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1955's The McConnell Story is pure public relations propaganda for the United States Air Force, a service performed by all the major studios in the 1950s. Captain Joseph C. McConnell was the Korean's War's top air ace, having scored sixteen kills over a period of just four months in 1953. As the jet conflict over Korea was almost the solitary good news to come out of that police action, the pilots were lauded as heroes, and aces like McConnell and Manuel Fernandez were rotated home to pass their experience on to future flyers. Jet fighters in Korea still engaged one another dogfight-style, firing machine-cannons at each other. Within a few years everything would become guided missiles and instrumentation kills. McConnell and his ilk were the last of the real aerial knights that engaged in one-on-one combat without exotic weaponry.
As a movie, The McConnell Story ranks with enlistment boosters like Strategic Air Command, in which Major General James Stewart, himself an SAC reservist, plays a fictitious baseball star who decides his destiny lies back in the Air Force. As Joe McConnell is a real-life flying hero, screenwriter Ted Sherdeman billboards the facts of his military career with an overlay of pure corn. Army recruit McConnell is forever getting into trouble. He goes A.W.O.L. to take flying lessons on his own, hoping to someday become a pilot. He meets his future wife Pearl (June Allyson) by escaping the M.P.s in a hot rod, a scene more or less stolen from Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.
McConnell barely survives Army life, because he's such a rebel, see -- a clear attempt to make an establishment hero seem more like a Marlon Brando, and more attractive to young men considering military duty. Joe's honeymoon is cut off by an assignment, and an attempt to get home for Christmas almost washes him out of pilot school. Perhaps these infractions are exaggerated, but the film's McConnell does things that would likely get him sent to military prison for a good stretch, like striking his superior officer. The script instead invents "loveable" Army and Air Force men in Frank Faylen and James Whitmore, guys with big hearts who keep McConnell from being washed out. Heaven help recruits that think the chain of command will indulge their antics as if they were junior high schoolers.
In between the soft soap, the film sticks to the facts rather well. When McConnell does make it into the air, the flight school advances him to navigator training. He doesn't get to be a pilot until after the war, when he's 26 years old. Flying fighter-interceptor missions, McConnell finds his calling at last, and begins racking up his kill score.
The McConnell Story is a mainstream indoctrination movie ten times more sophisticated than anything the Russians could turn out. It begins with a gruff general lecturing us worthless, shameful civilians that our freedoms are all owed to the armed forces that defend us against America's enemies. Men belong in their jobs, kids in school and women in the home. Gulp! Yes sir mister general sir. Alan Ladd's brand of anesthetized cool has its good points but it takes a good supporting cast to buttress up his character. Joe doesn't bat an eye no matter what happens and only gets into fights when his girlfriend's honor is at stake. This residual "Shane" aspect makes the filmic McConnell come off as rather unrealistic. He's not permitted a single selfish or cruel thought or deed. It's always A.F. buddy James Whitmore who entices him into hazardous duty, breaking his promises to his wife. McConnell (sigh) just has to be out there flying on the edge, it seems. It's his destiny.
It's too easy to see June Allyson's many military wife roles of the 1950s as a big camp joke ... but also too much fun not to poke a few sticks in her direction. When 50s heroes (typically James Stewart and William Holden) struggled through angst-ridden decisions in the boardroom, the baseball diamond or the push-button Air Force, Allyson was there. The wifey with the bright smile would alternately lend support and mope/whine/bitch when her husband more or less betrayed his every marital promise. As the ideal 50s wife with the pixie eyes, Allyson tried to suffer in silence and had babies like a queen ant. "Lending support" means adopting an attitude that chirps, "whatever you want, husband, I want too, honest, you bet". What's amazing about Allyson is that she must have been well aware of her status as an icon of the Baby Boom years. In a movie not seen very much these days, the very disturbing The Shrike, she plays a monstrous super-wife who drives her husband to a nervous breakdown by pushing his career and plotting on his behalf like a Lady MacBeth.
