Cast & Crew
In 1952, during the Korean War, Maj. Cleve Saville, a veteran World War II flying ace who is nicknamed "Ice Man" because of his complete lack of fear, reports for duty at the Itami Air Force Base outside Kyoto, Japan, and is assigned to the 54th Flying Unit in Korea. Before leaving for duty the next day, Cleve stops for a drink at the post bar, and there meets Lt. Karl Abbott, a young pilot assigned to the same unit. Karl, inebriated, invites Cleve to join him for dinner, but passes out on the way to the restaurant. When Cleve goes inside the restaurant to inform Karl's dinner companion that the lieutenant is indisposed, he finds a striking blonde woman, who introduces herself as "Kris" and asks him to help her transport the drunken lieutenant to her house. During the ride home, Kris explains that Karl drinks because he lacks the confidence to fly, to which Cleve responds that flying fighter planes is his life. Cleve propositions Kris, but is embarrassed to discover that she is Karl's wife. The next day, Cleve flies to Seoul, where he meets with Col. "Dutch" Imil, the unit's commander, who wonders if Cleve has retained his nerves of steel. Dutch explains that their mission is to shoot down the Chinese pilots flying Russian Migs, their prime target being an especially deadly pilot known as "Casey Jones." Dutch laments that America refuses to take this war as seriously as World War II, and complains about the order forbidding American Cobra jets to cross the Yalu River in pursuit of the enemy, thus seriously hampering the war effort. Soon after, Cleve returns to Kyoto and, encountering Kris at the post office, invites her to lunch. As they talk, Kris learns that Karl is also in Kyoto, but has failed to contact her. Hurt, Kris muses that she had a happy marriage until Karl was called to serve in the Korean War. Blaming the war for changing Karl, Kris asks Cleve to choose him as his wing man, hoping that working with Cleve will instill confidence in her husband. After Cleve takes Kris home, he kisses her and confides he has fallen in love with her. As Cleve leaves Kris's house, he passes a drunken Karl and informs him that he has been out with his wife, thus making him feel even more inadequate. The next day, the unit is sent on a surveillance mission over the river. When two Migs begin to them, Lt. Ed Pell, a jive-talking, hot-shot pilot, breaks formation to pursue them. Pell's breach of protocol leaves Lt. Corona's plane unprotected, and as a result, the craft is badly damaged in the Mig attack. Unable to control his crippled aircraft, Corona crashes to the ground in flames. Afterward, Dutch assigns Pell to Cleve, and when Cleve objects, Dutch responds that Cleve and Pell are two of a kind. In Kyoto, Cleve invites Kris to join him for an afternoon at a romantic lake. At the end of the day, they embrace and Kris expresses regret that she did not meet Cleve first. Upon returning to the base, Cleve learns that Casey Jones has come back. When Cleve refuses Karl's request to bring down the infamous pilot, Karl offers him Kris in exchange for a chance at shooting down the pilot. Later, during an offensive against the Migs, Karl's plane is hit by Casey Jones, forcing Karl to bail out. In revenge, Cleve blasts Casey Jones out of the sky and then orders Pell to return to base. When Cleve spots the injured Karl dangling from a tree by his parachute, he crash-lands his plane to come to his aid. After slinging Karl's unconscious body over his back, Cleve starts out through enemy territory. When Chinese soldiers begin to fire at them, Pell's plane streaks out of the skies, guns blazing, sending the Chinese scurrying for cover. Pell then parachutes to the ground to join Cleve. Five days later, Kris is informed that Karl, Cleve and Pell are all missing behind enemy lines, and blames herself for their misfortune. Upon regaining consciousness, Karl selflessly suggests that Cleve and Pell leave him behind to improve their chances. After Cleve refuses, Karl wonders why he did not let him die so that Kris would be his. Seeing that the exhausted Cleve has fallen asleep, Karl observes that Cleve is pure of heart. Later that day, a family of Korean farmers befriends them and hides them from the enemy. Soon after, North Korean forces invade the peasants' village and massacre all those present. In revenge, Pell and Cleve blow up the North Koreans' truck. Cleve is wounded in the arm in the ensuing gun battle, but Pell guns down the remaining enemy soldiers. Continuing on their journey, the three finally come to a friendly South Korean camp and are conveyed to safety. Some time later, Kris visits Karl at the hospital, and Karl claims he has remembered what their love was like before the war and wants it to be that way again. After leaving her husband's bedside, Kris passes Cleve, convalescing on the lawn. He asks her when she is leaving for the States with Karl, and she replies as soon as possible and says goodbye. As Kris walks away, she turns to wave, but Cleve is oblivious, engrossed in watching the fighter planes flying overhead.
