The Hunters (1958)
Director: Dick Powell.
Starring: Robert Mitchum (Major Cleve Saville), Robert Wagner (Lt. Ed Pell), Richard Egan (Colonel Dutch Imil, CO 54th Fighter Group), May Britt (Kristina 'Kris' Abbott), Lee Philips (1st Lt. Carl Abbott), John Gabriel (1st Lt. Corona), Stacy Harris (Col. Monk Moncavage), Victor Sen Yung (Korean farmer), Candace Lee (Korean Child).
three American pilots have to fight the Chinese "volunteer" pilots over Korea
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Japan 1952. Korean War. Itami Air Force Base. Major Cleve Saville is checking in at the air base. He will be with the 54th Group at K-13. He is to fly out tomorrow. In the Officer's Club, the club officer Gifford recognizes Cleve. He re-introduces himself. He was with Savillle in his "old wing" in London. Cleve doesn't remember Gifford, but he is grateful to him because he introduces him to Lt. Carl Abbott who is just on leave with the 54th Group. Abbott tells Cleve about their CO (commanding officer). He is a man Cleve knows well. It'is Colonel Dutch Imil, the golden boy of '44, one of the first to fly the relatively new jets. Abbott invites Cleve to the Ichi-Ban Restaurant where he is to meet a blonde. But Abbott is too drunk to meet with the woman. So Cleve goes into the restaurant and tells the woman why Abbott won't be able to meet with her. The blonde decides to go to the cab with Cleve to check on Abbott. She tells Cleve that she will take Carl with her. Cleve helps the woman get Abbott into her home.
Cleve tells the woman that it is rather obvious that Abbott is scared about flying in combat, as indicated by his terrible sinus headaches and his frequent drinking. The blonde asks Cleve if he would like some coffee and he says yes. She tells him that she has been in Japan for only a few months. Her name is Kristina. Cleve makes a pass at her only to be told that she is the wife of Lt. Abbott. That news brings Cleve's moves to an abrupt halt. He leaves. Abbott wakes up. He tells his wife that Cleve and Imil are "killers" (in combat).
Korea. Cleve goes into a on-base bar where he greets Col. Imil. Imil introduces him to Lt. Col. Monty Moncavage who has eleven kills of Russian-made MIGs. Imil refers to the Korean War as this "stinkin' war". The kill ratio is 13 to 1 in favor of the Allied airplanes. But Imil warns Cleve of a particularly good MIG pilot known as Casey Jones whose plane is marked with the number 7-11 and a picture of a pair of dice. Imil has lost seven good pilots to this Chinese airman. And there are some definite restrictions on the air war in Korea. The Allies are not to cross the Yalu River separating north Korea from China. Then Imil asks Cleve to pilot an F-86 just to see how sharp his flying skill are. Cleve is a little taken aback by the request, but he agrees.
The next morning Cleve prepares to go up in an F-86. Lt. Corona will be accompanying him as his wing man. Corona warns Cleve that the Colonel has sent Moncavage up a little ahead of them with instructions to "surprise" Cleve to see how he reacts to simulated combat. And sure enough, when the two planes are in the air Moncavage in his plane shows up. He pursues Cleve's plane, but Cleve is able to get behind Moncavage. And Moncavage cannot shake loose from Cleve. Finally Moncavage is forced to tell Cleve to end the pursuit. Imil's nickname for Cleve is the Ice Man and he now says "The Ice Man Cometh" after the play by Eugene O'Neil.
Mrs. Abbott runs into Cleve. She says: "Back in Kyoto so soon?" Yes, Cleve and some of his crew are picking up some planes that they will fly to Korea. The Major then invites Kris out to eat. She takes him to one of her favorite restaurants. Kris gets it out of Cleve that her husband is with him in Kyoto. He simply has not called his wife. Kris is from Norway and she mentions that her husband was called back into the service. She then asks Cleve to choose Carl to be in his unit: "It might give him confidence."
Back at the Abbott house, Cleve kisses Kris. But she is still hesitant. She answers yes when he asks her if he should go now. But before leaving he says: "Mrs. Abbott. I'm in love with you." Outside heading to his rented car Cleve runs into Abbott who just got out of a taxi. Cleve tells Abbott: "I've just been out with your wife, Lieutenant." Abbott plays it cool. Back at the base Carl starts a heavy drinking binge. Cleve threatens to ground Abbott if he has more drinks, so Abbott leaves the bar. Lt. Ed Pell sits down with Cleve and Corona and introduces himself. He will be flying with Cleve as part of a group of four planes. Pell rubs Cleve the wrong way. He is very young and a bit too brash and full of bravado.
The unit of four (Cleve, Abbott, Cornoa and Pell) head out in search of MIGs. They spot four "bandits". They drop their reserve fuel tanks to lighten their load. Cleve is about to get himself a "kill" but suddenly Corona's wingman Pell rushes in to down the MIG. Without Pell in his position as wingman, Corona is hit from behind by a MIG. He is wounded and his plane damaged. The MIGS cross over the Yalu River. Cleve tells Pell to get back into formation. Corona tells Cleve that he is losing power. Cleve tells him to drop to a lower altitude and head for home. Corona's plane loses more of its abilities. Cleve calls out a "Mayday!" to the base. Corona can't jump out of his plane because the canopy is jammed. Cornoa is told to bring his plane in on an alternate runway. As Corona brings his plane in the controls lock, the plane rolls over and explodes in a huge fireball.
