80s Movie Challenge Week 11: Top Gun (1986)

This time for our #80sMC we’re staying with the aeronautical theme started last week as Paul Childs wonders if it really does take a lot more than just fancy flying to make an entertaining plane movie…

I have an urge. An urge to move quite quickly.

Well, until I got a ticket and three points on my license for doing 34 in a 30 zone on Oldham Road near my flat, that is. And now I feel the need… the need to keep my insurance premiums relatively low. Sigh.

Unlike, however, our hero in this week’s 80s adventure, Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell who, according to his instructor Rick “Jester” Heatherly (the always brilliant Michael Ironside) “Flies by the seat of his pants, [and is] totally unpredictable.”

I remember seeing this for the first time, just as I was beginning to get into films – was probably around 1987-88 when I was 12-13. It was another of those films from around the time, like Dirty Dancing, Ghost, Pretty Woman or our featured film from a couple of weeks ago, Heathers, which really seemed to capture the attention (and hearts) of the girls in my school. When it first came out on VHS in the UK, in the summer of 1987, the 12 certificate was still a few years away so I had to get my mum to hire it for me. Luckily, she wanted to see it too, wandering if this newcomer on the block, some hotshot by the name of Tom Cruise, might replace Patrick Swayze as her current celebrity crush (short answer – No. And the release of Dirty Dancing later that year would only reinforce that).

But everyone at school was talking about it, so it seemed to be a good reason to see what the fuss was about. And my first impression was that it was not great. It was billed as this exciting, sexy adventure – but what you get instead with Top Gun is actually a rather slow-burning romantic drama about the consequences of arrogance and the importance of trusting your friends.

Or, more simply put… well, let’s allow the incomparable Rich Hall explain the plot to us, shall we?

He’s a jet pilot. A pretty good jet pilot? Yes he was! But he had a crisis of confidence and couldn’t fly jets anymore but I believe he met a beautiful woman who talked him into being a better jet pilot.

Check out that entire routine to see if you spot a pattern starting to emerge…

Anyway – so, yes, this is not the action spectacular I was expecting. Yes, it has multiple flight sequences, but most of them are training. The film is bookended with real encounters with the enemy, but otherwise, this film is basically like a High School Drama. Except the initially disapproving love interest is a flight instructor and the cocky student who thinks he knows it all is a manchild in charge of an $8m piece of military hardware.

So the action was a bust, kind of. The other thing that most of the kids in the school were talking about was “the sex scene”. The way my schoolmates raved about it, you’d think it was hardcore porn. but here’s what the BBFC’s notes on the 2011 Blu-Ray release Gun say about that scene:

It also includes a brief and undetailed sex scene, which is filmed largely in silhouette. Although some thrusting is briefly implied, the scene only shows the couple’s head and shoulders and cuts away before the woman’s dress is removed.

Very disappointing to a 13-year-old – the sex scenes in both The Terminator and Highlander were far better. Obviously, my teenage mind had not yet processed the phrase “tastefully done” quite yet. So tame is that scene that Top Gun was downgraded to a 12 certificate in 2004.

So I never really liked Top Gun as a kid. It was, frankly, a bit boring. The ZX Spectrum game was better.

It may not have produced the most attractive looking games, but the humble Speccy had it where it counts – playability!

But that’s not to rule its importance to the world of cinema out. It was groundbreaking in terms of positive portrayal of the military on screen. In fact, the US Navy saw a 500% rise in recruits following its release. However, it was this pro-military stance which saw the film lose one of its potential stars. Matthew Modine, who was up for the role of Maverick (auditioning alongside the likes of Michael J Fox, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage and Tom Hanks) but he dropped out after finding he disagreed with the gung-ho attitude of the film.

This would also lose the film its original theme song for the action sequences. Danger Zone, as so memorably performed by Yacht Rock and mid-80s movie power-ballad supremo Kenny Loggins, was originally offered to Bryan Adams (who refused, and also turned down permission to use his song Only The Strong Survive due to his pacifist tendencies), and then REO Speedwagon (who turned it down because the studio wouldn’t let them write or sing any of their own songs on the soundtrack) and Cory Hart (who turned it down for the same reason as REO – but would later perform someone else’s songs – Hold On – for Simpson and Bruckheimer’s next film, Beverly Hills Cop II).

Loggins, then, was actually the fourth person to be offered Giorgio Moroder’s song before it was accepted. The film’s love theme Take my Breath Away went through similar problems with The Motels going as far as recording their take on the song before eventually turning it down before New Wave rockers Berlin took it on.  That version appeared on their compilation album Anthologyland. Aside from missing Terri Nunn’s vocals, it’s almost identical.

Adams’ song eventually found a home in a less well-loved 1980s action-adventure, Renegades.

Despite all the troubles, Top Gun‘s soundtrack is one of the most fondly remembered (and best selling) of the 80s movie albums, alongside the likes of The Lost Boys, Dirty Dancing and Ghostbusters. The expanded edition, which factors in some of the older songs in the film by artists like Otis Redding, The Righteous Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis is well worth a listen.

Soundtrack issues were not Top Gun‘s only woes. It cost Paramount $10,000 per hour to hire the F14 fighter jets needed for the action sequences, and they were only allowed to fire two missiles. As a result, next time you watch, pay particular attention to the aerial battle at the end – those missile shots are re-used multiple times!

Antony Edwards (Goose) was reportedly the only actor who didn’t throw up upon being taken up in the jets, so almost all of the footage shot inside real planes was unusable. As a result, there is an awful lot of model work, as well as a static mock-up of an F14 attached to a hydraulic gimbal with the actors filmed against a sky-blue backdrop! Watching last night, and knowing this, I have to say that they did a good job – the effects really do stand up today.

To recoup some of their money Paramount struck a deal with Pepsi – the ramifications of which are still being widely felt today. The initial release of Top Gun became the first home VHS to include a minute long Diet Pepsi advertisement before the film (not just the usual Coming Soon trailers for the studio’s lineup). This resulted in the price of VHS tapes being reduced by $3 each in the US – not an insubstantial amount in today’s money ($6.83 or £5.80) to knock off the price, and some argue that Top Gun‘s revolutionary tactics are what led to the massive boom of home movie ownership in the late 80s and 90s.

Top Gun‘s is partly based on the real-life flight school of the film’s title (a nickname for Fighter Weapons School as it was called at the time) but, putting it in the same bracket as films like Saturday Night Fever, Argo, The Fast & The Furious, and The Dallas Buyers Club, the film’s main inspiration was a magazine article. Top Guns was written by Ehud Yonay about Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego where the school is based.

So bringing things back to last night’s viewing, over 30 years since my first. Was I still disappointed? Not really. While I still love a rollicking good dogfight scene or car chase, I’d like to think I’ve grown to appreciate dramatic aspects of movies too (it must be true because I really like Midsommar which is nearly three hours of not much happening). And maybe it’s because I’m an adult now, with responsibilities and all that boring stuff, but rather than seeing Maverick as the no-nonsense hero who knows best, sticks it to The Man and does what he wants, consequences be damned, I kind of felt he was a bit of a jerk. Even after he learns his lesson and faces up to his responsibilities, he’s still an arrogant chap.

Maybe that’s what makes him a pretty good jet pilot and some of those instincts shouldn’t be completely ironed out. Time will tell later this year when, finally, the sequel Top Gun: Maverick hits our screens.

Join us again next week as we look at another Simpson/Bruckheimer production and leap back a couple of years to the film that put Eddie Murphy firmly on the Hollywood A-List – Beverly Hills Cop.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

Join the fun - leave a comment below!