The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Hunters

The 1950's were a mixed bag when it comes to war films. There's some classics -- The Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17 -- but I've noticed a trend. There are almost-classics (or at least above average) that are undone by unnecessary love stories jammed into a war story. Otherwise good flicks ruined by scenes of passionate hugging and soldiers and the women they love holding each other cheek-to-cheek. Gasp! The horror! Add 1958's The Hunters to the list.

It's 1952 and the Korean War is raging. On the ground, the fighting is the same, infantry going toe-to-toe for every inch of ground. Up in the air though, things have changed with both sides using jets to control the skies. At an Air Force base in Japan, WWII veteran pilot Cleve "Iceman" Saville (Robert Mitchum) is back at it, going through indoctrination before taking over a fighter group. The aerial dogfights are a mess, the Chinese pilots not as skilled but all it takes is luck sometimes to survive the fighting. Among Saville's group are two pilots, both problems for vastly different reasons. Lt. Ed Pell (Robert Wagner) is a hotshot pilot, desperately wanting to be an ace while Lt. Carl Abbott (Lee Philips) is struggling with a drinking problem. Oh, and Saville has the hots for his wife, Kris (May Britt). As if the fighting to curb Communism wasn't enough...

Okay, here we go...Battle Cry, Force of Arms, Darby's Rangers, Never So Few, all war flicks somewhat to completely undone by stories harping on sluggish love stories typically featuring ZILCH in the chemistry department between its love interests. That's just off the top of my head too. There's more. You just know they're out there....

From director and producer Dick Powell, 'Hunters' is a pretty interesting flick. Enough time had passed since the end of the Korean War that viewers would have had a chance to breathe a little bit, put the conflict behind them. The subject matter, while dark, is far from anti-war and the film itself comes across as slightly shallow. There's just not that much meat there in a story that could have had plenty. It is a good-looking movie -- the print shown on Turner Classic Movies looked gorgeous -- with a decent cast, interesting story and some real potential that never quite takes off. If anything, any depth or a story with an edge is left behind in the wake of...

SPECTACLE. This is a movie about flying jets, fighter planes that zip across the sky and do things that no machine should be able to do. Think of it this way. An audience in 1958 would have been dazzled to see the acrobatics, the dogfights, the impressive speed. This was incredibly new to that audience. Now in 2015, it's an incredibly cool time capsule. The aerial footage is genuinely incredible. The stunts, the long shots of seemingly countless jets racing across the sky, well, Cinemascope never looked so good! Even the shots of the cast in the jets doesn't scream out how obvious it could have been. There's at least a semblance of reality that these guys are actually flying. So while the love story does its best to drag things down, these adrenaline-pumping aerial sequences are pretty freaking cool.

A favorite here at Just Hit Play, Mitchum is excellent here as Major Cleve Saville, a pilot from WWII who can't stay away when there's a fight (and he's a damn good pilot too). His Saville is the 'Hunter' of the title, a diehard pilot who has ridiculously keyed-in focus, blocking out all else to go for the kill during a dogfight. Now, some years since WWII has ended, has Saville changed? Has he mellowed? Mitchum is that low-key, laid back anti-hero the movie needs. Is it acting? Does he just not care? Somewhere in the middle most likely, but it's an interesting performance. You see a former hotshot pilot who's matured some and sees the dangers in what he used to be in those pilots now flying with him. I liked Wagner's Pell, a fast-talking, talented pilot who similarly may push too far. Also look for Richard Egan, John Gabriel and Stacy Harris as other pilots at the base.

That damn love story though. It doesn't help that Mitchum and Britt have little to no chemistry, dragging these already sluggish scenes to an even more screeching halt. No chemistry translates to no energy, especially when Philip's whiny Abbott starts to drink and question and get mad that his wife is drawn to a....blah blah blah. It's not good. When 'Hunters' sticks with the war drama, it's a pretty decent movie, especially in the second half as several pilots find themselves fighting through enemy territory after being forced to bail out from their jets. Some real drama, some tension, some nerves, it's all there. If there had been 103 minutes of that instead of what we have, we'd be talking a pretty decent (if somewhat formulaic) final product. So instead, we get a mixed bag.

A slight recommendation because Mitchum is impeccably cool, Wagner is a lot of fun, and those aerial sequences are impressive whether it's 1958 or 2015.

The Hunters (1958): ** 1/2 /**** 

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