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Red Tails Movie Review

Although the amazing story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told by Hollywood before (HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen), Red Tails might be the best telling yet. Set for general release on Jan. 20, Red Tails is loosely based on the history of the 332nd Fighter Group, known as theRed Tails.” This name was given to the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd because of the distinctive crimson paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs. While that much is true, the characters are fictional and the plot contains many stories that are composites of actual events.

What the movie gets right is its depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen’s battle to obtain new aircraft and the fight that the unit’s officers waged to get the 332nd into a combat role. The 332nd was assigned duties that prevented them from engaging in combat with enemy planes, and were then criticized by some in the War Department for not shooting down enemy aircraft. The “Red Tails” on film and in World War II had to work doubly hard and take enormous risks to earn the grudging respect of their superiors. Indeed, their near-flawless job of escorting the bombers into the heart of Nazi Germany earned that respect.

Predictably, this movie may annoy some students of history because, as a rule, historical movies have inaccuracies designed to move the plot along or provide entertainment for the majority of the audience. Red Tails is no exception, with a fanciful plot point of a Tuskegee Airman being shot down, captured, interned in a German POW camp, and then escaping to rejoin his unit. This was unnecessary, because the true story of Lt. Alexander Jefferson, a captured Tuskegee Airman, is much more compelling. Jefferson’s book, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW, tells the incredible story of his time as a POW.

On the other hand, things that may appear to be inaccurate on film are composites of events that did occur. For example, a German destroyer is strafed and sunk by two pilots flying P-40s. Although, this seemed farfetched, further research revealed that two P-47s, assigned to the 332nd, did strafe and cripple an Italian torpedo boat destroyer operated by the Germans off Trieste, Italy during operations in June 1944.

P-51s in the Red Tails Movie

An example of the CGI used in Red Tails. The use of CGI gives the viewer an idea of what the skies over Europe looked like during World War II. 20th Century Fox photo

Despite heavy use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), the airplanes look superb. The movie has flying scenes with B-17 Flying Fortresses, C-47 Skytrains, P-40 Warhawks, Bf-109s, P-51 Mustangs, and ME-262s. For someone who has never seen these airplanes in flight, it is a treat to see them on film, CGI or not. One quibble with the CGI is that it allows the filmmaker, in this case director Anthony Hemingway, to have the airplanes perform maneuvers that are impossible. The director’s exaggerations were unnecessary. There was no need to have P-51s keeping up with the jet-powered ME-262, when the ME-262 could go over 100 mph faster. History is even more impressive, considering that during the March 24, 1945 mission to Berlin that is depicted in the film, three ME-262s were shot down by the 332nd.

Despite some of the historical shortcomings of the film, it is still a movie worth seeing, if only to give a picture of what the Tuskegee Airmen faced not only against the Luftwaffe, but also against the racial prejudices of their fellow countrymen. Red Tails is being released in conjunction with Double Victory, which aired on the History Channel and History H2 during the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.


Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-20705">

    Fantastic review! I am ready to pick up my tickets and go and enjoy what seems a fair portrayal by the film of history and take in its hollywood magic.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-20850">

    The dogfights are fun but everything else is filled with corniness, lame acting, predictable story arc, and moments where the film feels like a video-game rather than based on a true story. A great story to be told, but told in a very poor way. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-steven-hoarn bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-20856">

    George Lucas has mentioned in several interviews that he modeled “Red Tails” on the John Wayne movie “Flying Leathernecks,” which is sentimental Hollywood at its finest. Instead of being turned off by this portrayal, I found it a pleasant throwback. Furthermore, it reminded me that African-Americans were denied a portrayal in post-war flag-waving films in the mold of “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Flying Leathernecks.” A nuanced history “Red Tails” is not, but in my mind the Tuskegee Airmen finally got their much deserved flag-waving film.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-21872">

    Hmmm…much was made in the dialog about the Mustangs not being able to keep up with the 262s. And two of the characters even resolved to climb to altitude in order to dive and slash. The Germans favored hit-and-run tactics when attacking the bomber formations, but the problem with the 262 (and subsequent jet and rocket-powered planes of the perioed) was that it couldn’t turn with a plane like the Mustang. I don’t remember exactly how this panned out in the film, as opposed to real life, but Mustangs shooting down Me262s in a maneouvering dogfight is entirely plausible.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-steven-hoarn bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-21879">

