Bill Pullman as Lone Starr, cynical “hero for hire”
“Once upon a time warp… in a galaxy very, very, very, very far away…”
Release Date: June 24, 1987
Director: Mel Brooks
Costume Designer: Donfeld (Donald Lee Feld)
Spaceballs was my first exposure to Mel Brooks, having appealed to my being a Star Wars fan through my childhood. Of course, as I was nine years old the first time I watched Spaceballs, many of the meta humor and more mature-minded jokes went straight over my head, but I still thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. More than two decades later, it’s still a fun watch, as this peerless master of modern comedy riffs on far more than just what had been my favorite sci-fi franchise.
Continuing the Star Wars parallels, Spaceballs merges Han Solo’s persona with Luke Skywalker’s folklore into one character, the swaggering space cowboy Lone Starr (Bill Pullman), traversing the galaxy in his Winnebago spaceship with his loyal half-canine sidekick Barf (John Candy).
The duo are recruited by the desperate King Roland of Druidia (Dick Van Patten) to save his daughter Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and her gilt droid-of-honor Dot Matrix (Joan Rivers) from the clutches of the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), who also turns out to be Lone Starr’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. The adventure becomes a life-changing journey for Lone Starr as he learns how to harness the mysterious power of “the Schwartz”. Continue reading
Tom Cruise as CAPT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, experienced U.S. Navy test pilot-turned-instructor
NAS North Island near San Diego, Fall 2019
Film: Top Gun: Maverick
Release Date: May 27, 2022
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Costume Designer: Marlene Stewart
It’s been a minute, huh Mav?
To commemorate August 19 being National Aviation Day, today’s post celebrates one of the most famous fictional naval aviators in movie history.
Thirty-six years to the month after its predecessor flew into theaters, Top Gun: Maverick returned Tom Cruise to the flight deck as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a virtuoso Naval Aviator who still lives up to his nickname more than three decades since he was a swaggering but skilled lieutenant in the U.S. Navy’s prestigious “Top Gun” training program.
“Captain? Still?” he’s asked, prompting Maverick to clarify that he’s “a highly decorated Captain.” His insubordination repeatedly preventing promotion to flag officer like his pal and one-time rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), CAPT Pete Mitchell is still “the fastest man alive”, now a Navy test pilot living in a hangar in the Mojave Desert, fighting the good fight for practical flight vs. the unmanned preferences of bureaucrats like RADM Chester Cain (Ed Harris), aka “The Drone Ranger”.
Despite Maverick falling out of favor among Navy brass, Iceman still looks out for his pal and—when Maverick is in danger of being grounded—has the distinguished aviator recalled to Top Gun at NAS North Island, where the stern, by-the-book commander VADM Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) briefs him on a dangerous mission, tasked to destroy an unsanctioned underground uranium enrichment plant… clarifying “we don’t want you to fly it, we want you to teach it.”
While at “Fightertown U.S.A.”, Maverick reconnects with former fling Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who now runs The Hard Deck, a local bar frequented by fliers like the recent graduates that Maverick will be training for the mission. Among these aviators—played by a cast of rising stars like Monica Barbaro, Manny Jacinto, and Glen Powell—is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late friend and RIO Goose, who resents Mav for having blocked his Naval Academy application. Over the course of the accelerated training, a mutual respect grows between the confident young lieutenants and the experienced veteran. Continue reading
James Stewart as Frank Towns, experienced cargo pilot and war veteran
Libyan desert, Spring 1965
Film: The Flight of the Phoenix
Release Date: December 15, 1965
Director: Robert Aldrich
Costume Designer: Norma Koch
James Maitland Stewart had to fly. His earliest memories of flight involved colorful covers of Literary Digest depicting the Great War, then in progress, and the incredible use of air power by both sides. Jim tacked up each magazine cover on the wall in his bedroom. “Airplanes were the last thing I thought of every night and the first thing I thought of every morning,” he would say as an adult.
