Thursday 16 August 2018

Airwolf season 1 (1984)

Airwolf sounds on the surface like a typical 1980s American action adventure series, with lots of explosions and a gleefully trashy vibe. Which is sort of what it is, except for the lead performance by Jan-Michael Vincent which makes it something else again, and some interestingly ambiguous political elements. This is the thinking person’s trashy cheesy action adventure series.

The setup would suggest that this is going to be Knight Rider but with an attack helicopter instead of a high-tech super-car. The helicopter is the Airwolf. It was designed by Dr Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings) and it was financed by the Firm. The Firm is clearly the CIA (popularly known as the Company) and the whole project has all the hallmarks of a CIA project. The Firm hasn’t bothered to let anyone else in the U.S. Government know anything about their new toy. They were kind of hoping to keep it to themselves but now they’re trying to come to some sort of arrangement with some Washington political deal-makers. The Airwolf is going to be put through its paces for the benefit of these political bigwigs, and Dr Moffet is going to act as test pilot.

The Airwolf is quite a toy. It’s a supersonic(!) armour-plated practically invulnerable attack helicopter and it’s armed to the teeth. It’s like a small air force in one package.

There is a slight problem with doing things in ultra-secretive and somewhat illegal ways. You often end up dealing with people who are not entirely honest and not entirely stable. Dr Moffet is not merely unstable. He’s a raving lunatic. In the pilot episode, Shadow of the Hawke, Moffet steals the Airwolf and takes it to Libya for Colonel Gaddafi to play with.

Now the Firm has to figure out away to get their toy back. There’s only one other man who can fly the Airwolf, and that’s Stringfellow Hawke. And that’s a problem. To say that Hawke is a difficult man to deal with is putting it mildly. Nonetheless Michael Coldsmith Briggs III, code-named Archangel and one of the Firm’s senior people (Alex Cord), sets off for Hawke’s remote cabin to try to convince him to help. He brings with him Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer) on the assumption that her feminine charms might do the trick.

Obviously the story is going to provide lots of opportunities for aerial action, explosions and general mayhem. And in fact it delivers these things in impressive quantity.

It’s the introduction of Stringfellow Hawke that marks this as an unexpectedly offbeat series. He doesn’t fit any of the accepted action hero stereotypes. He’s not a larger-than-life hero. He’s not an eccentric. He’s not possessed of boyish charm. He’s not a rebel with a taste for adventure. Stringfellow Hawke is a totally messed up human being. He’s moody, he’s taciturn, he’s morose, he’s chronically depressed, he’s anti-social, he’s rude, he’s just not fit for civilised society. He just wants to be left alone in his cabin in the woods where he can play his ’cello and try to make friends with the local sea eagle.

He’s obviously an unusual character but it’s Jan-Michael Vincent’s bizarre performance that makes him really fascinating. It’s a curiously detached and mechanical performance and it works perfectly. This is a man who has pretty much shut down emotionally. It’s not that he’s unemotional, it’s more that he has simply decided that he cannot deal with emotions any longer. Jan-Michael Vincent was probably already struggling with his own inner demons at this time, a struggle he was destined to lose, and perhaps that’s what gives his performance a particularly edgy feel. He was an actor with plenty of charisma but it’s an odd kind of low-key charisma that combines machismo with more than a hint of inner turmoil.

The obsessive, brooding and melancholy personality of Stringfellow Hawke is one of the key things that sets Airwolf apart from superficially similar 80s action shows like Knight Rider and The A-Team. There are other differences as well. Airwolf might seem like a show aimed at 12-year-old boys but it isn’t. It’s actually quite dark, with a pervasive sense of loss. Hawke has lost everybody he ever cared about. It’s not entirely clear what keeps him going, apart from a stubborn determination not to surrender. In The A-Team thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition get fired off in every episode but nobody ever seems to get killed. In Airwolf bad things happen to people. Bad things happen to good people. And there are seriously bad people who are more than just comic-book villains. There’s real evil in the world.

One of the things that keeps Stringfellow going is the hope of finding his brother St. John. The brother was shot down over Vietnam fourteen years earlier and is almost certainly dead but Stringfellow clings to the faint hope that he may have somehow survived. Vietnam was still a painful memory in the 80s and the issue of the possible survival of American prisoners-of-war was quite a big deal at the time. It’s a rather dark theme for an action adventure series but it’s typical of Airwolf.

And while Airwolf has a generally patriotic and occasionally embarrassingly gung ho tone it’s not entirely simplistic. While the Firm is a sanitised version of the CIA it’s still clearly an organisation that considers itself to be above the law. And the Firm’s operations are sometimes badly conceived and badly executed (such as their brilliant idea of infiltrating female agents into Libya in the pilot episode). The series, on the surface at least, goes along with the idea that it’s OK for the Firm to lie and cheat and kill ’cause they’re the good guys. Of course viewers of a more sceptical turn of mind might have had a few doubts.

Unquestionably the key to the success of Airwolf was the action, and the action sequences are impressive. They’re very impressive. The aerial shots are terrific.

Ernest Borgnine might seem like an odd choice to play veteran helicopter pilot and Stringfellow’s offsider Dominic Santini but it turns out to be successful casting. The voluble wildly extroverted Santini and the taciturn and painfully introverted Hawke make an interesting and effective combination.