The big joke in The McConnell Story is that the real Joe gave his wife the nickname "Butch", which he then proceeded to paint on all of his jet aircraft. The name invites the notion that the ideal 50s wife was actually made of galvanized steel, that the submissive hausfrau image was just an image. I mean, we're given to believe that Glenn Miller would never have found his "sound" if not for the backstage might of Helen, his Little Brown Jug that Could. And of course there's Ms. Allyson's deep voice. The latter-day negative image of this 50s woman sees her as a voracious consumer, a happy-face wife hungry for a new car and a new house and cleaner kids, so as to elevate her status in a value-challenged postwar America. Calling that idea the norm in real life is of course false; it's just images being debated here.
When I say that The McConnell Story is Hawkish propaganda I'm not implying that it was wholly intended as such. Studio heads were patriotic and the whole country was pumped up with anti-Red fervor. No studio could say they weren't interested in supporting the Armed Forces. The Pentagon offered unique access to military bases and shiny billion-dollar fleets of experimental war craft -- just announce the picture, bring your cameras and some stars to hobnob with the generals' wives, and Air Force liaisons would provide the supersonic production value. The McConnell Story has good aerial footage, with McConnell and his pals flying Sabre Jets and the MiGs played by some other design painted blue for contrast. As that color code was seen in more than one Cold War aviation film, we wonder if the Air Force (or the makers of the Sabre Jets) didn't come up with it. We're told that from 1952 to 1956 or so Howard Hughes filmed and re-filmed jet dogfights for his long-gestating movie Jet Pilot. Perhaps Hughes' people were the source for some of the aerial scenes that appeared in other movies -- after all, Hughes had sold stock footage from Hell's Angels for years after its premiere.
While flying home, McConnell's fighters perform an 'aerial ballet' to a classical piece being piped over their radio sets. The jets tilt their wings in unison like Esther William's swimmers. I'm not saying this isn't possible (next stop, the Blue Angels) but the scene does appear included to increase the film's femme appeal. The film's poster pictures a little jet dwarfed by a huge Ladd-Allyson embrace. The tagline reads: This is the next thing! A true story that couldn't have happened without a starry-eyed girl called "Butch"!
Able journeyman director Gordon Douglas makes all the pieces fit in his first-unit work, without contributing anything particularly noteworthy -- this isn't the kind of movie that asks for any particular style or atmosphere. Gordon, writer Sherdeman and actor Whitmore all repeat from Them! Cameraman John F. Seitz is probably the biggest name in the credits. Bit parts in the cast employ practically every male on the Warners payroll: Gregory Walcott, Perry Lopez, Dabbs Greer, Edward Platt, Laura Elliot (Kasey Rogers), Olin Howland, John Larch, Tito Vuolo and Dub Taylor. Some are in only for a second or two.
The McConnell Story was meant to conclude with another borrowed idea, this time from Sergeant York. Mr. and Mrs. McConnell prepare to buy a house in Apple Valley, near George A.F.B., only to discover that their patriotic neighbors have bought the house for them as a gift. So this is the reward for fighting commies and coming back with such a clean record! As it turned out, the real Captain McConnell was killed while testing an advanced Sabre Jet just weeks before the film was to begin shooting. So The McConnell Story ends more or less identically to The Glenn Miller Story, with a widowed June Allyson invited to watch the pilots her husband trained take off in their shiny new war planes. The fact that Joe McConnell was a trained professional doing his job and contributing to his country's defense isn't enough; the movie must elevate him to the pantheon of noble American warrior-martyrs. Thanks to Joe McConnell, we'll always have killer air aces to sweep America's evil enemies from the skies. Brrr.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The McConnell Story is a very good enhanced transfer of this wide CinemaScope show. The colors are attractive and generally free of "WarnerColor" fading. Max Steiner's score sounds great on the audio track -- not all early CinemaScope films were stereophonic, but this one was. The 4-channel original mix was recovered from a print at the Library of Congress in the 1990s. The box art mentions only a mono track, but I've been advised that the track on the disc itself is stereo.
The presentation comes with a lively trailer. The McConnell Story is a must-have for fans of military aviation movies -- the kind that love to watch the flying hardware on display.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The McConnell Story rates:
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