Cleve tells Imil that Pell horned in on his kill, leaving his wingman position. He says about Pell: "Can't use him." In addition, Pell is a liar. "I don't want him." Imil's solution is to order Cleve to make Pell the "element leader" and let a new pilot be his wingman and keep an eye on Pell. Cleve objects but Imil says that Cleve himself and Pell are two of a kind. As a young pilot Cleve acted like Pell does now. Outside when Pell asks Cleve if he "finked" on him, Cleve hits Pell knocking him down. But Pell will be his new element leader replacing Corona.
In the newspapers is an article about the two new Korean War aces, Major Saville and Lt. Pell. Back in Kyoto Cleve again pays a visit to Kris. She tells Cleve that she hasn't heard from her husband. Cleve then invites her to go sailing with him. They sail for awhile and then go out to dinner and dancing. At a marketplace he buys her some wind chimes. Back home they kiss, but she is still bothered by the relationship with the Major. She says: "I can't desert Carl." After some thinking Cleve admits that she is right: "It is out of time, out of place." Before he leaves, she asks him to look after Carl.
After an absence, Casey Jones returns. He take out one of the American pilots with just one pass. Cleve sees Abbott and the husband asks how his wife is doing. He gets a little too sarcastic in his tone with Cleve and Cleve slaps him. Cleve responds that this is strange: "It should be the other way around." He then offers Cleve a proposition. He will trade his wife for a crack at Casey Jones. Cleve rejects the idea, partly because he doesn't believe that Abbott is as good a pilot as Mr. Jones.
The 54th Group has a new assignment. Some 18,000 Allied troops are caught in a pocket and desperately need supplies. The task of the flight group will be to protect the transport planes that will drop the needed supplies to the troops. Imil even goes up with the group. At about the same time the MIGs take off and head for the pocket. As the 54th group nears the pocket Imil tells Cleve to break-off and head to the Singju River area. Cleve has to send the new wingman, Jackson, back to the air base because of mechanical troubles with his plane.
The MIGs spot Cleve's group of three planes. Abbott still wants Casey Jones, but it is Casey who gets the jump on Abbott and Abbott has to bail out from his badly damaged plane. Casey then goes after Cleve. Pell warns Cleve. Cleve uses his great experience to get behind Casey and bring his plane down without Casey being able to bail out. The MIGs turn for home. The supply drop mission is completely successful. Cleve orders Pell to return to base. The Major then goes to look for Abbott. Of course, the Chinese are also looking for the downed American pilot. Cleve spots Abbott's parachute, opens his canopy and lands his plane in a field. The plane is disabled by the landing. Cleve is able to get to Abbott before the Chinese do. He frees him from his harness, throws Abbott over his shoulder and starts running away from the oncoming Chinese. Soon afterwards the Chinese arrive at the parachute site and see the Major and Abbott some distance away. As the Chinese get closer and closer to the fleeing Americans, Pell shows up. He makes several strafing runs at the Chinese. This saves Cleve and Abbott for awhile, but Pell is shot down by ground fire. He bails out and manages to parachute near Cleve and Abbott. Cleve whistles for Pell to come help him with Abbott.
Back in Kyoto, Kris is called into Major Dark's office whose job it is to tell relatives the status of their downed pilots over Korea. The major informs her that Carl has been missing for five days. And coincidentally or maybe not, pilots Saville and Pell are also missing. Kris says that it's all her fault because she told Major Saville to watch out for her husband. Major Dark tells her that it is certainly not her fault because many pilots' wives tell another pilot(s) to watch over their husbands.
Cleve and Pell are able to overpower two Chinese soldiers and take their supplies, uniforms, food and weapons. They now have two automatic weapons. They return to Abbott to give him some food. Abbott says he wants the two men to leave him behind. Cleve tells him not to be ridiculous: "The Reds don't take wounded prisoners." They decide they have to be on the move again. They are close to the Imjin River and have a long way to go. The men rest at an abandoned farmhouse. There they are discovered by some Koreans. The guys are afraid but it turns out that the fellow with his family is just a friendly farmer. They are Christians and show Cleve and Pell their Bible.
The family starts cooking some food. The Chinese see the smoke and follow it. The farmer's little daughter serves as a lookout on the top of a farm building. She sees the Chinese approaching and warns her family and the pilots. The pilots move to another building. The Chinese arrive and the farmer says he has seen no one. But then an American pilot's jacket is found. The family is shot to death. Pell is very mad and wants to fight back immediately. Cleve stops him and makes a definite plan of attack. As the Chinese truck leaves, the pilots throw two grenades that forces the truck to roll over. Pell and Cleve then finish off the Chinese with their automatic weapons. In the fight Cleve receives an arm wound. They use the dead Christians' wagon to haul Abbott to the Allied lines. After a lot of walking and pulling the pilots finally run into a group of Greek soldiers. They have reached the Allied lines.
Mrs. Abbott visits her husband in a Kyoto hospital. He tells her that he will be shipped back to San Francisco. He also tells her that he remembers how it was before with her and he wants it to be like that again. Pell and Imil visit Cleve. Pell now has 10 kills. Imil tells Cleve that he could have been court-martialed for landing his aircraft to save another pilot. Nevertheless, he is accepting Pell's report that is favorable to Cleve. Mrs. Abbot visits Cleve. Cleve will be staying in the war. She is going back to San Francisco. They say good-bye. She stops and waves again. Planes fly overhead. She looks at the planes and then starts to wave good-bye again but Cleve is already too busy watching the planes to notice another good-bye.
Good movie. Keeps your interest. My wife and I were a bit unsettled by the Major trying to make a move on a subordinate's wife, conduct unbecoming of an officer as they say. The film does give a good idea of the air war during the Korean War. Mitchum and Wagner would good as Saville and Pell respectively, but May Britt as Kris always looked just one way: depressed. Not a great range of emotions shown (which probably was the fault of the script).
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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