Cult-TV Review: Airwolf - The Movie (1984)

From 1984 to 1986 on CBS, "the attack helicopter of the future," -- dubbed Airwolf -- flew circles against the competition, including a disastrous TV version of Dan O'Bannon's Blue Thunder (1983).

Created by Donald Bellisario (Tales of the Gold Monkey), Airwolf aired at 9:00 pm on Saturday nights, and -- at least during its first season -- featured a dark, brooding quality that distinguished it from run-of-the-mill 1980s TV action-adventure fare. Less jovial than MacGyver, less tongue-in-cheek than The A-Team, this series charted its own distinctive trajectory.

The universe of Airwolf is introduced in "Airwolf: The Movie," the two-hour pilot episode written and directed by Bellisario. A traitorous genius, Dr. Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings) steals the futuristic attack helicopter (a re-dressed Bell 222A) from a branch of the C.I.A. called "The Firm." Moffet takes the top-secret craft, which can exceed the speed of sound, to Libya, where he uses it under the employ of America's big enemy of the early 1980s, Colonel Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏāfī.

A high ranking official in the secretive "Firm," code-named Archangel (Alex Cord) attempts to recruit loner and pilot, Stringellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) to steal Airwolf back from Libya after Moffet uses it to destroy an American naval destroyer at sea. Hawke isn't inclined to help out at first, but the Firm steals all of his priceless art collection (gifted to him by his grandfather) as an incentive. Also, another agent, gorgeous Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer) romances Hawke, and the two fall in love.

With the help of pilot and old family friend, Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Hawke finally undertakes the mission to recover Airwolf, but in the process loses Gabrielle, whom Moffett tortures in the Libyan desert and leaves for dead.

Using Airwolf's awesome weaponry, Hawke kills Moffett and takes the chopper back to the States. But instead of turning it over to Archangel and the Firm, Stringfellow decides to hide Airwolf in an undisclosed location. He will only return the fearsome weapon of destruction to the government when the Firm reveals to Hawke everything it knows about his M.I.A. brother, St. John, who disappeared in Vietnam.

Archangel suggests that an accommodation can be reached, especially if Hawke occasionally flies important missions in the Firm's interest.

The quality that largely differentiated Airwolf, at least during its first season, from the vast majority of action series on the air at the time (like the immensely enjoyable but cartoonish A-Team), was its melancholy tone and personality. Jan-Michael Vincent portrayed a taciturn, haunted hero who clearly forecasts "the dark age" of such heroes following Tim Burton's Batman in 1989. In its original review of the series, Variety noted Hawke's "intricate background," and much of that personal history is revealed in the pilot movie.

Specifically, Stringfellow's parents died when he was twelve. The love of his life died in a car accident when he was a young adult. And his beloved brother disappeared in Vietnam during the war. And, following the action of the pilot, Gabrielle is also dead and gone. This history explains why Hawke lives the life of a hermit at his log cabin in Big Bear, keeping only a dog and a circling bald eagle as company: he believes he is cursed. Anyone who gets too close to him will die.

Introspective and cynical, Hawke spends his days playing a Stradivarius cello for the aforementioned flying eagle, a lonely serenade from one majestic creature to another, perhaps. As TV Guide's Robert MacKenzie noted, Vincent has a "glum magnetism" in the lead role of Hawke, and "can carry a scene." Indeed he can. The most emoting Vincent ever does is with his cheek muscles. They flex when he's angry. He's the show's unlikely center of gravity, unmovable and mostly unmoved by the destruction surrounding him.

A loner and a musician, Hawke was also presented on Airwolf as something of a serious, independent thinker, at least initially. In the pilot movie, he wonders if there's any real difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Archangel's assistant, Mariella answers that the Americans "wear white hats." Stringfellow doesn't look convinced at that distinction. During the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Stringellow's question about the use of power (and weaponry) was rare on television, if not all together invisible.

 might have quickly proven a cold, mechanical series about a super helicopter blowing things up, but with the unconventional and downright anti-social Stringellow Hawke as its lead character, the first season boasted the sort of gravitas and humanity that today we associate with modern action characters like 24's Jack Bauer (who has faced his share of personal tragedy too.)

Alas, CBS was apparently baffled by the gloomy, serious tone and burgeoning story arc of Airwolf, and demanded "family friendly" changes for the ensuing seasons. For one thing (in the tradition of Mission: Impossible), the action would shift from foreign to domestic, hopefully to ramp-up audience interest and identification. For another thing, a possible regular love interest for Hawke was added to the series with the outgoing, spicy character of Caitlin O'Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott). Hawke and Santini also became more willing, less-questioning agents for the Firm.

