War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator is a documentary film which tells the story of three hell-raising young Southerners known as the ‘Three Musketeers’ who flew with the Royal Air Force in World War I. Their exploits were celebrated in a best selling book reportedly based on the sensational diary of John McGavock Grider, the one member of the trio who was killed. But some suspected the diary had been written instead by Elliott White Springs, a colorful South Carolinian who had felt responsible for Grider’s death.
As the story begins, Springs is a Princeton grad, an auto enthusiast and son of a textile magnate. Grider, several years older, is a planter’s son with two small children and an estranged wife. Larry Callahan is an accomplished piano and bridge player from a prominent family in Louisville. All three share a sense of adventure and a common dream -- to learn how to fly.
Together they become known as ‘the Three Musketeers’ for their close friendship and their wild exploits in Oxford and London. They are picked to fly with an elite squadron of the Royal Air Force led by the famous Billy Bishop, known for his daring one-man forays over enemy lines. As the day approaches for their departure to the front, where they will do battle with the German flying circus, the Three Musketeers sense a day of reckoning. Training alone has killed many of their comrades whose planes fell apart or whose skills were insufficient to avoid a fatal crash. Partying to the end, the three Americans are the toast of London and Grider falls deeply in love with an actress named Billie Carleton.
Three weeks after they reach the front, Springs and Grider go on a daring two man patrol over German lines. After attacking an enemy plane, Grider disappears in the clouds and is never heard from again. Later it is confirmed that Grider had been shot down and killed by a much more experienced German pilot. Springs goes on to become one of America’s leading aces but feels responsible for the reckless mission that killed his friend Grider. After the war he presents what he says is Grider’s diary for publication in Liberty Magazine. The diary starts out as a breezy narrative but later turns fearful and bitter over the war’s calamitous course.
War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator is a phenomenal success on its publication as a serial in 1926 and later as a book in the United States and Britain. But is it Grider’s diary? Elliott Springs goes on to inherit his father’s textile business, turning it into a worldwide empire and scandalizing Madison Avenue with his risqué ad campaigns in the 1940s and 50s. Only after his death in 1959 is it discovered that Springs wrote most of War Birds himself, as a memorial not only to Grider but all pilots who sacrificed their lives and their innocence in the skies over France.
With extensive film footage of World War I, archival photos and interviews with descendants of Grider and Springs. Narrated by Joe Morton. Gold Special Jury Award, Worldfest Houston 2003.