If you aren’t familiar with it already, let me introduce you to the writing of Mr. James Salter:
“For a time, everything was good. He was light, almost frivolous with satisfaction. He walked against the bitter winds, along roads frozen into stone, with a feeling that all of it was his dominion, bleak but his own… He hardly felt it wearing thin until suddenly it had happened, like an awakening after a night of love.”
That’s a dip into the consciousness of Captain Cleve Connell, an elite fighter pilot, the protagonist of Salter’s first novel The Hunters. At a Korean air base, American pilots fear a run-in with an enemy pilot nicknamed Casey Jones, the best of the enemy pilots. Cleve longs for it. His quest to excel as a pilot drives him to reject love and isolate himself.
James Salter is arguably one of the best living writers.James Salter is arguably one of the best living writers. Known for his translucent, melodic prose, he’s written novels, short stories and screenplays. His latest book, All That Is, was released in April. He’s no sissy, either. He served as a fighter pilot in the US Armed Forced, which he left after the publication of The Hunters in 1956.
This is not a patriotic book; it’s a missive on singularity of mind. Cleve’s desire to succeed burns out all joy within him, but he cannot stop being a decent man. On the other hand, the dangerous ambition of Cleve’s antagonist, Lieutenant Pell, supersedes the safety of the men with whom he flies. Not only does Pell leave his wingman in order to get a kill, but he is also blessed by the war gods; he sees action on nearly every mission he flies. Inaction and self-doubt begin to plague Cleve.
Although this is a book about war, it is a profoundly contemplative and quiet book.The strength of the book, aside from the prose, of course, is the reader’s access to Cleve’s internal conflict. Although this is a book about war, it is a profoundly contemplative and quiet book, with short bursts of fighting between long and torturous periods of waiting. Read the book and you’ll see how being inside Cleve’s consciousness will make the most avid peacenik hope for combat for Cleve’s sake.
Could a Hollywood movie of 1958 (starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Urich) match the profound honesty of the novel? You’d assume not. And you’d be right.
After the welling patriotic music with which the motion picture opens, the screenwriter Wendell Mayes (The Poseidon Adventure and The Spirit of St. Louis) must, understandably, substitute Cleve’s internal struggle with an external one. In the movie, Cleve falls in love with the wife of a weaker pilot, Carl Abbott, who is sinking into alcoholism and self-loathing. He is also Cleve’s wingman, someone Cleve is obligated to protect. Thus Cleve won’t be able to achieve love without changing who he is for the worse; this is in fact, a struggle that Cleve has within the novel. So far so good.
For the lover of the book, however, the disappointments [with the movie] are many. For the lover of the book, however, the disappointments are many. By far the most unsatisfactory, yet predictable, change is the addition of a third act. When Abbott’s plane is hit in combat and he is forced to eject, Cleve the hero circles back and ejects from his unscathed plane. Then Pell, the previously selfish pilot, dumps out of his plane in order to help. On the ground the animosity among the three men dissolves as they face the true enemy. Just in case you weren’t sure who the REAL enemy was—not ourselves, not our ambition—we watch a troop of North Korean soldiers kill a friendly Christian peasant family. Our heroes avenge the deaths. In the end Cleve doesn’t get the girl, but he does get laurels heaped on his head. It is a war movie, after all.
The failure of the film isn’t so much that they replaced the Japanese love interest with a blonde Swede, or that they made the devious Pell into a good guy after all. The failure is that the majesty of the struggle for selfhood is lost. Is this asking too much from Hollywood of 1958? Probably.
So how to accept the film on its own terms?
Appreciate the cinematography. The shots of the fighter jets are extraordinary. Think Top Gun, the 1958 version. It’s stunning to realize that pilots are actually flying in every maneuver of every fire fight. No CG in 1958.
Then go read the book.