinery. But the country desperately needed more pilots. So a small training program for black pilots was initiated at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was called the "Tuskegee Experiment" because the Air Corps brass fully expected the men in the program—many of whom were college-educated and quite accomplished—to fail. Some of the early white instructors in the program, in fact, tried to make sure that outcome came to pass.

"All of the instructors were volunteers," Lt. Col. Floyd J. Carter, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, told me. "Now, some of them volunteered because they believed in the program. But others volunteered to try to keep us from succeeding. They'd call us stupid niggers and try all kinds of things to provoke us into getting angry, or coming back at them. Because the minute you did that, you washed out."

In the early classes, only four or five men out of an initial group of 40 candidates made it through the training. The program was also in constant threat of being closed down. But it had just enough champions (including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), and there was just enough discipline and determination on the part of people like Benjamin O. Davis, who became the commanding officer of the Tuskegee fighter pilots in Europe, that the "experiment" stayed alive. The first squadron of pilots was deployed to North Africa. But at the beginning of 1944, when enough pilots had graduated from the Tuskegee program to form an entire fighter group (four fighter squadrons), they were deployed to Italy, where the 332nd fighter group served as a segregated unit within the 15th Air Force.

This is point where George Lucas picks up their story. Red Tails is an action-adventure movie set on the Italian air field the 332nd used as its base from 1944 to 1945. Lucas also decided to focus on the action-adventure aspects of the story more than deep character development. As Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, another Tuskegee veteran, put it, "The movie did a good of of portraying the story. Lucas did it in his fashion, of course, with kind of a Star Wars glitter, but it did parallel the story of the real Tuskegee Airmen."

The pilots flew several different types of fighter aircraft, and flew both ground attack and air cover missions. They gained the respect of the Army Air Corps brass in Washington for their air-cover performance at Anzio and several other Allied beach landing operations in Italy—just as the movie portrays. But what they became famous for—indeed, almost legendary for—was their record escorting bombers on missions deep into German-occupied territory, including a massive raid on Berlin itself that Lucas makes the climax of the film.

To understand the significance of those bomber escort missions, one first has to understand just how dangerous it was to be a bomber pilot in World War II.  In some of the early raids, fewer than half of the Allied bombers returned home from any given mission. There were some 8,000 U.S. heavy bombers lost in the European theater (each carrying 10 crew members)—more than twice the number of fighter airplanes lost there. And as the war progressed, Germany focused more of the Luftwaffe's efforts on shooting down Allied bombers. (One Tuskegee pilot told me that German pilots were awarded four kills for each four-engine bomber they shot down, as extra incentive.)

Against those efforts and odds, the only protection the bomber crews had was their fighter escorts—especially the P-51s, which were the only fighters with enough range to stay with the bombers all the way to their targets and back. Of course, fighter pilots being what they are, they sometimes got drawn off the bomber formations to chase down enemy aircraft. What made the Tuskegee Airmen so legendary was their reputation for doggedly and effectively sticking with the bombers, fighting off or discouraging enemy attacks, rather than going off to seek their own glory.

For many years, legend had it that the "Red Tails," (named after the bright red tail markings every plane in the 332nd carried) didn't lose a single bomber to enemy fire. The reality isn't quite that movie-perfect: Between June 1944 and May 1945, as many as 27 bombers might have been lost. However, that number (and some argue the number of bombers lost was less than that) still represents half the average number of bombers lost by other fighter groups. The reason for that achievement, according to every source and Tuskegee Airman I've consulted, was Col. Davis—who understood just how much was riding on how well his men followed their orders to protect the bombers. If they didn't turn in significant results on that front, it would give the group's critics a reason to shut them down—a threat the other fighter groups in Europe did not face.

"We stuck a lot closer to [the bombers], because if you didn't, you were going to catch it when you got back," Lt.Col. Bob Friend, who was Col. Davis's wingman, told me with a chuckle. "You'd have hell to pay."

As a result, by the end of the war, there were bomber crews specifically requesting the 332nd Red Tail pilots as their escorts.

Sadly, the Tuskegee Airmen continued to experience racism, even after their heroic exploits in the skies over Germany. Some 160 pilots were arrested and three Tuskegee pilots were court-martialed for walking into an officer's club at Freeman Field, Indiana, in 1945, despite a direct order from Washington that all pilots, regardless of race, were to be given access to the club. The records of the pilots were not cleared until 1995, even though the "Freeman Field Mutiny," as it was called, was considered a critical step in the Civil Rights Movement and the integration of the armed services.