— Robert Matzen, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Chapter 1
Born 115 years ago today on May 20, 1908, Jimmy Stewart had a lifelong passion for flight that followed him through his career, from the model airplane he lovingly constructed with Henry Fonda during their salad days on Broadway through his celebrated service flying dangerous combat missions as a U.S. Army Air Forces officer during World War II. Reticent to discuss his service after the war, Stewart flew B-24 Liberators on 20 combat missions over Europe and, by war’s end, was one of only a handful of Americans to rise from the rank of private to colonel in only four years.
Aviation continued to be a theme of Stewart’s life during his postwar film career, often starring in flight-themed dramas like No Highway in the Sky (1951), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), playing famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
One of the last—and perhaps best—of Stewart’s aviation-centered films is The Flight of the Phoenix, Robert Aldrich’s 1965 survival drama based on Elleston Trevor’s novel of the same name. Stewart plays civilian cargo pilot Frank Towns, described by his navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) as “one of the few really great pilots left in this push-button world of yours.” Continue reading
Jonathan Majors as ENS Jesse L. Brown, groundbreaking U.S. Naval Aviator
From Quonset Point, Rhode Island to the Korean coast, Spring to Fall 1950
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Director: J.D. Dillard
Costume Designer: Deirdra Elizabeth Govan
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
February is Black History Month, a fitting occasion to highlight the life and career of trailblazers like Jesse Brown, the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy flight training program.
Jesse LeRoy Brown was born on October 13, 1926, perhaps coincidentally sharing a “birthday” with the U.S. Navy itself as this was exactly 151 years to the day after the Continental Navy was founded in 1775. Two years after he enlisted in the Navy, Brown received his pilot wings in October 1948 and was commissioned as an ensign (OF-1) six months later. Ensigns Brown stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte when it was ordered to Korea at the start of the war in the summer of 1950, ultimately flying 20 combat missions in an F4U-4 Corsair, a propeller-driven fighter whose fatalist nicknames of the “Ensign Eliminator” and “Widowmaker” never deterred the courageous aviator. Continue reading
Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, record-setting U.S. Air Force test pilot
Murac Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base), Kern County, California, from fall 1947 to summer 1961
Film: The Right Stuff
Release Date: October 21, 1983
Director: Philip Kaufman
Costume Supervisor: James W. Tyson
Today marks the 75th anniversary of when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, piloting a rocket-propelled Bell X-1 aircraft—named Glamorous Glennis, after his wife—over the Mojave Desert at a speed greater than Mach 1. The event is depicted at the start of The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s 1983 flight epic based on Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book of the same name, chronicling the pivotal early years of American aeronautics between Yeager’s supersonic achievement and the conclusion of the successful Project Mercury manned space missions.
Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot
Antarctica, Winter 1982
Film: The Thing
Release Date: June 25, 1982
Director: John Carpenter
Costume Supervisors: Ronald I. Caplan, Trish Keating, and Gilbert Loe
We’re not gettin’ out of here alive… but neither is that thing.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the release of The Thing, which premiered June 25, 1982 and remains the personal favorite of director John Carpenter. Four days ago on June 21, British Antarctic research stations would have observed their Midwinter Day celebration that typically includes watching horror movies about being trapped in the snow such as The Thing and The Shining.
Indeed, the action begins during “first goddamn week of winter” grumbles R.J. MacReady, a grizzled helicopter pilot embedded with an American scientific research crew stationed in Antarctica. The U.S. Outpost 31 crew is baffled by the sudden appearance of a Norwegian gunman shooting at what appears to be a relatively benign wolfdog (Jed). “Maybe we’re at war with Norway,” quips Nauls (T.K. Carter), the cook, who more helpfully offers that “five minutes is enough to put a man over down here” as the team mulls over the gunman’s possible motives.
