Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney, delivers an inspiring story about an unlikely hero who takes to the skies against the Nazis. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film follows Cagney’s character Brian MacLean from his role as a bush pilot into the depths of World War II.
Co-starring Dennis Morgan as MacLean’s rival pilot Johnny Dutton and Brenda Marshall as Dutton’s girlfriend Emily Foster, the initial plot surrounds the competitive nature of life as a bush pilot in the Canadian wilderness. MacLean is shown seizing any money-making opportunities that come his way, regardless of ethical concerns. He cons one customer of Dutton’s into believing a parachute will make him safe, when the “parachute” is really just a bag of clothes.
Foster is impressed with MacLean’s wit and his ability to outdo the other bush pilots, who try to gang up on MacLean. They wind up in an aerial chase. MacLean makes risky decisions midair, including flipping the plane with a passenger sitting next to him.
When MacLean gets struck by a propeller, Foster nurses him back to health. A love triangle as Foster begs Dutton to fly in a doctor for MacLean. The flight proves to be a dangerous one as Dutton returns with the doctor at night, fog reducing the visibility severely.
However, Foster never tells any of that to the unconscious MacLean. He finds out later from another bush pilot and a mutual respect grows between him and Dutton. It’s a moment in the film that emphasizes the arc of their relationship.
When MacLean realizes Foster only wants to marry Dutton for his money, MacLean refuses to see his friend abused that way. He decides to marry Foster himself to save his friend, though it destroys their relationship. Alone and unsure of what to do with his life, Dutton departs the narrative by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
Time passes and MacLean continues to work as a bush pilot. One day when he and other pilots are sitting in a bar, each with a beer in his hand, Winston Churchill’s Dunkirk speech crackles over the radio. They look around and realize they are surrounded by men in uniform.
The message that comes across isn’t over the top or cliché. Instead, the film portrays the men’s earnest desire to share in the duty and sacrifice of those in the armed forces. Since each character was given a backstory and personality prior to enlisting, it allows the audience to feel a stronger connection to the people on the screen.
In that moment when they decide to enlist in the RCAF, their inspiration also motivates the viewer. However, the bush pilots discover they are too old to serve as fighter pilots and reluctantly agree to join the RCAF as flight instructors.
Although MacLean and Dutton lost touch and ended on bad terms, they find themselves face-to-face again at the Central Flying School of Trenton. The two weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout the film, but each reunion establishes their relationship more.
The air force and military structure aren’t easy for MacLean to follow or teach. He encourages his students to use their intuition instead of following a rule book, which nearly kills a student under his instruction.
MacLean is ultimately dismissed from service due to his inability to follow command. Later MacLean redeems himself as a civilian pilot assisting the RCAF, sacrificing his life to save a group of other pilots being attacked by a Nazi fighter plane. He dies by heroically crashing into the Nazi plane and saving the others from further assault.
Dutton and MacLean’s bond is the part of the movie that that captures the audience entirely. The two characters both despise and care about each other simultaneously.
Overall, the movie balances the viewers’ desire for a distraction from the war with its love story, but then naturally returns to the story of combat. Captains of the Clouds is a tale of patriotic inspiration and rediscovery of self that any individual could watch and walk away from satisfied.