It’s 1951, in the first hard years of the Cold War, and for a select group of American young men, the sky is calling. The Air Cadet program was created in the throes of the runup to World War II when the US needed to produce lots of airmen, fast. A systematized training scheme put men through a boot-camp-like military indoctrination, followed by Primary, Basic and Advanced flight training. (Would-be airmen who couldn’t keep up or lacked pilot aptitude joined other cadets in training for other aircrew positions). By 1951 this relatively baroque system had been greatly simplified. Pilots were trained ab initio in T-6 piston planes (which had been the Advanced single-engine trainers in the wartime system). Then, pilots selected for multi-engine training would move on to the TB-25; pilots with fighter aspirations would move to the then-new T-33, a trainer version of the then-current Lockheed F-80 fighter.
The military bildungsroman is a common enough film type, or was at the time, and the conflicts in the movie are the will-he-pass-the-checkride variety, along with who-gets-the-girl and the ever-popular why-does-the-major-have-it-in-for-me?
Acting and Production
It’s a midcentury B-movie from Hollywood, so it’s going to be corny. If you’re expecting gallic ennui or New York nihilism-in-a-cynic’s-mask, you’ve come to the wrong show. The biggest name actor in it is the then unknown Rock Hudson, but he has a small role as an upperclassman at Randolph Field who hazes our four cadet roommates, all played by Hollywood journeymen. The four are types: the cynical infantry vet Joe Czanoczek, Everyman Russ Coulter who’s representing his dead pilot brother, plane-crazy Jerry Connell, and spoiled-rich-kid Walt Carver. It doesn’t take a jet pilot to know that under Hollywood rules Joe will find something to believe it, Russ will grow out of his brother’s shadow, Jerry will find limits to his love affair with aviation, and Walt will accomplish something without a nanny for a change.
The movie was made with a limited budget and a lot of assistance from the Air Force, and combines studio interiors and airplane models and mockups with exteriors shot on real bases, and with real aircraft in the background. Supposedly, one of the extras in the movie was future Mercury and Gemini astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, who was in line to command Apollo 1 and also the first lunar landing. He would, instead, perish with his crewmates in a launch-pad rehearsal flash fire in 1967.
Accuracy and Weapons
Guns don’t figure in the story at all, and, in fact, neither do many combat planes: the men have their hands full trying to master the T-6 and the T-33, although they peak with a solo in the F-80. These vintage training planes are one reason to enjoy the movie, and there are a lot of little cues to vintage ground equipment, like a mobile control tower on the back of a 2½ ton truck.
Many aspects of cadet training are depicted realistically, while others are fanciful. The challenges of academics and hazing are dismissed rapidly in montage fashion. There are many such films, but none that realistically shows the tension created as one good man after another fails to meet the cut and is washed out; Air Cadet may be doing its best, but in the end it only hints at it.
The flying is to some degree nonsense, with both formation flying and instrument flying hammered into plot inflection points rather than being treated realistically. On the other hand, depiction of the macho pilot culture and its limitations is ahead of its time, including a plot point that hinges on a suicide (off-screen, by a character we never see). They explicitly make the point that the burden of flying risky missions was a factor, and suggest that the squadron leader blamed himself.
In these days before CGI and green screen, effects shots are either done with rear-projection sets or with models. One scene, of a T-33 belly landing, is barely recognizable as a model, and that only because of the non-scale flames. For 1951, it’s not bad.
The bottom line
Air Cadet is a blast from the past — a very distant 64 years ago; it wasn’t Oscar bait then and it isn’t a “classic” now. But it is a little bit of a forgotten era in national defense, preserved for the benefit of us all.
For more information
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