Monday, May 4, 2015

DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT: The McConnell Story (1955)


                 While I wait for my copy of "Angels Wing" to come in so I can watch it again and finish my dogfighting tournament, I thought I would post a review of a movie that was considered for the tournament.  

                The Korean War had not been good to Hollywood.  The ambiguous nature of the conflict and the lack of a clear-cut victory made it a hard sell.  Most of the war movies made in the 1950s were basically WWII plots, but with an amping up of cynicism.  “Steel Helmet” is a good example of this.  It worked in that classic, but most of the infantry combat movies were second rate.  The only notable exception was “Pork Chop Hill”.  In the air, Hollywood’s record was little better.  “Bridges at Toko-Ri” was a stand-out, but mainly because of the big budget, big cast, and the source material.  James Michener’s best seller was fool proof.  The other significant film was “The Hunters”.  It made the tournament, but was a disappointing attempt to match “Bridges”.  Warner Brothers did not have such high hopes for “The McConnell Story”.  It is a standard biopic of an American hero.  Similar to WWI, fighter pilots maintained glamour in a war noted for stalemated ground combat.  The story had the added bump of the first jet versus jet combat.  Joseph “Mac” McConnell was the first American jet ace and ended the war as our “Ace of Aces”.  His score of 16 will obviously never be broken.  He was worthy of a movie and got what Hollywood was capable of churning out.

                The movie opens with a General telling us that America owes its freedoms to men like McConnell.  Remember the Cold War!  Alan Ladd plays McConnell as a rebel.  He leaves the base to get flight lessons and then parachutes to evade the MPs.  He ends up in the home of the vivacious  Pearl (June Allyson) and if you do not think they will get married from the moment they appear on screen, you are a moron.  He nicknames her “Butch” because June Allyson is not cute enough already.  After they get hitched, Butch immediately becomes the stereotypical pre-Vietnam military cinema wife.  She supports his dream of becoming a pilot, but it does not come easy.

                Mac gets sent to pilot school, but ends up as a navigator on a B-17 in WWII Europe.  On one mission, his bomber is bounced by Me-163 jets!   The mission concludes with a cool belly landing.  Unfortunately the war ends before he gets the requisite 25 missions to go back to pilot school.  A desk job makes him snippy and if this were a modern movie he would come home and beat Butch.
the entire romantic subplot
summarized in one still
                Cut to the Korean War and here come the F-86 Sabres.  The cast just got much better and the acting too.  MiG Alley is populated by F-84s disguised as MiGs.  Mac becomes an ace via montage.  Coming home a hero, he gets the White House and a new house.  When offered a test pilot gig, Butch does the “haven’t you done enough?” routine and actually convinces him and then she realizes that she is a 1950's military wife and changes her mind.  Cue the “missing man formation”.

                The problems with “The McConnell Story” starts with the casting.  Alan Ladd was a poor choice to play a rebel.  Of course, the way the movie depicts rebelliousness is so cornpone that who cares who portrays him?  Speaking of rebelliousness, who better to play that than June Allyson?  Answer – any actress.  Allyson does the opposite of stretching in this movie.  I like Allyson.  Who doesn’t?  But when you cast her, fast forward to the closing credit and save yourself some time.  If you do that, you’ll miss some tepid air combat.  It is really cool to see rare footage of Me-163 jets, although the footage is far from seamless.  The big dogfight scene is four minutes long and fairly well done with some POV.  Unfortunately, Ladd was afraid of flying so he is filmed in front of a screen.  No outside the box on anything in this movie.  Thankfully the movie inexplicably turns off the pompous Max Steiner score for the dogfighting scene.
and the best acting performance goes to - 

                As far as historical accuracy, the movie is adequate.  I would imagine that the courtship has been Hollywoodized, but I can’t prove that.  Butch being a supportive military wife is probably true, if lame.  My mother was a fighter pilot's wife from that era and she was perky and cookie-baking, too.  McConnell was a navigator in WWII, but it was on B-24s.  He flew a total of 60 missions so his failure to get into flight school was not due to lack of missions.  He did become a fighter pilot after the war and in time for the Korean War, but he did not make it to Korea until 1952 and all of his kills came in a remarkable four month run in 1953.  His success in dogfights is accurate, although dealt with cursorily.  He did receive the Distinguished Service Cross from President Eisenhower.  He and Butch were given a new home by their community.  His death is substantially the same as in reality.  (It occurred when the movie was being produced and was added into the script.)  The closing image of the “missing man formation”made that military tradition famous with the public.

                Joseph McConnell deserved a movie.  He is a legitimate hero, but not the saint depicted in this movie.  The movie takes his story, which probably had some tension and drama to it, and makes it into a boring and predictable biopic with little action for the war movie fan.  But doing otherwise would have made it an anachronism for a 1950s movie.  It was aimed at a naïve 1950s audience that knew what it was getting when they saw Ladd and Allyson on the marquee.  I can’t imagine they were thrilled with it however.  There is no doubt that it was not worthy of being in the tournament.

GRADE  =  D  

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