John Wayne Soars and Janet Leigh Scorches in Howard Hughes’ Infamous Air Force Actioner



When the iconic run of highly impressionistic 1930s dramas by director Josef von Sternberg and newly minted star Marlene Dietrich ended, Dietrich took any clout they generated with her.  The acclaimed Sternberg’s career was left to flail, his final credited film being 1957’s sublime John Wayne/Janet Leigh Cold War actioner, Jet Pilot.  Jet Pilot, though, can hardly be considered a Josef von Sternberg film.  Indeed, in most historical accounts of the extremely complicated production, the director is but a footnote, one in a parade of other helmers who cycled through under the obsessive control of boss Howard Hughes.  

If aviation was always Hughes’ wife, then, like Ingmar Bergman, film was his mistress.  Indeed, his dalliance with Jet Pilot went on for years, from the filming in 1949-50 to ariel reshoots as late as 1953 to its eventual release in 1957.  Hughes’ overbearing tinkering with the film proved incredibly expensive and outlasted his disastrous tenure as owner of the studio that greenlit the project, RKO Radio Pictures.  The seven-year lag also ironically guaranteed that the very jet-powered marvels that the movie was initially concocted to showcase were long since obsolete by the time audiences were finally able to see it.  When Jet Pilot did land in theaters, RKO itself was also just about kaput, with Universal-International stepping in to handle the release.

It’s entirely possible, even likely, to derive pleasure from the often sexy and rollicking Jet Pilot with no knowledge of its behind-the-scenes history.  Circa 1957, however, it seems that critics had their impressions shaded by the film’s production troubles.  And if not that, then by the naysaying of star John Wayne, who considered it one of his worst films, and later called it “too stupid for words”.  Though Jet Pilot is no masterpiece, neither of Wayne’s statements are accurate.  

While it’s become rather in vogue to villainize John Wayne, the star’s positive on-screen appeal cannot and should not ever be altogether dismissed.  Jesus and John Wayne Author Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her successful attempt to dissect the dire issues in today’s American evangelical church, may’ve accurately pegged the Duke’s deeply-ingrained legacy of rugged white male patriarchy as diametrically in opposition to the person of Christ, but in Jet Pilot, his character, Air Force Col. Jim Shannon, is something of an intercessor on behalf of Leigh’s ace Soviet pilot, Lt. Anna Marladovna.  When her aircraft is brought in from U.S. airspace (and the boys are happily shocked to find the pilot is “A woman!” “A lady!” “A dame!”), Shannon comes to her defense, standing between her and his clinch-jawed superiors.  He even advises her to get prayin’, but she, being a total commie, says she doesn’t believe in “such nonsense”.

She, however, had previously quickly and effectively converted him to her sympathies.  Being an absolute knockout helps a girl in these matters; undressing (amid his objection) and showering in your inquisitor’s office seals the deal.  Today, it’s widely known that Russian girls can be plenty alluring.  Here though, Leigh claims to be an anomaly amid the “more desirable more robust” women of the mother country.  But really, she’s not surprised at all that he’s so taken by her.  So taken, in fact, that he whisks her away to beautiful Yuma to be married, in order to avoid deportation.  Little does he know, though, that she’s not really defector Lt. Anna Marladovn at all, but rather Capt. Olga Orlief, the Russian spy.

Has the Duke been hoodwinked by a curvy pinko??  Don’t be silly.  Almost immediately, she’s seduced by the exotic wonders that America has to offer, such as running hot water, soap, and huge portions of red meat for dinner.  Her delight at such creature comforts is such that one almost expects Yakov Smirnoff to jump out proclaiming, “What a country!”  

A streak of jingoism is central to any such Cold War-era military crowd-pleaser, especially one with John Wayne in it.  While it’s true that Howard Hughes was far more interested in showing off his jets, Jet Pilot is a bit of uniformed flyboy propaganda that puts Top Gun to shame.  In fact, that entire branch of the armed forces is listed third in the bombastic, Superman-style opening credits: “Starring John Wayne… Janet Leigh… and the United States Air Force”.  All the names that come after that can’t help but seem intentionally slighted.  Enlist, and earn the chance to soar into innuendo-laden banter with a smokin’ gal while hot dogging at 50,000 feet!  Here’s just a sample…

Anna: “The temperature’s starting to rise in my tailpipe!”

Jim: “You probably have two burners going.  Open your throttle another crack.”

Anna: “They’re all burning now.  Should I try full power?

Jim: “Go ahead!  [She does] You’re all right!  Pour on the coal and head for home!

Then, a moment later:

Anna: “That turn of yours… I wish you’d shown me how to do it!

Jim: “You can show me a few things, too!

Anna: “I don’t think so.  You were the best I ever saw.”

Jim: “Then how come you got underneath me?

Anna: “Just a trick.”

Jim: “How’d you do it?

Anna: “I’ll tell you if you show me how to do that tight turn!

If that’s too veiled, try this quote from a little later:

Anna (frustrated at Jim): “One moment I want to kill you, then the next moment I want to kiss you.. and kiss you… and kiss you…

This sort of thing can make an impression on a young fella.  Probable case in point, young George Lucas, who would’ve been an adolescent when Jet Pilot came out.  It’s hard for any Star Wars fan to miss that the wall-sized clear-glass mission map, complete with round concentric circles, looks just like the one in the rebel base on Yavin IV.  It’s even similarly flanked by seated technicians, staring at green scopes.  Sternberg obviously lacked the resources to go all out with the kind of over-the-top precision clutter that adorned his Dietrich films (such as Morocco and The Scarlet Empress), but his visual touch is ever so evident here.  If that’s not enough influence upon Star Wars, no one could overlook how Janet Leigh sports smaller versions of the famous Princess Leia hair buns in a few scenes, complete with a part down the middle.   

Jet Pilot is new on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, boasting both the 1.85:1 widescreen and 1.37:1 versions of the film.  It stands to reason that this movie would’ve been shot in the squarer ratio, seeing how widescreen didn’t come about until 1953 or so.  But true to Hughes’ grandiosity, which also affected Jet Pilot’s older airborne sibling, 1930’s Hell’s Angels, it got reworked for widescreen, which was the new norm by 1957.  (Hell’s Angels was famously filmed silent, but then reworked for synch sound, which was invented in the meantime).  It’s nice to have both versions to compare.  Neither transfer is the greatest, though it stands to reason that the widescreen version likely never looked pristine, having been magnified and then cropped at the top and bottom of the frame.  Despite that, the widescreen version is somehow visually more appealing in terms of composition.  It’s as though Sternberg knew…

Aside from the two versions, the only other extras are trailers (including one for Jet Pilot).  The realization that there is no historian commentary on this disc caused a visceral negative reaction in this critic.  Jet Pilot is 1950s gold.  It’s a troubled production starring two of the decade’s biggest stars, demonstrating great chemistry (even if Leigh doesn’t even bother with a Russian accent).  It’s both Air Force propaganda and a failed Howard Hughes vanity piece.  It’s the final released film of legendary fallen director Josef von Sternberg.  It began at one major studio and ended up at another.  It’s got a redressed, drab, muddy Western set doubling for Russia in the film’s second half.  It might be silly at times, but it’s never dull.  There’s so, so, so much red meat here for a film historian to chew on.  As John Wayne retorts to Janet Leigh, “You’re pretty well stuffed, yourself”, Jet Pilot.