Hunting Down the Firefox

I was watching a documentary on Clint Eastwood the other night which made passing dismissive reference to a 1982 film he directed and starred in called “Firefox.”

Ahhh yes. “Firefox.” Doomed to obscurity by a combination of the comparatively primitive special effects of the day coupled with a Cold War plot, this Clint Eastwood vehicle is not even consigned to late night television these days.

That is unfortunate. “Firefox” was based on the novel of the same name by English English teacher Craig Thomas, was among the first in a wave of a new publishing genre that would later be associated with Tom Clancy and dubbed the “Techno-Thriller.” In “Firefox,” a US Air Force pilot infiltrates the Soviet Union’s security apparatus (with the help of dissident Jewish scientists) in order to steal the (fictional version) MiG-31 FIRE FOX ultra-advanced fighter aircraft (the real MiG-31 FOX HOUND was essentially a re-engineered and improved MiG-25 FOX BAT. No, it does not have a thought-controlled weapons system…..) 

 

A brief explanation: NATO code names for Soviet aircraft were deliberately constructed so that they could be clearly heard over scratchy, squawky radios. Thomas was likely influenced by Viktor Belenko’s 1976 defection to Japan in his advanced MiG-25 FOX BAT interceptor:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas’s body of work, eighteen books, mostly spanned the Cold War and dealt with classic Cold War themes. “Wolfsbane” (1978) was a Lacarre-like spy versus mole thriller with a stunning ending. “Sea Leopard” (1981) was “Firefox” in reverse: an advanced British hunter-killer submarine was seized by Soviet naval Spetsnaz and had to be recovered. “Firefox Down”, the sequel, had the aircraft crashing in neutral Finland with a race to recover it. “Jade Tiger” (1982) was about the Cold War in Hong Kong, “Winterhawk” (1987) dealt with Cold War space warfare issues and involved the return of PTSD-riddled superpilot Mitchell Gant. And then there was “The Bear’s Tears,” a novel dealing with the Soviet experience in 1980s Afghanistan. “Snow Falcon” (1979) was one his best: it had a British special operator investigating nefarious Soviet military activity in Finland.

 

Thomas populated his works with  a ‘universe’ of characters, some of which were in the background and some as primary protagonists: Aubrey from SIS, Buckholtz from the CIA, Gant, Priabin from the KGB, and others. This intricate web enhanced almost all of his books even though they all dealt with discrete topics. As his 13 April 2011 obit in The Guardian put it,

“Although not technically minded, Thomas was able to steep his books in intricate detail, the result of meticulous research. The background material for Firefox was provided by friends formerly with the RAF, and the Russian setting was derived from guidebooks and photographic books. He could not afford to visit Moscow – a situation soon solved by the book’s tremendous success, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. By then, he did not think it prudent to take a holiday in Russia, saying: “I don’t think I’m their favorite novelist.”

Thomas was in some ways Lacarre without the cynicism and with a technological edge. There was no doubt in his work, however, that the Soviet Union and especially its leadership was a malevolent force. This also comes out in the film where the plight of dissident Soviet Jews is highlighted throughout. The Dr. Baronovich character, played by Nigel Hawthorne, explains:

“Mr. Gant, you are an American. You are a free man. I am not. There is a difference. If I resent the men in London who are ordering my death, then it is a small thing when compared with my resentment of the KGB.”

Another dissident tells Gant:

“Fighting city hall, as you put it, is a freedom we do not enjoy.”

Yes, the XB-70-like MiG-31 FIRE FOX looks a bit hokey now but “Firefox” is a late Cold War gem. And Clint wasn’t bad in it at all. Thomas’s books remain in print today and will always stand out as superb examples of the Cold War thriller genre.

Strange Pop Culture cross overs: several actors in the “Firefox” film depicting the Soviet hierarchy and security services played British SIS agents in the TV Series “Riley: Ace of Spies”: Hugh Fraser (George Hill),  Clive Merrison (Boris Savinkov),  and Warren Clarke (Yakushev).

Actual MiG-31 FOX HOUND: