United States Air Force Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) is on a routine flight when he and the ground control notice an unidentified plane flying overhead. Shannon is running out of fuel, so has to land, but another jet is sent out to investigate; over the radio, Shannon tells the pilot not to fire on the aircraft, which is revealed to be Soviet, and the Russian pilot is persuaded to land. However, when Shannon and the ground crew rush over to find out who this person is that has staged this invasion of U.S. airspace, they are surprised to see that the pilot is - gasp! - a woman! She is Lt. Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh) and she has decided to defect, so Shannon makes up his mind to get to know her better...
Legend has it that the producer of Jet Pilot, none other than zillionaire Howard Hughes, so obsessed over getting every detail just right that it took seven years from the film's completion in 1950 for it to be released in 1957, by which time all the then up to date aircraft shown off therein were out of date. It written by Jules Furthman, and he also took over various directing duties from Josef von Sternberg - a long way from exquisitely lighting Marlene Dietrich - yet another example of the troubles this project suffered. However, the von Sternberg touch is seen in the photography of Leigh, who quite possibly never looked so beautiful.
The Top Gun of it's day (minus the homosexuality), Jet Pilot is really a propaganda movie dressed up as a patriotic romance, and Anna is the stereotypical and frosty Red in her attitudes, always harping on about the state and calling religion and love two great narcotics, that sort of thing. There's an immediate attraction between Anna and Shannon, so the whole East meets West can be played out in the manner you expect, that is, West conquering East through their freedom and consumerism. A long sequence near the beginning sets out the view of sexuality, with much double entendre and coyness as Anna gets out of her clothes for a shower to fluster Shannon, complete with the frequent jet engine equivalent of a wolf whistle on the soundtrack to underline Anna's attractiveness.
Now, there won't be anything as racy as a sex scene of course, so what can the two leads do instead? That's right, fly planes, which they do do a wearying degree, all jargon-filled dialogue over the radio and fancy sky moves, but eventually Anna and Shannon's relationship must move ahead and they do indeed fall in love, Anna apparently and additionally enchanted by the nice clothes and thick steaks of the capitalist lifestyle. In fact, she's so caught up in the delights of the West that she even marries the Colonel, never mind that the supposed meeting of two opposed cultures is less potent than the filmmakers intended considering Leigh's prominent American accent which makes her a less than convincing Russian. As for Wayne, he seems permanently amused, as a man either not believing his luck, or confident in dominating the "Soviet tootsie roll" - the revelation that she's actually a spy dents his disposition, but he's soon back on top, posing a defector to foil the Russians' plans. Flipping between boredom (except for aeroplane enthusiasts) and camp hilarity, Jet Pilot is a curious item, more interesting for the people involved than its overall effect. Music by Bronislau Kaper.