Off Beat: 'Top Gun' owes a debt to Vancouver fighter pilot

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The new 3-D version of "Top Gun" owes its existence to the 1986 movie, but there is another contributor to its cinematic DNA. It's a film featuring — and made possible by — a Vancouver fighter pilot.

That documentary is "Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience."

A recent Columbian story told how Harley Hall was shot down on Jan. 27, 1973, during the last few hours of Vietnam War hostilities.

Some of his old friends who were interviewed for our story noted how Hall's personality and flying skills are evident in "Threshold," which was filmed when he commanded the Navy's Blue Angels precision flying team in the early 1970s.

Former Navy pilot Ernie Christensen also mentioned that camera innovations and filming techniques pioneered in "Threshold" were used in the filming of "Top Gun," which is being released on 3-D Blu-ray.

"We came up with shots and camera angles that had never been seen before," said "Threshold" producer-director Paul Marlow.

But before they could start filming, Marlow had to sell the idea to Hall.

"He was the key guy," Marlow said by phone from Seattle. "I was in the military, and you get an eye for spotting a leader. He was a leader.

"I told him that his business was to drum up recruiting for Navy aviation, and mine was to take pictures of interesting things."

Even though Marlow was a self-described long-haired guy in cowboy boots, during an era of protests against the war in Vietnam, Hall welcomed him.

"He got it," Marlow said.

And after seeing results of the filming, Hall and the other pilots were even more impressed, Marlow said.

"We'd share footage with the team and they'd egg each other on: 'Let's do this!'"

When the Blue Angels booked a South American tour, there was room for one film crew, Marlow said. Hall took along the "Threshold" team and rejected a request from the PR office at McDonnell Douglas -- the company that built the Blue Angels' F-4 Phantom II fighters.

Christensen, who commanded the "Top Gun" training program from 1981 to 1983, was the link between the documentary and people doing setup work for the Tom Cruise film.

"Some cinematographers were talking in the hallway and an ex-instructor introduced me," he said.

Christensen told them they would understand what it's like to be in the cockpit of a jet fighter if they saw "Threshold."

— Tom Vogt

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.