This is an absurdly melodramatic, improbable, romantic, guilty pleasure of a movie. Complete with corny music, more throbbing of propellers whirling on airplanes than any film since Casablanca and with two of the most fecund female characters since the Catholic League's Sex Education tapes warning against the dangers of premarital sex.
It's loosely based on a historic event: an airplane race from London to New Zealand in 1953. The Dutch entrant also delivering war brides from shattered Holland to barely known grooms who had already made the trek to a new life. Photographer's flash bulbs pop and reporters shout questions to the young women as they board, the plane's engines roar, and we all buckle in for a movie that has quite a story to tell.
Even before the stewardesses offer the passengers drinks and snacks we have time-traveled several times: young lovers fall in love; a man dies; dreams are shared; the young become old, and with the magic of movies, are young again. Heartbreak, birth and death, steamy sex scenes, family secrets, Japanese atrocities in the Dutch East Indies, religious zealotry, friendships broken (did I mention steamy sex scenes?), all march across the the screen. Bride Flight shows the best and worst of our celluloid heroines as nobility and venality play their usual roles.
It's a very human story.
Making the melodrama profound is the reality of what happened to young men and women like these fictional characters: the reality of what Holland experienced in World War II. Over 200,000 Dutch men, women, and children died during the war. 75% of Holland's Jewish population was murdered. It was one of the last countries in Europe to be liberated from the Nazis. During the Hongerwinter of 1944-45, when the war was virtually over, more than 18,000 starved to death in a few short months. I have an older Dutch friend, in his early teens then, who suffered through it all. He told me of the Allied planes in Operation Manna that appeared one day and dropped food from the sky. It was a miracle, and he has never forgotten it. Indeed I think his incredible joie de vivre, his humor and love of music, his easy manner all stem from the irony of his survival. Or the woman from Amsterdam I met years ago in Las Vegas, brilliant and uber chic, getting tears in her eyes telling the stories she had heard of relatives greeting young American paratroopers, so healthy and strong, so devil may care, as they liberated towns during Operation Market Garden. But, only a few days of freedom as we saw in Band of Brothers. Her aunts and uncles, the joyous people who celebrated a moment of freedom, condemned to savage reprisals and months more of occupation when the Americans were driven back by German counterattacks.
That history, gives Bride Flight a depth beyond its melodrama. If there had been no war these women would have followed a traditional path to life, to marriage, to motherhood. But, no, such lives were not to be. There was nothing for them at home, so they were forced by fate to seek happiness a world away. Chance meetings on a plane create the plot; choices made in moments impact all that follows. Fictional characters mirroring our own choices and improbable lives: a succession of what ifs.
I have read a number of dismissive reviews of Bride Flight. Sappy, sentimental, improbable, a soufflé not a steak, they write. But those critics give no weight to the historical context motivating the characters. Those critics, wearing their hipitude on their sleeves, thinking cold is cool, moved by technique not emotion, no doubt hating Bambi to show solidarity with PETA, are but outcast men. As in the best books and movies, as in Bride Flight, the fundamental things apply: love, love lost, love unrequited, children, the quest for happiness, war and death, mistakes magnified by the passing years, women and men, but, in this movie, mostly women and the choices forced upon them by society and circumstance.
There are several set pieces in the film, underlined with overly dramatic music, disclosing why some things are what they are. The young Jewish woman, profoundly affected by her improbable survival, tries to be hard but is, as we all are, flesh and blood. She tries to say goodbye to all that, but to quote another: the body moves on, the mind circles the past.
The handsome young man, so full of life and good humor, cocksure in more than the traditional definition, the center of much of the story, carries the war in his shirt pocket as he creates a new life in a bright new country that takes in damaged goods and makes damaged lives whole.
It is, as I say, an old school movie.
I tried to remember other Dutch films I have seen and realized that they are all about the war: Soldier of Orange, Black Book, and now Bride Flight. It would seem that beyond the gaiety of Amsterdam with its brown bars, hash bars and cold Heinekens, the young and old remember. They remember Ann Frank. They are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who lived through times unimaginable, but imagined in Bride Flight. Indeed imagined by the audience at the Music Box on a Saturday afternoon. The movie making us feel for a mother who gave up her child, for a woman who married but loves another, for a man who spent his childhood in hell and the rest of his life trying to create heaven.
It would take a hard heart to be dismissive of Bride Flight, I found Henry James to be instructive as I watched it:
"Never say you know the last word about any human heart..."