Sunday 7 June 2015

Movie Review: Jet Pilot (1957)

A Howard Hughes produced cold war drama about defections and romance in the world of Air Force pilots, Jet Pilot is that rare breed of film: a big budget production that is a pure, unmitigated disaster.

At a northern American Air Force base, Russian military pilot Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh), a stunning beauty, lands her jet and seeks asylum. Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is charged with keeping an eye on her and extracting whatever military information she possesses. Anna and Jim take many flights together, and Anna proves herself an ace pilot. They also frequently clash about culture and politics, but gradually fall in love. When Anna is threatened with deportation, Jim makes a dramatic decision, and his actions land him in Siberia, where the tables are turned and the Russians try to extract information out of him.

Hughes imagined Jet Pilot as a jet-age update to his famous 1930 classic Hell's Angels, and the film does offer many admittedly impressive and prolonged shots of military jets streaking through the skies. Unfortunately for the aviation buffs of 1957, these images were filmed in 1949 and 1950. The film's troubled production schedule and endless editing by Hughes delayed the release by a solid seven years. With the Cold War accelerating the jet age, the planes on display were archaic and generally out of service by the time Jet Pilot arrived in movie theatres.

Theoretically directed by Josef von Sternberg, the film eventually passed through many hands on its long journey to release. This is ultimately a Howard Hughes film: his agonizingly long editing process squarely emphasizes sleek flying jets and Leigh's shapely curves at the expense of everything else. The final product is an overlong 112 minutes of confused ineptitude.

The real agony resides in the script credited to Jules Furthman. A bewildering and dippy piece of work residing at an intellectual level somewhere between Plan 9 From Outer Space and a horny boy's first adventure with sex, Jet Pilot trawls through the strange space where neither the adult rules of courtship nor the most basic military regulations seem to apply. In the presence of Anna all the men immediately become slack jawed neanderthals, and somehow this is an Air Force engaged in a Cold War but where Anna the defector is allowed unfettered access to fly in whatever jet she chooses. As a result Jet Pilot is awkwardly funny in the worst possibly way, forcing embarrassed laughs laced with guilt at the naive, sexist ineptitude of the entire project.

The performances are down at the speechlessly dumb level. Janet Leigh looks stunning and Hughes makes sure to place her in and out of a succession of revealing outfits. But she makes no attempt to even pretend to be Russian, while Wayne seems to have no idea whether he's in a comedy, drama, or a grade 9 student play at the local high school.

Jet Pilot does not even explode into awfulness. It just falls straight down and disintegrates into disarray.

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