Jet Pilot: Propaganda in Color–Von Sternberg Directs John Wayne and Janet Leigh

RKO’s Jet Pilot was even more embarrassing for John Wayne than Blood Alley, the year before, but no less propagandistic than Big Jim McLain.

Initiated by mogul Howard Hughes, the film was produced and written by Jules Furthman, and directed by former genius but now declining director Joseph Von Sternberg, still best known for his great stylized films with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s.  Sternberg’s first color film, Jet Pilot was his only effort at making a comedy.

But, alas, Sternberg had no control over the casting and was forced to start shooting before the script had been completed. Hughes and Furthman told him that they did not want an erotic-exotic movie of the kind he had made with Dietrich in the 1930s, but a “strict” reading of the scenario, with priority given to the thrilling aerial sequences.

Jet Pilot’s budget was exceptionally big by standards of the time–close to $2 million. The movie was reshot and reedited several times, though each time made the movie worse. Shooting began in 1950 and was completed in seven weeks, but then it was re-processed for the wide screen.

Later, Hughes rehired a second team to update the aerial footage, and the actors were brought back for extra work. “Jet Pilot” was finally released in September 1957, seven years after its pre-production began.

As precondition, Sternberg agreed to deliver a conventional movie that focused on aviation themes and hardware, avoiding the erotic embellishments he was famous for.

One would expect a reasonably decent film after so much work and money spent, but Jet Pilot was a stinker or, as Sternberg described it, a “lamentable failure due to the fact that I had accepted a cart before the horse assignment.” In a typically Hollywood manner, Sternberg’s previous achievements were forgotten, and he was asked to take a test to demonstrate that he still possessed directorial abilities.

In the end, Sternberg’s direction was not particularly accomplished, though, as noted, he had no say over the casting or the screenplay, which resembled a comic-book narrative

Indeed, the film’s major problem was the crude script, which was replete with stereotypical characters and was downright silly.

Janet Leigh plays a Russia flyer that lands at an American air base, claiming to have escaped from the Soviet Union. Wayne’s Colonel Shannon is assigned by Washington to get information from her on the Soviet Air Force. When Washington realizes that she is not going to reveal any secrets, they decide to jail her, but Wayne marries her, still unaware she is a spy.

Later, when Wayne finds out, they escape together to Russia to avoid jail. However, back in Siberia, she begins to see her home in a negative light. Soon she is full of criticism of the Soviet system, which motivates them to escape to America with secret information and a Russian jet. They wind up in Palm Springs, eating oversized steaks!

The propagandistic elements in Jet Pilot” were beyond belief, even when placed against the suspicious political context of the 1950s. Every idea of the film is made literal and explicit, lest the audiences miss its “significant” meaning. For example, Anna realizes that the Soviet system does not work when the doorknob comes off in her hand, or when suddenly there is no light. She is thus forced to accept that just about every element is inferior to the luxurious, good life she had experienced in America.

The symbols of American affluence are elegant nightgowns, sexy lingerie, and big steaks. It is no wonder then that Newsweek described the film as Janet Leigh falls in love with John Wayne and Capitalism.” (September 23, 1957).

Consider, for example, that for her investigation, Leigh is taken, of all places, to Palm Springs. “There is a kind of ‘Rovers Boys’ approach to serious problems,” the Hollywood Reporter observed, “a frolicsome attitude about deadly situations, such as the Russian treatment of opposition from its own citizens and others, that is in questionable taste.” (James Powers, September 19, 1957.)

The dialogue of Jet Pilot is outrageous, particularly the romantic love scenes. In one scene, Leigh tells Wayne: “One minute I want to kill you, the next minute, I want to kiss you and kiss you.” Leigh, for whom the movie was made, looks and sounds ridiculous, maintaining her American appearance, without even attempting a Russian accent; her command of English is perfect!

The “corny approach to sex,” noted one critic, is “a dog-eared copy of Film Fun magazine, one of the early cheesecake books.” (Dick Williams, Mirror News,” September 26, 1957), while another described the film as “a make-believe juvenile fantasy.” (Los Angeles Times,” September 26, 1957).

In another scene, Leigh submits to Wayne’s search by removing one garment after another, while jets overhead function as substitute to the audiences’ whistling. Most critics could not take this trifle seriously. Crowther wrote that the film was so silly, that “we blush to tell you what is its story.” And as for the performers, they play their “quaint role like a couple of fumbling kids.” (New York Times,” October 5, 1957).

Soviet pilot-spy Janet Leigh lands her Mig fighter at a USAF base in Alaska, posing as defector. Suspicious, the base commander assigns American pilot John Wayne to play counter-spy. Mutual respect leads to love between the aviators and when Leigh is denied asylum, Wayne weds her to avoid Leigh’s deportation.

The USAF sends them to Russia to spread fraudulent intelligence, but upon his return, Wayne is suspected of acting as a double agent and scheduled for brainwashing. Leigh arranges for their escape to Austria.

Placed at the film’s visual center, she shows a measure of eroticism that contrasts sharply and humorously with the All-American elements of Furthman’s script.

Sternberg inserted some subversive elements in this paean of cold war militarism. During the airborne refueling scenes, the fighter jets take on the attributes of Leigh and Wayne.

Sternberg wrapped up shooting in 7 weeks, but the picture underwent innumerable permutations until it finally got distribution–and a moderate commercial success–by Universal six years later in September 1957.

With Jet Pilot completed, Sternberg turned to his second film for RKO, Macao, which was released in 1952.

The seven years that elapsed between the film’s production and release only showed how dated the material was, though it is doubtful that audiences in 1950 would have digested these ideas more agreeably. Curiously, screenwriter Furthman believed that the movie’s release was delayed because, “we kid the Russian situation, and the tone was not quite the right tone to use during the Korean War. (“Newsweek,” September 23, 1957).

In the end, Jet Pilot enjoyed less than moderate success at the box-office, even though Wayne was then at his prime as a star.  After its short initial run, Hughes withdrew the picture from the market for over two decades.

In 1979, Universal acquired from Summa Corps eight movies produced by Hughes for $1.5 million, including Jet Pilot and The Conqueror, arguably Wayne’s worst picture.  Neither film had ever been licensed to TV; for twenty years, they were seen by Hughes alone.

Premiering on American television in October 1981, Jet Pilot proved that the only way to enjoy the film was as a lamentable footnote in Sternberg’s previously glorious career–and as high camp!