Our own Billy the Kid, William Avery Bishop was a flamboyant, slippery loner, a rich kid from small-town Ontario who was failed his first year at Royal Military College for cheating and then dashed to Europe and the Great War in search of glory, languishing in the trenches before transferring to an airborne suicide squad.
Life expectancy in the Royal Flying Corps was 11 days. Billy beat the odds and, before war ended, 72 other pilots. "You've been a busy bugger," George V laughed, pinning a medal on him.
Bishop loved the cleansing danger of aerial warfare, watching and counting his kills. We see newsreel footage of him at the end of Billy Bishop Goes to War. He's exhilarated, arms linked with fellow aviators – on the ground at last, but still in heaven. In other words, a pilot with nowhere to go but down, a predicament the much decorated John Gray-Eric Peterson musical captures in song: "When you steal a girl from an English earl – who wants to go back home? / Just a Canadian boy, England's pride and joy – who wants to go back home? / You may be a king on England's ground, but when you get back to your own home town / They'll find a way to shoot you down – who wants to go back home?"
Indeed, Bishop was restless in peace – moving between England and Canada, frequently in poor health. Some questioned the veracity of his 72 kills. At age 50 he looked 70, according to a son. Billy died in his sleep at age 56 in Florida.
For all its theatrical flair and invention, Billy Bishop Goes to War wisely never attempted to explain its title character. The play was first put on stage in 1978, with Peterson playing Billy as a yappy, still-young veteran driven to recount his war years by Gray's ruminative piano.
In Barbara Willis-Sweete's ably constructed film, Peterson is older than Bishop when he died, dressed in a bathrobe and palling around with a bottle of gin. The story is more about the mortality of man than the shelf life of a fighter pilot. But then as now, Billy remains a mystery. We don't understand what lonely impulse of delight drove him to the tumult in the clouds, to quote Yeats. Or why he takes to gin, flying through an attic, nattering away.
"It was a hell of a time," Peterson's Bishop says of the war, swallowing hard. And that's that.
Not understanding is what keeps Billy going. And what wears at his soul. Once again, Peterson gives a plausible, convincing portrait of the tormented whirlwind that was Billy Bishop. He impersonates not only Billy, but memorable players he meets along the way, including his patroness, Lady St. Helier, and the nose-in-the-air British officer who sent him on his first mission as an "ob-zuv-ahhh." An observer, indeed – Bishop's plane was too heavy to carry bombs and protective weapons, so the machine gun was thrown aside and Billy flew into enemy territory, defenceless.
Peterson's frantic, charismatic performance captures the giddy, hallucinatory velocity of war. Gray's songs encourage Billy's mood swings – bursts of stride piano simulate youthful high spirits; death arrives wrapped in ominous dark chords.
A memory play about war, a topic that can never be fully understood, Billy Bishop has been going into battle on stage for more than 30 years, winning countless prizes, including the 1983 Governor-General's Award. It's good to have him on film, where he can presumably fly forever.
Billy Bishop Goes to War is now playing in Toronto and will open in a number of other Canadian cities this month, including Waterloo, Ont. (Nov. 10-11), Winnipeg (Nov. 11), Saskatoon (Nov. 6-11), Calgary (Nov. 11) and Vancouver (Nov. 11-12). For complete listings see billybishopgoestowar.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Billy Bishop Goes to War
- Directed by Barbara Willis-Sweete
- Written by John Gray and Eric Peterson
- Starring Eric Peterson and John Gray
- Classification: PG
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to the film as a U.S. production.