The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper is a 1981 American crime thriller film about infamous aircraft hijacker D. B. Cooper, who escaped with $200,000 after leaping from the back of a Boeing 727 airliner on November 24, 1971. The bulk of the film fictionalizes Cooper's escape after he landed on the ground.
In 1971, the hijacker, identified as "D.B. Cooper", jumps from an airliner by using the rear exit. He jumps on a clear day, parachuting into a forest in Washington State. The man is later identified as Jim Meade, an ex-Army man with big dreams. Meade escapes the manhunt using a Jeep he had previously hidden in the forest and concealing the money in the carcass of a deer. He eventually meets up with his estranged wife Hannah, who operates a river rafting company. Meanwhile, Meade is being hunted by Bill Gruen, an insurance investigator who was Meade's sergeant in the Army, and Meade's Army buddy, Remson, who remembered Meade talking about hijacking an aircraft.
Gruen confronts the Meades at the rafting company, but they escape down the river. The Meades lead Gruen and Remson on a cross-country chase involving various stolen cars. Gruen is fired by his employer, but continues the chase to claim the money for himself. At the aircraft boneyard near Tucson, Arizona, the Meades acquire a hot-air balloon, but Gruen steals the money from Hannah. Meade chases him down with a barely functioning Boeing-Stearman PT-17 crop duster biplane. Meade runs Gruen off the road but crashes his aircraft.
Recovering from the wrecks, Meade has Gruen's gun and for a few minutes, they discuss how Gruen knew that Meade was D. B. Cooper. Along with clues he had left, the previous encounters between the two men in the Army had convinced Gruen that only Meade could have pulled off the audacious hijacking.
Meade leaves Gruen with a couple bundles of the cash, and walks away with the rest, to be picked up by Hannah. With Gruen abandoning the pursuit, it is up to Remson to try to recover the stolen money. When he reaches a crossroads the Meades have just passed, thinking he sees their truck parked nearby, Remson continues the chase.
The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper was based on American poet J.D. Reed's 1980 novel, Free Fall: A Novel.
Jeffrey Alan Fiskin wrote the original script. John Frankenheimer was the original director, but he was replaced by Buzz Kulik after shooting one sequence. Kulik finished the film. W.D. Richter worked on the script uncredited.
The producers then asked editor-director Roger Spottiswoode to shoot a big new stunt and edit the film. Spottiswoode said the movie was "doomed" unless he could shoot new sequences, to be written by Ron Shelton who would be credited as "associate producer". In the end Spottiswood-Shelton scenes comprised 70% of the finished film.
According to one writer, the new team "added new characters - a rural rogue's gallery of scam artists - and an end-of-the-hippie era feeling. Even when editing the existing material, the new writer and director changed the film thematically, dramatically, cinematically."
The Kulik movie was a "banal, dour Vietnam vet docudrama" where Meade concocts the scheme to escape a postwar malaise and gets upset when he wins the acclaim as a hijacker that eluded him as a veteran. The Shelton-Spotiswoode movie was more of a chase comedy "about a man who returns home and plans to get himself the easy money that's part of the American dream for him and for all the low-lifes he meets along the way (including a Nam comrade who returns to haunt Meade like a comic Javert)."
Only Jeffrey Allan Fiskin was awarded credit..
"It was a little tricky knowing what was going to happen without a script" said Harrold.
In an attempt to drum up publicity for the film, Universal Pictures offered a million dollar reward for any information that would lead to the capture and arrest of the real D.B. Cooper. No one ever claimed the money. [Note 1]
The Boeing 727-173C (c/n 19504-527, N690WA) leased from World Airways, played the part of the Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 featured in the sky hijacking. Painted in the fictitious "Northern Pacific" company livery, it appeared in the first scene, being photographed by pilot Clay Lacy from his Learjet. Four professional parachutists performed the parachute jump from the rear exit stair of the Boeing 727.
Other aircraft in the film were the wrecks found in the Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, including twin-engine and four-engine propeller aircraft such as the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, Lockheed P2V Neptune, Lockheed C-121 Constellation and Douglas C-54 Skymaster. Numerous Sikorsky H-34 and Sikorsky CH-37 Mojave helicopters were also featured. A Boeing-Stearman PT-17 (s/n 41 25304, N56949) flown by Art Scholl was used in the climatic car-aircraft chase in the film.
The musical score included the song "Shine", written and sung by Waylon Jennings. A soundtrack album was also released on Polydor (PD-1-6344), consisting mostly of country songs. The musical score was composed by James Horner. It includes the song "Shine", which was also released on Jennings' 1982 album Black on Black.
The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, although similar to other hijacking films of the period, was not a success at the box office.  In a critical review of the film, Vincent Canby in his assessment for The New York Times, succinctly noted that "... a number of excellent actors (were coerced) into performing what is a dismally unfunny chase-comedy that eventually seems as aimless, shortsighted and cheerlessly cute as the character they've made up and called 'D.B. Cooper'."
In 1982 Frankenheimer described The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper as "... probably my worst-ever experience. A key member in the chain of command had been lying to both management and myself with the result that we all thought we were making a different movie."
Roger Spottiswoode, however, would win the Special Jury Prize at the 1982 Cognac Festival du Film Policier.
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Cognac Festival du Film Policier
Special Jury Prize