World War I films are making a comeback. There was the recent Joyeux Noel, which depicted the amazing-but-true story of the 1914 Christmas Truce, where soldiers from both sides spontaneously came out of their trenches to share yuletide cheer with the enemy. And now here comes another true story, Flyboys, which is being billed as the first WWI aviation film in over 40 years.
The film, which opens Friday, is based on the tale of American men who in 1917—before the U.S. officially entered the war—volunteered to fight alongside our European allies against the advancing Germans. Many of those young Americans fought on the ground, but 38 of them wanted to take on the bad guys in the air, where the Germans had far superior airplanes, weaponry, and sophistication.
The American men would become known as the legendary Lafayette Escadrille, perhaps most famously depicted in the comic strip "Peanuts," where Snoopy, obsessed with the Red Baron, imagined himself a member of the famous flying corps. The men of the Escadrille took to the air in newly-invented, mechanically-imperfect planes being used in combat for the first time. It was dangerous, horrific, and almost suicidal: Indeed, a pilot's life expectancy was a mere 3 to 6 weeks.
One of the characters in Flyboys is William Jensen, the son of a Cavalry officer who wants to uphold the family tradition of military service. He's all bold and brave—till the action begins.
Philip Winchester, 25, who plays the role of Jensen, talked to us about the film, and about what it's like to try to live the Christian faith in what he calls the moral "battleground" of Hollywood, where he makes his home.Were you familiar with this story before you got involved with this film?Philip Winchester: No. But when I read the script, I really enjoyed it. And the more I got involved with the project, the more I realized how close to home it was for a lot of people. A lot of people knew about these guys and about their influence in getting America to join the war.If you were living at that time, do you think this is something you could have done?Winchester: That's a good question. I think God's given us as men the heart to be knights, to be warriors. So I think this is something I would have undertaken. The character I play in the movie, once he gets to the war, he puts on this really brave face. He leaves his family and his girlfriend, he gets on the train in Nebraska, gets off in New York and heads over to Paris with the other guys. And once he gets there and actually sees what it's like, it kind of rocks his world. He gets a little shell-shocked.That's like the realities we live in as Christians. So often, we kind of fill up on Sunday morning and we head out into the world, and it's a battlefield out there. We have an Enemy who wants to just kick our butts, to absolutely rip us apart. We've got to be ready for that.The movie does a good job depicting community and themes such as sacrifice and redemption. It's not a patriotic war film; there's no stances made on where America should be or why America joined. It's about these guys—individuals who make decisions to become a community. It shows that if you do this by yourself, if you try to do the Lone Ranger, you're going to get your nose kicked every time. But if you have brothers, and you've got people to back you up and pick you up when you fall down, then not only is it easier, but you're going to make it.Was Jensen, the character you play, a real person? Or is he fictional?Winchester: He's fictional.You said that he breaks down and realizes he's not a knight or a hero. If you were in that situation, how do you think you would have reacted?Winchester: I don't think we actually know how we're going to react until we're actually in that situation. I honestly can't answer that. It was such a different time. The mentalities of the people at that time were so incredibly different, and their beliefs back then were completely different. In that day, it was king first and then God. And the trench warfare started happening. Nominal Christianity died in the trenches because nobody was winning. There was no meaning in it. So the meaning that they found was in relationships in the trenches.Tell me some ways your faith has come into play in your acting career?Winchester: It's been a journey. I was brought up in a Christian household, but my young interpretation of God was that he was a put-his-thumb-down God, disciplining you all the time no matter what you did.I grew up in Montana and moved to London, because my mother is English. I lived in London for six years after high school, and I trained at drama school and started doing films and plays. I became a Christian the end of my third year of drama school. I had a radical transformation.How old were you?Winchester: I was 21. God set me free from so many things, and I realized that this was a relationship with strength and with power. It wasn't about dressing up and being nice. It wasn't about being a good person. It was something much deeper than that, much more profound. And that's what I brought to Hollywood.I've been blessed here in Hollywood to have a group of about six guys who meet on Saturday mornings. We're all professionally involved in the industry, and we're all Christians. It's a guys' group, so we just lay ourselves bare, basically. We meet at a Starbucks and we talk from about 8:30 until about 12:00 or 1:00. We pray for each other—about the stresses of the industry, about stresses of being married or not being married, and what that means—stuff that guys struggle with. It's good to hash it through with other believers who are men, because a lot of the things we deal with here in Hollywood as men are a lot of the things the Enemy throws out. I mean, it's every man's battle. It's Hollywood. It's sex, drugs, rock and roll, it really is.Give me a specific example of how faith has affected your professional choices?Winchester: I've turned down films where the main theme is an occult theme. But I don't have a problem with doing a horror film or a war movie or other violent films, because as an actor, my job is to depict real people.My problem comes when the film glorifies something—like the occult or practices of lust, things like that where there is no redemption. So I really have to dig through a script when I get one, because so many times they'll weave in this little sub-plot that kind of candy-coats promiscuity or things like this.I'm constantly reading scripts, and I just have to pray before I read and say, "God, you brought me out here. What do you want me to do today, and how do you want me to do it?" So it's literally just reading scripts with that in the back of your mind all the time.Hollywood is the center for media for the entire world. And if you were the Enemy, where would you plant yourself? I mean, the principalities of darkness are huge here. This is a battlefield of massive proportions. Every day, if you're not booted, you're going to get burned.How do you keep from getting burned?Winchester: I think it's so important to have people praying for you all the time. That's one reason I want to talk to other Christians about Hollywood—to get the message across that, yes, it is a tough place, but there are people here who are really genuinely trying to spread the Good News and just live the life. And in all things preach Christ, and only when necessary use words. In Hollywood, that is a key thing. Here, people look at actions rather than your words so much more. Have you had any situations where your faith has cost you a role? Perhaps where some filmmaker said, "I don't want this whacked out Christian guy in my cast?" Anything like that?Winchester: Not that I know of. The decisions that I make early on, in the script reading process, are probably more influential than situations like that, because I'm not walking into a room wearing a "Jesus Loves You" shirt. I'm walking into a room, I'm just a guy. I do happen to believe that the King of the universe is backing me up, and he's walking in the room with me. But I'm not walking in the room saying, "Gee, I really liked your script, but I prayed about this line and I really don't want to say that if you give me the part." It's just a matter of, I'm walking in the room and I'm doing my job.Now, when we're on set, sometimes people have been like, "Why aren't you sleeping around?" Or, "Why aren't you hanging out with us when we do this?" And you do have to take a stance and say, "Well, I just don't believe that."OK, let's get back to Flyboys. I understand parts of making this movie were pretty scary. You weren't just getting in front of a green screen and faking it, but you guys were actually filmed as a stunt pilot took you up, doing some pretty scary loops and rolls that could make you hurl?Winchester: Yes it can, and it did. Part of the process was getting into the back seat of a biplane and basically getting thrown around over the skies of England. I think that was the best part about the film. Tony Bill is an incredible director. [Producer] Dean Devlin has the best vision for a film; it was fantastic. And for us, to get in a plane, dressed up in a World War I uniform, and to actually do dogfight maneuvers is pretty cool, pretty powerful.I bet you also gained an appreciation about how horrifying those aerial battle scenes really were for these guys?Winchester: Oh, the physical toll on the body is incredible.And they had virtually no protection?Winchester: Yeah, you're out there with your little goggles on your little leather hat and your coat. It's like you're riding a motorcycle in the air.© Christianity Today International. Click for reprint information.