Airwolf: Season 1
The relationship between television and films is often incestuous, borrowing plot elements, remixing and releasing the result to the American public. Usually, this is a simple recipe for disaster but in the case of Airwolf, it actually produced an above average action series. One of the reasons for the way this series worked is its progenitors where excellent in their own rights. Blue Thunder was an action packed film about a heavily armed helicopter was mixed with Knight Rider, featuring a man and his high tech car. The result was Airwolf, the top secrete prototype of a weapon heavy urban assault helicopter manned by a loner on a personal mission.
A covert division of the CIA known as the ‘Firm’ specializes in hi tech weapons to fight the enemies of America. One of their greatest successes is Airwolf, a highly specialized helicopter that packs every imaginable weapon possible. In the pilot the principle designer of Airwolf, Doctor Charles Mofett (David Hemmings) steals the craft and heads to Libya. The head of the division of the Firm that created the aircraft, Michael ‘Archangel’ Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord) hires the reclusive ace pilot Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) to find Airwolf and bring her back. Hawke is reluctant but Archangel offers to help him find his brother, St. John, who was MIA in Viet Nam. Hawke gets his long time friend Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine) to assist him and the team finally gets the helicopter back. After that Hawke refuses to give Airwolf back unless he gets the promised information on his brother but the pair continues to perform missions for the Firm under the cover of Santini Air, a roving air show. Santini air also works as a general good guy team helping the innocent, sort of like an A-Team that can fly. This does afford some variation as the series continues permitting the plots to move between typical cold war angst and helping the inevitably beautiful damsel distress.
This first season opened in 1984, a turbulent time in American history. Set in the closing days of the cold war there was still enough paranoia in the American people that tales of spies and the menace of communist domination still made for some enthralling story lines. When alternated with classic good over evil plots each week brought some great escapism to the audience. This series flew above its contemporaries largely because of the sub plots and story arcs that ran through the season. Having Hawke concerned with the whereabouts of his MIA brother struck a cord with many Americans that lost a love one in Viet Nam. It added a touch of pathos to something that could have been just another shoot ‘em up series. This arc also allowed some dramatic moments that could have come across as contrived but here is presented as believable, giving a reasonable motivation to the central characters. There were also little touches that have remained with me since I first saw this show on the air. Hawke relaxed by playing the cello, not your typical action hero past time. It let us see a more emotionally connected individual instead a cookie cutter action hero. Hawke’s relationship with the Firm through Archangel also gave us a hero that could defy the secretive government remaining true to his own sense of morality. This created a series with far more depth than anything on television at that time.
As usual casting is important in a series like this. The danger is letting the helicopter become too dominate in the plots. Here, the focus was truly on the human characters and for this end experienced actors where required and obtained. Jan-Michael Vincent has made a nice career for himself as a sullen, tragically heroic man. He is usually deep in thought but was more than able to rise to action when the situation required it. He brought dimension to his presentation of Stringfellow Hawke, a complex character that evoked empathy in the audience. While the premise of most action television series are more than a little contrived Vincent’s performance not only provides a believable leading man but sells the entire baseline of the series. Back then many of us lost a loved on in Viet Nam and Hawke’s devotion to his lost brother struck a very real cord with the audience of that time. Now, with American soldiers once again on foreign soil a new generation will be just as moved as we where back in 1984. Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine is one of those rare actors that were as comfortable in a leading role as he was in the role of a character actor. He is a true professional, always bringing his best to any role he takes on. Here, he is the curmudgeon, the older, mentor to the younger star of the series. While his checked past often created some difficulties his main quality was his unwavering loyalty to his friend. Alex Cord was perfect as the man pulling the strings, Archangel. He is the type of actor that many don’t know by name but his face shows up in a variety of films and series. His cool persona sells his part and helps the momentum of the series. Even the main villain was a faultless choice. David Hemmings has that smooth exterior that hides a more sinister person just below the surface. The few times he is shown in the series sets things in motion and while not used in later episode he helped create the mood that persisted through the series.
Few men have made such a positive impact on American television as did Donald P. Bellisario. As a former US Marine his commitment to the military is very evident in his television series. He has a respect for those that have laid down their lives in service to their country and this translated to some of the best television the public has ever had a chance to enjoy. With Airwolf he broke the mold so over used by other series. Bellisario did not pander to the lowest common denominator of the audience; he provided intelligent, well rounded family entertainment. Airwolf worked on many levels, action, loyalty and justice. There was something for almost every taste.
Universal has lately been providing quality, cult classic television shows to DVD. This presentation is much like others in this set of DVDs, well done and worth the purchase. The video quality does show a few signs of age, some white specks mar the picture occasionally but never to the point of being too annoying. The mono sound track was re-mixed into Dolby two channel mono and produces a reasonably full range sound field. All eleven episodes are here along with the two hour pilot movie. This is deeper series than most but there is enough action to keep you riveted to the screen. This is a great choice to entertain the whole family.