The film's storyline concerns the crash of a passenger airliner that killed all its passengers, with only one of its crew surviving. Pilot error seems to be the cause, until an airliner executive ramps up the investigation, refusing to believe that conclusion.
A bird strike on one of its two engines shortly after takeoff downs a Consolidated Airlines passenger jet, killing all 53 passengers aboard and all but one of the crew. Pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor) is suspected of drinking and causing the crash that leaves flight attendant Martha Webster (Susanne Pleshette) the sole survivor of the flight.
Early in the investigation, it is found that the Captain shut down the aircraft’s one good engine for no apparent reason, and that he may have been drinking as little as an hour before the flight. The captain's wartime buddy, airline executive Sam C. McBane (Glenn Ford), is convinced of his friend's innocence and doggedly investigates. Flashbacks deal with both Jack's past and Sam meeting him, plus others they used to know.
Eventually, a test flight is organized as part of the investigation. Piloted by McBane, its purpose is to exactly recreate in every detail the flight of the ill-fated airliner. Every detail is replicated in sequence. After take off, flight attendant Webster brings McBane coffee, just as she did to the original flight crew. He shuts down an engine, simulating the bird strike, and the coffee cup tips over from sudden the loss of power, spilling it contents.
A short time later an emergency arises: A warning light and alarm indicates there is a serious engine fire in the remaining good engine. McBane deduces that the original pilot's coffee cup was sitting atop the instrument console, just as his had been. The spilled liquid leaked through the console's seams onto the electronics, causing a malfunction of the airliner's engines warning system. In reality the airliner still had a fully functioning jet engine that could have prevented the crash. McBane ignores the warning and goes to full power on both engines, returning safely to the airfield. A minor chance accident and the ensuing electronics fault, not pilot error, is proven to be the cause of the Consolidated airliner crash.
Fate Is the Hunter was nominally based on the bestselling 1961 memoir of the same name by Ernest K. Gann, but the author was so disappointed with the result, as it bore no relation to the book which was about Gann's own early flying career, that he asked to have his name removed from the credits. In his autobiography, A Hostage to Fortune, Gann wrote, "They obliged and, as a result, I deprived myself of the TV residuals, a medium in which the film played interminably." (Some prints of the film were released with Gann's name still in the opening credits immediately before that of Harold Medford, author of the screenplay.)
The "Consolidated Airways" jet aircraft used in the film was one of two fabricated from DC-7(B) donors, the second was used to create the crash scene (on the beach). The wings were reportedly removed and reversed, a Boeing 707 nose cone along with "supersonic spike" were also added in order to achieve the appearance of a modern jet airliner. Modifications to the rear section of the aircraft included the addition of two nacelles to accommodate the simulated jet engines. A rear-mounted Boeing 707 spike-styled HF antenna isolator, and antenna were also added to the tail section.
An area of the Twentieth Century Fox back lot was converted into the tarmac, taxiway, and runway seen in the film. Because of the fear of litigation, it was reported that no airframe manufacturer or airline was willing to cooperate in the production of the film, making these steps necessary. The "Fate" aircraft was later used in the filming of an episode of the ABC television series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1964-1968), and remained parked for several years on an overpass used for movie prop storage by the adjacent 20th Century Fox Studios.
Releasing a film about aircraft accidents, especially done in the melodramatic manner that the film employed, led to a curious reception from both critics and public. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, simply called it, "a stupid, annoying film."
Fate Is the Hunter was nominated for a 1964 Academy Award in Best Cinematography (Black-and-white).
An excerpt from the film was used in the 1980 comedy film Airplane! The film is also mentioned in the 1995 JAG episode "Pilot Error"; the protagonist, who is the lead investigator in a mishap, relates the film's plot to his partner, comparing it and their current case.