That night, it’s not the Norwegian who the crew needs to be alarmed about, but instead the curious creature locked up with the dogs. As their canine handler Clark (Richard Masur) warns Mac:
It’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is…
Charlton Heston as CAPT Matthew Garth, U.S. Naval Aviator
Pearl Harbor to Midway Island, Spring 1942
Release Date: June 18, 1976
Director: Jack Smight
Many familiar with World War II history are familiar with the significance of Monday’s date as, on June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy in northern France as part of the “D-Day” invasion that laid the groundwork for the eventual Allied victory. Two years earlier, the Americans had been engaged in yet another decisive battle that would turn the tide of the second World War.
The Battle of Midway had commenced 80 years ago today on June 4, 1942, following intelligence gathered by the U.S. Navy that allowed it to prepare for a counterattack against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Three days of battle followed, with American forces destroying all four Japanese fleet carriers that had engaged and—in both a tactical and symbolic victory—had also been part of the six-carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier.
Though the Americans also suffered the loss of a carrier, a destroyer, and approximately 150 aircraft, casualties were considerably higher on the Japanese side (including nearly double the amount of aircraft lost), marking an early turning point of the Pacific War in favor of the Allies and which historian John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
In addition to an 18-minute color documentary directed during the battle by John Ford, the Battle of Midway has been the subject of two major movies, mostly recently in 2019. A star-studded retelling of the battle and its lead-up was produced by The Mirisch Company in 1976, starring—among many others—Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. Having served in the Navy in real life during World War II, Fonda had actually partly narrated Ford’s 1942 documentary and also appeared as an unnamed admiral inspired by Nimitz in the 1965 epic In Harm’s Way.
The cast was rounded out by both established international stars from Robert Mitchum to Toshiro Mifune and relative newcomers like Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, and a non-mustached Tom Selleck. Being made just over 30 years after World War II ended meant a number of actual veterans among its cast; in addition to Fonda, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Webber had all served.
Though most of its characters are real-life figures, Midway centers around a fictionalized hero in the form of naval aviator CAPT Matthew Garth (Heston), for whom the battle presents the culmination of his increasing personal and professional troubles. Continue reading
Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore, a “damn good pilot”
Fort Knox, Kentucky, Fall 1964
Release Date: September 18, 1964
Director: Guy Hamilton
Wardrobe Supervisor: Elsa Fennell
Today would have been the 96th birthday of the late Honor Blackman, best known for her role as Cathy Gale on the second and third seasons of The Avengers, which she left to star in her iconic performance in Goldfinger as Pussy Galore, the assertive aviator who transforms from enemy to ally of Sean Connery’s James Bond.
Arguably one of the most famous (and most famously named) women of the Bond franchise, the high-flying judo expert Pussy Galore established a new type of “Bond girl”, a tough, action-oriented equal rather than the demure damsel in distress. Pussy also nearly equals the stylish secret agent with her strong wardrobe, primarily comprised of tailored jackets and slacks, apropos her profession that still carried masculine connotations in the early 1960s. Continue reading
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, eccentric and ambitious aviation and movie mogul
Los Angeles, September 1935
Film: The Aviator
Release Date: December 25, 2004
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
85 years ago today on September 13, 1935, a sleek silver aircraft rocketed through the air over Santa Ana, California, at a record-breaking speed over 350 miles per hour, making four passes over Martin Field before a crash-landing that deposited its owner—one of the wealthiest and most ambitious men in America at the time—into a beet field, alive and hardly discouraged. As Howard Hughes’ colleagues ran over to extract the 29-year-old entrepreneur and aviator from the wreckage of the H-1 Racer, he hardly had his own safety in mind, issuing the command: “We can fix her, she’ll go faster!”
Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, regional airline manager and pilot
South America, Spring 1939
Film: Only Angels Have Wings
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Howard Hawks
Costume Designer: Robert Kalloch
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Calling Barranca, calling Barranca…
Set in the fictional “port of call for the South American banana boats”, Only Angels Have Wings begins with the arrival of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a Brooklyn musician who soon catches the eye of two American aviators, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn). While the daredevil duo gambles for the opportunity to take Bonnie to dinner, Cary Grant makes his swaggering introduction as Geoff Carter, a fellow pilot and manager of a regional mail carrier flying regular routes over the treacherous Andes Mountains.