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When the producers of this film set about to make an adventure involving the U.S. Air Force's helicopter rescue squadrons, they made sure they were getting the details right by hiring Capt. Vincent H. McGovern as their technical adviser. McGovern was a bomber pilot in World War II and a veteran of 96 rescue missions during the Korean War. He was also, at the age of 29 in 1952, the commander of the first transatlantic crossing by helicopter, an expedition that took two Sikorsky S-55s from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts to Prestwick, Scotland. The trip took 16 days with five stops along the way and a total of a little more than 42 hours of flight time.
The Air Force's rescue squadrons were founded in 1946 with the primary mission of search and rescue within the United States; one early mission used helicopters to bring food, coal, and cattle feed to rural residents and cattle isolated in a severe blizzard in the central and western parts of the country. It wasn't long before operations expanded to such places as Nicaragua and the Greenland ice cap to rescue the crews of downed military planes and Bolivia to aid in flood relief. The greatest test of the young unit's mettle came with the Korean War; from June 1950 to July 1953, an estimated 9,898 personnel were rescued, including 996 combat saves.
With such a record of service under the most perilous conditions, it was only a matter of time before the brave men who piloted these missions were given their own tribute on film, and producer Ivan Tors believed he was just the guy to do it. The Hungarian-born Tors broke into the movies in the mid-1940s as a writer, working on the scripts for the Katharine Hepburn period romance Song of Love (1947) and the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949). He found his niche in adventure stories with his first producing job on Storm Over Tibet (1952), about a pilot who runs supplies between India and China over the Himalayas in World War II. His most famous work was for television as the creator of the adventure series Sea Hunt, Flipper, and Daktari.
Tors also figured he had the right actor to play the squadron commander. Sterling Hayden had established his credentials as a rugged leading man in such film noir thrillers as Manhandled (1949) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the Korean War action flick Flat Top (1952)--referring to the aircraft carrier under Hayden's command and not his haircut--and a series of Westerns in the early 1950s, most of them fairly minor, although one, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), has become a classic much analyzed and written about by film critics and theorists.
What Battle Taxi movie could have used, perhaps, was a less clichd script. It's the old saw about a battle-hardened commander in Korea who must contend with a hot shot pilot's bad attitude and tendency to take foolish risks. ("Remember you're flying a helicopter, not a jet," Hayden says at one point.) The misfit who is eventually brought in line and learns the value of teamwork is played by Arthur Franz, a stalwart supporting player in a handful of major productions (Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949; The Member of the Wedding, 1952; The Caine Mutiny, 1954) and lead in such B pictures as Invaders from Mars (1953) and The Atomic Submarine (1959).
Considering the familiarity of the story, audiences were naturally more drawn to the action sequences, beefed up by substantial footage of real combat situations and rescue operations and a lot of "stirring" music by Harry Sukman, who worked previously with Tors and director Herbert L. Strock on the 3-D robot thriller Gog (1954). Strock and Sukman were regulars on Tors productions through the years, on both feature films and TV.
Perhaps the moist historically significant aspect of this film is its presence in a famous photograph, "Hot Shot, Eastbound." O. Winston Link (1914-2001) was an American photographer known for black-and-white photography and sound recordings of the final days of steam railroading on the Norfolk and Western lines in the Eastern U.S. in the 1950s. His preference was for night shots that employed meticulous composition and lighting, requiring him to develop new flash photo techniques. On August 2, 1956, he shot a train on the N&W line passing a drive-in theater in West Virginia, an iconic image that perfectly captures the train, its plume of steam, cars at the drive-in, and a romantic young couple in a convertible in the foreground who were paid $10 as models. The explosion of elaborate flashes Link set up to capture the speeding train and the foreground couple washed out the movie screen, so he added in the image of an airplane from a negative he'd made separately of that night's showing. "The film, Battle Taxi, has been forgotten," says the article about the photo's creation at Smithsonian.com "But Link's picture holds up as a one-frame narrative of 20th-century transportation."
Director: Herbert L. Strock
Producers: Ivan Tors, Art Arthur
Screenplay: Malvin Wald, story by Wald and Art Arthur
Cinematography: Lothrop B. Worth
Editing: Jodie Copelan
Art Direction: William Ferrari
Music: Harry Sukman
Cast: Sterling Hayden (Capt. Russ Edwards), Arthur Franz (Lt. Pete Stacy), Marshall Thompson (2nd Lt. Tim Vernon), Leo Needham (SSgt. "Slats" Klein), Vincent H. McGovern (Co-Pilot Harry)
By Rob Nixon