John Wayne has appeared in more than 180 films during his career, but that’s why he considered “Jet Pilot” one of, if not the worst, films. Wayne starred in dozens of category B westerns before the success of “Stagecoach” in 1939 raised him to fame. He will play many more westerns, including Red River, True Grit, The Searchers and the unofficial Rio Bravo trilogy. Wayne’s enduring cinematic image is that of a cowboy, but throughout his 50-year career he has made films in many other genres.
“The Quiet Man” from 1952 is probably his most famous, and although some elements of this film are badly outdated — for example, his stereotypes about the Irish — it is still considered a classic. Wayne has also starred in war films such as Sands Of Iwa Jima, the adventure film Hatari! or even the romantic drama “The Barbarian and the Geisha”. Wayne was known for being blunt when it came to the quality of his own work, especially in some of his recent films, such as “U.S. Marshal Cahill” or “Rooster Cogburn” — his only sequel.
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One of the films he was particularly unhappy with was Jet Pilot, a Cold War novel in which Wayne Shannon, an Air Force colonel, falls in love with a Soviet defector played by Janet Lee from Psycho. Jet Pilot’s backstory is more interesting than the film itself, which was shot by reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Filming of Jet Pilot began in 1949, and Hughes conceived the film as a showcase of the latest aircraft, but Hughes’ obsession with re-editing the film, especially the aerial scenes, meant it was not released until 1957.
Why Wayne considered “Jet Pilot” one of his Worst Films
John Wayne signed a contract with Jet Pilot, despite doubts about the quality of the script, because he liked its political themes. His concerns about the story turned out to be well-founded, as Jet Pilot reviews criticized his inconsistent tone and sheer stupidity. Wayne, who was nicknamed “The Duke” after his childhood pet, later said of the film himself: “This is undoubtedly one of my worst films.” By the time the film hit theaters, all the Air Force planes for which it was released were also outdated models.
At least in Jet Pilot there are some impressive aerial photographs, and the actors perform their roles against the backdrop of melodrama and forced romance of the script. However, it stands alongside other John Wayne films such as The Conqueror, where he was infamously known as Genghis Khan as the actor’s worst attempt and was virtually forgotten in the years since its release. Considering how tough Wayne was about his filmography—even criticizing “Real Grit,” the film that earned him his only Oscar—calling “Jet Pilot” his worst is almost a badge of honor.