Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Starfighters (Will Zenz Productions, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had intended to trot out the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archive disc that contained their “take” on Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s last non-porn directorial effort, The Sinister Urge (an interesting transition because it’s about porn — or “the art-photo racket,” as it was euphemistically called in the ads for the film — and a movie Charles and I had watched “straight” previously and of which I’d said that, along with the immediately previous Wood film Night of the Ghouls, Wood had stretched his directorial talents to their limit and achieved mediocrity), but instead I miscounted the files on the disc and we ended up watching the MST3K “take” on a 1964 non-epic about the U.S. Air Force, The Starfighters, produced, directed and written by one William Zens.

Apparently Mr. Zens got a cache of official Air Force footage of the F-104 Starfighter aircraft in action over George Air Force Base in Victorville, California and decided to make an entire movie out of it — and he recruited a young former fighter pilot turned actor (once again, exclusively a courtesy term) named Robert Dornan to star … well, at least to be the top-billed living performer, since the planes playing the title characters are in fact the stars. Zens seemed utterly fascinated with the whole idea of air-to-air refueling, since he recycles shots of the Starfighters being resupplied with jet fuel (sometimes the same footage) over and over again — and quite naturally the MST3K crew found the temptation to make sexual jokes about this irresistible even though the connection was made a lot more subtly and powerfully by Stanley Kubrick, who began his masterpiece Dr. Strangelove with some stock footage of air-to-air refueling while his soundtrack played a lush, romantic MOR instrumental version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” (The same stock shots Kubrick used also turned up in one of the worst films of all time, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.)

What’s more, the air-to-air refueling in Dr. Strangelove involved bombers, where it made sense because part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent was to keep B-52’s up in the air for long periods of time so they could be sent into the Soviet Union to bomb targets there at a moment’s notice in case the alert went out that World War III had started; the sequences of air-to-air refueling of fighters in The Starfighters are undoubtedly authentic, but they still baffled me because the only advantage to air-to-air refueling is it increases the time a plane can stay in the air, and that didn’t seem like it would be important given the relatively short (in both time and range) missions fighter pilots customarily fly. Between the long shots of air-to-air refueling and the shots of fighters flying in strict formation and occasionally doing dive-bombing runs (interestingly, there are no sequences of practice dogfights as there were in Top Gun, a movie that compared to The Starfighters looks like a deathless masterpiece), The Starfighters essentially comes off as aviation porn, with the “plot,” such as it is, existing merely to set up the seemingly endless stock shots of Starfighters in action (more or less).

The plot, such as it is, consists of three new pilots, Lt. John Wilkowski (Robert Dornan), Lt. York (Steve Early) and Lt. Lyons (Robert Winston), who arrive at George Air Force Base to learn to fly the F-104 and do so. The only situations that even approach dramatic issues are the efforts of Wilkowski’s Congressmember father (Carl Rogers) — and yes, there is a certain irony in future Congressmember Dornan playing the son of an influential Congressmember who, as Dornan would later be himself, is a fanatical supporter of the defense budget in general and Air Force bombers in particular — to get Wilkowski fils transferred out of the fighter wing and into heavy bombers (the elder Wilkowski flew B-24 Liberators in World War II and he thinks that’s the only part of the Air Force with real cachet), and a rather weird one involving sex. Lt. Lyons brings a wife, Betty (Joan Lougee), to the base and lives in married servicemembers’ housing — she comes in wearing a platinum wing and the MST3K crew joked that it made her look like Carol Channing (it did, too!) — and Betty offers to fix Lt. Wilkowski up with a girl she knows, Mary Davidson (Shirley Olmstead), though all any of these people seem to do that even remotely resembles dating is to go to a restaurant near the base represented by a set that looks like bits of leather crudely tacked onto plywood. (I couldn’t help but wonder what Lt. York, the forgotten member of our pilot trio, was supposed to do for sex; maybe there was to have been a sequel in which he got drummed out of the Air Force for being Gay.)

The Starfighters is such a singularly useless movie one has a hard time imagining why Will Zenz made it or who he thought the audience was going to be — it made it to #7 on’s list of the 100 worst movies of all time and it’s so relentlessly boring even an commentator who thought the F-104 was cool said the movie was disappointing because there were a lot of capabilities the plane had that didn’t get mentioned. The sorriest aspect of the film was the “poopysuits” the pilots wore on their practice flights over Death Valley in the last reel — the name’s scatological connotations were of course irresistible to the MST3K crew, though on it was explained that a “poopysuit” was simply a heavily insulated flight suit worn when the pilots were going to fly in cold weather (which still doesn’t explain why they needed them in Death Valley, of all places), and I had assumed that poopysuits were garments, like astronauts’ space suits, that had reservoirs for the wearers’ urine and excrement so they could fly for long periods of time without worrying about when and where they were going to use the bathroom.