The Millionaires’ Unit




Listen to the Big Blend Radio interview with filmmakers Darroch Greer and Ron King, who discuss their documentary THE MILLIONAIRES’ UNIT about a privileged group of college students from Yale who formed a private air militia in preparation for America’s entry into World War I. Known as the First Yale Unit, and dubbed ‘the millionaires’ unit’ by the New York press, they became the founding squadron of the U.S. Naval Air Reserve and were the first to fly for the United States in the Great War.

The Millionaires’ Unit tells the unsung story of a group of Yale college students who took the initiative to learn to fly in preparation for America’s entry into World War I and became the founding squadron of the U.S. Naval Air Reserve. The award-winning film’s VOD release date of February 15, 2018 was chosen to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of First Yale Unit member Albert D. Sturtevant, the first U.S. Naval Aviator killed in combat, when his plane went down in the North Sea on February 15, 1918.

Narrated by Academy Award®-nominated actor Bruce Dern, grandnephew of one of the aviators, the feature-length documentary charts the romantic, little-known story of the origins of American airpower and features very rare archival footage and thrilling dogfighting sequences filmed air-to-air with replica WW1 planes, some with original engines. Inspired by Marc Wortman’s book The Millionaires’ Unit, the film has been developed and produced by descendants of the First Yale Unit, including filmmaker Ron King, producers Harry Davison and Mike Davison, and narrator Bruce Dern who are all grandnephews and grandsons of FYU members.

After seeing a photo with his grandfather on the cover of the book, The Millionaires’ Unit, Ron King contacted his old friend Darroch Greer with the idea of a documentary film on the First Yale Unit. Ron and Darroch met in college at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1977 in the Fine Arts Department.  Both were born in the Midwest and raised in California – Ron in Larkspur in the Bay Area, Darroch in Santa Barbara. They both lived in Manhattan as young adults and moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry. They now live in southern California with their respective families. Ron works in video production. Darroch is a documentary filmmaker and writer. In terms of division of labor, Ron is more the cameraman, Darroch the researcher and writer. They directed and produced the film together.

They founded the non-profit Humanus Documentary Films Foundation in 2007 to raise money to make the documentary, and formed a fund-raising team with Harry Davison, grandson of Yale Unit member Trubee Davison, and his cousin Mike Davison, grandson of both Trubee and WWI naval ace Dave Ingalls. The seed of the idea was to interview the Yale Unit family members, access their unique, personal photo collections, and augment them with footage and photographs from the National Archives and Library of Congress. The deeper the filmmakers got into the story and the archives, however, the clearer it became that to make the film work, they needed to film some WW1 planes in flight. This led to a series of opportunities to film replica WW1 planes, some with original engines, at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck, NY, at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY, at the Aeroplane Collection in Paso Robles, CA, and finally, at the Vintage Aviator in Masterton, New Zealand. It was in New Zealand that the filmmakers finally captured the elusive Sopwith Camel with the distinctive, original, Gnome rotary engine on film.

The Millionaires’ Unit —originally envisioned to last 90 minutes and to take three years to make —is now a two-hour epic film, filmed at locations on the Eastern Seaboard and across Western Europe and on the other side of the world. It tells an intimate, character-driven story set in the historical context of the United States one hundred years ago, the birth of naval aviation, and the drama and tragedy of the First World War. It took seven years, but the film is now ready to help commemorate the centennial of World War One.

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