The Scene of the Heaving Bedclothes

Some years ago, I was visiting one of my relations. Late in the evening, while flipping through the TV channels, I came to a scene of heaving bedclothes. I watched until I recognized the characters and the scene. Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis. Top Gun. Blech. Listlessly I clicked on.

My relation blurted, "What's the matter with you? Are you dead or something? That's a great movie!"

I goggled at her. Finally I said, "That movie is really unrealistic." We dropped the subject, and I clicked on. I don't remember what we ended up watching, but it was probably something pretty unrealistic.

Since then, I've brooded about what made that scene of heaving bedclothes so uninteresting. Was I really dead or something? I replayed my reaction and concluded, no. The problem wasn't the heaving bedclothes, they were just fine. The problem was the rest of the movie. I knew too much for such a scene to take my breath away.

The movie Top Gun was filmed in 1986, just after the United States invaded the impoverished island of Grenada for a reason I've forgotten. It therefore preceded by some years the Tailhook Scandal, in which drunken male Navy pilots at the 1991 Tailhook Convention forced their female colleagues to run a groping gauntlet. At the time, officers explained this behavior as "traditional". These pilots were the Navy elite, they could do what they pleased.

In that context, imagine the scene. An attractive female aeronautical engineer comes to the Top Gun Navy base to give a seminar on aeronautical engineering. At the end of the seminar, the Tom Cruise character invites her out for a drink. After about a half second of consideration, off she goes. He takes her to a bar frequented by some of the great names in aviation, past and present. She is snowed. He chases her car down the road on his motorcycle. Not long after, he has her in the sack, and we have the scene of the heaving bedclothes.

So far, so traditional. Everybody loves a uniform.

Here's the problem . According to the script, the Kelly McGillis character was an aeronautical engineer with an advanced degree, qualified to teach at the top Naval training facility in the country. She knew the theory, practice, and history of aviation from years of intensive study. Surely she had a pilot's license herself. She had experienced the jealousy of the men she had beaten in the classroom and endured their gibes at her femininity. She had taught Navy pilots before and knew that many of them were pigs and proud of it. She knew what an invitation for a drink meant. So off she goes to screw a Navy pilot on a half seconds' consideration?

None of the professional women I've known would be so fatuous. There is the impulse, and there is the action. Who wants to go home feeling like a used condom? Even so, I could have bought into this storyline if the script had been a little more realistic, if it had allowed the female lead to show the kind of spine she needed to get where she was. She could have said, "Sorry, but I make it a policy not to fraternize with my students," smiled politely, and walked off.

In that movie, we could still have had the obligatory scene of the heaving bedclothes. The Tom Cruise character could have melted her resistance with his knightly honor (or, in a darker variant, stalked and raped her as punishment for rejecting him). We could have found out what she paid and what she gained in becoming an aeronautical engineer, one of the technological elite. We might even have seen him realize that she wasn't just a tail for his hook, but a partner for his respect.

Now that would have been a good movie.

I'd like to think the original story had those elements, but it probably didn't. Most likely, the story conference had to find a way to get the Kelly McGIllis character onto the base to service the Tom Cruise character, so they made her an aeronautical engineer.

Hooray, Hollywood!