By Hank Parmer
After reporting on Jack the Giant Killer, math-challenged auteur Mark Atkins' unremittingly crappy foray into the world of epic fantasy, I fully intended to take my own advice viz. treating any of his movies in much the same spirit as I would a pathologically jolly weasel sporting an anthrax-squirting joke carnation.
What I did not know at the time was that far from being a first effort, Jack was in fact Renaissance guy Atkins' thirteenth outing as director, etc., etc. (What I'd like to find out is: who keeps financing these things, and how do we make them stop?)
But despite my resolution, the Fates decreed otherwise. Almost a year after I reviewed JtGK, while scanning through Hulu's cornucopia of cinema merde in search of some review fodder, I stumbled across what seemed a promising title and saved it to my queue for later. Even though Hulu displays the director's name in the blurb, my mind must have been clouded, because up until the moment the opening credits ran I swear I hadn't the slightest inkling that P-51 Dragon Fighter was an Atkins film.
And boy, was it ever.
I have no excuse, really, because a quick glance at Atkins' IMDB entry would have shown me that in addition to his blatant attempts to fool the inattentive viewer with titles like Snakes on a Train (2006), Battle of Los Angeles (2011), the aforementioned Jack, and this year's Road Wars, cheap, crappy films involving dragons -- Dragon Crusaders (2011), Dragonquest (2009), Merlin and the War of the Dragons (2008), plus the immediate follow-up to this movie, Dragons of Camelot -- constitute a substantial portion of his direct-to-video output. The guy really has cornered the market on this sort of thing.
The good news is that compared to JtGK, Atkins managed to scrape together a bigger effects budget for this one, and even had some change left over for costumes and props. I suspect most of that came from economizing on his actors; this time he didn't even try to rope one semi-recognizable face into this thing. Maybe word has gotten around.
Not that even the most stellar cast could have made the slightest difference, because the bad news is that once again Mark Atkins is the director, director of photography and screenwriter. The worse news is he shares a story credit with producer and lead protagonist, Scott Martin. Who is proof positive of the dictum that you never let the lead write his own part.
But enough of that. Time for a rip-off -- er, thrilling tale ripped from the pages of history, as a ragtag band of misfit fighter jockey stereotypes battles Nazi dragons, while the fate of the Allied offensive in North Africa hangs in the balance.
The film opens at an excavation in the desert. An excited Arab bursts into the tent of the movie's store brand Belloq. Inside a cave, they've uncovered a really big egg. Send a message to the Fuhrer, pronto: Our quiches will soon astound the world!
Sometime later, a lone American tank is clanking through the North African desert. The driver catches a glimpse of a vehicle before it ducks into a canyon, and they radio the artillery spotters.
Cut to two Joes in a jeep. They check out a column of what appear to be Panzers -- but one of them takes a closer look through the binoculars and realizes they're decoys. Then he notices a group of women standing above them on the hillside. Sound of wings flapping. He looks up in the sky, sees something, although he doesn't seem very perturbed at the sight. The driver yells, "Oh shit!" Flames, blackout.
Back to the tank. They call in air support, and a squadron of P-51s responds. It's amazingly quiet inside those cockpits. All the better for us to savor every nuance of the sex-and-booze banter from our cocky young pilots.
The tank is incinerated by a hovering dragon! The P-51s spot the flames, and peel off to investigate. They're wiped out by a flight of dragons, although one pilot survives long enough to radio he's under attack from a dragon bearing the Iron Cross on its wings before he too is crisped.
Next there's an establishing shot of a seedy bar in a squalid North African desert hamlet. Inside, Lt. John Robbins (Scott Martin) and a friend are playing a drinking game, in which they each down a shot of whiskey, and then take turns punching each other. The game continues until one of them can't get up. Just good, clean, manly fun.
His character drinks to forget. And if the alcohol doesn't do the trick, the cumulative brain damage from utilizing his head as a punching bag will.
