Jet Pilot isn’t an overly good representative of John Wayne’s filmography, but it does provide a lesser known iteration of the disorganized life of it’s producer, Howard Hughes. And although equally poor as Wayne’s other dud The Conqueror (1956) somehow Jet Pilot is usually not mentioned in the same breath.
The film was shot in 1949-1950 and Hughes’ vision was for an updated Hell’s Angels (1930). Thousands of feet of footage was shot of jet aircraft zooming through the bilious cumulous clouds Hughes’ sought out. By the time the film was released, however, in 1957, most of the aerial footage, although visually impressive, had be come technologically obsolete. Sound effects (a dramatic but comical woooosh!) has been added to play each time a jet flies by. This grows very annoying quickly as the sound is always at the same volume and tone. It cheapens further an already cheap production. The timing of the release also caused a jolt for viewers as the film is of a much younger John Wayne.
Storywise, there might have been some potential here in setting this up as a cold war thriller. A Soviet fighter pilot (Janet Leigh) is forced down behind American lines. Of course she is spying on Wayne and his cohorts who eventually decide to deport her.
Although the story should stop there, it doesn’t. Wayne has fallen in love and after marrying young Leigh decides to defect to the USSR in order to be with his new love. Well now the tables are turned and Wayne is absorbing information for sharing with his superiors on his a presumed prisoner exchange.
Well the exchange never happens and eventually he becomes a test pilot of sorts for a new jet design- one which is dropped from an aircraft in flight. Yes very dangerous and several top Soviet pilots have been lost in testing this, but it works like a charm for the Duke. On cue, Leigh gathers him and they defect back to the US.
The plot is a bit simplistic and uninspired. The acting, especially by Leigh, is atrocious. That said the script is fairly weak and doesn’t provide the cast with much to work with. Most of Leigh’s in-flight banter with Wayne is sophomoric, trite, and unbelievable for a pilot. Wayne executes a roll over Leigh’s aircraft to the startled response of “Whoa! How’d you do that!” Steinbeck this isn’t.
Jet Pilot was produced by RKO but distributed by Universal due to the financial woes of RKO under Howard Hughes. Jet Pilot isn’t considered one of his finer efforts by the studio either. It is available on DVD, but only as part of a mulitiple title set. Ironically, this is the same set which also has Wayne’s other flop The Conqueror.
The aerial sequences are all really good and are not archival footage, with most being shot just for this film. also very few process shots which make this aspect of the film quite good.