It took George Lucas more than two decades to bring the movie Red Tails to the screen. It was all the way back in the late '80s that the man behind Star Wars and Indiana Jones fell under the spell of another story of adventure, this one with real-life heroes — the African-American fighter pilots of World War II.
They were known as the Tuskegee Airmen, and they were as dashing, inventive and brave as any of Lucas' big-screen protagonists. But they also carried the burden of the unrelenting racism of their day. In an act of defiance and pride, they painted the tails of their planes red — which is how they became known as the Red-Tail Angels.
John Ridley, a longtime Morning Edition commentator and the writer of the Red Tails screenplay, tells NPR's Renee Montagne that when the Tuskegee Airmen were finally sent to an overseas duty post, they were flying what you might call the jalopies of the U.S. Army Air Forces — planes "plucked from Uncle Sam's junkyard," in the words of one airman in the film.
"They weren't given very good assignments, they weren't given very good material, they weren't expected to do anything at all," Ridley explains. "And of course, their history proved that they exceeded all expectations."
Once the Red Tails finally saw active combat, Ridley says, their white superiors were astounded by the levels of skill and discipline the Airmen displayed — especially when compared with pilots in all-white units.
"They weren't innately better, but [the Red Tails] had trained so much longer because no one wanted to assign them [to combat]," says Ridley. "When they got the opportunity, they were among the most trained pilots in the air."
Having proven themselves, the Airmen were quickly upgraded from their junkers to fly state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang fighters — and they were assigned to more challenging missions, including escorting heavy B-17 bomber planes to their targets.
Up to then, the bombing squadrons had regularly taken heavy losses.
"The large planes would have 10 to 11 men onboard, and there were bomber trains of maybe 100 B-17s," Ridley says. "You're talking about a thousand men in the air, and at the time they were losing 20, 30 or 40 of these [planes] per mission. You can imagine what that was doing to the psyche on the homefront."
Part of the reason so many planes were shot down was the escorts' tactics. U.S. pilots were trained to pursue German fighters, leaving the bombers open to attack.
In the movie, as in real life, the Red Tails do things differently. In the film, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) warns his men not to chase glory by going after the German planes.
"We count our victories," he tells them, "by the bombers we get to our targets, by the husbands we return to their wives, by the fathers we get back to their children."
That speech could be a pep talk from an officer to his men in just about any war film. But in this case, it's a black officer challenging his men to protect white pilots — many of whom were disdainful of their shepherds.
Ridley says the Red Tails' approach made a dramatic difference.
"It was huge. It was a different way of fighting, and it changed the course of the war."
'They Were All Real Characters'
Except for the color of their skin, the bomber-jacketed heroes of Red Tails could have stepped out of a John Wayne war movie: the pipe-smoking major, the hot-headed troublemaker. Ridley says their personalities aren't particularly exaggerated.
"When I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with these Tuskegee Airmen — and this was obviously 60 years on from the war — these guys were all, despite the fact that they were in their 70s, their 80s — they were all real characters," he says.
Ridley thinks their swagger had its roots in their need to prove themselves on not one but two fronts.
"This was before electronics. Back in the day, you basically had a propeller and a stick, and you were getting in the air ... whatever it took — besides trying to prove that you could do it as a black man in America, that you could do it in an airplane. "
Whatever it was, they still had it, even in old age.
"When you sit with them, they're the same characters," Ridley says. "If a guy was chewing tobacco back in the day, he's chewing tobacco now. If he was full of braggadocio back in the day, he had it now. And that's what we want to do with these characters — not just make them these stoic, quiet black men who were trying to fight for the right to fight. These guys were exciting."
'Daddy, I Have A Really Great Idea'
That visceral excitement was key, too, in making a movie whose historical resonance needed to blend with a George Lucas aesthetic — it needed to be an old-fashioned adventure story that a 12-year-old would love. Ridley says it helped that his own son quickly became interested in the project.
"When I started writing this, my son was 7, and when I got the material for Red Tails, some of it was on DVD — old war films and things like that," he says. "And my son ... would get interested. ... And I said, 'If you wanna watch these old war films, do it.' ... And when he came back to me, he said, 'Oh Daddy, I have a really great idea for how the movie should end.' And I don't want to spoil anything, [but] my son actually came up with what should actually be the end of the film.
"One of the things I really enjoy about this film is to be able to, in the slightest way, to do something with my son. It was the greatest moment in my life going to the premiere with my son — being able to point to the screen and go, 'This is something you helped your dad do.' "
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It took George Lucas more than two decades to bring to the screen the new movie "Red Tails." Back in the late '80s, the man behind "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones," fell under the spell of another story of adventure, this one with real-life heroes, the black fighter pilots of World War II.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RED TAILS")
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Congratulations, Captain. You are the first Negro to shoot down a Gerry. Woo.
MONTAGNE: The black flyers known as the Tuskegee Airmen were as dashing, inventive and brave as Indiana Jones. But they also carried the burden of the unrelenting racism of their day. In an act of defiance and pride, the flyers painted the tails of their planes red, and thus became known as the Red Tail Angels.
John Ridley wrote the screenplay for "Red Tails," and he joined us here at NPR West to talk about it.
Good morning, John.
JOHN RIDLEY: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: John, when we first meet these black flyers on their base in Italy - a segregated base, I might add, an all-black base - one of the guys says of their planes that they were plucked from Uncle Sam's junkyard.
