[3 August 2011]
A special niche in film history must be reserved for the flight drama, and the military flight drama within that. The ‘50s were a rich time for it because of rapid developments driven by the Cold War—breaking the sound barrier, the space race, Werner von Braun, missiles, atomic secrets, all that good stuff. It revitalized a whole genre of rugged men alternating between extreme G’s and near-weightlessness, clutching their joysticks, desiring or avoiding final explosion. It’s a genre of fetishised hardware, usually with a romantic subplot to channel the sexual tensions of the guys who bond in the sky.
Our case in point today is a perhaps minor but compelling drama that’s really a perfect example of the class, and it’s made so by a quality of stylistic conviction. Stylistic conviction in cinema can put over a story that shouldn’t have any conviction. Sometimes this is done by faith in lush, melodramatic overstatement, and sometimes by a scrupulously realistic, almost documentary approach. What we have in Toward the Unknown is mostly the latter with a few key touches of the former, courtesy of masterful producer/director Mervyn LeRoy.
Nothing about the story of is credible. We’re asked to believe that Air Force Major Lincoln Bond (William Holden) is an ace pilot who was held prisoner in Korea for 14 months, subjected to psychological torture until he cracked and “signed a piece of paper” about germ warfare, after which he tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists. Now he’s notorious, but for some reason he’s still in the Air Force, and when he requests a job as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base to fly top-secret experimental aircraft, the no-nonsense, nail-chewing General (Lloyd Nolan) decides to give him a chance after initially rebuffing him.
It’s partly because Bond tried to save the General’s life in the opening sequence (good upside-down point-of-view shot of Bond pulling at the cockpit shield) and perhaps partly because the General’s secretary-cum-girlfriend happens to be Bond’s old squeeze and still carries a torch for the guy, and this seems to carry some weight with the General. (She’s played by the intriguingly husky-voiced Virginia Leith as an efficient 1950s working gal. She will forever be remembered as the disembodied head in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.)
We’re also asked to believe that the General’s problem is that he’s too old to be flying all these dangerous missions that should go to younger men—like Bond, who frankly is nobody’s spring chicken. And we’re asked to believe that the way to heroism and redemption is to hot-dog it by disregarding orders.
Far-fetched though all this is, we sit through it because the movie’s low-key documentary-like flavor presents an interesting picture of the Edwards program (shot on location with Air Force cooperation), with nifty footage of aircraft breaking the sound barrier and lots of aerial sequences. Most of the central drama is about testing the X-2 rocket plane, literally a plane with rocket propulsion. Bell Aircraft created a mock-up X-2 for this film, which was made by Holden’s own production company. “It’s like sitting in the nose cone of a missile” says Bond with awe.
All this aircraft is blatantly fetishized, with Bond at one point giving his plane an impulsive and passionate smack of the lips. “That’s how I feel about it too,” says buddy Charles McGraw. Even though everyone is very terse and professional, they let their crewcuts down with the exhilaration of communing through the stratosphere, usually in pairs. One exciting sequence has Bond hooking a recalcitrant parachute from the General’s plane onto his own wing in a delicate maneuver something like donning a rocket-sized condom. They must fly and land in this oddly linked manner, and it’s a decisive moment in their relationship.
Perhaps in another movie, the documentary stuff would be the dull material that gets in the way of the story, but this movie’s story exists only for the inspiring propaganda about test pilots helping America in the fight against “the enemy” and “the commies”. In other words, it’s a Cold War example of the tradition of Air Force training melodrama that ranges from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo to X-15 and The Right Stuff. It’s also one of a raft of 1950s movies specifically celebrating the development of flight in its various stages, from The Spirit of St. Louis to The Conquest of Space. For the record, one of my favorites is Josef von Sternberg’s crazily entertaining Jet Pilot with John Wayne and Janet Leigh—talk about sexy aircraft footage.
Let’s examine those scenes when LeRoy allows melodrama to carry an image whose power oddly undermines the credibility of events. In an early sequence, Bond looks at a wall of handprints of folks like Chuck Yeager. The audience probably recognizes the names, and look—right there is his own labeled print: Lincoln Bond. He places his hand over it. Then he turns his hand around and clenches a fist so that the camera can see the razor scars as the music stings. It’s a shockingly effective moment, though in practical terms it should tell us why he’d never get the job.
Then there’s the inevitable sequence where a minor character has been killed and somebody must go inform the widow. She’s gardening while the two kids play on the swing, and everybody’s happy to see Bond. When she understands what he’s come to say, her face takes on a dreadful knowledge and she says “I heard it”. Suddenly we cut to an image of Bond and the woman there in her garden from another angle, where the spiraling smoke from the crash is starkly visible in the desert.
Again, it’s a shockingly effective moment—the visual equivalent of a sonic boom, if you will—but what it should mean in practical terms is that the family already knew of the crash and should have been on edge to learn if anyone had died. In the other films mentioned, a crash galvanizes all the families into a desperation to learn what’s happened, like in those films about mining disasters where the whole village hears the siren and rushes to the gates.
The family shouldn’t have been blithely in their desert garden, but this approach gives us that image of literalized metaphor when the widow’s married life has gone up in smoke. The dark line rises between Bond and herself on opposite sides of the screen, dividing her forever from the rest of the base and its active duty families. We’re too busy catching our breath to think “Wait a minute, they saw a plane crash and she’s weeding the flowers?” It’s an example of a movie image that makes no sense except emotionally.
This belongs to Warner Archives’ made-on-demand website. It’s billed as remastered, whatever that might mean. The Warnercolor looks faded and the first sequence seems overly dark, so it’s not in topflight shape, but as the anthemic melody reminds us at the end, nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force—or its movies.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.