Pilots and crew assemble to get a Consolidated Airliner off the ground on time. The usual flirting, conversation and procedure follows. A little girl is put in her seat by her mother, and promised by the flight attendant she’ll keep her eye on the girl until they land in Seattle. An odd man asks the stewardess about the flight and admits he’s never flown before. The captain, acting nonchalant and almost lackadaisical, asks the stewardess about a new and attractive flight attendant, wanting her to get him a cup of coffee. As they take off, she brings him his coffee, straps in for safety, and all systems are go. Suddenly, an engine light goes off; they’ve lost power. They plan to return to the airport, and alert the passengers that due to mechanical difficulties, they’ll be turning around. Then the indicator shows another engine goes. They call air traffic control and are told to hold tight as long as they can, there’s three other planes lined up for landing and already descending. The pilot decides with only two functioning engines, he needs to set the plan down where he can, and discovers an open beach. The passengers are told to brace for impact. Out of the fog, as they’re about to touchdown, appears an old pier. It’s too late, they can’t turn, and in a fiery explosion, almost the entire crew and passengers perish.
This is just the first 10 minutes of Fate is the Hunter (1964), and it packs a wallop– especially because the pilot is leading man Rod Taylor, and the stewardess is Suzanne Pleshette. Is the movie over before it can begin?
Along comes Glenn Ford, Consolidated’s Vice President, and he needs to make quick decisions and find out the cause of the crash, in the face of reporters clamoring for answers and family members searching for survivors. Pilot Jack Savage (Taylor) was Ford’s friend and army buddy from way back, and he is quick to argue the theory of pilot error. However, Ben Sawyer (Nehemiah Persoff), also a Consolidated VP and bucking to take the promotion Ford is in line for, defends the equipment from top to bottom. And so the wheels are set in motion for an intriguing procedural as Ford begins an investigation that will reveal the mysteries and secrets his enigmatic buddy kept well-hidden, as well as dispel theories, both conspiratorial and natural, as he attempts to follow the trail that led to the crash.
Fate is the Hunter was based on the popular, semi-autobiographical novel from writer and airman Ernest K. Gann. As a barnstormer, early aviator and airline pilot, Gann had a unique and subjective “take” on flight, and the book of anecdotal stories and tales was difficult to adapt into a screenplay. In fact, Gann gave up on the script, and when seeing the final film, worked to have his name removed. Not because it was a bad film, but it was so far from removed the novel that Gann didn’t want to confuse his readers.
While Fate is the Hunter may only share the title with its source material, it is a first-rate thriller, mystery and prescient look into the future tragedies that beleaguer the airline industry today; some of the incidents seemingly ripped from our current headlines. More fascinating still, is the story’s similarity to Robert Zemeckis’ highly successful recent entry, Flight. At the heart of both films is the question of a pilot’s “character” and subsequent behavior leading up to a catastrophe, and the bigger question of coincidence vs. fate. How much is in our mortal hands to change the outcome of different scenarios, and how much is what happens part of some grand design? As Glenn Ford continues to seek out answers, he, a very fact-driven man, must face these philosophical questions, and in the end, question his own belief system.
And the mystery continues to intrigue the characters and audience, all the way to the end. The culmination, Ford determining the only way to figure out the mystery is to re-create the flight from boarding on forward, may be somewhat implausible, but raises a provocative concept, and for the film, delivers an answer that is both believable and satisfying.
Director Ralph Nelson was an early television producer and director, working closely with Rod Serling on both the Twilight Zone series, and the successful live drama and feature film Requiem for a Heavyweight. Fate is the Hunter brings into play several recognizable Twilight Zone tropes, including the question of supernatural forces at work, as well the series tightly constructed scripting and economical staging.
The cast is an interesting 1960s gumbo of familiar faces. Along with Glenn Ford, rising box office heartthrob Rod Taylor, exotic and beautiful Nancy Kwan, Suzanne Pleshette (her feature film debut) and Jane Russell (playing herself!) fill out the unusual cast.
The only misstep is Rod Taylor’s performance. Even by early ’60s standards when incorporation of the method was common operating procedure, he seems positively corny. His character may be a “playboy” type, but he’s known as much as a ladies man, and heavy drinker as he is a more-than-competent pilot. The characterization demands layers, but unfortunately, without any subtlety, Taylor’s attempts at a certain suaveness and “cool under pressure” manner, instead makes his performance laughable. Luckily, Taylor is–more than anything else–a device; a touchstone for flashbacks. But when he is the central character that we, the viewer, are intended to be obsessed with, he just can’t pull off that necessary gravitas.
It’s too bad, because everyone else is first-rate. Nancy Kwan, an international star at the time, does a good job of playing against type as a marine biologist who was Taylor’s girlfriend. This add a level of seriousness to Taylor’s character, which flies in the face of how everyone assumed he was a superficial “skirt chaser” who would never relate to a woman of substance. Ironically, Kwan’s scientist has the most spiritual “take” on the tragedy, and helps crack Ford’s serious façade and age-old belief system.
As usual, Twilight Time has done a terrific job on the Blu-Ray and packaging, and includes an interesting, if not highly unusual companion piece, a feature length documentary about the life and career of co-star Nancy Kwan, entitled, To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey. The biography is only somewhat successful, hampered by low tech production values and slow pace. Still, for anyone interested in Kwan’s unusual story and rise to success (or who had a mammoth crush on her as a child – yeah, that would be me) it’s a worth a look.
The film also features commentary by Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman combined with the isolated score track by a young Jerry Goldsmith, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
An odd yet under-appreciated gem, Fate is the Hunter’s focus on air safety and our own mortality in the face of modern technology are fresh reminders that good stories and well crafted storytelling always deserve an audience.