RIDLEY: Yeah, when the flyers, the Tuskegee Airmen were finally assigned overseas duties in Italy, they were given P-40s which were - you know that old saying: you go to war, not with the weapons that you wish you had, you go to the war with the weapons that you have? And that was the situation with the Tuskegee Airmen, they weren't given very good assignments, they weren't given very good material. They weren't expected to do anything at all. And, of course, their history proved that they exceeded all expectations.
MONTAGNE: Well, before we get onto what was really an experiment in whether black men in uniform, in bomber jackets, you know, could actually fly planes and fight in a war, let's talk about the characters. They were all black but they could've come out of a John Wayne movie, your characters: the pipe-smoking major, a hotheaded troublemaker. ...
RIDLEY: Yeah, you know, when I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with these Tuskegee Airmen - and this was obviously, you know, this was 60 years on from the war - you know, these guys were all, despite the fact that they were in their 70's and their 80's, they were real characters. I mean there's something about a young man in airplanes that what it takes to get up in the air, and particularly in those days. I mean, this was before electronics.
Back in the day you basically had a propeller and a stick and you were getting in the air. And whatever it took besides trying to prove that you could do it as a black man in America, whatever it took to get in an airplane, these guys still had it. And when you sit with them, they're the same characters. You know, if a guy was chewing tobacco back in the day, he was chewing tobacco now. If he was full of braggadocio back in the day, he had it now.
And that's what we wanted to do with these characters, is not just make them these quiet, stoic black men who were trying to fight for the right to fight. These guys were exciting.
MONTAGNE: And in the movie as in real life, they started out with, as they put it, you know, junk.
MONTAGNE: And they ended up with state-of-the-art, these beautiful planes. In all of these planes, these guys could do anything.
RIDLEY: Well, the interesting thing about the Tuskegee Airmen, once they started fighting, they were given the finest planes at the time, which were the P-51 Mustangs. I mean these were the Corvettes of the air. A lot of officers, once the Red Tails got into the air, they were astounded at how much better - and I put that word in quotes - "better" they were then the white pilots.
The thing is, is that they weren't innately better, but they had trained so much longer because no one wanted to assign them. So when they have the opportunity, they were among the most trained pilots in the air, and they prove themselves immediately.
MONTAGNE: Super disciplined, and I think it's worth talking about a key combat mission that they were given, something that really happened, historically: to escort bomber planes to their targets. And they called them The Heavies. They were these big, fat bomber planes. Let's just play a clip where.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RED TAILS")
TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Colonel A. J. Bullard) We count our victories by the bombers we get to their target, by the husbands we returned to their wives, by the fathers we get back to their children. From the last plane to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man, we fight. We fight.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As Tuskegee Airmen) Yes, sir.
MONTAGNE: Now, this could be a pep talk from an officer to his men in just about any war film. But in this case, we're talking a black officer challenging his men to protect white pilots, many of whom were disdainful of their protectors.
RIDLEY: Yeah, the interesting thing about what happened was you have to understand the format of the war at that time. These B-17s, the large planes, The Heavies, as you called them, they would have about 10 or 11 men on board. They would have these bomber trains of maybe one hundred B17s; you're talking about a thousand men in the air. And at the time they were losing 20, 30, 40 of these bombers per mission. So you're talking about thousands of men on a mission.
You can imagine what that was doing to the psyche, at the time, on the home front, losing this many men. And part of the reason was because originally the pilots were trained - the white pilots were trained, go after the German jet fighters, chase them down - leaving the bombers exposed, other German planes would come in behind and shoot down these bombers.
The Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails, were specifically told do not chase the plane. Don't chase glory, going after the German fighters. Stay with the bombers. It was a big deal. It was huge. Different way of fighting - changed the course of the war. It really did.
MONTAGNE: What was it like though, for you writing a script for a movie that George Lucas had a Lucas-vision for? I mean, how do you balance portraying the tale of triumph over racism - pretty serious stuff - and, at the same time, telling an old-fashioned story of patriotism and adventure that a 12-year-old boy would love?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RIDLEY: Well, I have to say honestly, it was great on a lot of levels. One, because George was - this is a passion project for him, so he really took the reins off. A lot of times when you work with the studios, for all kinds of reasons, you have constraints. You have budgetary constraints or what's in their pipeline, what they need. George was: Go do this.
And for me, one of the really great things, Renee, you talk about what it's like writing a film that a 12-year-old boy would like. When I started writing this, my son was seven. And when I got the material for "Red Tails," some of it was on DVD and old war films and things like that. And my son, you know, he would see me playing these on the DVD and you get interested, what this was about and all this. And I said to him, if you want to watch these old war films, do it.
So he would run off and watch them and he came back to me and he said, oh daddy, I have this really great idea for how the movie should end. And so - I don't want to spoil anything - but my son actually came up with what should be the end of the film. So it wasn't just the concept, it really was an opportunity for me.
And personally one of the things I really enjoy about this film was to be able to, even in the slightest way, do something with my son. It was the greatest moment of my life, going to premiere with my son, being able to point to the screen and go, you know, that's something you helped your dad do. That was fantastic.
MONTAGNE: John Ridley wrote the screenplay for the new George Lucas movie about the black airmen of World War II, "Red Tails." He is, of course, also a commentator - longtime commentator - here on MORNING EDITION.
Thanks very much, John, for talking with us.
RIDLEY: As always, Renee, thanks for having me.
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.