So I get why George Lucas wanted to make a movie about these men. I also understand why he struggled for years to get a workable script, and why he really thinks the story needs to be told as—surprise!—a trilogy. There's just too much material in the story to fit into a two-hour movie. If this movie does well, Lucas has said he'd like to do a prequel (about the training) and a sequel (about what happened after the Airmen returned home). So Red Tails is a bit like Episode IV in the Star Wars series: a slice of the story, taken from the middle. And it helps if you understand that.

Like Star Wars in its time, Red Tails also offers some impressive special effects, particularly in the quality of its combat scenes, which are entirely computer-generated. The only "real" airplanes in the movie are on the ground. But Lucas manages to make the P-51 and bomber combat scenes much more exciting that way, while still feeling plausible, for the most part. So, OK. There are some technical inaccuracies. (The closure rate of a German jet fighter flying head-on with a P-51 Mustang, for example, would be somewhere around 650 mph, which means they'd be in either other's sights and gun range for about a blink of an eye. And the fighters would have been flying above the bombers, not in between them.) But that subtle shading of truth helped to convey the emotions of battle well enough that one Tuskegee pilot told me the movie had actually brought back some memories that hurt.

The character portrayals were also more realistic than I expected. I thought the two group commanders (Col. Bullard and Maj. Stance, played by Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr.) were disappointingly two-dimensional—especially when compared to their real-life counterparts, who were two of the first pilots to complete the training and went on to win honors including (for Col. Davis) a Distinguished Flying Cross. But when I asked about the other fictional pilots in the squadron, Col. Friend laughed and said, "Not only were there guys just like that, I could almost tell you who those characters were supposed to be! Even if they were two or three guys in one!"

The movie also has some flaws. Even biting off just a slice of the story, Lucas and screenwriter John Ridley clearly struggled with trying to fit too much material into too short a time. As a result, there are some awkwardly abrupt leaps in the story progression, and some heavy-handed dialogue that's used as a short cut for more time-consuming, dramatic exposition.  The story itself is also a challenge, because it lacks not only a single Indiana Jones or John Wayne-type of central hero, but also a single event or mission to anchor the story and build tension around.

The Tuskegee Airmen weren't saving one soldier, or storming a beach, or taking out a Death Star. Their enemy and challenges were multifaceted, and their triumph was a series of quiet victories that evolved over the course of years. They proved they could be the equal of white pilots. They brought bomber crews safely home. They were instrumental in starting to change the attitude toward blacks within the military. They maintained their dignity in the face of continuing discrimination and humiliation, back home. And they went on to be exemplary role models and lead extraordinary lives of service, no matter where they went.

That's amazing stuff, but it doesn't fit a typical screenplay or story structure—which is doubtless one of the reasons Lucas struggled with the script for so many years. Another reason the film took so long to make it to the big screen, however, is that Hollywood (according to Lucas) was unwilling to back a movie with an all-black cast, because the studios didn't think a "black" movie had enough box-office and international sales potential to pay off.

For my part, I wished the film had contained some flashbacks that showed the difficult road the Tuskegee pilots had traveled to get to that base in Italy, and had further emphasized of the greater impact the group had. That said, it did a great job of portraying, in the style of the film Memphis Belle, a piece of the Tuskegee Airmen's experience as combat pilots in a global, all-out war, with George Lucas-style special effects and action sequences.

There's also a kind of poetic parallel between the movie and the fighting group it portrays. The most extraordinary aspect of both is how long it took, and how hard their champions had to fight, just for them to exist. And if the movie and its "heroes" feel almost too "ordinary" at times, well, that is, in a way, the very victory the Tuskegee Airmen were fighting to achieve. They wanted to be seen as ordinary fighter pilots, no different from anyone else. And Lucas wanted to prove that he could take a story about black pilots, with all the major roles played by black actors, and make it into an "ordinary" big-screen, action-adventure movie that would appeal to anyone.

If those ordinary pilots had happened to rescue the Ark of the Covenant, blow up a Death Star, or save a Republic single-handedly, the movie would have a much more action-adventure-worthy satisfactory and punchy ending. But the ending of this story has one quality none of the others can match: It really happened. It happened to real people—some of whom are still alive to talk about it. Sure, maybe the happy scene with the bomber pilots in the Italian officer's bar didn't actually take place. But as Col. Friend said at the end of our conversation, "You know, I went to a bomber group reunion last year, in San Diego. And people came up to me, and they all said, 'I want to thank you for what you did for my grandfather. For my father. For me.'" He paused for a moment. "That felt really good," he said.

In case anyone's wondering, seeing their story finally make it to the big screen feels pretty good to them, too. It's been a long time coming.