“Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and the courageous individuals of the Masters of the Air overcame challenges such as enemy fire, extreme cold, and the threat of the Nazis.”
Anthony Boyle is recounting the feeling of being confined in a compact B-17 bomber flying over enemy territory controlled by Nazis and noticing an aggressive enemy fighter rapidly approaching. “You could see it as a tiny speck in the distance,” he explains. “But as it got closer, it grew larger and larger until it was right above you. And then the plane would shake as bullets hit it. You were jolted around.”
Although Boyle is not a war veteran himself, he portrays one in his role as he discusses the making of Masters of the Air, which is rumored to be the most extravagant and costly war series ever produced, with a reported budget of $250 million. The aerial scenes are so intense and visually stunning that it is difficult to differentiate between what is computer-generated and what is authentic, and even the actors were sometimes unsure.
The intense scenes were captured using a “volume,” a large, curved wall of LED screens where computer-generated images were projected in real time behind the actors. Director Boyle explains that the actors were placed in replica B-17 planes elevated 50 feet in the air. Instead of the traditional method of acting in front of a green screen, the actors were able to look out of the window and see the enemy planes approaching, just like the audience. The planes would also move and shake in response to the action, making it feel like an amusement park ride. As Boyle puts it, “We didn’t have to do much acting.”
The topic of the second world war has been extensively explored in film and television, particularly in Britain. However, Masters of the Air brings a fresh perspective and innovative approach. The series, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and adapted from Donald Miller’s book, completes a trilogy that began over 20 years ago with Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Like its predecessors, it is based on true events and characters, focusing on The Bloody Hundredth – the 100th Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force – and their crucial role in the war, including their strategic bombing of German targets and contribution to the success of D-Day.
The British primarily carried out nighttime attacks, while the Americans opted for more dangerous but precise daytime bombing missions. They relied heavily on the B-17 bomber, known as “the flying fortress,” which had a crew of 10. According to Miller, the American air campaign against Germany can be seen as an experiment to test a new concept of warfare. The number of casualties was staggering, with 77% of the Eighth Air Force either killed, injured, or taken prisoner.
Boyle expresses disbelief at the idea of flying in those small planes. Due to their thin structure, there was no insulation and the risk of frostbite. In addition to facing harsh weather conditions and enemy attacks, there was also the challenge of air sickness. Witnessing the loss of a comrade and still having the courage to continue flying the next day is something that may be incomprehensible to us.
Like how Band of Brothers gave opportunities to young male actors, Masters of the Air is expected to kickstart several new careers, particularly for 29-year-old Boyle. The majority of characters are American, but the cast also features a number of British and Irish actors such as Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan, Ncuti Gatwa, Nate Mann, and Raff (son of Jude) Law.
Boyle, who serves as the narrator, hails from Belfast (according to him, there are not many parts written for actors from that region, so Northern Irish actors become adept at learning accents). He portrays Major Harry Crosby, a navigator who struggles with air sickness, which puts him at a disadvantage in intense dogfights where speed and stakes are high. He remarks, “While everyone else felt like they were in Band of Brothers, it felt like Harry Crosby was in an Adam Sandler movie.”
Sergeant Ken Lemmons, the character in the book “Law”, was a member of the ground crew responsible for maintaining and operating the aircraft. He was only 19 years old when he arrived in Britain. The team worked tirelessly day and night to build planes, but were also burdened with guilt when some pilots did not return from their missions.
The production involved a large-scale operation, comparable to a military mission. It included over 300 roles, a crew of 1,200 individuals, and various elements such as costumes, sets, props, dialogue coaches, and technicians. In addition to the impressive visual effects, traditional techniques were also utilized. This included the construction of two B-17 planes, a German prisoner of war camp, and a replica of the Thorpe Abbotts air force base in Oxfordshire. Filming at this location took nearly a year, allowing for the changing of seasons to be captured on camera. Actor Law recalls feeling fully immersed in the production, with everyone staying in character and focused while on set. The bustle of activity was evident, with drills taking place nearby while others played baseball on the opposite side of the hardstand.
Prior to the start of filming, there was a two-week training program, known as a “boot camp”, designed to prepare the actors for their roles as fighters. The camp was overseen by Dale Dye, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a renowned consultant for military movies and shows such as Platoon, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific. According to Law, Dye ran a strict operation: “On the first day, someone walked in with their hat on and had to do a series of push-ups. No one made that mistake again.”
The Dye made them march as a group, even though it wasn’t part of their performance. Boyle was initially resistant and questioned the purpose, but by the third day, they were able to move in sync and create a cohesive rhythm. This was what Dye referred to as “crew glue,” an idea he had been trying to instill in them.
The ultimate motivation came from a motivating speech by their symbolic leader, Tom Hanks, who offered Boyle some guidance while sharing a whisky. “He advised me to avoid becoming too sentimental – to respect the stories of these men and approach each moment with a new perspective. If you give in to sentimentality, it can often feel forced, because these men didn’t behave that way. They weren’t walking around bragging about being heroes. They were just ordinary guys.”
“Within Masters of the Air, there is a significant amount of bravery, legendary storytelling, and tough, gritty conversations such as, ‘This is your first time in battle, boys – let’s take ’em down!’ However, it also confronts the horrifying number of casualties and the immense sacrifice made during the campaign. As the war dragged on, Sergeant Lemmons, a real-life figure, revealed that he did not want to form personal connections with new soldiers because it made them seem more human, and he was aware that they may not survive their first mission.”
The young men were unaware of the true danger of the bombing raids as their superiors and fellow airmen kept information from them. Boyle reflects on the possibility of a similar situation occurring in present times, where these men willingly sacrificed everything without hesitation.
Aside from the spectacle and dramatic nature of war, there may be another reason why stories such as this continue to be shared and retold: their clear sense of morality. While simplistic tales of good versus evil may not be popular in modern drama, in a time where fascism is resurfacing and neo-Nazis are organizing openly, it is important to be reminded of this history. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg has expressed the importance of creating a library that educates young people on the sacrifices made to maintain freedom in our country. That is why he continues to revisit this subject.
Boyle concurs with the idea that many contemporary films and television shows thrive in ambiguous territory. However, with this particular project, the lines are clearly drawn between the heroes and the villains. It presents a straightforward moral lesson that audiences can easily comprehend and find satisfaction in. Stories like this are essential in today’s world.