Men of the Fighting Lady (1954)


(director: Andrew Marton; screenwriters: Art Cohn/based on the James A. Michener story The Forgotten Heroes of Korea and on the Comdr. Harry A. Burns, U.S.N., story The Curse of the Blind Pilot; cinematographer: George Folsey; editor: Gene Ruggiero; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: Van Johnson (Lt. Howard Thayer), Walter Pidgeon (Cmdr. Kent Dowling), Frank Lovejoy (Squadron Leader, Lt. Cmdr. Paul Grayson), Louis Calhern (James A. Michener), Dewey Martin (Ensign Kenneth Schechter), Keenan Wynn (Lt. Cmdr. Ted Dobson), Bert Freed (Lieut. (jg.) Andrew Szymanskt), Robert Horton (Ensign Neil Conovan), Jerry Mathers (Richard Dodson); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Berman; MGM; 1954)
“Tepid factual Korean War drama about life aboard an American naval aircraft carrier stationed off Korea in the Sea of Japan.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tepid factual Korean War drama about life aboard an American naval aircraft carrier stationed off Korea in the Sea of Japan. It’s based on two Saturday Evening Post stories, one by James A. Michener “The Forgotten Heroes of Korea” and the other by Comdr. Harry A. Burns “The Curse of the Blind Pilot.” It follows the tagline “It’s not what a man says, it’s what he does.” Hungarian-born second-tier filmmaker Andrew Marton (“Green Fire”/”The Thin Red Line”/ “Clarence, The Cross-eyed Lion”) directs the all-male cast in this realistic tale about duty and patriotism, filmed during the midst of the Korean War, in a flat semi-documentary style. It features an actual plane crash that was filmed in black and white and changed to color for the film.

During the last days of the Korean War author James A. Michener (Louis Calhern) boards a U.S. Naval aircraft carrier to meet with commander and flight surgeon Kent Dowling (Walter Pidgeon), who relates the following “Christmas story.” The story begins in flashback, as it tells of how gung-ho hard-boiled squadron leader Lt. Cmdr. Paul Grayson (Frank Lovejoy) is determined to knock out the railroad target even if the commies rebuild it the next day and he has to fly at a dangerously low altitude. Grayson’s expensive state-of-the-art fighter jet gets damaged and he’s forced to bail out and parachute into the freezing sea, where he is rescued by a helicopter crew. The fatherly flight surgeon thinks Grayson is foolhardy for flying so low, as does decorated with the Navy Cross WW II veteran pilot Lt. Cmdr. Ted Dodson (Keenan Wynn)—a family man who feels this is an unpopular police action that we have no business fighting and shouldn’t take reckless chances. On the next mission Dodson is killed when his plane is hit.

On Christmas, the flyers prepare for their twenty-seventh consecutive attack on the railroad and are gleefully told they can also seek out “targets of opportunity” and bomb them with napalm. The raid is successful, but Ensign Kenneth Schechter (Dewey Martin) is hit by enemy fire and blinded. Lt. Howard Thayer (Van Johnson) flies alongside the barely alert Schecter and instructs him over the radio. Unable to bail out because of a mechanical malfunction, Thayer miraculously manages to guide the blind pilot to a safe landing on the deck of the carrier. Afterwards the men relax with a Christmas party celebration, where they see home movies of their loved ones. Returning to the present, Dowling tells Michener that Schecter regained partial vision in one eye and is presently studying economics at Stanford. Michener goes philosophical and states “that every man’s life is a search for his true self, and a ship is as good a place as any for a man to learn who he is.”