Today, William Faulkner takes us for a ride in a bomber. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
We know William Faulkner best for his dark vision of the American
South. But he also supplied story lines for the movies. The 1933 movie Today We Live
was cobbled together from his short story Turnabout. Faulkner's story begins
one night when an American captain, a bomber pilot in WW-I, meets a drunken British
lieutenant — just a kid — who serves on some sort of dispatch boat.
The pilot takes the sailor off to his base, sobers him up, and decides the next morning
to show him the real war. He puts him in the gunner's cockpit of his gargantuan
aeroplane. The sailor's boyishness settles into utterly cool focus when they're attacked.
Soon after, the sailor invites the pilot for a ride in his boat. It turns out to be no
service vessel at all. It's a primitive torpedo boat making hair-raisingly dangerous attacks
on German shipping. The would-be dashing pilot comes back thoroughly chastened, for he's
seen danger of a kind he didn't imagine.
MGM forced director Howard Hawks to include Joan Crawford in the movie (against her wishes)
and doomed it with a clumsy subplot. But our interest is in Faulkner's story. He's done his
homework so well we feel we're there, in that antediluvian heavy bomber.
As the guns of August took their positions, both Germany and Britain dreamt up ways to bomb
each other. Germany militarized her Zeppelins. Great Britain turned to the Handley Page
Company for a huge aeroplane. The Admiralty had the design for Handley Page's O/100 by 1915,
just six months after war began. That primitive machine had the length and wingspan of the
big WW-II bombers, thirty years later. A huge biplane, powered by two engines, it carried
a ton of bombs. It served in the Mediterranean as well as Europe.
(A flyer named John Alcock crashed his O/100 at sea off Greece, and was taken prisoner.
When war ended, he and Arthur Brown got their hands on another early bomber, a
Vickers Vimi, and used it to
make the first transatlantic flight —
Newfoundland to Ireland — but that was a year later.)
Faulkner takes us up in one of the 2nd-generation Handley Pages — their model O/400, then
being used by the Americans. We follow the gymnastics of climbing into that great three-story
high beast. We handle the forward machine guns. We release bombs from low altitudes while
we cruise at a scant eighty miles an hour.
Faulkner revels in the action, but he blunts the glamour. His pilot gets a fine medal for
heroism — only to learn that the kid and his torpedo boat have been anonymously destroyed
on one of their Evel Knievel runs at a German vessel. In the end, he flies off to make a
suicide bombing raid on the German high command.
The movies used Faulkner's stories, but rewrote his scripts. That was where they could mute the
dark currents that haunted his stories. And Faulkner surely had seen the devastating potential
of that great ominous aeroplane — thirty years before its time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
P.Cooksley, British Bombers of World War I in Action. (color by Don Greer,
(Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Pubs., Inc., 2000), No. 202.
W. Faulkner, Turnabout. Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York:
Vintage International 1995/1950): pp.: 475-509.
Scattered through the following source is a great deal of background on the movie,
Today We Live: See, T. McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.
(New York: Grove Press, 1997)
For more on Faulkner, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Faulkner
For a fine critical account of the movie, see:
For more on the Handley Page bombers, see: