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Set during the Korean War, Men of the Fighting Lady (1954), is a story of Navy pilots, pitting a brash young junior officer against a stern commander, played by Walter Pidgeon. The young lieutenant in this case is played by Van Johnson, who was nearing the end of his reign as MGM's All-American heartthrob star of the period. Featuring exciting flying sequences and special effects by Arnold Gillespie and Douglas Shearer, Men of the Fighting Lady bears many similarities to an earlier MGM war picture - Flight Command (1940) - including the casting of Walter Pidgeon in a similar role and its strong pro-Navy stance on national defense and the right to fly combat planes.
Where the two films part company, however, is in their approach to the pilots' stories. Flight Command was made before the U.S. entered World War II, whereas Men of the Fighting Lady is all about pilots in the thick of battle. It spends no time on the love story that figured in the earlier film (in fact there are few women in this one, and their parts are so small, the actresses received no billing). Driven by the tagline "It's not what a man says, it's what he does," it is set almost entirely aboard an aircraft carrier and devotes its trim, tight 80 minutes to combat, incorporating official footage of actual bombing raids into the fictional story.
The film gains some extra credentials by being based on Commander Harry A. Burns' Saturday Evening Post article "The Case of the Blind Pilot" (he worked on the screenplay) and Korean War stories written by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Michener. The latter author's name carried so much weight at the time that the producers decided to frame the story with his narration, with actor Louis Calhern standing in as the writer. Michener was no stranger to war stories; his prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific was made into the Broadway musical South Pacific, which was filmed in 1958. Other war movies based on his work include The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955), Until They Sail (1957), and Sayonara (1957).
In Andrew Marton (Scarecrow Press), an oral history interview by Joanne D'Antonio, the director recalled the filming of the aerial sequences: "We had some very dangerous flying to do. The Screen Actors Guild lodged a protest, "Why can't our stunt pilots fly those planes?" I said, "A) they couldn't do it; B) the Navy wouldn't let them do it; C) I wouldn't let them do it. Any more questions?" And the people at the Guild finally desisted. It took a little doing - they actually thought the Navy would turn Panther jets over to pilots who weren't specially trained, to fly in close wing-to-wing formation, blind, in a fog bank. Stupid. Doing the photography for the pictures, we would sometimes fly into a fog bank. Flying blind, you don't know how close you are anymore until the seconds go by and you wonder whether you are going to have a disaster or not. Suddenly you pick up first one plane and then the other, coming out of the fog bank. You know you have "got the shot" - it's a marvelous shot, and you have it in the camera. That's what made that sequence so great - because it was real. We sweated a lot, but it was worth it."
Hungarian-born director Andrew Marton never rose to the top ranks of Hollywood directors, but his career did produce some notable work, including the adventure film King Solomon's Mines (1950) and the war drama The Thin Red Line (1964), which was remade by Terrence Malick in 1998. Marton also shot the American-set exteriors for The Longest Day (1962) and served as second-unit director on two very different war pictures made in the same year, Kelly's Heroes (1970) and Catch-22 (1970). His second-unit work as director of the memorable chariot race sequence in Ben-Hur (1959) earned him a special Golden Globe Award and a citation from the National Board of Review. The Oscar®-winning creator of special effects for that Biblical epic was Arnold Gillespie, one of four movies the two men worked on together.
Watch closely for a bit part by six-year-old Jerry Mathers, who three years later would be immortalized on TV as the title character in the comedy series Leave It to Beaver.
Director: Andrew Marton
Producer: Henry Berman
Screenplay: Harry A. Burns, Art Cohn, based on the James A. Michener story The Forgotten Heroes of Korea
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Van Johnson (Lt. Howard Thayer), Walter Pidgeon (Cmdr. Kent Dowling), Louis Calhern (James A. Michener), Dewey Martin (Ensign Kenneth Schechter), Keenan Wynn (Lt. Cmdr. Ted Dobson).
C-80m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon