Jet Pilot was one of the pet projects of Howard Hughes and like most of his personal projects it has a rather poor reputation. It’s actually a good deal of fun.
Shooting began as early as 1949 but the movie was not completed until 1953 and was not released until 1957, mostly because Hughes (as he so often did) wanted to keep tinkering with it.
Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is a US Air Force fighter pilot. There’s considerable excitement at the air base when US radar tracks a Soviet fighter jet leaving Soviet airspace and heading their way. Colonel Shannon is determined that the Russian aircraft should not be shot down but forced to land. That proves to be easy as the Russian pilot obviously has every intention of landing.
The pilot has presumably defected but there’s another surprise in store for the Americans when he opens the cockpit and climbs out. The pilot is a beautiful young woman, Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh).
She wants political asylum. She explains that she defected because her life was in danger but she insists she is no traitor. She has no intention of revealing any Soviet military secrets.
Colonel Shannon is assigned to keep an eye on her. She seemed to take a bit of a shine to him and it’s hoped that if he romances her he may be able to persuade her to be a bit more co-operative. In fact the romance does blossom but with unintended consequences.
Jet Pilot was an excuse for Hughes to indulge his passion for aviation and it is to a large extent a string of aerial sequences tied together with a rather thin plot. Josef von Sternberg was hired to direct but inevitably clashed with Hughes. Some accounts indicate that parts of the were directed by the film’s screenwriter Jules Furthman and possibly by several other hands while some of the aerial scenes were certainly directed by Howard Hughes himself. Despite this von Sternberg did manage to put his stamp on the movie and there are a number of scenes that quite clearly could not have been directed by anyone else.
The plot has some obvious superficial similarities to Lubitsch’s classic comedy Ninotchka but it would be inaccurate to describe it as Ninotchka with aeroplanes. Ninotchka starts out as an ultra-serious, humourless, ice-cold doctrinaire communist who slowly thaws. Anna Marladovna in Jet Pilot on the other hand, even if she does spout communist slogans, is right from the start warm, playful and very feminine and has a sly sense of humour. Having her a warmhearted likeable character to begin with might sound like a less interesting idea than Ninotchka but there are a few plot twists that keep things interesting and unpredictable.
Reviews of Howard Hughes’ movies almost always label them hysterically anti-communist. That’s really only true of Jet Pilot to a limited extent. The Americans are trying just as hard to double-cross the Soviets as the Soviets are trying to double-cross them and both sides employ cynical emotional manipulation. And if the movie has a message it’s that if a communist and a capitalist fall in love then love will conquer all. I really couldn’t see any hysteria in this movie.
One thing that might be seen as stretching credibility a little is the US Air Force’s willingness to allow this Soviet defector to fly their very latest fighter jet, the F-86 Sabre. In fact she seems to be allowed to fly it whenever she wishes.
John Wayne gives a free-and-easy performance as Jim Shannon. It’s not a role that was ever going to tax his acting abilities and he disliked the film but he’s likeable and effective. Janet Leigh is remarkably good, giving a playful and witty performance. She’s also quite extraordinarily sexy. She positively smoulders. There’s also a surprising amount of rather risque dialogue between Leigh and Wayne, some of which must have raised eyebrows at the time.
The plot has some gaping holes in it and the motivations of the two lead characters become very confused and tangled and the story verges on incoherence at times. It tries to be a romance, a light comedy, an aviation adventure film and a spy thriller. The mixture does become a little muddled.
What this movie is really all about is the flying. The plot being thin and creaky the whole movie must stand or fall on the quality of the aerial sequences. Fortunately they are truly superb. If there’s one thing Howard Hughes certainly understood it was how to make flying sequences look impressive and in this area his perfectionism most definitely paid off. It doesn’t hurt when you have the legendary Chuck Yeager doing some of your stunt flying. Hardcore aviation geeks will be delighted to spot Northrop F-89 Scorpions, a Convair B-36 bomber and a Bell X-1 experimental rocket aircraft (the aircraft in which Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier). Even better, Hughes was anxious to avoid the use of stock footage so most if not all of the aerial stuff was shot specifically for the movie (with a great deal of co-operation from the US Air Force).
Despite its considerable plot weaknesses Jet Pilot manages surprisingly enough to be very entertaining. The two leads are compulsively watchable, the flying sequences are great and the improbabilities and inconsistencies of the plot actually add a great deal of slightly silly fun. It all ends up being thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.