The film follows the enlistment, training, and combat experiences of a group of young Americans who volunteer to become fighter pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille, the 124th air squadron formed by the French in 1916. The squadron consisted of five French officers and 38 American volunteers who wanted to fly and fight in World War I before the United States' entry into the war in 1917. The film ends with an epilogue that relates the fate of each American pilot to the real-life Lafayette Escadrille pilot upon whom his character was based.
In 1916, during World War I, a group of young Americans go to France, for different personal reasons, to fight in the French Air Service, L'Aéronautique militaire. These American recruits are under the command of French Captain Georges Thenault, with the veteran fighter ace Reed Cassidy as their mentor.
During their training, each pilot struggles with the demanding flying; later, they have to face the aerial dogfights that dominate the front line missions. One of them, Blaine Rawlings meets a young woman named Lucienne whom he courts despite her hesitations about his risky profession.
On their first mission to escort two bombers to attack a German ammunition depot, the rookie pilots are ambushed by Germans and two are killed while flying; a third is forced to make an emergency landing. While on the ground he is killed by a ruthless German pilot identified as "The Black Falcon"; the more chivalrous German pilot Franz Wolferd shakes his head in disapproval.
During a later battle, Rawlings' single machine gun jams; Wolferd—the pilot whom he had been chasing prior to the jam— flies beside Rawlings, before saluting and banking away toward home, sparing his opponent's life.
Rawlings kills Wolferd when Wolferd dives after another American. After this, Rawlings is alarmed to learn that German forces are going to invade Lucienne's village. Despite others disapproving of his conduct, they let him go. He single-handedly rescues Lucienne and her two nephews and niece. He returns to base, and instead of being arrested for his misconduct, he is praised by their commander and awarded with the Croix de Guerre medal for bravery due to his courage.
During an attack on a German Zeppelin, Reed Cassidy is mortally wounded by the Black Falcon but, as his final act, destroys the Zeppelin by crashing into it. Rawlings reunites with Lucienne before she leaves for Paris. Before Rawlings leaves for another battle, his plane is presented with an eagle, Cassidy's former insignia, and Rawlings is promoted to Commander. Their next mission is to escort four bombers which are being sent to bomb the same supply depot from the first mission.
Upon returning from the bombing mission, Rawlings takes off again to exact revenge on the Black Falcon. He is followed soon after by Jensen, who has recovered from his shock and saves Rawlings. During the final battle, despite having jammed guns and being wounded, Rawlings evades his enemy and fatally shoots the Black Falcon with his pistol. Rawlings and three other pilots (Jensen, Skinner, and Beagle) survive the encounter and return to base.
Jensen flies for the rest of the war and returns to Nebraska and receives a hero's welcome. Skinner enlists in the US Army but is kept from flying due to his race; he later joins the Airmail Service. Beagle marries an Italian woman and starts a flying circus. Rawlings goes to Paris but doesn't find Lucienne. He built one of the largest ranches in Texas; he never flies again.James Franco as Blaine Rawlings: A Texan faced with the foreclosure of his family ranch in Texas, who decides to enlist after seeing a newsreel of aerial combat in France.
Martin Henderson as Reed Cassidy: A fellow American, a womanizer, drunkard, traumatized ace pilot, and the pilots' mentor.
Jean Reno as Georges Thenault: The commander of the Lafayette Escadrille
Jennifer Decker as Lucienne: A French girl who lives with her orphan nephews and niece. Rawlings's love interest.
Abdul Salis as Eugene Skinner: An African-American boxer, who has been accepted as an athlete in France, and is motivated to "pay back" his adopted country.
Philip Winchester as William Jensen: An American man from Lincoln, Nebraska. Coming from a military family, he tried his best to make his family proud.
Tyler Labine as Briggs Lowry: A Dilettante who joins the army because of his overbearing father.
David Ellison as Eddie Beagle: A notorious thief, burglar and mugger, who evaded capture due to a tip off about his arrest and left America for France, believing that even criminals are forgiven if he registers in the French Army.
Tim Pigott-Smith as Mr. Lowry: Briggs's overbearing father.
Gunnar Winbergh as "The Black Falcon":
In writing the original drafts that formed the basis of the final screenplay, Tony Bill made an effort to incorporate the real-life adventures of a number of American World War I expatriates who served in both the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps, although pseudonyms were used throughout.
The casting of Franco in an action adventure feature at the time was considered a "stepping stone" to his rise as marquee player and movie star.
