The Spirit Of St. Louis
The Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island in the state of New York is one of the largest commercial shopping center is one of the largest in our country but that is not what differentiates it from the thousands of other such center of commerce. One time this area was one of the most famous air fields in history. The most famous aviatrix if history, Amelia Earhart took off from that field as did Wiley Post, the first man to circumnavigate the globe by air. More germane to this film review it is the site were ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ took off on the first flight to carry a single man across the Atlantic Ocean to land if far off France. While flights from New York to Paris are now routine an easily accessible to anyone with a price of a ticket back on Friday, May 20, 1927, it was a perilous journey that had already claimed the lives of a half dozen men who attempted it. The 1957 film named after that intrepid craft remains one of the best examples of historical dramas and cinematic biographies ever made. It covers the incredible vision and stalwart courage of one of American history’s most memorable figures, Charles Lindbergh. Known as ‘Slim, for his tall, lean frame and later ‘The Lone Eagle’ for giving America the prize of the first solo trans-Atlantic flight he would continue to be at the center of monumental changes and controversies that affected the course of this nation. This movie restricts itself to Lindberg’s most publicized contribution to history, the flight of ‘Spirit of St, Louis’. It still requires years of training and experience to flight across the ocean but now there are marvels of technology and engineering to assist the pilot. Electronics, computers and modern material have made this trip fairly routine but Lindberg managed it during the infancy of aviation; a mere 24 years after man took to the sky in powered flight. The star of this film portraying ‘Lucky Lindy’ was himself an aviator in World War II, Jimmy Stewart. Besides his notable physical similarity to Lindberg he was an actor beloved by the public in similar fashion to his illustrious subject.
The film opens with Charles Lindberg (Stewart) sitting in a little hotel near the Long Island airfield. He is tense with apprehension due to the long wait for the weather conditions to improve sufficiently for him to begin his flight. Outside the room his best friend, Frank Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson), keeps the reports at bay. The $25,000 prize was at stake and has already resulted in the deaths of three two man crews that made the attempt. While waiting Lindberg slips into reminiscing about his career as an aviator. Like many men possessed by the need to take flight Lindberg worked as a mail courier. He worked as a pilot for the postal service working out of Chicago. One particularly brutal winter the wings of his bi-plane iced up forcing him to bail out. Lindberg was always a man dedicated to finish whatever he started so before parachuting to safety he grabbed the mail bag later taking a train to reach his destination delivering his cargo. In real life this occurred twice due to the susceptibility of the war surplus aircraft to the infamously bad Illinois winters. Many historical films or biopics take considerable dramatic license with the events portrayed but here Lindberg's’s real life required minimal embellishment for the sake of telling the story. Sure, this is not a completely accurate historical account; you can get that on the History Channel or better yet in the Library. Even with that said this film was made during a time when Hollywood did make some effort to preserve the facts, especially with iconic American heroes like Lindberg.
The movie proceeds on to Lindberg’s association with a small manufacturing firm, the Ryan Aeronautical Company. Lindberg had managed to obtain backers for his attempt to secure the illustrious Orteig Prize but it would require a very special craft. After much discussion with their chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space) to work out the particulars of the required, experimental aircraft. The result was a fixed mono-wing single engine plane officially registered as ‘N-X-211’ which would tale Lindberg on his historic flight. Unlike the other attempts Lindberg sought to reduce the weight and fuel weight by going alone. This required him to man the controls for the entire 33 and a half hour the trip would take. Lindberg worked diligently on the design making many modifications the engineer though was madness. For example in order to better place the center of gravity the plan did not have a front windshield, Lindberg literally have to crane his neck to look out the side window. A visit to the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian will give you an opportunity to see how small this craft was compared to the leviathans that dominate the modern skies. One liberty taken here is a young woman offering Lindberg her little make-up mirror to help him see outside. Many now take this as fact although there is no basis for this event. He did have a periscope although there is considerable speculation over whether it was actually used.
This movie may list a sizable cast but there is absolutely no doubt that is severs as a testimony of the acting acumen of a legend of American film, James Stewart. Few actors then, or for that matter now, could hold together a movie that amounts to a one man show. Stewart was one of the most diversified and intense actors ever but he did so in a gentle, humble fashion. He had nothing to prove, her took hold of any scene that featured him or any part he agreed to play and he nailed it. I have a considerable number of his films in my collection and I cannot think of one performance that wasn’t brilliant. It took an actor of his stature and reputation to portray one of America’s most beloved heroes. Many people in the audience when this film premiered had first hand recollections of the flight of ‘Lucky Lindy’ so it had to play close to the facts. This was a slice of our history as well as an expertly constructed movie that holds up beautifully through the years.