My first review in over a month and I have chosen to look at Jet Pilot (1957) one of cinema’s real oddities. I’ve had the film sitting on my shelf for a few years but it never really stood out enough in the box-set to be taken too seriously. Then after reading John Wayne‘s biography by Scott Eyman that touched on the film I had to take a look at this unusual film that has to be seen to be believed. Languishing with Howard Hughes the plane-loving, misunderstood, reclusive billionaire finally released the film 8 years after filming was complete. Working with legendary director Josef von Sternberg who was a control freak on set, not trusting anyone on set and causing Wayne to avoid him unless necessary. All this before it was locked away with Hughes until after his studio RKO went out of business, Jet Pilot was finally released by Universal.
That’s just the background on Pilot without going into the plot which left me scratching my head. On the surface it’s a typical anti-communist film, as US fighter pilots are on a routine training mission, hoping to take down a Russian plane, nothing out of the ordinary there. However it starts to smell pretty soon after when they do finally bring down a Russian plane, not with bullets to a spectacular demise that precipitates a nuclear fallout that would allow Col Jim Shannon and his team to save the day. Instead they escort the enemy plane back to base to find the pilot is female, which to a contemporary audience wouldn’t look out-of-place. I could plainly see how Janet Leigh‘s character Lt. Anna Marladovna / Olga Orlief is written as a defector/spy, yet used more for the romance and comedy than action and espionage that the role clearly is asking for. By default, the leading actress in the film she is also and sadly there for the male gaze – as best you can in that role. Leigh is not one of my favorite actress which is part of my problem with her, not even her 30 minutes in Psycho (1960) is enough to really redeem her personally. Miscast also opposite the Duke whose at least 10-20 years older than her she’s very much out-of-place in this film, unless the male lead was Tony Curtis and then we would have a very different film.
On a political level I found Wayne’s character at odds with his the actors politics. As much as he denied the role his the communist witch-hunt, being leader of the HUAC for a period that saw countless people lose their livelihoods in Hollywood. How could such a staunch Republican with such strong views on Communism in a country he was patriotic about take on a role that saw him by the mid way point have married and knowingly want to stay with a Soviet spy. Looking back at Big Jim McLain (1952) where he played a HUAC investigator hunting down communists turn around and play this role. Although McLain was made after and released before Pilot was released it doesn’t depict his politics as clearly as the darker film and basically an advert for the HUAC.
Could the politics of the character be put to one side as Jet Pilot’s seen more as quasi romantic comedy-cold war thriller, sounds like a mouthful right? Jim Shannon is at first a strong leader who has a good relationship with his men, especially Maj. Rexford (Paul Fix) who follows him around at times, showing their closeness and for comical effect, which in itself works well. When however Marladovna’s put into the care of Shannon do things start to go odd. That’s ignoring the awkward shower scene in his office, the intention maybe sexual, the delivery is more comical. Being the enemy mixed with “sex appeal” it should make her more dangerous and filled with temptations which are given into too easy by Shannon who is too quick to give into his feelings.
He does however successfully convert her to joys of shopping or capitalism and all the nice clothes that money can buy. We do also have moments where her way of lifes discussed such as sharing their hotel room with three other couples, which should be seen as both dangerous and generous to a fault. To share a private capitalist space intended for private recreations opened up to the wider community, making “better use” of the space. It’s seen as comical again, Marladovna has won this round making Shannon look weak from a capitalist point of view. He can’t have the rewards and privileges that rank gives him as he protects his countries way of life. He’s being attacked, not with bullets but ideology wrapped in a female package that’s lowering his defence’s. Not something Wayne the HUAC member would approve of. As much as he could look past others political positions I believe this is a step to far for a man of his position. It just makes no sense that he would make such a film. If we take the Duke out of the equation allowing an American officer of the armed forces of any rank fall for the enemy on-screen makes no sense. They are the enemy, any love interest must be lost or corrected by the end of the film, the American must pay for his feelings when the country during the Cold War.
Moving away from all things communist which I feel I have explored enough for one review, stylistically this film is all over the place. There are lots and lots of planes of all different shapes and sizes. You could probably make a short film from just those scenes alone. It’s pure indulgence on the part of Hughes a plane fanatic who was probably playing those portions on loop. Early on the planes are used more suggestively before it could get under the radar of the censors who would’ve had a field day with the audio innuendo. This really is an odd film that takes a dark possibility is plays too lightly with it, having so much fun that it’s not even funny for the right reasons. Down to the casting, to Wayne’s politics and the planes that could still be whooshing in the skies to this day.