Predictably, Robbins is the last one standing. As he picks up his winnings, a large and very Nordic bloke from the SAS demands to go a few rounds with our hero -- loudly predicting it'll be easy money. Robbins fakes him out and kicks him smartly in the groin. An MP shows up with a timely order for the lieutenant to return to Headquarters, where General Ward informs us that Robbins is super-heroic and has a buttload of commendations and medals. For some unspoken reason he voluntarily relinquished command of his squadron. However, he's the most decorated pilot they have on the North African front.
"Sorry to hear that, sir," deadpans Lt. Robbins. (He's got … attitude!)
The general asks Robbins if he'd like to get back into the air. He then shows him some film salvaged from one of the downed P-51s, taken by its nose camera just before it got torched by a dragon. Good thing they were using that new heat-resistant film stock ...
The general thinks these things are alive. (Brilliant deduction, that. It could have been one of those flying Nazi flamethrower robots, tricked out to look like a dragon.) He wants Robbins to assemble a team, track down and eliminate the dragons. Then he'll get his wings back. Robbins agrees, but only if he can do it his own way; the general says he doesn't care how the lieutenant does it, as long as he gets results.
Cut to the infirmary tent, where we're introduced to the romantic interest, Nurse McKee, as she tends to Robbins' boo-boos. That is, she dabs at his face a bit with a cotton ball, though she doesn't appear at all concerned about the blood leaking from his ear. There's clearly some history between these two.
The next day, Robbins' old buddy, Drake Holdrin, arrives from the RAF. Drake will be the squadron leader and designated doomed hot-shot.
Cut to Afrika Korps headquarters, in Benghazi. Enter Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel -- played, naturally, by a jowly actor who looks almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the famous warrior -- and his new aide-de-camp. In case we've forgotten, Rommel reminds us all he's planning to drive the Allies from North Africa.
Belloq is waiting outside. He's dolled up for the occasion in the Nazi Archaeologist/Dragon Whisperer uniform, which has apparently been designed with the specific intent of humiliating the wearer: khaki shorts and shirt, wide-brimmed hat, neckerchief and an Iron Cross. He looks like a scoutmaster from Dubuque.
An armored personnel carrier pulls up and disgorges a bevy of sinister babes cloaked in black. Rommel is not pleased. He warns the Doktor that he doesn't have the troops to protect these women, but Belloq proudly contradicts the Feldmarschall, saying it is they who will protect his troops.
Back to the Allies' camp, where it's nighttime, and the right time for the script to introduce our colorful dragon-fodder: First, another RAF guy. Then a Czech, a Frenchman, then yet another RAF guy. And last but not least, the American contingent: a farm boy, a Chicagoan and another guy, of indeterminate accent.
But their roster is not yet complete. They're awaiting the arrival of the final member of their valiant band, who has some business to take care of first, explains Co-General Anderson, something to do with Life magazine. (The guy's been spending quite a lot of time by himself lately, since the Kate Smith swimsuit issue arrived in the mail.)
To kill some time while they're waiting for him to finish whatever it is he's doing, crusty, irascible CG Anderson shows them a short subject titled "Project Skywurm". It was captured from a German reconnaissance plane that landed at the wrong airfield during a sandstorm. (And was that pilot ever red in the face!)
The film-within-a-film opens with the camera panning past a line of ladies wearing full-length black silk nightgowns -- with black peek-a-boo lace trim -- and hooded black cloaks. Could be they're extras from a cheesy death metal video. Or they might be a Goth sorority.
Then we see one of the Goth sisters, standing on a rock, her mouth open and arms outstretched. Since there's no soundtrack, it's difficult to tell whether she's singing, or demanding a feeding. A glimpse of a dragon. Then a German soldier in a cave, inspecting dozens of big eggs. Whoo-hoo! They found the Easter Bunny's secret stash!
Next, we see Scoutmaster Belloq, standing in a doorway, while the spooky ladies file out of the building and walk past him toward the camera. The Herr Doktor allows himself a tight little smile of satisfaction.
Co-Gen. Anderson identifies him as "Dr. Heinrich Gudrun", who's an archaeologist, cryptozoologist and specialist in the occult. (One thing you have to admit: the guy's got an unbeatable resume for this gig.)
