During the Cold War, a Russian jet enters air space over Alaska and is escorted to an American air base. The pilot, Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh) demands asylum but refuses to provide information on Soviet activities. Col. Jim Shannon (John Wayne) receives orders to befriend Anna in order to win her confidence and gather information. The pilots compete with each other but gradually fall in love. When it appears Anna may be deported, Jim marries her only to discover that she may be a spy.
Jet Pilot is a 1957 Cold War action film starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh. Written by Jules Furthman and co-produced by Furthman and Howard Hughes, the Technicolor movie went through several directorial changes, after Josef von Sternberg began the directing between October 1949 and February 1950. After that point, Furthman, Philip Cochran (second unit director), Ed Killy (assistant), Byron Haskin (for the model work) and Don Siegel also directed scenes (Siegels werent used), as did Howard Hughes himself.
Filming dragged on for nearly four years. The last day of shooting was in May 1953, but the film was kept out of release by Howard Hughes due to his tinkering with the film (something for which he was notorious) until October 1957, by which time Hughes had sold RKO. Universal ended up distributing Jet Pilot.
Although Jet Pilot was publicized as showcasing the U.S. Air Forces latest jets, by the time it was finally shown most of the aircraft in the film were obsolescent or obsolete, being supplanted by more modern aircraft. In one aerial scene, the two lead characters fly a Lockheed F-94 Starfire to test a radar approach to intercept a propeller driven Convair B-36 bomber.
Jet Pilot was reportedly Howard Hughess favorite film, one he watched repeatedly in his later years.
John Wayne stars as U.S. Air Force aviator Jim Shannon, who's tasked with escorting a Soviet pilot (Janet Leigh) claiming at the height of the Cold War that she wants to defect. After falling in love with and wedding the fetching flyer, Shannon learns from his superiors that she's a spy on a mission to extract military secrets. To save his new wife from prison and deportation, Shannon devises a risky plan in this 1957 drama.
A Russian defector lands a jet fighter aircraft on an American airstrip. The base commander, Air Force Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is surprised to find that the pilot is an attractive woman, Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). When she asks for asylum, but refuses to disclose any military information, Shannon is assigned to seduce her. They fall in love. Worried about the possibility of deportation, Jim marries her without permission.
When they return from their unauthorized honeymoon, Major General Black (Jay C. Flippen) takes Jim aside and informs him that his new wife is a spy, sent to relay information back to the USSR. The Americans decide to play along, and escalate the situation.
Shannon goes home to tell Anna that she is to be imprisoned for years, then deported when she is finally released. To save her, they hatch an escape plan, steal an aircraft and fly to Soviet airspace. Their arrival is not shown, but Anna is criticized for allowing Shannon to crash the more advanced American aircraft when Russian fighters closed in, rather than fighting back. She says that she considered shooting him, then decided that he would be more valuable for his knowledge than the plane would have been.
While they are there, Shannon discovers that Anna is pregnant. Shannon is then assigned to help test new aircraft, a pretext for drugging him and pumping him for information about American aircraft. He learns much about Soviet capabilities from the questions he is asked, while only giving up outdated information in return. When Anna discovers this, she initially plans to turn him in, learns he is to be drugged into permanent insensibility, then lets her personal feelings override her sense of duty. She finds herself under suspicion, disposes of the agent sent to keep an eye on her, steals an aircraft and escapes back to the West with Shannon.
As appearing in Jet Pilot, (main roles and screen credits identified):
Hughes intended to make a "jet-age" Hells Angels to the extent that the flying scenes were the most important element, and led to his obsessive re-editing that stretched into years. The lead actors fretted that the screenplay was "silly" with Wayne only taking on the role because he thought it would make a political statement, but soon realized it would become "one of the worst films" he would ever make. Wayne would later recall, "The final budget was something like four million. It was just too stupid for words."
Location filming took place primarily at Edwards Air Force Base and Hamilton Air Force Base, California, with full cooperation from the United States Air Force. Much of the filming of flying scenes was done at Edwards using a North American B-45 Tornado bomber as a camera aircraft. Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, along with Charles Rayburn Cunningham, another senior jet pilot, was assigned by the U.S. Air Force to fly for the film.Yeager would fly in the X-1 on its final flight, staged for the film cameras, on May 20, 1950.
The F-86A Sabre jets depicted in the early sequences were actual operational aircraft of the 94th Fighter Squadron, the first unit so equipped in the USAF, shortly after their conversion to the type in 1949. Yeager would also fly the F-86A in a series of aerobatic maneuvers, under the direction of "air boss" Paul Mantz who coordinated the aerial sequences.
Location filming for the Russian air base was done at George Air Force Base, a World War II air base with many of its wartime structures still intact, giving the base a primitive appearance. The 94th FS and its parent 1st Fighter Group were actually based at George during filming, and had just finished a deployment to Ladd Air Force Base, Alaska, as depicted in the storyline.
The "Soviet parasite fighter" that Shannon flies is actually a Bell X-1, the first supersonic aircraft design in the world.
The "mother ship" for the Soviet parasite fighter is actually a Boeing B-50, a development of the B-29. The "Yak 12" at the films beginning is a black-painted Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star; the black fighter that appears near the finale, taxiing on the parking ramp, and the unpainted fighter that Olga is to test fly, are both Northrop F-89 Scorpions. An F-86 Sabre is used to depict a Russian chase aircraft, painted in dark colors, high visibility orange, and gray juxtaposed to obscure its actual silhouette.
Despite the obvious similarities to other successful films including Ernst Lubitschs Ninotchka (1939), starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, Comrade X (1940), starring Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr, as well as the more recent dud, The Iron Petticoat (1956), starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn, by the time Jet Pilot hit the screens, it looked dated and received universally poor reviews. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, referred to it as "silly and sorry", doomed by a "weak script, poor direction and indifferent performances by all" and concluding, that it was far from being Hughess next Hells Angels. For aviation fans, even the aerial scenes were greatly reduced as much of the principal photography had taken place early in 1950, relegating Jet Pilot to more of a historical curiosity.