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The Hunters

The Hunters
1958 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 107 min. / Street Date May 18, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Robert Mitchum, Richard Egan, May Britt, Lee Philips, John Gabriel
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Paul Sawtell
Written by Wendell Mayes from the novel by James Salter
Produced and Directed by Dick Powell

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Korean war was sooo popular that The Hunters is practically the only full-on aviation epic about the conflict that made it to movie screens, and then only five years after hostilities ended. Why Hollywood didn't embrace the air war over Korea with the same Gung-Ho Cold War initiative it showed on the ground is unclear; perhaps the humanistic and downbeat The Bridges at Toko-Ri had something to do with it.

With the complicated politics of Vietnam at least a few years distant, Wendell Mayes' taut script can concentrate on the old aviation formula of intrepid pilots competing for kills in the air while chasing women on the ground. The Hunters emerges way ahead of the curve thanks to a charismatic performance from Robert Mitchum and some sensational flying footage of real Sabre jets, zooming through the clouds in valorous combat.


1952. Major Cleve Saville, WW2 Ace known as "The Iceman" (Robert Mitchum) volunteers for fighter jet duty in Korea under his old buddy Colonel Dutch Imil (Richard Egan). Together they wage old-fashioned plane-to-plane combat against the Chinese MiGs over the Yalu River. Saville finds himself the oldster among a set of hotshot young pilots: nice guy Lt. Corona (John Gabriel), hotshot hepcat punk Lt. Ed Pell (Robert Wagner) and alcoholic Lt. Carl Abbott (Lee Philips). Abbott is the biggest mystery as he has a wife tagging along back in Japan, hoping he'll overcome whatever has turned him to the booze. She's Kristina (May Britt), a sultry blonde to whom Cleve finds himself instantly attracted.

John Wayne and Janet Leigh (as a Russian fighter ace - yikes) made Jet Pilot in 1952, but crazoid producer Howard Hughes didn't release it until 1957 when its Red-baiting script was laughably out of date. Unless you count oddball shows like Battle Hymn, The Hunters is just about it for movies featuring vintage single-seater jets going nose-to-nose in old-fashioned dogfighting.  1 With the curious kind of limited police-action war being fought, the air war in Korea took on some of the attributes of WW1 aerial combat in France. As if on a schedule, wings of fighter jets from both sides took off on daily patrols, looking for their opposite numbers. The fighting was close enough for combatants on both sides to recognize "star" opponents; these Sabre jet fighter aircraft were barely out of the experimental stage. They were armed with multiple machine-cannon - no air-to-air missiles or high-tech targeting computers here.

That means the jet aces sometimes resembled the flamboyant daredevils of France, a likeness that Air Force publicity sought to heighten for recruiting and morale purposes.  2 And The Hunters has all the flash with its friction between college-boy aces and Mitchum's seen-it-all sky warrior. Finally showing some personality beyond his pretty-boy roles, Robert Wagner is fun as a jive-talking hepcat, the kind of fighter jock assayed by Dennis Quaid in The Right Stuff. Wagner's Ed Pell skips military decorum and speaks antiquated jargon like "That's really George," until Cleve Saville shows him the error of his ways with a little slapping around.

For romance we get May Britt, Fox's not-so-successful attempt at late 50's starmaking (she and Juliet Greco). Britt isn't particularly believable as an officer's tag-along wife, as Anglo military wives usually lived on bases and needed acccompaniment to tour the countryside. Saville's relationship with Britt's Kristina is also no wham-bam hop in the sack situation. Appropriate to his knight-warrior trade Saville shows a little chivalry, even to the point of decking Britt's loser husband for being disrespectful of her. A nice touch is having it well understood where Saville's core interest really lies. At the key moment for a romantic payoff with his buddy's wife, Saville instead scans the sky for jets.

Forgettable aviation combat films are usually crammed with repetitous scenes of planes scrambing to perform similar missions highlighted by whatever stock footage is available of trains, roads and bridges in France or wherever being plastered from the air. Anything that doesn't build to a higher level in an action movie tends to get draggy. The Hunters has only three real flying sequences and a montage showing Saville and Pell racking up the hits. Although there are perhaps only ten minutes or so of flying in the film, it's of superior quality and every shot makes its mark in the overall picture.