Victor Sen Yung
Chiyoko Tota Baker
Walter Soo Hoo
L. B. Abbott
Charles G. Clarke
J. H. Cooley
C. J. Geras
Bertram C. Granger
James C. Havens
R. H. Ibling
Grover H. Jones
W. L. Lagune
Harry M. Leonard
D. S. Mcewen
F. O. Richter
Walter M. Scott
L. A. Smith
A. C. Ward
E. Clayton Ward
Major Robert E. Wayne United States Air Force
Lyle R. Wheeler
Captain Vernon L. Wright United States Air Force
Wendell Mayes's screenplay is based on a novel by James Salter, a respected and successful author who served as an Air Force pilot and career officer until The Hunters, his first book, was published in 1956. Salter wrote a handful of movies, including Sidney Lumet's The Appointment and Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer (both 1969), but he's best known for novels and stories, some of which draw directly on his military experiences. Like the main character of The Hunters, an Air Force officer named Cleve Saville (Robert Mitchum), he had boundless enthusiasm for flying, and also like Cleve he volunteered for combat duty in the Korean War, hunting down enemy MiGs as a hardworking fighter pilot. To make the best use of Mitchum's slow-burning ruggedness, the screen adaptation changes the story's emphasis from the downward spiral of a young flyer to the challenges faced by an older one, in combat and also in a love triangle. As usual, Mitchum rises fully to the occasion.
Cleve is a World War II veteran freshly stationed at the Itami Air Force Base in Japan, where he's assigned to a (fictional) fighter unit based on various actual groups. His colleagues include old friend Dutch Imil (Richard Egan), the colonel who commands the unit, and new acquaintance Karl Abbott (Lee Philips), a young lieutenant who never fails to fulfill a mission but drinks at other times to deaden his fears of getting shot down and killed. Karl's alcoholism has alienated him from his wife, Kris, a Norwegian woman played by the Swedish actress May Britt for some reason. Cleve meets Kris when he literally carries Karl home after a very boozed-up night, and it's clear from the get-go that the longtime bachelor and the unhappily married woman feel sparks of mutual attraction, if not flames of immediate love.
There's a war on, though, so Cleve travels to Seoul for a meeting with Dutch, which gives us more information about the rugged pilot. His cronies call him the Iceman, thanks to his unflappable demeanor and steely nerves. But he's a little on the old side - too old, technically speaking, for the missions he's volunteered to fly - and since time has passed since he last flew a fighter plane, Dutch wants to test his skills before sending him into combat. Cleve graciously agrees, and soon he's ready to join in the ongoing hunt for Russian planes flown by Chinese foes seeking to conquer the skies above Korean territory.
When he isn't flying, Cleve manages to spend more time with Kris, turning their friendship into a real romance. But the movie's main action is still in the sky, where likable Lt. Corona (John Gabriel) gets killed because arrogant Lt. Ed Pell (Robert Wagner) abruptly flies off to pursue an enemy on his own. Tensions escalate between Cleve and Karl, reaching a boiling point when Karl makes an outrageous proposition to Cleve, offering him a free hand with Kris in exchange for getting the first shot at a Chinese ace with the improbable name of Casey Jones, the most dangerous enemy pilot of all. Cleve eventually finds himself on the ground behind enemy lines with Karl, who's badly wounded, and Pell, who turns out to have a surprising streak of heroism. Since this is a highly traditional movie, the story's conflicts - professional, marital, and romantic - are all resolved in time for the final scene.
Like most Hollywood war pictures, The Hunters has no sympathy for individual enemy fighters, treating them as depersonalized figures with no recognizable traits except a penchant for cruelty - most visible in a tragic episode involving a family of Korean peasants - and a determination to shoot valiant Americans out of the sky. The movie also has little to say about the Korean War, mentioning only that American forces aren't allowed to cross the Yalu River and that seasoned warriors like Cleve regard the conflict as a disappointingly small-scale skirmish in comparison with their World War II adventures. Powell came to The Hunters after directing Mitchum in The Enemy Below (1957), a World War II film set on the high seas, but he gives the Korean hostilities the serious treatment they deserve. He also injects a fair amount of authenticity, using real F-86 Sabre fighters as well as F-84F Thunderstreak planes that stand in for MiG-15s flown by the enemy. The most graphic crash sequence uses documentary footage of an F-100 Super Sabre hitting the ground and exploding, obviously spliced in from another source but jolting and spectacular to see.
The Hunters didn't thrill many critics. New York Times reviewer Howard Thompson applauded Mitchum and Britt for their performances, praised "some strikingly pretty and picturesque settings of modern Kyoto, Japan," and commended "some of the cryptic dialogue exchanges back at the base." Calling those conversations "scorching reminders...from one small corner of a 'forgotten war,'" he accurately summed up the film's most interesting message: "Paradoxically, this picture is stating, with frank irony, that the Korean war, coming after the 'Big One,' seemed not to matter to a great many people." On a less positive note, Thompson found it puzzling that Mitchum's no-nonsense character "would 'protect' a selfish, whimpering and perennially hung-over neurotic" like Karl, risking his own life to save him. But the critic definitely loved the high-flying planes. "If Mr. Powell hasn't managed to raise his story to the same height," he concluded, "he certainly knew what to do after the take-off."
Director: Dick Powell
Producer: Dick Powell
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by James Salter
Cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke
Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler, Maurice Ransford
Music: Paul Sawtell
With: Robert Mitchum (Maj. Cleve Saville), Robert Wagner (Lt. Ed Pell), Richard Egan (Col. Dutch Imil), May Britt (Kris Abbott), Lee Philips (Lt. Karl Abbott), John Gabriel (1st Lt. Corona), Stacy Harris (Col. Monk Moncavage), Victor Sen Yung (Korean farmer), Candace Lee (Korean girl)
by David Sterritt
The Hunters (1958)
It stars Robert Mitchum as a veteran World War II pilot returning to active duty for the Korean War. He falls for the wife (May Britt) of one of his fellow Air Force pilots (Lee Philips), and ultimately must try, with the help of a third pilot (Robert Wagner), to escape enemy territory with the injured Philips on his back. The result is a film that mixes scenes of exciting aerial combat and those of decidedly soapy melodrama. The critical consensus in 1958 was that there was too much of the latter and not enough of the former. (The New York Times mused that the film "somehow only matters when aloft.") Still, the film's excellent production values and beautiful CinemaScope photography by Charles G. Clarke made the film quite watchable, and the aerial scenes still impress.
The Hunters was based on an acclaimed novel by James Salter. Screenwriter Wendell Mayes, who had adapted another novel into the screenplay for The Enemy Below, returned to adapt Salter's book. He later said, "While we used the title, what I wrote was from start to finish an original screenplay. There wasn't anything else to do, because the novel could not be adapted. It was too internal." Mayes created the entire romantic-triangle plotline of the film, changing the thrust of the novel considerably. This was not appreciated by Salter, who later said, "I only saw the film once, and I was sickened by it." (In 1999, an article in The Hollywood Reporter indicated that Salter was then writing a new, more faithful screenplay from his novel, but a film never came to fruition.)
In any case, Dick Powell sent Mayes's script to Robert Mitchum, whom he had just directed in The Enemy Below -- or, as Mitchum later recounted, Powell sent part of the script. Speaking to the London Sunday Express in 1978, Mitchum said, "Powell sent me 30 pages,...saying how good it was. And it seemed fine to me. I got to fly a fighter plane and spend a lot of time in the officers club in Japan. 'And you can go to Japan and scout it out for a couple of weeks,' he said. That sounded good, so I said 'Yes.' Then he sent me page 31. And I found out my plane crashed and I spent the rest of the film carrying some fellow through Korea on my back. 'You ought to cast the part by the pound,' I said. 'Find some wisp. What's Sinatra doing?' But of course they saddled me with some hulk [Lee Philips] who got heavier by the minute and we did the whole thing on the Fox ranch and I never got near Japan."
Mitchum was available to do The Hunters because he had just been booted from Douglas Sirk's planned production of Battle Hymn (1957), another Korean War movie. Universal wanted Mitchum for the lead role of Col. Dean Hess, a WWII and Korean War fighter pilot who had previously been a clergyman, but the real-life Hess vetoed the plan because, as he put it, "I cannot possibly allow a man who has been jailed for taking drugs to play me on screen." Rock Hudson took the part instead, and Mitchum signed on to The Hunters.
For the role of a young hotshot pilot named Lt. Ed Pell, Fox cast 27-year-old Robert Wagner, who reported to work on The Hunters immediately following his honeymoon with Natalie Wood. In his memoir, Wagner wrote that he "adored both [Powell and Mitchum]. Powell was one of the great guys of all time, and Mitchum and I became fast friends. He insisted that I call him 'Mother Mitchum'.... [He] wasn't drinking at the time, although he did smoke a little grass. His marijuana bust in the 1940s hadn't fazed him in the least."
Wagner received a good notice from The New York Times, but in the end, the airplanes drew the biggest raves: "Mr. Wagner, in the role of a jive-talking killer ace, steals the picture from everybody, excluding the jet planes. The sight of these silver-bellied beauties streaking across the sky, or barking away in counter-attack, may be reward enough for many customers."
By Jeremy Arnold
Alvin H. Marill, Robert Mitchum on the Screen
Jerry Roberts, editor, Mitchum in His Own Words
Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care
Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman, Pieces of My Heart
The Hunters (1958)
James Salter's novel was initially serialized in Collier's on 16 March and March 30, 1956. The film opens with the following written acknowledgment: "Twentieth Century-Fox wishes to thank the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force for their assistance in the production of this motion picture." Although a July 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the film was to premiere at the Lowry Air Force Base in Denver on August 1, 1958, the date of that premiere has not been confirmed.
According to an October 1956 Los Angeles Times news item, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart were both interested in starring in the film. A March 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Patricia Owens, Dina Merrill and Hope Lange were considered for the role of "Kris." Although a March 1958 Hollywood Reporter production chart places Ron Ely, Linc Foster and Stan Kamber in the cast, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. According to studio publicity materials contained in the film's production files at the AMPAS Library, location filming was conducted at the Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix, AZ. The New York Times review adds that background footage was shot on location in Kyoto, Japan. The Hunters marked the screen debut of actress Nobu McCarthy.
Released in United States Fall September 1958
Released in United States Fall September 1958