January 27, 1997
Arrow That Doesn't Fly:
The CBC's mini-series about the interceptor that wasn't is good to look at but ungrounded in factsBy Michael Bliss
History it isn't. Billed as "Dramatic fiction inspired by real events, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's mini-series The Arrow, aired Jan 12 and 13, plays fast and loose with the facts. The upshot is a drama that never soars a s high as the ill-starred jet interceptor itself. For aviation buffs, engineers and romantic Canadian nationalists, Arrow can be hot stuff. Others may not feel the need for four hours of mythologising.
Reality is more like this: as the cold war developed in the 1940's and 1950's, Ottawa thought a job-rich domestic aircraft industry could be built on defence production. When A.V. Roe Co. Ltd (Avro), based near Toronto, managed to build a serviceable jet fighter, the CF-100., the government decided to fund development of an advanced supersonic interceptor, the CF-105 Arrow. At the behest of nationalist ministers, especially C.D. Howe, the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent poured hundreds of millions into the project.
By 1957. the Arrow was behind schedule, costs had soared, no other countries had offered to buy the plan and Avro's president, Crawford Gordon, was sinking into alcoholic irresponsibility. The new Conservative government of John Diefenbaker warned Avro repeatedly that the Arrow program was in trouble. In February, 1959, it canned the project. The company laid off 14,000 workers. Many engineers left for good jobs in the U.S., some in space program. All existing Arrows were cut for scrap. Legend has it one survived.
A greater myth sprang up: that the world's finest aircraft, which would have rocked Canada into global aerospace leadership had shot down by bumbling fools acting out an American-driven agenda. Thus a national dream died and Canada began its decent into mediocrity. "The Arrow is a wonderful success!," exclaims Sara Botsford playing a scarlet-haired (and imaginary) engineer, Kate O'Hare. "In this country that's the problem,"replies gorgeous journalist June Callwood (Mauralea Austin). "The Arrow is too much of a success.''
Never mind the real Arrow was never fully flight-tested, never flew with its intended engine or electronics or weapons system. Never mind that Avro's track record was horrible and the company was a mess. Never mind that the Liberals had given up on the Arrow but postponed cancellation after an election they expected to win. Based in part on Greig Stewart's 1988 book, Shutting Down the National Dream, the series buys every scrap of Arrow mythology and adds more.
In one scene, the ole boys out fishing turn out to be Diefenbaker and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower (to whom Michael Moriarty and Robert Haley bear no resemblance at all.) Ike tells Dief that the era of jet interceptors is over and the dumb Canuck takes the bait. The Yank wants to bring down the Arrow, it seems, because it might shoot down their U2 spy planes. In the end, a semi crazed Diefenbaker orders all Arrows destroyed for fear the foreigners will learn how good they are. In a flight of fancy, true-believing Arrownauts steal the last plan, break world speed and altitude records and fly into the sunset.
The flight scenes are a special effects tour de force: the Arrow was beautiful to watch. Some viewers will not doubt be caught up in the drama of dedicated men an women trying to realize a dream against all odds. Homecoming star Dan Aykroyd starts off as a fairly wooden Crawford Gordon but warms to the role as Gordon falls apart. Robin Gammell is C.D. Howe reincarnate. The series is family entertainment 1950's-style, remarkably free of sex or cursing. Only poor, doomed Gordon has a mistress and says"goddam".
At its best, the Arrow plays to Boys Own magazine fantasies about scientific miracles and to nationalist longings for what might have been if only the Canadian government had given engineers and designers a blank check. In the real world, no responsible government could have continued to support the Arrow, even it had, the only result would have been to delay the inevitable integration of North American defense production.
Dow we still cherish national myths like the Avro Arrow? How many younger Canadians, citizens of an interdependent world, will buy into an economic nationalism that was already anachronistic 40 years ago? Sensible folk who want to be proud of Canada's real achievements might look at our world class writers, medical researchers, athletes, yes even our modern aerospace companies that lend the Yanks a helping had.
The Arrow's producers were not quite up to date. I tell my history students that the last CF-105 is stored in a barn in Saskatchewan. Its taken out and flown once a year . By Elvis.
Michael Bliss is a professor of history at the University of Toronto
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