Author Ernest K. Gann wasn’t happy with his own screen adaptation of his 1961 novel, so he rescinded his involvement with the script, feeling the film conversion just wasn’t working in the end, and leaving any criticism to playwright and co-screenwriter Harold Medford, whose own film involvement included the post-WWII thriller Berlin Express (1948), and the horror shocker Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954).
Strangely, whether Fate was well or only mildly well received during its theatrical run, it cemented the standard post-traumatic event procedural docu-drama (what a mouthful), and feels remarkably contemporary, if not familiar.
Like No Highway in the Sky (1952), an earlier film about a potential air disaster, Fate begins with a docu-drama style, almost showcasing the minutia of a flight takeoff as well as the post-crash investigation, and it’s that latter sequence – where wreckage is assembled and refitted into the skeletal remains, as well as testing the surviving jet engine for performance flaws – that will give present day viewers a sense of déjà vu.
The reasons for the procedural details are logical: it gives the drama powerful authenticity when commercial flying had become democratically affordable (thereby affecting all classes of passengers in the event of a disaster); it provides sobering contrast towards the film’s melodramatic elements; and it’s in line with the film’s main thread of former pilot / airline chief Sam McBane (Glenn Ford) running his own investigation to counter the company’s awfully easy decision to blame the crash of their plane on pilot error.
McBane’s reasons are a mix of professionalism – going for unbiased truth – and personal: he wants to not only clear the name of his friend Jack Savage (Rod Taylor), pilot of the doomed craft, but eradicate his doubts that Jack’s well-known, cocksure style of flying wasn’t the reason 50+ people died unnecessarily.
The Gann / Medford script also goes for a flashback structure ignited by McBane’s own memories, or those of the friends, lovers, and colleagues he questions - if not to break up the procedural coldness, then inject some humanism and humour into an already dour tale where all the characters are affected by some form of post-traumatic stress disorder; they’re all in shock, in mourning, or denial, and they collectively need to close the book on the crash to move forward. It’s basically Citizen Kane, transposed to an air crash drama, and while it opens up the character of Jack (dead within the first 10 minutes), it also injects a lot of melodrama that is sometimes at odds with the film’s otherwise hard docu-drama tone.
Taylor’s performance is more caricature than an earnest portrayal of an ex-war pilot with superb instincts; not unlike John Wayne in The High and the Mighty, he too whistles a song, although at least in Fate the use of “Blue Moon” isn’t designed to sell a hit single. (That seems to have been allotted to composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose main title instrumental, released as a 45, is one of his strangest; neither gloomy, dramatic or dreamy, but hovering into exotica with mixed voices, and completely at odds with the background footage of the ruined jet.)
Humour comes from Jack’s wild days as a womanizer during the war, going as far as stealing a chance dinner with USO ambassadoress Jane Russell (playing herself) from McBane, and grinning conceitedly when McBane and his injured crew discover Jack alive and well after piloting the transport plane he was supposed to abandon.
Romance is split between McBane’s own pained (and later strained) relationship with Jack (theirs was a partnership with plenty of dramatic vicissitudes), and Jack’s two women: former finacee & socialite Lisa Bond (uncredited Dorothy Malone), and marine biologist Sally Fraser (Nancy Kwan), whom Jack loved and with whom he clearly wanted to settle down.
The success of Taylor characterization of Jack depends on whether one accepts his broad performance style or feels the final result is a patented jerk, but certainly as a procedural drama, Fate is an important work in the realm of aviation dramas. Like a disaster flick, it begins with the banal – strangers innocently converging towards a single location that will house their doom – but its suspense is tied to the drama of justice and vindication, and director Ralph Nelson does a commendable job in having Jack, his combative investigations team, and the plane’s lone survivor – stewardess Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette) – board the same plane and attempt to replicate the entire departure of the doomed flight.
It’s a sharp, nail-biting sequence because Nelson duplicates angles and shots, and the actors repeat the gestures of their dead colleagues. Added grimness comes from the ‘dead weight’ sacks used to mimic the passenger weight, and having Martha retrace her steps prior to the first signs of mechanical failure.
More so than No Highway in the Sky, Fate’s message is to remind the public and corporationsthat pilots are professionals, and shouldn’t be sacrificed when the initial evidence from a tragic disaster fails to yield any mechanical flaws. The media that hounds McBane is just as nasty and soulless as present day, post-disaster feeding frenzies.
Twilight Time’s DVD presents a sparkling transfer of this gorgeous black & white CinemaScope production, and its main extras include a theatrical trailer (a really terrible, over-hyped and misleading campaign that demeans the film’s message), and an isolated music and effects mix, with Goldsmith’s sparse score popping into stereo during the Main and End Titles.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide a clean overview of the film, but it’s clear this is one title that would’ve benefitted from a commentary track; it’s far too important in the aviation drama (or disaster, if one believes) genre, and its cast of stellar actors could’ve provided some opportunities for bios as lead-ins to the film’s production. Most of the actors are spot-on in their performances, and perhaps the most surprising successes come from Wally Cox as one of Jack’s wartime crewmen, prolific character actor Nehemiah Persoff as McBane’s career-hungry rival (excelling in a rare supporting role), and Mark Stevens as a burnt-out pilot – perhaps the most touching character in the drama.
After a brief attempt to broaden his appeal in dramas such as the heavy-handed Morituri (1965) and The Bedford Incident (1965), Cox retuned to almost exclusive comedic roles in TV, whereas Taylor, who had previously co-starred with Pleshette in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) played a pilot again in the wartime buddy comedy The Hell with Heroes (1968).
Filmed Ernest K. Gann aerial dramas & disaster tales include Island in the Sky (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954), Fate is the Hunter (1964), and The Aviator (1985).
Those curious about the type of plane used in the film will find some details in the Wikipedia entry (see below).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan