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Mightiest thrill-shocked adventure spectacle of the super-sonic age!
The Hunters

by Jennings Heilig


Major Cleve Saville leading Cobra Flight of the 54th Fighter Squadron


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Korea via Hollywood


Mightiest thrill-shocked adventure spectacle of the super-sonic age!

Thus went the tag line advertising 20th Century Fox's 1958 Korean War epic "The Hunters".  One of the few Hollywood features to dwell on the subject of the Korean War, "The Hunters" stars Robert Mitchum as Major Cleve Saville (where did they get these names?), and features a then very new co-star named Robert Wagner as hot-shot Sabre jock 2nd Lt Ed Pell.  The rest of the cast, while giving very credible performances all around, are not names that the average movie buff would recognize.  The mountainous backgrounds in many of the ramp scenes, as well as the landscapes seen in other sequences make me think the film may have been shot at Nellis AFB.  If anyone knows for certain, I would be interested in knowing.           

Set in 1952 at Itami Air Base, Japan (near Osaka) and at an unnamed air base in Korea (presumably Kimpo), the film combines spectacular aerial footage, realistic air-to-air combat (for the period), and the requisite boy-meets-girl-meets-boy-boy-slugs-boy love triangle.  I won't go into the plot, but suffice it to say that it's pretty sappy, and typical of the 1950s.

But it's the technical end of things that interests us, and this is where the film shines.  Major Saville is serving his first tour of duty in Korea with the 54th Fighter Squadron after having flown fighters in WWII.  In one of the opening sequences his new wingman, Lt. Corona ("Like the cigar," he says - I guess they didn’t have the beer back then) asks Maj. Saville whether he's got much time in the F-86.  Mitchum's character replies "I've got enough", and then proceeds to wax the tail of everybody he comes across. 

The bad guys are, of course, the commie Chinese flying their "MiGs", which are in fact grey painted F-84F Thunderstreaks.  The commie bad guy leader is nicknamed "Casey Jones" by the American Sabre pilots because his MiG has "7-11" painted on its nose.  The true identities of the "MiGs" is lost to history, due to the fact that they are all completely overpainted in light grey with red stars.


            Casey Jones in his MiG "7-11". Check out that flame job!


            As he's a squadron commander, Casey Jones' MiG has fancy red wing tips with black

The stars of the show are the F-86Fs flown by Major Saville's Cobra Flight.  The aircraft assigned to Maj. Saville is coded "FU-482" with the tail number "14482".  While at first I thought it might be the actual serial number of the aircraft, it turns out that USAF serial number 51-4482 belongs to a Lockheed T-33A-1-LO that is nowhere to be seen in the film.  In the close-up of the nose of his aircraft, you can see that the yellow is rather thin, probably temporary distemper paint.


            Lt. Corona talks Sabres with Maj. Saville before their first hop.  Note the see-through
            yellow paint on the nose

Since we don't know the true identity of the Sabre either, all that can be positively said is that it is an F-86F that has the F-86F-40 long span slatted wing.  In some sequences the aircraft are equipped with inboard wing pylons, while in others they aren't.  In the sequences where they are shown with drop tanks, they are all of the later style not seen operationally during the Korean war.


            Maj. Saville flying FU-482 shepherding the injured (at least in close up) Lt. Corona
            in FU-425 back to base.

In one sequence, Maj. Saville intentionally belly-lands his Sabre (a plot point I won't spoil for you).  In the close-up of him exiting the now-wingless Sabre, you can see that an F-86A was used.  Very careful examination shows the serial number to be 48-208.  You can also see the remnants of the "V" windscreen at the top of the forward canopy section.  I suspect this aircraft was a fire trainer at whatever base the film was shot.


            Maj. Saville about to dismount his belly-landed Sabre behind enemy lines.  In reality,
            this is F-86A 48-208.  Note the remains of the "V" windscreen mount.


One other interesting bit of trivia from the film concerns the Douglas C-54 that transports Maj. Saville to Japan at the beginning of the film.  The aircraft is a C-54G-10-DO, serial number 45-579, resplendent in full MATS Pacific Division colors.  This exact C-54 is now resident at the Museum of Aviation at Robins AFB, Georgia.


            Maj. Saville arrives at Itami AB, Japan aboard MATS C-54G 45-579.

While perhaps not the mightiest of Hollywood war epics, "The Hunters" is none the less a very enjoyable film if for no other reason than its spectacular cinematography.  The film abounds with period equipment and uniforms.  Most of the extras were clearly actual USAF personnel, and there is a lot of interesting flightline activity.  Much effort was put into making the flying sequences as realistic as was possible with the technology available at the time, and if you can suspend your disbelief just a little, you can be transported back to the skies of Korea in 1952 for an enjoyable hour and a half.


            Maj. Saville yanks FU-482 into a hard turn.  Note the partially deployed slats.

Text Copyright 2009 by Jennings Heilig
Page Created 12 January, 2010
Last Updated 12 January, 2010

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