The Aviator (1985)
Character Name: Edgar Anscombe
Reviewed by Joyce Kavitsky (Kavitsky1@verizon.net)
In this film Christopher Reeve combines his profession, acting, with his hobby, flying, and becomes almost certainly the first actor ever allowed to pilot a plane on and off the screen. In real life, Reeve is a qualified pilot with commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings and some 2,000 hours flying experience who, at the time this film was made, flew his own six-passenger twin engine Beechcraft. Reeve says, "I thought it would be fun to mix acting and airplanes. Flying is something that comes naturally to me; it certainly helped me with Superman." After watching this film, you will never think of Air Mail the same way again. When World War I was winding down, the United States Post Office realized that the plane could be a valuable tool in peacetime transport, so in May 1918, they initiated the first air mail run linking New York with Washington, D.C. Five years later, 21 pilots took part in an experimental transcontinental service, flying from San Francisco to New York on a route that took 26 hours and 14 minutes. The experiment was successful, and in a few years cancelled postmarks with "Air Mail" on it became common. Crashes and delays were so common in the beginning that when mail was recovered from a downed plane, letters were over-stamped "Delay Due To Wrecked Plane," dated and then either sent on or returned to the sender. This leads us to this film, based on the book The Aviator by Ernest Gann, about a troubled pilot and a bratty passenger who crash-land in an early mail delivery plane in 1928 while in route from Elko, Nevada to Pasco, Washington. Reeve says, "Although the life of a mail pilot in 1928 was specialized and may seem a little remote, people will understand him." This romantic drama was released on March 8, 1985 in the United States and Canada movie theaters. The film has an all-star cast that includes Rosanna Arquette, Jack Warden, Sam Wanamaker (who also appeared with Reeve two years later in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace as Mr. Warfield), Marcia Strassman and Tyne Daly.
The film's plot surrounds Edgar Anscombe (Reeve), a lonely pilot who leads a withdrawn life after he survived a plane crash he felt responsible for that happened early in his career that took the life of a boy he was training. For the rest if his life Edgar carries his wounds both physically, as a scar across his face, and emotionally by avoiding any meaningful emotional human contact. He rejects the friendship of fellow pilot Stiller and his wife (Daly), and spurns the love of Rose (Strassman), Stiller's sister who cares for him. When he reports to the airfield one day, his boss Moravia (Warden), introduces him to Bruno Hanson (Wanamaker), a wealthy banker and his rebellious 16 year-old daughter, Tillie (Arquette), who was raised by her father and brothers after her mother died. Edgar gets assigned to fly Tillie, who was sent by her father to live in Pasco with her aunt, to Idaho making her the first passenger on the Elko-Pasco air mail line. She is as opposed to going as Edgar is to taking her. Instantly they dislike each other, as they have nothing in common, until their single engine plane crashes into a mountainside. In the lonely wilderness, they are numbed by the bitter cold and hunted by hungry wolves. While they are lost in the wilderness, Moravia sits by his radio and drinks whisky with Hanson. At one point, Moravia movingly describes to Hanson what the mail men were like, what they went through and their trials and tribulations.
My favorite parts in this drama are when Reeve as Edgar Anscombe is bickering with Tillie. For example, when they stop for a break and eat at a nearby pilots lounge while their plane gets a tune up, Edgar walks in and tells the man behind the counter to save the last jelly donut for him and he does, until Tillie wants it and says that she doesn't see his name on it wants to buy it for double the price. So the man breaks down and splits the jelly donut in half for them to share, and Edgar quickly swaps halves, leaving her the smaller half to eat. Another favorite scene is after they crash and Tillie goes in a field near the plane wreck and screams her lungs out irrating Edgar to no end making him kick and bang the plane in anger; also when she is sitting at the crash site and takes out a cigarette to smoke and Edgar comes over, rips the cigarette out of her hand and annoyingly yells at her "What do you smell gas?!" and then walks away calling her names to himself. I also liked it when Tillie finally did smoke and the plane wreck catches fire and Edgar grabs her by the back of her coat, picks her up off the ground and carries her away from the wreck so that she won't get hurt by the explosion; when they bicker and Edgar calls her a "jinx" and she calls him a "two-time loser" since this was not the first time he crashed; when one of Moravia's men, Stiller, flies over them and they are waving like crazy to try and get his attention so that they can be rescued and Tillie tumbles down the side of a rocky mountain and breaks her leg, then when Edgar touches it to see if it's broken making her scream in pain and he says annoyed and bitterly "It's probably broken!"; and when Tillie spots telephone lines and Edgar finds its source, a log cabin occupied by an old railroad lookout who is passed out, enters it and tries to waken the man to explain the situation when he spots his food heating on a pan on the stove and helps himself to it making the man wake up and aim his rifle at him to making him leave in a hurry.
While researching this part, Reeve studied the history of this period and found it fascinating. Reeve says, "There was an article in a 1926 National Geographic about this new daring breed of men written much the same way they wrote about the astronauts in the sixties." Reeve found out that the Elko to Pasco route that his character flies in the film is a real part of early air mail routes. To help him portray Edgar Anscombe, Reeve looked to Charles Lindbergh, who will always be remembered as the most famous early air mail pilot and for his historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Reeve says, "To a certain extent I was thinking of him. The idea of a man who is capable of great acts of heroism without any self awareness, amazes me. He was a man who'd be likely to say, 'well, then I flew the Atlantic, a lot of people met me at the airport and then I went to the Ambassador's house for dinner...' He had a flare for understatement." Reeve also found out that early air mail pilots had short life spans.
