Devotion: The True Story Behind a Movie About the Navy’s First Black Aviator | Movies

Jesse Brown was the original top gunner – a Navy fighter pilot whose heroism in the Korean War earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest award the U.S. military pins on high-flyers. The fact that he was also the first black pilot to take flight training for the Navy puts him in thin air.

Brown, 24, never made it home. While supporting UN ground forces involved in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in December 1950, Brown sustained artillery damage to his F4U Corsair aircraft and crash-landed in a remote mountain valley. When his wingman, Tom Hudner, afterwards saw Brown struggling to get free from his cockpit, he defied orders and deliberately crash-landed his aircraft nearby to help Brown. But in the end, after calming a fire on Brown’s plane and hacking into his cockpit with an ax for 45 minutes in the sub-zero weather, Hudner was unable to extricate Brown from his plane. visibility). Brown lost consciousness soon after; two days later, a squadron returned to sprinkle the crash site with napalm to prevent Brown’s body and aircraft from falling into enemy hands. Hudner was left physically and emotionally bruised.

For his bravery, Hudner received the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration of the United States military, from President Truman on the White House lawn in April 1951—with Brown’s widow, Daisy, close behind them. “Had I been on the ground, I think I would have had enough faith in my shipmates to have someone do something,” Hudner said before his death in 2017. “I felt, yes, there was a chance that I wouldn’t.” . But it was worth saving Jesse’s life.”

The story of that doomed bet and the unlikely friendship that grew out of it is the focus of Devotion – a new theatrical release starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell. The film is based on a 2015 biography by Adam Makos, who eventually became good friends with Hudner. “He really intended to go back that night or the next day,” says Makos. “He wasn’t ready to face the reality that Jesse was really gone.”

Even though it’s packed with grand action sequences and wrestles with heavy ideas like duty and race at a time in American history when the parameters for both couldn’t be clearer, Devotion wasn’t necessarily a slot to make it to the big screen. . As much as Hollywood loves a meaty combat movie, it treats the Korean War like a middle child to World War II and Vietnam. That is, it is often referenced but largely ignored. “The last major Korean War movie, by my count, was Pork Chop Hill starring Gregory Peck — and that was in 1959,” notes Makos.

It’s called The Forgotten War, even though it was the first UN war and so many American icons took part in it – from baseball hit Ted Williams to Neil Armstrong to Marilyn Monroe. “The war in Korea just faded, I think, because America didn’t want another war back then,” says Makos. “It was a cold, mysterious and distant place. We were tired. It was time to move on.” When John Wayne attempted to produce a film about the Battle of Outpost Vegas, a late-stage counterattack in which nearly every participating Marine was captured or killed, the U.S. Marine Corps—skeptical of the defeatist streak, with the working title: Giveaway Hill—ignored the project, fearing it would give the Communists a PR victory. It took Powell to express an interest in playing Hudner and producing the movie before Devotion really took off. He too became close to Hudner; he and Rachel Smith, Brown’s granddaughter, attended the Navy pilot’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

The first frames of Devotion unfold less like Sands of Iwo Jima than Top Gun, as Navy warbirds soar over the Atlantic, present-day South Carolina-Georgia coast representing 1950s Rhode Island. Where Top Gun makes carrier landings look routine, Devotion lingers in the all-too-real tension when it fails to underline the balletic grandeur of formation flight.

Jonathan Majors in dedication
Jonathan Majors in dedication. Photo: Eli Ade/AP

Even majors (like Brown) who struggled with the blind spots on his Corsair fighter jet remembered the recent air show in Dallas where six people died after a P-63 Kingcobra prop fighter collided in mid-air with a B-17 bomber. . “The pilot of the P-63 had lost that B-17 in his eyes for maybe half a minute, and that was enough,” says Makos, who was friends with some of the Texas Raiders who piloted the B-17 and in conversations with them about using the plane for a new film adaptation. “When I see planes flying in tight formation in the film, I just take it for granted. Even flying through the open skies with no enemy in sight takes incredible confidence to have another man 10 feet away on your wing with the ability to split your plane in half with one wrong move. cutting and dropping you from the sky. That is why the trust between these pilots is such a powerful statement.”

Makos, 41, has always been a military fan. Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, he was a regular audience for two grandfathers who served – one in the Marines, the other in the Army Air Forces on a Pacific B-17 that landed in Japan after the bomb was dropped. cases. He started publishing articles on military history at the age of 15. Just before his French high school club planned a trip to Paris, Makos pulled out at the last minute to take his family to Disney World. That plane to Paris, TWA Flight 800, crashed near Long Island in the third-deadliest aviation accident in US history.

The survivor’s guilt has made him an even more sympathetic ear. “Having that near-death accident at the end of my freshman year of high school really revealed to me the depth of sacrifice that military members are willing to make,” he says. “Jesse Brown never had to go to the Korean War. He was already the first aircraft carrier pilot of the black navy. He could have been the first black pilot. But instead he went. My own experience has shown how precious life is and how hard that choice must have been for Jesse.”

Jesse L Brown enlisted aboard USS Leyte in 1949.
Jesse L Brown enlisted aboard USS Leyte in 1949. Photo: United States Navy/National Archives.

Even as Hudner approached the end of his own life, he still believed he could bring Brown back home. In 2013, when Hudner was 88, Makos organized a trip to North Korea – Hudner’s only return since the war. They spent 10 days with the North Korean military and even planned a mission to return to Chosin Reservoir to search for Brown’s remains. “We didn’t know if we were going to find the wreckage of an airplane,” says Makos. ‘We didn’t know if we’d find a grave. We didn’t know if we would find villagers around. But someone had to go out there and just start asking those questions.

But then, just as they were about to leave, the search mission was sunk by monsoon rains that hung up the North Korean army advance team. But it was not all in vain. “Thank you for coming this far after such a long time to keep a promise to a friend,” Kim Jong-un said in a proclamation to Hudner. “I promise that the Korean People’s Army will pick up the search from here and try to find your friend.”

After Devotion, the Korean War has not been forgotten. In any case, the past is a prologue. “It’s actually the most relevant war for our modern times,” says Makos. “You guys have North Korea rattling sabers with the South all the time. You have Russia trying to rebuild their Cold War empire. China threatens Taiwan every week. We are reliving the Korean War all over again. We are leading up to it.”

This article was updated on November 24, 2022. In an earlier version, the F4U Corsair fighter was incorrectly described as a “jet”.

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