The Story of Ace Eli...when planes were young and the world was innocent....except for Ace's son Rodger.
Eli ( Cliff Robertson ) was a WWI flying ace who now flies around the countryside as a barnstormer. After his wife passes away, Eli takes his young son Rodger ( Eric Shea ) under his wing and they journey from town to town across America finding love, and some life lessons, along the way.
The story of Ace Eli, penned by a young Steven Spielberg, has tremendous promise and from the opening scenes it appears evident that the audience is in for a really wonderful picture. However, once the first lines of Claudia Salter's script are uttered, the film takes a nose-dive and spirals towards an early bust-up.
What many modern screenwriters, and directors, fail to comprehend is that a film, in order to stand the test of repeated viewings, needs a lovable hero. Ace Eli, portrayed by Cliff Robertson, is a failure of a man, and worse yet, he is a foul-mouthed countrified idiot. Eli sleeps with his sister-in-law just a few weeks after his wife perishes in a plane crash....which he caused. That's a testament to his character ( and his sister-in-law's ). His son follows him like a devoted dog and, in all likelihood, will grow up to be just like his "old man", without brains or morals. In one scene, Rodger is anxious to go barnstorming with his pa, but seeing that Eli is going to procrastinate about taking the trip, Rodger decides to pour gasoline all over the family home and set it ablaze. Now they have to go. It's one way to coerce a parent into taking you someplace, but I'd certainly question the boy's sanity if I witnessed that. Perhaps Eli was just too drunk to care..........
Characters like these have no spark of interest because they themselves have no fire to light within others. The principal actors are talented individuals, so the fault lies entirely with the screenwriter ( Salter must have been ashamed to be associated with the film and used the pseudonym "Chips Rosen". Interestingly, even director John Erman was credited with the alias Bill Sampson. )
Oh, but what potential the film had! If this was played as a dramatic-comedy and filmed with care by an able director, a wayward father and his devoted son would have made an endearing team. Director Frank Capra and screenwriter Arnold Schulman took a losing father and son combination and turned it into a winning film - A Hole in the Head ( 1959 ). It was one of Capra's best films.
If it was played strictly for laughs it could have been wonderful too. Bill Bixby or Jim Dale would have been stellar as Ace Eli, a man trying his best to become America's greatest barnstormer and failing in his clumsiness. Walt Disney Studios, often ridiculed throughout the 1970s for their sentimental family fare, would have made this a memorable film viewable many times over.
Since Ace Eli was a drama with no comedy evident, then the screenwriter should have made Eli a lovable failure. Sure, he takes a nip of whiskey here and there and never can accomplish his goals, but his son and he are the best of pals and in Rodger's eyes his dad is the king of the skies. Written that way it would have had heart.
The way it is, the only redeeming features of the film are the title song ( written and performed by Jim Grady ), the cinematography, and the presence of Pamela Franklin, who was looking particularly lovely during this time. Also in the cast is Bernadette Peters and Alice Ghostley.
For years Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies has been unavailable, both on VHS tape and on DVD. After recently watching it on Youtube, I can now understand why. When you look forward to seeing a hard-to-find film after many years, it is such a shame when it turns out to be a dud. But hey, in the course of hunting for rarities, you come across a lot of those duds.....that's why they are hard to find.