Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman
Starring: John Wayne, Janet Leigh, Jay C. Flippen, Paul Fix, Richard Rober, Roland Winters, Hans Conried
Running time: 113 min
BBFC certificate: PG
By the time he made Jet Pilot, Josef von Sternberg was in the twilight of his directorial career. He would only make two more feature films to close his filmography, which included The Last Command and his legendary collaborations with Marlene Dietrich.
Yet, if you look at his directorial output in chronological order, you’d think Jet Pilot was the final film he directed. But it wasn’t, and that’s down to its lengthy production history and the involvement of Howard Hughes as producer. The great von Sternberg name may adorn the poster for Jet Pilot, but multiple other directors were involved, from the aviation scenes to the model work. The shadow looming over all of these directors was Hughes. Ultimately this is a Howard Hughes film, certainly more than it’s a von Sternberg picture: there’s a reason the cover of the Blu-ray says “Howard Hughes’ Jet Pilot”.
The film producer (just one of his passions and careers, which included being a tycoon, business magnate and record-setting pilot) took hold of the movie to tinker away with it, adding to the length it took to be released: it was filmed from 1949-1953 but wasn’t released theatrically until 1957. For Hughes that tinkering was worth it as it was reportedly his favourite movie.
The plot, which I won’t spoil too much, sees Soviet defector Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh) landing on a US airstrip and follows her aerial sparring and budding romance with base commander Air Force Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne). Suffice it to say that this is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, so there are spies, defections, double crossing and suspense throughout. It’s best to go into the movie without knowing too much else.
Jet Pilot, the only colour film von Sternberg directed, features excellent flying sequences, making great use of the involvement of the US Air Force. The aerial photography is brilliant and well captured, particularly in the exhilarating finale, although the camera is a tad shaky at times in the early scenes, almost missing the shots.
It’s a very funny film; the first time Leigh’s character emerges from her aircraft brings a suitably comical moment, and there’s an undercurrent of dry – and at times not so dry – humour throughout. Whilst much of that humour is down to the script, it’s certainly bolstered by the fantastic chemistry between Wayne and Leigh, who complement each other well (despite American Leigh not fully embodying her character, to the point where she doesn’t even attempt a Russian accent) and make a great double act, both in the comical moments and the romantic interludes.
Jet Pilot has been described as a precursor to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It never reaches that level of humour, satire or absurdity, but I can see why the comparisons have been made. It certainly feels as though it captures the mood of the Cold War times.
So, in closing, don’t go in expecting a von Sternberg film. What you’ll get is a Cold War set film that features thrills, romance, humour and some excellent aerial photography. It feels ahead of its time and is a film I very much enjoyed and would warmly recommend.
Jet Pilot is released on limited edition Blu-ray on 24 July 2023 by Powerhouse Films on their Indicator label. The high definition picture quality is superb throughout, colours are vivid and there’s barely a blemish on the print. There are two viewing options: von Sternberg’s intended 1.37:1 open matte shooting ratio, and the 1.85:1 ratio of its theatrical release. The mono audio is also great; dialogue, music and sound effects all getting their equal share and sounding crisp and clear.
INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
High Definition remaster
Two presentations of the film: in the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio and in the 1.37:1 open matte shooting ratio
Original mono audio
Tony Rayns on ‘Jet Pilot’ (2023): in-depth discussion of the film’s protracted production and release
The Town (1943): Josef von Sternberg’s contribution to the war effort; a short film about a typical small town in the US, made as part of The American Scene film series
Original theatrical trailer
Textless opening sequence
Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Glenn Kenny, an extract from Josef von Sternberg’s autobiography, archival interviews with von Sternberg, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits
UK premiere on Blu-ray
Limited edition of 3,000 copies for the UK
The 1.37:1 ratio version of the feature is the one to watch. It’s how von Sternberg intended the feature to be seen and gives the aerial scenes more room to breathe. The 1.85:1 theatrical release is tighter, which also has its moments, but for the aerial scenes alone I preferred the 1.37:1 version.
Tony Rayns on Jet Pilot is a 30-minute overview, which packs a lot of information in about the film’s director von Sternberg (including his lost film A Woman of the Sea, commissioned by Charlie Chaplin), Howard Hughes (whom Rayns calls the Elon Musk of his day) and the movie itself. Rayns describes the film as a Howard Hughes movie, which is spot on. It feels more like a film showcasing Hughes’ passion for aviation, than a von Sternberg feature. I always find Rayns to be excellent value and this is no exception. A fantastic extra.
The Town is an entertaining wartime short showcasing the impact of Europe on one North American town: Madison, Indiana. We meet some of its European and see the European architecture of the buildings. The 11-minute piece is fun and breezy. It was part four of the American Scene film series, and based on this I’d very much like to see the rest.
The textless opening does what it says on the tin and is a nice inclusion, as the movie opens with some striking aerial photography.
The photo gallery has a variety of fascinating posters, adverts and other promotional materials, together with some black and white promotional stills. Rounding out the on-disc package is the film’s three-minute theatrical trailer, which spends its first 30 seconds gushing over Hughes before showcasing scenes from the film.
Indicator’s booklets are always a joy, packed with information, and this is no different. The 36-page booklet is headlined by a fabulous new essay by Glenn Kenny, who provides an excellent overview. It’s followed by a brilliant piece from von Sternberg’s memoir (he was unimpressed that he had to complete a test to be director, and that he was effectively shackled, as this would clearly be a Hughes picture from the get-go), an archival profile of von Sternberg, and a selection of critical responses. Closing out the booklet is a brief overview of The Town.
This isn’t one of Indicator’s most feature-packed releases but it certainly is quality over quantity thanks to the inclusion of the von Sternberg short, the brilliant overview by Rayns, and a typically first-rate booklet.
So, a strong release filled with quality for a very enjoyable movie, which has an equally entertaining production history.