Four Questions for Paul Glenshaw and Mark Wilkins
"They command our respect and remembrance today."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Among the World War One community are a rare handful of experts on early aviation. Paul Glenshaw and Mark Wilkins are two such people. Paul is a filmmaker and writer, Mark is a historical consultant and master model builder. They both worked together recently on a pair of remarkable film projects, celebrating the earliest American aviators in the war. These film projects are 'The Millionaires’ Unit' and 'The Lafayette Escadrille'. Paul and Mark took some time to talk to us about their projects, and about their passion for World War One aviation.
You folks have another awesome World War One aviation movie project, Lafayette Escadrille, to go with your first one, The Millionaires' Unit. Tell us about both projects, and what stories you tell with each.
The Millionaires’ Unit was completed in 2015 after seven years’ work by co-directors Darroch Greer and Ron King working with the Humanus Documentary Films Foundation. The Lafayette Escadrille film brings that team together with aviation writer and filmmaker Paul Glenshaw, aviation historian and photographer Dan Patterson, and historical consultant and master model builder Mark Wilkins. Dan and Paul collaborated on an article and a museum exhibit about the Escadrille in 2014 and 2015. After reading Paul and Dan’s article, Darroch reached out to say we need to make the film. Mark brings great expertise in the history of the war, the Escadrille, and how their airplanes actually flew.
These projects together tell the story of the remarkable self-starters who created American combat aviation in the Army and the Navy. Both the Lafayette Escadrille and the Millionaires’ Unit were created by volunteers before the United States entered the war. The characters in each are such extraordinary individuals that as storytellers we know there’s no way we’d be able to make them up.
Both were led by visionaries who foresaw the airplane as a formidable and possibly decisive weapon. Both had members who paid the ultimate sacrifice. And when the United States entered the war, the pilots from each were desperately needed to form the backbone of the U.S. Army Air Service and the Navy’s Flying Service, respectively.
There are differences, of course. The Escadrille came first, was formed in France, and was created to defend France. Its pilots ultimately served in the U.S. Army when the U.S. entered the war. The First Yale Unit (or Millionaires’ Unit) came second, was formed at Yale, and became the first Naval Air Reserve Unit, and was created to defend the U.S. The Escadrille drew from soldiers and ambulance drivers serving across the Western Front, all of them coming together to form a cohesive unit. The Yale Unit began as a cohesive group, and then was split up to serve across the Navy’s theaters in the U.S., England, and France.
Mostly, though, the two films are about the extraordinary characters who had the vision and courage to volunteer to fight in the most difficult circumstances and risk everything for the sake of democracy and freedom. They found themselves thrust together in the middle of a war unprecedented in scale and horror which caught them and indeed the world by surprise.
Each had great expectations and responded to the crucible of war differently; some were from privileged backgrounds, some were adventurers. Some were seemingly aimless until the war brought their lives into sharp focus. All of them possessed courage in varying degrees, and what they did then resonates with us today. The trajectory of the war now seems almost predetermined or predictable, but at the time, these young pilots were actually quite uncertain —there was no clear outcome. So our hope is to reinsert a measure of uncertainty, nuance, and complexity into the story.
Finally, we aim to honor these men simply as human beings—with all attendant flaws and strengths; untainted by exaggeration or stereotype.
What is the current status of the Lafayette Escadrille movie project? What was your process to research the script, and find footage, etc.?
Thanks to an initial grant, we have been able to start production and have completed two phases of filming. We covered the re-dedication of the Lafayette Escadrille and Flying Corps Memorial in France, and filmed in Verdun, the Argonne, and Bar-le-Duc. We’ve filmed the Norman Prince Centennial service at the National Cathedral, some interviews and initial flying sequences in Dayton, and a second round of interviews in New England. We’ve interviewed historians, pilots, and especially family members. The families really make these remarkable men come to life. Wherever possible, we’re using primary sources in our research. Again, the families have been a great source of information and insight.
We’ve also had great help and support from authors and archivists who have investigated the Escadrille and maintain collections of their images, films, and artifacts. There’s a great amount of material out there - and we’re finding more all the time. The goal is to make a film that makes people really feel something while they’re taken on through the journey that is this remarkable story.
What are your biggest challenges with this new film? How are you raising money for it? How can people help you?
There’s always the challenge of letting the extraordinary characters and story speak for themselves. In can be tempting to try to “improve” the story, but our job is to stay out of its way. There’s always practical and technical challenges, but as always, the biggest challenge is raising funds. Our initial grant got us going - $250,000 out of a $1.5 million budget. We will need $500,000 just to return to France to complete our filming, and to go to New Zealand to shoot our flying sequences. Lack of funding would be the only thing that could prevent the film from being completed before the Centennial is over. We would love to have the film finished by the Spring 2018. Seems like a long way off, but it’s really not. So the best way people could help us is by making a tax-deductible donation to the Humanus Documentary Films Foundation at:http://humanusdocumentaryfilms.org/donate/
In terms of storytelling, one of the biggest challenges we face for this project is to accurately give the viewer a sense of what flying and fighting and dying must have really been like. Those that survived were forever changed. Flying one of these frail machines of canvas and wood was in itself a minor miracle, then add to that the dynamic, terrifying, and unknown element of combat. There was no model to follow. These men worked it out in real time using their hides as collateral. If they succeeded, a new combat technique was born; if not—they perished. What they achieved is a feat of almost unimaginable determination and resolve. We aim to put the viewer in that fragile and completely exposed cockpit—to let them vicariously and if only for a few moments—believe.
Why do you make these movies? World War One happened 100 years ago, and is considered by many to be a forgotten war. Why is it important to you to share these stories with people?
“Those who do not study the past are destined to repeat it!” The lessons of the Great War are as valid today as they were in 1919: when nations allow technology to eclipse judgement there is the potential for catastrophe. The seeds of war are always present—sometimes they lie in the most unlikely places. As Otto von Bismarck said so long ago, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” This is precisely what happened. Historians agree that the leadership during the First World War was a dismal failure—but those who fought and died gave their full measure and have nothing to apologize for—they command our respect and remembrance today. By sharing their story we honor them and assert that “If we break faith with those who died, they shall not sleep...”
These stories are filled with adventure, heroism, and tragedy. World War One affects all of us to this day. The story of the young men who formed these squadrons had everything to lose by doing so. Most of them came from privilege and all of them sought to serve well before the nation declared war in 1917. They could have easily and with no fault simply stayed home. But through them we learn sacrifice, ingenuity, courage, perseverance, and humility. At the same time, though, they’re all too human, with faults just like us. We will do our utmost to bring this story fully to life.