The air-to-air scenes are exacting, with chase planes following choreographed moves instead of recording the usual generic peel-off and cruising scenes. Seen in such detail, we can tell that these aircraft are quite small, not much more than a primitive jet engine with a cockpit glued on top. The wings flex and the light ripples off the aluminum. On the ground, the front nose wheel hops as the pilot taxis using only his engine and his front brake. It really seems like a wild hot rod, something that might as soon blow up as give one a fast ride.

Although Sabre jets are downright poky by today's standards, in 1952 there was nothing more maneuverable and deadly in the sky. The Hunters shows how nimble and dextrous one of these things can seem when a pilot does fancy show-off maneuvers. Even in rear-projection, a tail-gating jet is almost funny, dancing about and flirting with a mid-air collision. And if they don't look dangerous, one has to consider the fact that the shots being fired aren't machine gun bullets but larger-caliber cannon shooting at a very high rate - a short burst might send 50 white hot cannon shells at its target.

The Hunters uses a different kind of aircraft, F-84's painted blue, to represent the Russian MiGs and although they don't look right they look different enough to suffice. There were ace MiG pilots as well, some of them said to be Russians flying as advisors to the People's Republic of North Korea.

The only egregious flub is the use of a stock shot with a totally different style of jet to represent Lt. Corona's fatal crash. I think it's an F-100 Thunderchief. To help out the mismatch, the screenplay confects to have Corona's Sabre Jet not be able to jettison its wing tanks before engaging the enemy. Dropping the tanks is a visually exciting ritual, like the Greek warriors dropping their scabbard belts to fight in Jason and the Argonauts). But it still is distracting to cut to a completely different aircraft for the traumatic crash.

The screenplay gets away with the old Dawn Patrol cliché of having not one but two jets intentionally ditch so that the pilots can rescue a comrade. This sequence tails out the movie with some standard fighting behind enemy lines stuff that The Bridges at Toko-Ri took pains to deflate; I guess an old gag that gives the audience what they want is a good gag. Director Dick Powell keeps the action simple and clear and in general steers clear of pretension or forced meanings.

The Hunters isn't one of Robert Mitchum's truly committed movies like Night of the Hunter, Ryan's Daughter or The Yakuza but his natural persona fits the role well. It's amusing to have him play the old flier upstaged by the jive-a** punk, when in reality Mitchum was the bohemian hepcat and Robert Wagner the brylcreemed Hollywood nice boy. Richard Egan is very good as the top kick, especially when the character admits that he wears flashy six-guns to impress the hot dogs and make himself look younger. Lee Phillips was a so-so presence in Peyton Place the year before and something of a washout. He's not very interesting as a drunk or much competition for Mitchum on any level.

In smaller roles are Victor Sen Yung as a friendly Korean farmer and Robert Reed and Stacy Harris as other pilots. Larry Thor plays a captain with a sour attitude; besides acting, he became a screenwriter (The Amazing Colossal Man, anyone?) and ended up a beloved film professor at UCLA.

Fox's DVD of The Hunters is a beauty, one of their 50s CinemaScope titles that translates well to enhanced widescreen DVD. The blues in the sky and the browns and reds of the Japanese landscape make a pleasant contrast and the 4.0 surround track is active and dynamic for a film of this vintage (I think the stereo track is a theatrical original).

There's a teaser-trailer and a trailer-trailer, neither particularly good and both marred by an embarrassing theme song not heard in the film itself ... accompanied by bongoes, it's reminiscent of the Underdog theme. The other extra is a newsreel of the film's premiere at a miserable airbase theater that must have made the visiting movie people feel like they shouldn't have bothered to dress up. That's what ya get, playing movie-footsie with the Air Force: General LeMay will want to meet all the actors!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Hunters rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: teaser, trailer, newsreel clip
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 24, 2004


1. Battle Hymn is a Lulu that I can't wait to write about, a hyper-conservative version of a true story about a contrite strategic bomber in WW2 who finds God in his sorrow, but comes back to Korea to wipe out Commies. God wants us to win the Cold War, you see. It's a Douglas Sirk movie and puts the lie to any blanket interpretation of the director's work as liberal or subversive.

2. The first thing up on screen is the year - 1952. Somewhere in Tachikawa, Savant was being born as a Korean War Baby in occupied Japan. I always think it's amusing to see who is portraying my father's rank - Chief Master Sergeant - and in this case it's all-purpose western baddie John Doucette, with his signature gravelly voice. Pretty amusing!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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