The film was shot on location in the United Kingdom primarily in spring 2005 although principal photography continued on into the summer. The trench scenes were shot in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, the same location used for Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. The airfield and aerial shots were filmed on and above RAF Halton (near Aylesbury) where hangars, mess rooms and officers quarters were built adjacent to Splash Covert Woods. All scenery and props were removed when filming ended. The interior shots of the chateau were filmed at RAF Halton's officers' mess, Halton House. Some interiors and studio green-screen work were filmed at Elstree Film and Television Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire.
The film was financed privately outside the standard Hollywood studio circuit by a group of filmmakers and investors, including producer Dean Devlin and pilot David Ellison, son of Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison; both spent more than $60 million of their own money to make and market "Flyboys".
The Nieuport 17s featured in the film included four replicas built by Airdrome Aeroplanes, an aircraft company based outside of Kansas City, Missouri. The other aircraft used were a mix of authentic aircraft (the Nieuport 17 that Franco used throughout filming was an original combat aircraft from Kermit Weeks' collection in Florida, specially brought over for the film) and replicas including Nieuport 17s, a sole Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter and a number of Fokker Dr.I replicas.
In preparing for the starring role, Franco took flying lessons. All the other main actors, except Jean Reno, were filmed in actual aircraft in anticipation of using the aerial footage in final scenes. (Reno pointedly refused the offer, with a "No thanks, I'm afraid of flying." admission). Very little other than Franco's closeups in a cockpit ultimately made it to the screen.
Flyboys has been widely criticized for its lack of historical accuracy. The most serious lapse was the blending of the Lafayette Escadrille with the Lafayette Flying Corps, a sub-unit where the real-life Eugene Bullard actually served.
Various details of World War I fighter aircraft technology shown in the film were inaccurate. For example, the aircraft engines in the CGI scenes are pictured as not moving. On the rotary engines used in some early aircraft, the engine case and cylinders rotated, with the crankshaft bolted to the airframe. The spinning of the cylinders improved cooling and allowed for fewer parts, making the engine simpler and lighter. The propeller was attached to the crankcase (the opposite of radial engines). One operating rotary engine appears in a scene that takes place in the repair hangar. The Nieuport and Fokker aircraft used in the movie are flying replicas built with new radial engines, due to the unavailability of original-type rotary engines. This detail can be briefly seen in the final combat when the black Fokker is taking off after Rawling's ground attack at the German airfield.
Another error is that the American pilots are operating the Nieuport 17, while the Germans are operating the Fokker Dr.I, which entered front line service some time after the Nieuport 17 was no longer operational.
The singular use of Fokker Triplanes, which were not in widespread operational use, is contentious and almost every Triplane was also painted red in the film, indicating that the Triplane was in Jasta 11, the "all-red" unit. Despite this the remaining pre-production aircraft, designated Dr.I, were delivered to Jasta 11 and Idflieg issued a production order for 100 triplanes in September, followed by an order for 200 in November 1917. On the director/producer commentary track for the DVD release, Producer Dean Devlin noted that they were aware the predominant use of red triplanes was historically inaccurate, but wanted to give clear visual signals to the audience to enable them to easily distinguish friend from foe in the aerial sequences.
The film's only military adviser for the entire project was Jack Livesey, a convicted defrauder, who fabricated his résumé and military service to gain employment as an administrative assistant at the Imperial War Museum, London. Livesey was charged and convicted with fraudulently claiming £30,000.00 in benefits. Livesey had served three years in the British Army Catering Corps. His claims of service in Northern Ireland, the Falklands conflict and that he was a curator of The Imperial War Museum were not true.
In the film, the RMS Aquitania is depicted as a luxury liner; however, in early 1914, she was converted to use as an armed merchant cruiser, and by 1915 had been put into use as a troop transport ship, painted with dazzle style camouflage; however, the film might have used it to demonstrate the style of transport ships during the war.
Flyboys received mixed to negative reviews, based on the hackneyed dialogue and inconsistency of the plot. As of September 2006, the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a "Rotten" rating of 33%.
The film opened at #4 at the domestic box office, grossing $6,004,219 from 2,033 theaters, an average of $2,953 per auditorium. The bottom then fell out, the film dropping a whopping 61% in its second weekend. Flyboys ended up with a total domestic gross of $13,090,620, $4,744,235 internationally, and a total worldwide gross of $17,834,865. Variety named it one of the 10 biggest box office flops of the year.