"They were cheating death," Reeve said. "If you got to be 35 you were
known as an old pilot." What turned Reeve on about being in The Aviator, besides getting to fly, was that it is a love story. Reeve says, "I felt it would be interesting to play an old-fashioned story like The Aviator without being too sentimental." Years later, in his autobiography Still Me, Reeve says about why is was good for the movie that he got the part, "The producers had no idea that I could actually fly a Stearman but agreed with me that if I did my own piloting, we would have opportunities to make the film more realistic than if we use a double. I could throw a couple of mailbags into the plane and then hop in, start the engine, and take off, all in one shot. We would also be able to film air-to-air from a helicopter instead of having to cut to close-ups shot in the studio."
The film was made on location in Yugoslavia near the borders of Austria and Italy. The producers did thorough research and made the film historically accurate. To re-create the post World War I time period, the production team constructed the Elko Airfield and discovered the landscapes of Nevada and Idaho in the small ski resort of Kranskja Gora. Reeve says, "The film works on several levels, certainly as a survival picture with beautiful scenery and exciting action, but also on human terms as a man is cut off from his feelings and soul." The hardest part of production for the producers was obtaining and getting permission to fly Boeing Stearmans, the original aircraft used by the U.S. Air Mail, which had to be found, reconditioned for flight and transported to the hinterlands of eastern Europe. Director George Miller, the Australian director famous for The Man From Snowy River says about the aerial sequences, "The special effects on this film were spectacular because we were able to spend a lot of time on the flying sequences." Reeve said in his book about preparing for the flying sequences, "My favorite days invloved flying, acting, and a little directing as well. A camera would be mounted on the wing, and I would take off with instructions from the director of photography to find a suitable location to film myself on the mail run. The director and crew would hang around the airfield until I returned a couple of hours later."
Another problem that came up was when to actually do the flying sequences. Reeve says, "I am sure the insurance company was quaking in their boots about me flying, but there is no reason, if you are qualified, for you not do something. After all, Steve McQueen drove racing cars in movies and he rode that motorcycle in The Great Escape." Co-producer Tom Brodek confirmed Reeve's suspicions about getting the approval to let him fly, "It was very difficult getting the insurance. They were charging by the hours of flight time and were very concerned about the whole deal. Also, the later in the shooting schedule that Christopher was to fly, the happier they were." In the film, when Reeve wasn't dealing with the danger of landing his stalled Stearman, he was on the ground fighting off a pack of wolves played by trained wolves named Levi, Akela, Kolchak, Dorka, Sash and Ivon during the climax of the film. When the lead wolf, Levi, attacks Reeve, it was not as dangerous as it seemed. The wolves trainer Cheryl Shawver explains, "He is not really attacking. He is coming for a piece of bait that Christopher has in his hand. Levi also snarls on command. He looks very ferocious and has this great big full-teeth snarl, but again, it is only for a reward."
While production of The Aviator was underway, a very special moment in Reeve's personal life was happening: the birth of his second child and one and only daughter Alexandra. Reeve said this in his book about when he found out his longtime girlfriend Gae Exton gave birth to Alexandra, "One afternoon I landed and was given the message that my daughter had just been born in London. Gae and I had been hoping for a weekend, but the baby had decided to arrive a few days early. Before dawn the next morning I drove across the border into Austria and down the to the city of Klagenfurt, caught a flight to Vienna, then one from Vienna to London, followed by another high-speed cab ride to the hospital in Wimbleton." Reeve felt guilty about having to race back to work the next day, especially since he and Gae had not decided on a name yet for the baby. After a month of phone calls and visits between London and Yugoslavia, they finally decided to call the baby Alexandra. The birth of Alexandra not only gave Reeve joy, but also second thoughts of his relationship with Exton. Reeve still had not yet overcome his problems with marriage, but one thing he knew that he wasn't going to do to his two children was "subject them to the kinds of family difficulties that I had faced as a child." Reeve kept to that and his two children from his relationship with Exton are in his life. To keep his mind off his personal problems after Alexandra was born, Reeve found relief in working on The Aviator.
The film has been released to home video three times throughout the years and is currently available. This movie is a must-have for Reeve fans, not just because you get to see Reeve as the pilot or the beautiful scenery, but because the timing between Reeve and Arquette when they bicker throughout the film is like Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon on The Lucy Show. There was some memorabilia released for this film including an original soundtrack album on Varese Sarabande Records, a reprinting of Gann's book for the movie, posters, a press kit, and 11"x14" lobby cards and 8"x10" color stills of eight images from the movie. The Aviator is one of two projects released on video in the 1980s that show Reeve as the pilot, the other is an out of print 1987 documentary called Touch The Sky where he flies in the co- pilot seat with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and is very worthwhile to track down. Also in a 1983 television special called Celebrity Daredevils, Reeve exhibited his piloting skills for the first time on national television by flying his glider plane. [Online there is a small clip from the beginning of The Aviator where Reeve is with Robert Pierce, the young boy Reeve's character was training. To get to the clip choose either ISDN and above or 56K and
below, then choose Drama, and scroll down past clips of Pierce's other movies to get to the one of The Aviator at the bottom.]
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