    All great points Luis. The P-51 did have a tighter turning radius than the ME-262. My larger point was that the turns in the movie seemed implausible and overly sharp. The P-51s in the movie were much more agile than their real-life counterparts. Of course I have never seen a P-51 in combat so I may be wrong. What “Red Tails” did get right during that part of the film was that the 332nd Fighter Group did engage in a dogfight with ME-262s on a mission to Berlin. Historically in that engagement they were attacked by 25 ME-262s and downed three, compared to a loss of one P-51, which I believe was the final count in the movie.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-21890">

    Being able to turn with a Mustang wasn’t a problem if your tactics were sound. “Boom and zoom” tactics worked fine for P-38s in the Pacific when they faced more maneuverable but slower Japanese A6Ms, for example. The American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, successfully used similar tactics in taking on the Japanese early in the war when other units employing poor tactics, i.e. trying to turn with Zeros, went down in droves. A Hurricane could out-turn both the Spitfire and the Me 109, but Britain didn’t drop the Spitfire in favor of the Hurricane. Going back to the previous war, the Fokker Dr. 1 Triplane was immensely maneuverable, more so than virtually any other fighter of its time, but it was a dead end, because it was too slow and couldn’t enter or leave a fight at will, which the Me 262 could.

    The main problem for the German jets was being vastly outnumbered and caught as they were low, slow, and vulnerable coming in to land, thus the Fw 190 Dora squadrons arrayed around Me 262 bases, to protect the jets as they took off and returned from missions. That’s in addition to engines that were prone to shed compressor blades, catch fire, or just explode; a fuel shortage such that sometimes jets were towed to the end of the runway by oxen; a shortage of experienced pilots; and the constant threat of air attack anywhere in Germany, among other problems. The “Swallow,” had it been operated in significant numbers, could possibly have stopped the bomber offensive in its tracks. The problem wasn’t that it couldn’t turn with the Mustang. The problem was that there was a Mustang everywhere it turned.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-21932">

    An obviously knowledgable response, but I think Steven’s post speaks more to what I was on about (how the Mustang’s maneouverability was portrayed in the film). My point being about the film suggesting that Mustangs were “keeping up” with the 262s – which the film actually doesn’t. If I recall correctly, the characters resolved to gain altitude in order to (presumably) gain speed and energy. And of course, about a Mustang plausibly having an edge on the jet in a turning contest – and resulting in a victory. And by the way, I doubt the British at the time could afford phasing out the Hurricane (plane forever linked to Lawrence Olivier in my pop-cultural mind!)

    @Steven – I actually thought it was remarkable that they didn’t stray from the bounds of plausibility more than they did. I’m sure you’ve seen the excellent History Channel program Dogfights…the movie seems to recall that show (which is probably the closest we’ll get to seeing Mustangs flown in actual combat). The nod will always be given to drama over technique in a movie of this vein. The one I did have some reservations with was the “Pugachev-Cobra-esque” move one of the characters put on a bandit, featured extensively in all the trailers. The Mustang was apparently capable of such a thing (according to “Dogfights” at least), but if I recall the episode correctly, the plane was basically “on the edge of departure” and not capable of bearing down on the bandit and shooting him down, as in the movie. The other one that made me think was how one of the pilots rolled inverted to bail out, which I think was something more akin to the B/C than the D (of this I’m really not sure).

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-21963">

    Of course Mustangs did shoot down Me 262s in dogfights. So did P-47s. So did Spitfires and Tempests. The number of variables in a dogfight is immense. If an Me 262 exhausted its energy in a turning fight, it could be slower than any propeller-driven aircraft. As for a P-51 diving to catch an Me 262, a 262’s limiting mach number was about .86 mach, according to Eric Brown, and a P-51’s was .80 to .83, according to the Army Air Force Air Technical Service Command’s report during the war. Everything else being equal, an Me 262 should have been able to easily dive away from a Mustang even if bounced, if their relative speeds were close. But then, everything else was rarely equal. If an Me 262 was climbing and a Mustang dove on it, their relative speeds might be close or the 262 might be slower. I haven’t seen the whole movie, but in one of trailers, the maneuver a Red Tails Mustang pulls off certainly defies physics.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-43948">
    Robert Thrasher

    Excuse me but the P-51 was redlined about Mach .55 or .56, not even close to M.80 as I recall.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-44099">

    Hey, take it up with the Air Technical Service Command. It was their report I was quoting from, but there are several other technical studies and combat reports that suggest limiting Mach numbers between .75 and .85. And remember Mach varies with altitude and other environmental variables. I feel completely comfortable with the idea of a Mustang, with its laminar-flow wing, getting up to that speed.