Alex Cord is smooth and perhaps just the tiniest bit sinister as Archangel. The relationship between Stringfellow Hawke and Archangel is rather complex and it’s one of the elements that makes this series a cut above the average. There’s a degree of mutual respect, but Archangel sees Hawke as naïve while Hawke thinks Archangel is cynical and less than honest. They use each other, but they don’t trust each other too far. It’s not exactly a friendship but there’s some loyalty.

The Episode Guide
In Daddy's Gone a Hunt’n the KGB has come up with a plan to get hold of an example of the latest US fighter jet and the Firm wants Hawke to foil this scheme. Hawke doesn’t care much whether the Russians get the fighter or not but he does care about the fate of one small boy who is being used as a pawn in this dangerous game.

Bite of the Jackal adds some paranoia and treachery to the mix. One of Archangel’s underlings, Mitchell Bruck, has gone rogue and has cooked up a scheme to get hold of the Airwolf. This would be a bad thing for all sorts of reasons, but mostly it would be very bad for Archangel’s future career prospects. Archangel and Hawke are going to have to prevent Bruck from carrying out his plan and they’re going to have to rescue Santini and a stowaway he picked up. This is one of those stories in which the bad guys and the good guys are hard to tell apart.

In Proof Through the Night Stringfellow Hawke has to extract an American agent from Russia. There’s the usual gung ho action stuff but some serious moments as well, involving divided loyalties and the nature of treachery.

One Way Express sees Santini taking a job as a stunt pilot for a movie, which causes some tensions with Hawke. It causes some anxiety for Archangel as well - the movie’s producer is a guy named Philip Maurice and he has a colourful history which covers pretty much all bases - espionage, treason, sabotage, grand larceny. It’s more than that though - Archangel has a personal grudge to settle as well. Archangel has no idea what Maurice is up to but he is sure it has nothing to do with movie-making.

This is actually a pretty cool heist story with some impressive stunt flying. A fine episode.

Echoes from the Past starts with Hawke being offered information that could allow him to find his long-lost brother. On his way back to the cabin his helicopter crashes. He awakens in hospital to discover that he has missed out on some recent news. In fact he’s missed out on an enormous amount of news. He’s been in a coma for months and dramatic things have happened that change everything about the way he views the world. Hawke will do anything to find his brother. It’s his one weak spot. It’s a gripping episode and Jan-Michael Vincent gets to stretch his acting muscles a little.

In 1960s and 1970s action adventure television Nazis were everywhere. And if the episode Fight Like a Dove is to believed those evil Nazis were still around in the 80s! This episode combines vigilante justice and arms dealing and some CIA duplicity but it’s a fairly mediocre and predictable story.

In Mad Over Miami Dominic has become involved with anti-Castro groups trying to get political prisoners out of Cuba but there are multiple double-crosses and it gets very complicated. It gets even more complicated when Hawke realises that the Firm has spent a great deal of money arming rebels and establishing “Camp Freedom” but the rebels they are arming are nothing more than gangsters. So it’s a typical black op that’s gone bad and meanwhile Dominic and Hawke are caught in the middle. A pretty neat little episode.

And They Are Us takes Stringfellow and Dominic to Africa, to a nasty little war between North Limbawe and South Limbawe, one backed by the Soviets and one backed by the Americans. South Limbawe has the services of an attack helicopter squadron led by mercenary Colonel Vidor, an American renegade who’s been Hawke’s commanding officer in Vietnam. Archangel has talked Hawke into getting involved in this messy situation by suggesting that Vidor might know what happened to Hawke’s brother St John. Vidor was and is a great helicopter pilot but now he’s all messed up with self-contempt and cynicism and alcohol. A good solid episode with a bit of human drama, a bit of political cynicism and lots of aerial action.

In Mind of the Machine Dr Robert Winchester has designed an advanced Airwolf simulator. Winchester had almost been selected as the original Airwolf test pilot but lost out to Stringfellow Hawke and he’s still kind of bitter about this. He wants to settle the question of just how good he is compared to Hawke and he has a way of doing this - a double simulation in which he and Hawke can fight it out in a one-on-one aerial dogfight. While all this is happening there’s a very real and very dangerous plot afoot and Dr Winchester has discovered some secrets about Airwolf that were only ever known to its insane designer, Dr Moffet.

In To Snare a Wolf there’s some vicious infighting going on within the intelligence communities, and the obsessive and crazed D.G. Bogard (Lance LeGault) is out to get Archangel. Bogard is also out to get Airwolf and he has satellite surveillance with which to do it. It seems like there’s going to be no escape for Hawke this time. Bogard is ruthless and insane. What Bogard doesn’t realise is that in Stringfellow Hawke he is up against a man who is just as crazy as he is. Also caught up in the drama is out-of-work pilot Antonia Donatelli who is either a nice Italian girl trying to persuade Dominic to give her a job or she’s a treacherous operative working for D.G. Bogard. A fine episode with a good action finale and some intriguing insights into the backstabbing world of the intelligence communities.

Summing Up
Of the various American action adventure TV series of the 80s Airwolf is by far the most intelligent, complex and interesting. It’s also incredibly entertaining. It’s a truly great TV series and very highly recommended.

I've also reviewed the second season of Airwolf.

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