- Directed by Josef von Sternberg (among others)
- September 25, 1957 (Los Angeles) / October 4, 1957
A US Air Force pilot is tasked to escort a beautiful Soviet pilot who as it turns out is intent on luring him back to the USSR.
Jet Pilot stars John Wayne as titular jet pilot Col. Jim Shannon. He is the usual man among men and the film does its best to capitalize on Wayne’s screen persona. Von Sternberg was clearly not a director that pushed Wayne to really act.
I did a little reading about this randomly and Wayne took the part of Shannon hoping to make a political statement but ended up considering this to one of his worst films. The movie itself took several years to complete because of Howard Hughes’s behind the scenes involvement and that may be why it is the way it is.
Jet Pilot is supposed to be a Cold War thriller/romance but comes off a little goofy and more as a light adventure than anything else. When it came out one of the complaints was that it looked dated because of the time it took to finally hit theaters but watching it over 50 years later I can’t say I have that same experience. Distance has improved it a tiny bit.
Janet Leigh plays Russian pilot Lt. Anna Marladovna (whose real name is Capt. Olga Orlief). Her cover is that of a defector, but her mission is to lure the best pilot in the US (obviously Shannon) back to the USSR to help work out the kinks in their Parasite Fighter and give up important technical information. The problem is that she never gives up anything in return. If that is not a big red flag in the plot I do not know what is.
Janet Leigh as a Russian character has absolutely no accent. Maybe she could not do a Russian accent which is just fine. Her daughter after all had trouble doing an accent which led to a joke in the later Trading Places. A weird hereditary trait? A line or two about how her English is very good would have more than covered it but nobody addresses it at all. It really bothered me.
And the accents among the Russians when they get to Russia are rather inconsistent. Maybe cast all Brits or even have the people go with a fake Russian accent even in the absence of one from Leigh. Something to establish that they are indeed in another country.
In an unusual turn of events Bruce Cabot is not in this film. However semi regular John Wayne costar Paul Fix is. Fix is Maj. Rexford who takes on the jovial buddy part in the film. His only other defining characteristics are that he has a wife and is a pilot as well. More of a caricature than a character.
Jet Pilot is definitely a product of its time. The film was made to play into bad stereotypes. When they get to Russia it looks just this side of what they once referred to as a Third World nation. The quarters that our characters inhabit appear as if they are re-purposed POW sets from a World War II film.
There are moments in Jet Pilot that stretch credibility. Early in the film our two main characters get married. They don’t runoff in a car to a chapel but rather when they are ordered back they make a detour IN THEIR JETS to get married. I’m a little mystified nobody in the military quite figured out what was going on or seemed to notice two jets landing wherever they wanted to. This is not Star Wars. You can’t take a vehicle and fly around wherever you want to without being noticed.
And despite the issues I have with it the film does have its charms. Wayne and Janet Leigh do you have chemistry. It’s not on par with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara but they get it to work. The dialogue is light and humorous.
Despite the premise Jet Pilot doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously despite acting as if it kind of wants to. The film tries to straddle two worlds but the dialogue brings it more into a romance story where a John Wayne’s manly charms convert Janet Leighs dispassionate supporter of communism into an affectionate lover of capitalism. It’s reminiscent of how James Bond’s penis made bad women good.
I won’t call it great, but I will call Jet Pilot entertaining. It’s a fun romp that while not perfect will make it get to want to watch again. For the general film fan this is an if you want. For a John Wayne fan I strongly suggest it.