Thu 30 May 2013
THE HUNTERS. 20th Century-Fox, 1958. Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Egan, May Britt. Based on a novel by James Salter. Director: Dick Powell.
Dick Powell, former pretty boy film leading man, directed a Korean War-era actioner about heroism, duty, and self-sacrifice. Unfortunately The Hunters spends far too much time on the ground wallowing in soap opera clichés and not enough in the air.
Robert Mitchum plays a World War II fighter pilot retread who has volunteered to fly F-86 Sabres against Russian-made (and sometimes Russian-manned) MiG-15′s in what the United Nations and the U.S. State Department wanted to call a “police action” — but, as this movie makes clear, was a war.
(Then, as now, the rules of engagement [ROE] favored the enemy — if the Red pilots got into trouble, they could always skeedaddle for the border and sanctuary. Just a decade later, American aviators were encumbered with similar limitations in the Vietnam War. At least one pilot in Nam, Col. Jack Broughton, let the world know about it in two books: Thud Ridge and Going Downtown.)
Gradually, Mitchum falls in love with the wife of one of his subordinates, and she reciprocates. The fact that her husband is a coward at heart and is willing to let Mitchum have her in exchange for a favor almost pushes this film over the top. Only Mitchum’s integrity saves this sticky situation from unadulterated bathos.
What he does towards the movie’s finale — going that extra mile that honor demands to save the man he’d easily be justified in leaving to the tender mercies of the Communists — elevates his character from merely a superior officer charged with responsibilities to out-and-out hero. His nonchalance after having resolved the dilemma is fun to watch.
Also nearly over the top is Paul Sawtell’s opening musical score, a riff (or, if you prefer, a rip-off) of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Somehow, though, it seems appropriate.
Speaking of Wagner, then teen heart throb Robert Wagner steals every scene he’s in as a hot-shot throttle jockey whose recklessness costs the life of his wingman. Once Mitchum straightens him out — with a satisfying punch to the jaw — he becomes more of a menace to the Reds than his own guys.
The main problem with The Hunters is its tendency to slide into clichés: the love triangle, the eager beaver who’s as much of a threat as the enemy at times, the would-be warrior who’s a coward when you come down to it. A better script coupled with those fine aerial sequences (see, for example, The Bridges at Toko-Ri) would have made this film a winner. The acting is first rate, with everybody convincing in their roles (although I do find May Britt rather weak in that department).
As it is, if you can get past the sloppy melodrama, you should find The Hunters quite entertaining. If you happen to own the video, watch it through once and the next time fast forward to the flying scenes. They’re easily the best part of the movie.