Anderson then reveals that the women are sorceresses, who call themselves the Vrill. He says they believe in telekinesis, mind control, telepathy, and communication with non-human entities. They can also pick winning Lotto numbers and find missing jewelry and lost pets. Anderson believes they've been training the dragons. Drake, the cheeky devil, suggests it's just like the legend of the unicorn and the virgin. All they need do is drop him behind the lines with a couple of bottles of wine, and he'll solve that little problem. Har.
CG Anderson is not amused. While he's chewing Drake out, the final recruit shows up: Lt. Marx, who's on loan from the Tuskeegee Airmen. And he insists on handing out pamphlets about the struggle of the urban proletariat. This might not end well ...
Back to the seedy bar, where our newly-assembled team is getting to know each other. It's not like they have to worry their pretty little heads about sissy stuff like how to locate these monsters, or what tactics they'll use when they run into them ...
Since they don't officially exist, they decide to call themselves the "Ghost Squadron". (Not exactly the most auspicious name they could have chosen, if you ask me.)
Nurse McKee and her friend, Sue Strickland, enter the place and pause for a moment at the bar. Cocksman Drake sits up and takes notice, arrowing in on the pair like a bird-seeking missile. Sue is awestruck by Drake's fame and captivated by his rugged smarm, but McKee says she's there to meet someone, and leaves. Temporarily forgetting they're not in a 60s disco, Drake remarks to Sue that her friend is really "uptight".
Cut to Lt. Marx, who's trying to order a drink, but the bartender won't serve him. When Robbins walks up, the bartender immediately relents, subdued no doubt by the sheer force of the lieutenant's dolefulness. Meanwhile, McKee appears at the Ghost Squadron table, to a chorus of appreciative wolf whistles.
Back at the bar, Lt. Marx picks up his drink and walks away. This, by the way, is the only racism he will encounter during the course of this film. You have to marvel at a story that introduces a situation so rife with possibilities for some dramatic tension, and then resolutely refuses to do anything with it.
SAS bloke now makes an appearance. In the ensuing fracas Robbins inadvertently gropes McKee's breast and gets roundly slapped. Then she cracks a beer bottle over SAS bloke's head -- what a gal! -- rendering him hors de combat, while his partner tussles with the rest of the Ghost Squadron. We can now check "bar brawl to swing music" off our list of Good War film cliches.
Everybody gets in on the fun, except for Drake, who's busy snogging with Sue. Their merry free-for-all is suddenly interrupted by an air raid warning: dragon attack!
Actually, in what seems to be an Atkins trademark, the dragons don't really do much in the way of attacking, much less devastating, anything. (You think this production is made of money?) In fact, all they do is make a single flame-free pass over the town, then disappear for a good long while, giving the Ghost Squadron plenty of time to return to the airfield, suit up, take off and join their formation.
Except, of course, for Robbins, who's grumpy because he's stuck with ground control. But there's nothing on the radar. Robbins tells the generals the dragons won't show up on radar. (Because -- magic!) How does he know this thing?
The airmen fan out and search for the dragons. The generals will only give them 10 minutes to find the critters, though. After that, they're going to open up with their ack-ack on anything in the air.
Time is fast running out, when Robbins glances at a map, and orders two of the Ghosties to fly down a narrow canyon -- at night, mind you. The Czech and Lt. Marx are selected. They run head-on into a flight of dragons and the Czech is instantly canceled. (Sorry.) Marx hastily rejoins the squadron, with the dragons close behind.
In a desperate gamble, the Ghost Squadron is ordered to lure the dragons over the base and let the antiaircraft gunners shoot at them. This plan proves to be as ineffective as it is stupidly dangerous. Drake rescues one of his mates, then discovers that the dragons can't match the Mustang's rate of climb and manages to shoot one down. (The dragons explode if you hit them in the throat.) But Drake's triumph is short-lived, as he dies a fiery death.
Later, Robbins has a sorrowful heart-to-heart with McKee in the infirmary tent. She tells him about her dad, whom she never met, because he got gangrene while in the trenches and died while they were sawing his leg off without anesthesia.
