CAPSULE: In much the style of an episode of "The American Experience", this documentary recounts the history of a wealthy group of men at Yale who in 1914 decided they wanted the fun of learning to fly airplanes. Then World War I broke out and they were guided by the principle that "of those to whom much has been given, much is expected." They determined to learn to fly and to be prepared if/when the United States would join the fighting. They would be ready with America's first real air force. "The First Yale Unit", as they called themselves--or "The Millionaires' Unit", as the newspapers called them--went from private ownership to being the basis of United States air power and left an extraordinary record. The documentary is based on the book of the same title by Mark Wortman. Darroch Greer who shares director credit with Ron King wrote the film. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
In the days before the First World War a group of high-spirited students from Yale wanted to learn to fly the newly invented airplane. It was a rich man's hobby. But from the ground they could tell there was nothing so free as the freedom of the air. Flying was just one of the privileges of the wealthy. The small group got permission to form the Yale men into an official reserve unit.
Then suddenly war was declared in Europe. Woodrow Wilson had so far kept the United States out of the war, but the boys from Yale expected the United States would be pulled into the war and they wanted to be ready. They felt if they had the privilege so they also had responsibility. So in a spirit of responsibility and perhaps in the expectation of jolly good sport they went to France to join the fight. Paris was better than expected (with women coming up to them asking "sleep... with... me...?"). But soon they were in the war and they stayed until the end. The film gives an engrossing history of those Yale grads over World War I's four years. The spirit of the film is ebullient well into the war, but it would be unrealistic to expect that some of the men would not be killed in battle or in flying miscalculations. The film does have its downbeat stories. But overall the spirit ran high.
There is a lot to tell about in those four years in a 121-minute film. This is a film for people who like flying themselves or watching flying, war stories, or history, witness testimony or expert testimony, stories of courage, or stories of romance. The filmmakers do go the whole American Experience route with news and documentary footage, talking heads interviews, and narration. The narrator is actor Bruce Dern. If he does not seem to be of the Yale mold, he narrates because he is the grand-nephew of a flyer in the Yale unit. His contribution to the story telling is one of the few stylistic elements that might be questioned. He tries to add a little too much zest to the reading, emphasizing some words for no apparent reason as if to create dramatic effect.
"Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected." That is the theme of the film and the philosophy of the unit and a rare one today more than a century later. I rate this film a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4224460/reference
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_millionaires_unit
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2018 Mark R. Leeper