The sort of old-fashioned wartime hokum that marked “Pearl Harbor” is also to be found in this new film from Jan Sverak, the young Czech director whose “Kolya” won the Oscar for foreign-language picture in 1996. Indeed, the segment of the Bruckheimer-Bay fiasco in which Rafe McCawley, the intrepid flyer played by Ben Affleck, goes off to fight with the RAF here becomes the crux of the narrative, though with an eastern European slant; and there’s a similar romantic triangle in which two best friends, both ace pilots, fall for the same woman. “Dark Blue World” is a far better picture than “Pearl Harbor,” however, because its homeliness invests the story with greater emotional honesty and the simplicity with which it’s told gives the film an authenticity totally lacking in its bloated Hollywood predecessor.

Written by Jan’s father Zdenek (who also penned “Kolya” as well as starring in it), “World” centers on a group of Czechoslovak pilots who flee to Britain following the fall of their country to Hitler in 1938. The most notable of the group are Frantisek (Ondrej Vetchy), an older veteran, and Karel (Krystof Hadek), an angel-faced youngster who’s Frantisek’s protégé. The duo, along with their comrades, are initially treated condescendingly by the English command (there are some amusing scenes of their being forced to “practice” on bicycles under the watchful eye of snooty Commander Bentley, played by Charles Dance), but eventually the foreigners win the respect of their hosts and participate in aerial combat against the Germans. On the ground, however, a rift develops between Frantisek and Karol over Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), a sad-eyed local whose husband is missing in the war–a rivalry which culminates in both tragedy and sacrifice. Adding to the poignancy and political power of the piece is the fact that it’s told in flashback from the perspective of one of the men, who’s imprisoned in a brutal Czech camp after the war: it’s a melancholy fact of history that the pilots who returned to now-communist Czechoslovakia were treated as spies despite their heroic service.

Like “Kolya,” “Dark Blue World” isn’t afraid of big gestures and extravagant sentiment; it wears its heart on its sleeve, reveling in the romance between a reserved English woman and her two more voluble suitors and the courage displayed in the in-air sequences, extolling the macho camaraderie among the pilots (a Slavic version of the sort of thing John Ford so often portrayed in his westerns), and playing on the understandable bitterness that followed the fall of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe. Much of the picture is really quite corny–all the business about the darling dog and would-be fiancé that Frantisek leaves behind, for instance, is egregiously so–but in this case the excesses are almost welcome. One also has to admire the audacity involved in putting together a film of such large scope on a modest budget (the English scenes were, amazingly enough, actually shot in the Czech Republic, and the sea sequences off the South African coast; a good deal of the aerial action, moreover, is earlier footage that has been seamlessly spliced into service here).

Even more importantly, Vetchy and Hadek make an excellent team, the gruffness of the older man complementing the younger’s wide-eyed innocence quite effectively. Their friendship seems genuine. The other expatriates make up a colorful group, Fitzgerald is perfectly prim and proper, and Dance does his stiff-upper-lip shtick to a turn (as he also does in “Gosford Park”). There’s a particularly nice cameo from Anna Massey as an elderly lady who attempts, with only marginal success, to teach the Czechs English.

“Dark Blue World” is formulaic and manipulative, to be sure, but its sincerity and good-heartedness keep it from crashing and burning.