Okay, first and foremost, what kind of twisted jerk would pass these horrendous details along to the guy's family? And you'll have to excuse me if I indulge in a little pedantry, but dammit, one thing the Allies did not lack in World War I was anesthetics and well-equipped hospitals. Apparently Mr. Atkins has problems with dates as well as numbers. Speaking of which, the first Mustangs didn't even see action in North Africa until June of 1943, months after Rommel had been recalled.
Now it's Robbins' turn, and we finally find out why he has such a sad: It happened when the squadron he led was flying escort for B-17s on a bombing raid against a V-2 missile site. (Forgive my nitpicking, but once again, this story has severe chronology problems, since these raids took place in 1944. Whatever.) On the way back over France, he bombed a building where some Germans who were shooting at him had taken cover. It was full of children. He claims he could hear their screams above the noise of his engine.
When he got back, they gave him a medal. But he grounded himself, declaring he was no longer fit to command a squadron. (So, he'll only fly if he can be squadron leader? 'Kay ...) Being the special snowflake that he is, I guess his superiors were fine with that. I mean, who could possibly resist those soulful eyes? After he flunked his psych evaluation, they made it official.
McKee comforts the big lug.
Back to the desert. Rommel and his aide join Gudrun and General Emerick, the traditional Nazi Pig, who is included in the story for no other discernible reason than to die in some satisfying way in the last act. The Vrill sorceresses do an a cappella medley of Loreena McKennit favorites. DoP Atkins once again shows off his “circle the camera round and round and round the characters” technique. (Fortunately, I had already downed a Dramamine, having been forewarned by the opening credits.)
Four dragons appear, and roost on some nearby rocky knobs. Dr. Gudrun invites Rommel to take a closer look at his pets.
Polly want a victim!
He then offers to stage a demonstration. Nazi Pig is eager to see it, drooling at the prospect of a little mayhem to brighten his day. Gudrun asks for a volunteer from the audience. Rommel says he'll do it, but the Doktor demurs, and instead selects Erwin's aide, whom he orders to start running. So much for that “volunteer” thing.
Rommel gives him the nod. The aide sprints out in the open, satchel in hand. The dragons take wing and head after him. It finally dawns on our wily Desert Fox that the "demonstration" will likely mean he'll have to break in a new aide-de-camp. He commands Gudrun to call his pets off.
This is yet another example of a favorite Atkins' storytelling technique: dramatus interruptus.
The Doktor consoles himself by taking the Feldmarschall on a tour of the remodeled dragon egg chamber. Which is now a huge underground incubator bunker with, as will be seen later, a major design flaw. Belloq -- I mean, Dr. Gudrun has determined that the dragons are all female. (I don't have to tell you how they sex a dragon, right?) The creatures reproduce parthenogenetically. However, if a male hatches and they mate with him, their offspring will be much larger, and what's worse, really cranky and uncontrollable. Rommel demands to know what the Doktor will do if one of his eggs hatches out a male. Gudrun promises to kill it -- but I'm betting he has his fingers crossed.
Cut to Glinda, the Good Vrill of the North. She takes pity on Rommel's aide, who's hiding up in the rocks, bringing him a canteen and a change of pants and underwear. She slips a letter into his satchel, telling him it's for Rommel.
Back at the Wurmbunker, the Herr Doktor predicts that with the addition of his dragon corps, Rommel will be unstoppable. Once they conquer Africa, he can take them on a European tour. And if the women of the Reich knit them some oversize versions of those cute doggie sweaters, they could come in mighty handy on the Eastern Front, too.
The dragons will hatch in a few days, he assures the Feldmarschall, and within a few weeks will be ready to fight for the Fuhrer. Rommel isn't convinced the Vrill can control them all, but Belloq -- I mean, Gudrun is confident they can make the beasts do as he, the Doktor, commands.
Meanwhile, Robbins, Marx and two of the currently corporeal stereotypes from the Ghost Squadron locate the remains of the dragon Drake wasted the night before. While they're preoccupied with prying out a souvenir fang, they're surrounded and captured without a fight by some Germans.
