Vintage Cold War drama is much less cartoonish than contemporary anti-Red pictures, due to a greater use of tech talk, and procedural minutia from James Salter's novel of the same name. Salter's 1956 book draws from the author's own fighter pilot experience, and sets the drama in 1952 South Korea, as U.S. jet pilots are the only bulwark against nefarious Communist probes coming from Red China.
Wendell Mayes' screenplay uses familiar archetypes of the genre - the hip-talking cocky pilot (buoyantly played by the always-grinning Robert Wagner), the old war horse who really can feel human emotions (played with appropriate discretion by Robert Mitchum), and the guilt-ridden loser with a suicidal streak (Lee Phillips) - plus a blonde babe (May Britt) thrown in for a mildly affective love triangle.
Even when stripped of its high-gloss production values and superior cast, The Hunters is just a B-movie with the familiar contrivances of the era - which in this case includes stranded American pilots aided in Red China by a Christian family.
(Once a Bible is shown to our heroes, they know they're in good hands; in the Red Menace genre, Christian faith is the common bond that unites good people when the global evil of Communism is virulent in every continent. Unfortunately, it's also the bonding over cooked food, hot tea, and a plume of smoke that signals their doom, but their mortal sacrifice reinforces the polar humanity - and lack of - within both filmically represented ideologies, and shows the battle to keep the world free and democratic is littered with innocent blood. Now, had the heroic dum-dums just borrowed the family's donkey and made haste for the border, the good Christian Chinese would've had some future grandkids; but then film would've lost its final act.)
The real star of the film is the extraordinary aerial cinematography, which captures vintage jets in superlative 'scope compositions; this is a major film for airplane and military buffs simply because the camera lingers and appreciates the beauty of these jets in flight, in formation, and the minutia of their mechanics - igniting engines, light shimmering off the steel bodywork, grand clouds, crisp blue background skies, and the long, white wakes as the planes streak towards combat. Charles G. Clarke's cinematography is first-rate, and while the primal 'scope lenses do give some headshots the old smooshy-face syndrome (aka CinemaScope 'mumps'), this DVD is an excellent showcase for widescreen TVs.
With this film, Dick Powell finished up his producing-directing package with Fox, having already delivered the excellent sea combat film, The Enemy Below (also scripted by the prolific Mayes), and he clearly showed himself to be a fine director of drama and action. (Powell later went into television, but his career was cut short by cancer in 1963.)
The Hunters also served as a vehicle for several of Fox' contract players, including co-star Richard Egan (reduced to a few scenes as Mitchum's old flying colleague & superior), Swedish import May Britt (having already played a married woman involved with a solider stud in The Young Lions), Lee Phillips (fresh from Peyton Place, and later to appear in The Dick Powell Show ), and prolific character actor John Gabriel. Robert Wagner's character is an obvious lure for the youth market, and his character regularly chatters vintage slang, like "George" (meaning good), and "Tom" (meaning bad, sub-par, or negligible).
Fox' DVD boasts an excellent Dolby 4.0 soundtrack, with Paul Sawtell getting a chance to score a higher-profile film with a big orchestra (plus some lovely melodic material akin to The Fly). The directional dialogue mix is less extreme than in prior 'scope productions, and discreet plane sound effects kick in on the otherwise silent rear surround channels.
Also included are the film's teaser and theatrical trailers, with Powell introducing the cast & story in the latter, and a popish theme song (unused in the film) carpeting both promos. A vintage newsreel covers the film's premiere on a military base, with the harsh narrator barking how The Hunters is "the most magnificent film of the Air Force ever produced!"
I guess Howard Hughes' Jet Pilot is therefore just plain "Tom."
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan