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Three years after suffering a muddy fate in The Bridges of Toko-Ri William Holden returned to flying jets in Toward the Unknown, an aviation drama about the hazardous life of test pilots at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, on the high Mojave Desert about a hundred miles from Los Angeles. The Warner Archive Collection's new DVD will be of high interest to fans of this exciting period in the building of the post-war atomic arsenal, and the beginnings of the exploration of outer space. Most of the images of the test pilot section of The Right Stuff are here, filmed as research was in progress: pilots drive convertible cars along lonely desert roads, rocket planes drop from the bellies of enormous bomber-carriers and pilots walk across the desert after a bail-out. There's also the obligatory visit to a new widow, as her husband's plane burns in the background.
Screenwriter Beirne Lay Jr. wrote the novel and script for 12 O'Clock High and became an instant go-to guy for movies extolling the Brave New Air Force of the 1950s: Above and Beyond, Strategic Air Command. The films stressed the dire necessity of air superiority through reliable nuclear delivery systems, and the participation of hawkish stars like Robert Taylor and James Stewart was a patriotic extension of their wartime service. Besides presenting authentic images of impressive Air Force hardware in operation, the movies were double-edged public relations tools. A high school kid might see his future as an engineer or an airman; foreigners admiring the unending parade of futuristic aircraft could be expected to conclude that America was an un-opposable dynamo that could wipe out any country, anywhere, at a moments notice.
Toward the Unknown is an entertaining, unbalanced mix of real flying excitement and ten-cent dramatics. William Holden plays Major Lincoln Bond, a former test pilot and disgraced Korean War Vet. Caught and brainwashed by the Chinese Reds, Link cooperated with the Commie propagandists and later tried to commit suicide. Now he's back asking to test aircraft again, to put his life back together. Flyer Bromo Lee (Murray Hamilton) hates Bond's guts and Brigadier General Bill Banner (Lloyd Nolan) doesn't see why he should put such a risky guy back on the flight line when he has other candidates with clean records. Secretary Connie Mitchell (Virginia Leith) and Col. Mickey McKee (Charles McGraw) talk Banner into giving Link a chance. The situation becomes complicated when Bond almost crashes an experimental fighter-bomber. His claim that the wings are unstable is scoffed at, and pressure is brought to bear by the head of Gilbert Aircraft (sourpuss Ralph Moody) to have him scrubbed. Banner stands behind Link, even though they are both interested in marrying Connie Mitchell. Several mishaps later, Bond beats the odds and is picked as a test pilot for the new X-2 rocket plane that will climb higher than any airplane or man has gone before. But after a fighting incident Bond doubts that he's recovered from his Korean experience and determines to resign. What will change his mind?
Toward the Unknown shows William Holden strolling past a collection of exotic "X" planes including the stiletto-nosed Bell X-3, telling us that the movie is showing us the real goods. The shot could really use a subtitle -- "this is where your taxes are going." Many of these crazy planes were built to test progressive design theories, not as practical aircraft. Edwards is where the action is, and even Virginia Leith's sexy secretary says she's there because of the excitement of being around men who face danger. During test flights, people stand in lines watching the sky with binoculars. Ever seen a test flight with jet aircraft? They usually wander over 2 or three states... there's nothing to see outside headquarters except landings and takeoffs.
The no-nonsense attitude of the testing at Edwards and the kinds of men involved rule out the usual Hollywood melodramatics, but producer Mervyn LeRoy was not intimidated. Toward the Unknown is fairly realistic in that we see the unimpressive offices and quarters on base, and the after-hours action is limited to the officer's club and a few eateries outside the security gate. But other details are quite surprising. It wasn't for ten years that the military admitted the possibility of forgiving captured soldiers who "cooperated" with the Reds in Korea. The idea of the Air Force letting a confessed 'traitor' who attempted suicide back into its most elite flying group is absurd. With so many applicants to draw from, most of the post-Korea test pilots had total 'right stuff' service records. The film's understanding attitude toward Major Bond's disgrace may have been Holden and LeRoy's attempt to change things in the service.
The other surprise is that Lloyd Nolan's General Banner should be flying at all, let alone taking high G's and going through the other kinds of stress associated with test flying. He continues flying in Toward the Unknown after ignoring obvious signs that he's worn out, even collapsing after taking a dangerous spin in the stratosphere. In reality he'd have been scrubbed long ago, as the flight surgeons can't be dodged. It wasn't uncommon for flyers to be grounded with only minor health issues or signs of diminished capability in their late '30s. The movie gives a verbal nod to Chuck Yeager, who continued testing the top jets on into the early 1960s, but the controversial Yeager was an exception. Besides, even though they called him The Old Man, Yeager was only 33 when Toward the Unknown was filmed ... actor Lloyd Nolan was 54 and looks like a grandfather. The general played by Paul Fix spends the whole movie trying to tell Banner that it's time to hang up his spurs.
Finally, I can't see the Pentagon being happy about the film's attitude toward airplane manufacturers, the $$ side of the Military Industrial Complex. Old man Gilbert is a crabby fossil demanding that a safety dispute be ignored so his "XF-120" plane can be rushed into production. Malcolm Atterbury plays a Gilbert tech rep who is much more reasonable. From this point in history forward the divide between the military generals and the civilian vendors would become a blur. When we hear that Banner can get a better deal in the private sector, it means that he could rake in a huge salary as an aircraft company salesman with deep connections to the Pentagon. As for the civilian government, a Senator on a tour simply minds his manners and enjoys the show ... defense research is politically untouchable.
Toward the Unknown's tepid dramatics also see the need for a hothead (Murray Hamilton) to goad Bond into a fistfight, and some disastrous comedy relief is shoehorned in the form of L.Q. Jones' painfully unfunny general's aide. But as an extra added bonus there's James Garner in his first film role, as Lt. Col. Joe Craven, intrepid test pilot. Good ol' Joe refuses to bail until his chase plane photographs his
The final parallel to The Right Stuff happens when one of the pilots dies. Lloyd Nolan's General Banner should have tried a different line reading. The way he says, "Why do they always have to have two or three kids?" it sounds as if those families are an annoyance while he's busy putting pilots at mortal risk. Officers' wives either faced the fact that their husbands were expendable or hid behind layers of psychotic denial. In the race to keep ahead of the Soviets, the pilots took steep risks in untested aircraft. If heroism is defined as performance under pressure, they certainly qualify.
It almost looks as if Toward the Unknown was influenced from the outside. All but one plot question is resolved by the ninety-minute mark, yet the movie continues for a full half hour of scenes devoted to the testing of the X-2 "space plane".
William Holden is solid, even when his insecure Link Bond is feeling sorry for himself. Lloyd Nolan is okay too, considering the absurdity of his character. The other servicemen stand around wondering when Methuselah will admit he's no spring chicken. James Garner and Karen Steele are allowed to show how photogenic they are (Garner in particular must have wow'ed the suits at Warners). Virginia Leith remains sort of a fish out of water ... she seems a spirited soul who might be more suited for less rigid, more eccentric roles. Toward the Unknown appears to be her big break, playing the female lead opposite a top star. It's the right opportunity in the wrong movie.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Toward the Unknown is a good transfer of a movie where the colors seem to have become slightly unhinged, as if it were filmed on oddball color stock that recorded hues differently. Even when faces are properly toned, a green cast is present on many scenes, and others shift to more standard ruddy Warnercolor hues. It doesn't look at all like standard fading and chances are viewers won't be bothered -- the picture is sharp and clean in all other respects. The flying scenes and flight line exteriors all look excellent. One nighttime scene in a control tower looks odd because the set is on a soundstage, and an imperfect black has been matted into the background instead of a film image.
The audio is strong too. At one point we hear a sonic boom and the congressman jumps. Aurally, this must be some other Edwards AFB ... in the 1950s sonic booms over Mohave came at least five times a day, if not five times an hour. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Toward the Unknown rates:
1. As I've explained before, I'm the son of an Air Force Master Sergeant. As the maintenance head of the Edwards flight line ("Line Chief") from 1955 to 1958, he got to know the test pilots well, had positive memories of the experience, etc. The servicemen liked Holden but Lloyd Nolan was unpopular. I was there but was practically a toddler -- the only thing in the movie I remember is the neighborhood with no sidewalks, which looks like where we lived. I can't even recall the security gate. But my desert backyard and my Dinky Toys are memorized. My father remembered Toward the Unknown being filmed on base. He enjoyed the book The Right Stuff but hated the movie as it was too much of a comedy and (he thought) didn't respect the pilots as mature and committed fliers. The stories I heard about the flight line differ from its portrayal in pictures like this and Bombers B-52. To repeat a story, one strange test was for an ejection capsule that shot downward out of the fuselage, instead of upward. They had several planes rigged with this contraption, and on the first takeoff the capsule fired as the test plane was taxiing, killing the pilot by smashing him into the runway. When the aircraft company experts brought out plane #2 for a second try, the pilots all but mutinied. They were granted a larger role in the flight approval process, to have a say in how and when their lives would be put at risk.
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