The War Lover is a 1962 British black-and-white war film directed by Philip Leacock and written by Howard Koch loosely based on the 1959 novel, The War Lover by John Hersey, altering the names of characters and events but retaining its basic framework. It stars Steve McQueen, Robert Wagner, Shirley Anne Field, Ed Bishop and features a young Michael Crawford.
The war itself is not the most important element of the film. Instead it focuses on the character of Captain Buzz Rickson played by McQueen and his determination to serve himself and get what he wants – in the process antagonising everyone.
In 1943, Captain Buzz Rickson (Steve McQueen) is an arrogant pilot in command of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber nicknamed The Body. While stationed in England during World War II, one of the bombing missions is aborted because clouds obscure all potential targets, but Rickson ignores the order to turn around and dives under the clouds. He completes the mission, at the cost of one of the bombers in his squadron and its entire crew. Rickson revels in the fighting and destruction; when he is assigned to drop propaganda leaflets on a later mission, he makes his displeasure felt by buzzing the airfield. His commanding officer tolerates his repeated insubordination because he is the best pilot in the bomber group. Even so, when he asks the flight surgeon his opinion, the latter is uncertain whether Rickson is a hero or a psychopath. However Rickson’s crew, especially his co-pilot, First Lieutenant Ed Bolland (Robert Wagner), trust his great flying skill.
Between missions, Rickson and Bolland meet a young English woman, Daphne Caldwell (Shirley Anne Field). Although she is attracted to both pilots, she quickly finds out what kind of man Rickson is and chooses Bolland. They soon begin sleeping together. She falls in love with him, although she suspects he will leave her behind and return to America at the end of his tour of duty.
Meanwhile, Bolland becomes increasingly disillusioned with Rickson and his arrogance and his callousness. Rickson pressures his navigator, Captain Marty Lynch (Gary Cockrell), into transferring to another crew, because he questions his orders and behaviour. Lynch even says that Rickson is the kind of man who would have fought on either side. Soon afterwards, family man Lynch is killed in action. His friend Bolland takes it hard and blames Rickson.
Rickson meets a prostitute but does not do more than give her money to buy a dress, provided she looks in the mirror and calls herself “Daphne”. When the crew is near the end of the required 25 missions to complete a tour and rotate back home, Rickson makes a move on Daphne, visiting her in her flat after Bolland has returned to the base. Rickson plans to embark on a second tour of duty, while his rival goes home. Daphne rejects his forceful advances, telling him she loves Bolland, but Rickson tries to make Bolland think otherwise.[Note 1]
Finally, on a long-range bombing mission to Leipzig, Colonel Emmet (Jerry Stovin) B-17 is shot-down during the attack leaving Rickson in command, Sergeant Bragliani (George Sperdakos) one of the waist gunners is wounded during the Messerschmitt attack run and is hit in the hand but he is still able to shoot, Rickson’S B-17 reaches Leiprig and the B-17’s drop bombs during the attack, Rickson’s B-17, is badly shot up and one crew member, the ball turret gunner, Sergeant Sailen (Michael Crawford) – known as “Junior” – dies of his wounds. The B-17 limps back over the English Channel, its bomb bay doors stuck in the open position and one armed bomb still partially stuck on its rack in the bay. Approaching the British coastline near Dover, the air-sea rescue is contacted and the rest of the crew (except Sergeant Prien, who was killed off-screen) bails out. As the last two crew members escape, Bolland is waiting to jump out of the open bomb bay with Rickson, when he notices that Rickson isn’t wearing his parachute. Rickson then kicks the unsuspecting Bolland out of the B-17’s bomb bay, returns to the cockpit and tries to nurse the bomber back to base by himself, only to crash into the white cliffs on the Kent coast.
Bolland reports Rickson’s death to Daphne in Cambridge, who says: “It’s what he always wanted.” The pair of lovers walk away together.