They're taken to meet Rommel. He greets them cordially, then fills them in on some information he claims to have picked up from a remote desert tribe:
Male dragons are apparently such evil-tempered nasties that they're known by the natives as "The Destroyer". (These desert dwellers also live in constant fear of another mysterious being, called the “Georgethorogood”.) Male "wurms" can obliterate an entire civilization, which, incidentally, was what happened to Carthage and Rome.
I sense a History Channel special here -- maybe even a series! And we all know there is only one guy in this dimension who's awesome enough to host it.
And I swear that spliff was this big around!
But Rommel is determined not to let that happen again. He can't simply order the eggs destroyed, of course, because Der Fuhrer would be absolutely furious. However, he can commit a teensy bit of second-hand treason and let the Allies take care of that little dragon problem for him.
One of our disposable flyboys defiantly claims they don't need any help to do the job, concluding with an Algonquin-Round-Table-worthy witticism about the Eighth Army rolling over the Feldmarschall's "pansy" divisions.
Although I was rooting for Rommel to give that pun the response it so richly deserved, his sidearm remains holstered. He ignores the twit and proceeds to outline his plan: He proposes an air attack to distract the dragons, while a commando team infiltrates the incubator bunker and opens up the air shaft. Which will then enable a Yank bomber to do a Luke Skywalker/Death Star number on Gudrun's pets.
Seems like Rommel's over-thinking this thing, if you ask me. Why not just have the commandos carry some explosives with them and take it out themselves? Oh, right: Atkins wants to do a lame homage to Star Wars and (possibly) the 1965 WWII espionage thriller Operation Crossbow.
Concluding his presentation, Rommel promises that if the team can get through, they'll have someone on the inside to help them. As a parting gift, he gives them a blueprint of the bunker, then sets them free.
Back at the airbase, Robbins explains the Feldmarschall's plan to his initially skeptical superiors. As always, those sadly pleading eyes are irresistible: he's like a Margaret Keane painting come to life! They decide to employ a B-17 for this low-level bombing run -- a task, incidentally, for which a strategic bomber is singularly ill-suited, particularly when the objective is a narrow vertical shaft. The Ghost Squadron will fly escort. Meanwhile, his chums from the SAS will take care of opening the vent.
Robbins demands they let him lead his squadron this time; Gen. Ward reluctantly consents.
Cut to the outside of the infirmary tent: it's the calm before the storm. A soldier with a discretely bloodstained bandage wrapped around his head is playing a harmonica. (It was at this precise moment that my hatred for this film achieved its incandescent purity.) Just to exponentially multiply Harmonica Guy's obnoxiousness, his sprightly little tune consists of a single “musical” phrase, just seven notes, played over and over and over. I'm not sure whether what we've got here is supposed to be brain trauma, or shell shock, or Atkins just didn't want to go to the trouble and expense of finding an extra who could actually play the damned thing.
Hearing the distant rumble of artillery, Nurse McKee and Sue step out of the tent to watch the flashes on the horizon heralding the Allied offensive. Wary of being hit in the head again, Harmonica Guy lowers his instrument. When Robbins pulls up in a jeep, Sue tactfully returns inside.
The lieutenant asks McKee if she's seen a beautiful nurse around here. Too bad, there's only McKee. Robbins decides he'd better take what he can get. They share a tender kiss, while Harmonica Guy makes the moment even more memorable with his special contribution.
Fade-out, as they beat him senseless.
Just before dawn, the commandos sneak through the desert behind the German lines. Sunrise: The bomber, with its Ghost Squadron escort, nears its target. Again, I can only marvel at the cockpit soundproofing in these Mustangs. You'd never believe there was a twelve-cylinder, 1300-plus-horsepower engine roaring away just a few feet in front of the pilot.
Early risers Nazi Pig, the Herr Doktor and a couple of Vrill are taking the desert air when the flight appears. Gudrun immediately sics his dragons on our boys, then orders the Nazi Pig to return to the bunker. Emmerick runs into the commandos and is knocked out, dragged into the cave and trussed up. (What? You were expecting me to say "hogtied"?)
