Major Cleve "Iceman" Saville (Robert Mitchum), a veteran World War II fighter ace, returns to combat, eager to fly an F-86 Sabre fighter. His commanding officer, Colonel "Dutch" Imil (Richard Egan), assigns him command of a flight.
Among his pilots is a new replacement, talented but brash Lieutenant Ed Pell (Robert Wagner). In their first mission, they encounter a flight of MiG-15 fighter aircraft and Pell abandons his element leader, Lieutenant Corona (John Gabriel), during combat to down an enemy fighter. Corona's aircraft is shot up and he is killed while trying to land his damaged jet fighter. As a result, Saville wants Pell assigned to someone else, but Imil overrules him; Pell was top of his class in flight school and Imil sees him as a younger version of Saville. If anyone can get Pell to grow up, it is the major.
Another pilot under Saville's command, Lieutenant Carl Abbott (Lee Philips), poses a different kind of problem. He lacks confidence in his abilities; his worried wife Kristina (May Britt) asks Saville to watch over him. Saville falls in love with her, and vice versa. Aware of the situation, Abbott offers Saville a deal; his wife in return for the opportunity, if they should run into him, to go one-on-one with "Casey Jones", the most feared enemy ace, whose MiG-15 is marked with "7-11". A disgusted Saville turns him down.
Nevertheless, on a mission soon afterward, Abbott tangles with Casey Jones and is quickly shot down far behind enemy lines. In an ensuing dogfight, Saville manages to shoot down Casey Jones. Low on fuel, Saville orders Pell to return to base, while Saville continues his search for Abbott. Spotting Abbott's parachute, Saville deliberately ditches his aircraft nearby, disobeying standing orders to do everything in his power to get his aircraft back to base. After Saville cuts down an injured Abbott from a tree, they are immediately attacked by a North Korean patrol. Suddenly Pell strafes the North Korean infantrymen and is shot down. The trio then try to make their way through enemy territory to safety.
Along the way, they are assisted by a friendly Korean farmer (Victor Sen Yung) and his family. When a North Korean patrol happens by, the Americans hide, but in their haste, a jacket is left behind and found. As a result, the family members are executed. Saville and Pell avenge the slain family, ambushing and wiping out the patrol, but Saville is shot in the shoulder. Wounded, exhausted, and hungry, the three airmen reach the safety of their lines.
Afterward, Saville and Abbott convalesce in a military hospital. Abbott is to be transferred back to the U.S. to recuperate. His brush with death has changed his priorities; he remorsefully asks Kristina for another chance at their marriage. She decides to go with him. Saville and Kristina say their farewells but Saville is distracted as a squadron of jet fighters passes overhead.
The flying scenes were principally filmed over the southwest United States in the vicinity of Luke and Williams Air Force Bases in Arizona. Ramp scenes were filmed at Luke while take-offs were staged from Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field, which had the requisite primitive appearance, appropriate mountain backdrops, and where exteriors simulating rice paddies and a gate for Suwon Air Base could be erected.
Operational F-86 Sabre fighters, which were still front line aircraft at the time, were used in the aerial sequences. Although the group portrayed in the movie ("54th Fighter Group") is a fictitious amalgam of the actual units in Korea, the unit markings displayed were those of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, which was based at Suwon until 1954. The crash footage of an F-100 Super Sabre was used in one scene to represent the attempted landing of an F-86. USAF F-84F Thunderstreak fighters were painted with North Korea paint schemes and insignia to portray enemy MiG-15s. A C-130A Hercules was used as an aerial photography platform. Palm Beach AFB, Florida was the main base where aircraft used in the film were parked and maintained during the production.
With this film, director Dick Powell completed his obligations to 20th Century Fox in his producing-directing contract, having already delivered The Enemy Below (1957).
Considered a lackluster war drama, The Hunters did not fare well with critics, although most audiences saw it as a widescreen epic. Director Dick Powell strove to create an authentic "look" with carefully set up scenes focusing on military personnel and the jet fighter operations that underlined the main action scenes. Howard Thompson in his review for The New York Times, noted: "Performed well enough by a pretty good, predominantly male cast, headed by Robert Mitchum, and handsomely produced by Dick Powell, who also directed, the result is a respectable, rather neutrally flavored film that somehow only matters when aloft."
Likewise, reviewer Mark Hassan in a later review, opined, "The real star of the film is the extraordinary aerial cinematography".
According to Lt. Col. Charles D. Bright, himself an F-86 pilot in Korea, comparing and contrasting the novel and the film version in the Aerospace Historian, "The plot was changed greatly, and not for the better."