Still, even these modulations in formula looked great compared to Airwolf's final TV sortie. The series shifted from CBS to the USA Network for its fourth season, ditched Jan-Michael Vincent, and featured an all-new cast (including Barry Dillon as the missing St. John). Even Airwolf herself was MIA: the series now only featured "rerun" stock footage of the amazing chopper (culled from previous episodes). The second and third seasons might have been a corruption of the series' original adult intent, but the fourth season was an out-and-out travesty. In all, 79 episodes of Airwolf were made; 55 of them airing on CBS.

As we all realize, remakes of once-popular properties are arriving hot and heavy these days, so it's likely only a matter of time before someone takes a crack at an Airwolf feature film. While it would be nice to see the further adventures of Stringfellow Hawke, one can only hope that prospective producers recall the program's first season, and the mood of icy introspection, loneliness and melancholy that the series crafted with relative skill. Otherwise, Airwolf is just a show (or movie) about a cool helicopter...and that gets old. Fast.


  1. AIRWOLF needs to be rebooted. Fine review.


  2. Anonymous9:25 PM

    Full disclosure that, while I love (LOVE) Airwolf (mostly for the Archangel side of things and honestly a bit because of Lance LeGault's later (?) opening V.O. And maybe had a crush on Miranda), I have only been able to get through a couple of episodes of the truly terrible fourth made-in-Canada season. Anyway, along with the recycled footage weren't there also new really bad shots of an obvious model helicopter? Also was the actor who played Sinjin (before Airwolf never knew St.John was pronounced that way) Dick Van Dyke's son, or am I just remembering that wrong? Thanks.

    1. Yes, season 4 had Dick Van Dyke's son. Barry Van Dyke also came in for the ill-fated second season of Battlestar Galactica:1980.

    2. Anonymous11:53 AM

      Barry Van Dyke played St John Hawke in the last series. Perhaps calling him Dillon was a joke or reference to the character Mr. Van Dyke played on Galactica 80? Leslie

  3. "Glum magnetism" pretty well defined Jan-Michael Vincent's entire career, and Alex Cord's as well! Two stiffer-faced headliners could not have been found for a show, which is what hurt Airwolf the most with viewers. The premise of the damaged and rescued hero/antihero working for the good guys either as payback or as ransom for some kind of blackmail was not unusual--see The Six Million Dollar Man (which was originally meant to be much darker in tone), Knight Rider, Hardcastle & McCormick, Wiseguy. Airwolf was more hobbled than the foregoing because Vincent as the main character, and Cord as his controller, just were not amiable enough to hold viewers against their dark natures. A Lee Majors and an Edward Mulhare were needed. Your show's in trouble if Ernie Borgnine is the only pleasant guy in it.

    "Airwolf" did have quite a devoted but small following, though. Clearly CBS couldn't figure out how to place it on the schedule and pitched it a bit like Blue Thunder. In fact a fair number of viewers probably tuned in expecting it to be more like Blue Thunder and tuned out as a result.

    Had it been on the air a few years later, it probably would have started on the USA Network, which was just beginning to transform from sports network to programmed content, with a lot of turns down blind alleys due to constantly shifting ownership partners, until it became the permanent home of very offbeat programming for genre enthusiasts and night owls. Airwolf would have fit right in with USA's shows like Silk Stalkings, Tekwar, Forever Knight, La Femme Nikita, and Crime Story and T.J. Hooker reruns as part of "USA Up All Night". The move to USA at the time Airwolf shifted there occurred when Columbia had some ownership in the network, and the changes to the show did indeed kill it.

  4. I watched all 3 of 4 seasons of Airwolf in the years gone by, and while it's a shame it wasn't all it could be, it was still a pretty spirited production, and Vincent, Borgnine and Scott were engaging. The series did veer into the weirdly surreal a few times though: in the story where O'Shannessey first appears, the copter's rotary blade proved powerful enough to send a villain's pickup truck rolling over on a highway, yet O'Shannessy's car was never affected, and neither were any of the people standing on the road! On the other hand, it's one of the earliest series I know of where computer viruses were first explored, as in the 2nd season episode "Moffet's Ghost", where it turned out the late villain had installed a virus on board the copter's computer systems, and they had to do some special flying maneuvers to freeze it out.

    I've largely avoided the 4th season, which was pretty discouraging, and if memory serves, it inexplicably changed Hawke's brother St. John from older to younger! The actress who played Jo Santini reportedly said that the teleplays for the 4th season were already completed before they were hired, leaving the cast no space for creative input. A shame it had to come down to that.

    In retrospect, the first three seasons, whatever their flaws, are gems worth seeing. It's just the fourth season that's best left forgotten.


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