The SAS blokes get the air vent open while our boys tangle with the dragons.
The creatures do manage to pull one fairly clever stunt: During the first bomb run, they intercept the bombs in mid-air. One then employs the captured ordinance to take out a P-51 and another tries to use the same tactic to destroy the bomber, but is thwarted when one of the Ghost Squadron sacrifices himself kamikaze-style.
While the Vrill warble some more selections from "Thistle and Shamrock" and the bomber maneuvers for a second pass, things are looking pretty bleak for our guys, as one by one the stereotypes are Cajun blackened. Co-General Anderson has a brilliant inspiration, realizing that if the Mustangs fly behind the dragons instead of in front of them, maybe they won't be so easily flambéed. He orders Robbins and Marx to change their tactics accordingly. (Now, remind me again, what exactly was supposed to be Robbins' vital contribution to this effort?)
"Remember when I said I'd kill you last?"
The SAS bloke is really turned on.
Meanwhile, it seems that there is a full-gown male dragon lurking about. To make sure we all know this one's a major badass, he's got swastikas on his wings, instead of that punk Eisernes Kreuz.
Which way to the rally?
Now I know this is completely irrelevant, yet I can't help but wonder how they got the dragons -- especially that reputedly extra-stroppy male of the species -- to hold still while they put those markings on their wings. Surely the critters didn't hatch out that way. So how then would the Germans have done it? Tattooing would have the advantage of only having to be done once, as opposed to using a stencil and paint, but either way, I sure wouldn't want to be the poor slob they stuck with that duty. And why even bother with insignia in the first place? Were the Nazis worried the beasts could be mistaken for Allied dragons?
The boy dragon fricassees Belloq -- I mean, Gudrun, then takes off after the bomber and our two remaining Ghost Squadron pilots, Robbins and Marx. But too late: The bomber has already dropped its payload. The dragon plummets toward the airshaft after the bomb, with Robbins on his tail, machine guns blazing. But The Destroyer fumbles the interception, and his all-too-brief cameo ends in a fiery cataclysm, as the incubator gets blowed up real good.
Or might have, if they could have afforded some interior shots of the incubator blowing up. All the viewer actually gets is a puny little fireball overlaid on a desert scene.
Back at headquarters, there is much rejoicing over the mission's success, but Marx sadly informs them Robbins is missing. (Along with all those other members of the Ghost Squadron, but really, who cares? They were only stereotypes.) Nurse McKee bravely stifles a sob.
But don't count our courageous flyboy out yet. Cut to a slightly singed and lightly battered Robbins, wandering through the desert. He collapses, just before he's found by Glinda and the SAS bloke. The lieutenant wakes up in the infirmary, his manhood fully restored. He goes into a clinch with Nurse McKee.
Harmonica Guy is still hanging around. He hasn't learned his lesson about that damnable inane ditty yet. Nurse McKee stealthily reaches for the surgical hammer.
To be fair, this movie was in some ways a slight (maybe “infinitesimal” would be a better choice) improvement over Jack the Giant Killer. The poster wasn't a blatant lie: there are in fact dragons and P-51s. The CGI is at least marginally competent, if not very well-staged; the aerial sequences which should be the centerpiece of this film are mainly just … boring. Although during the majority of the movie he doesn't do anything interesting, much less critical to the success of the mission, and has to have his plot points delivered to him on a platter, at least Atkins seems to have finally hit upon the idea that an adventure story should give its lead protagonist more heroic action stuff to do: almost five whole minutes of it, this time around! Sure, you have to wait until this thing is almost over to see it, but the journey was half the -- oh, never mind.
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I'm going to go way out on a limb here and imagine that at this rate, maybe sometime around mid-century, Mark Atkins will make a film which doesn't inspire the viewer with the sort of existential angst that makes them want to go all Oedipus on their own eyeballs.
In the meantime, I can only echo the immortal words of William “One Shot” Beaudine: “You mean, somebody out there is actually waiting to see this crap?”