Sometimes, the story behind a movie is more interesting than the movie itself.
A young Steven Spielberg received a “story by” credit for Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies but, at one time, he was going to be credited with much more. Spielberg wrote the treatment for Ace Eli and sold it to 20th Century Fox because he was hoping to make his directorial debut with the film. However, shortly after selling the story, there was an executive shakeup at the studio. Spielberg’s supporters were out and the men who replaced them gave the treatment to another screenwriter and director. Spielberg was so angered by his treatment that it would be close to thirty years before he ever again worked with 20th Century Fox. (In 2002, 20th Century Fox co-produced Minority Report with Dreamworks.) Ace Eli ended up being directed by television veteran John Erman, who was so upset by the studio’s final edit of the film that he demanded to be credited under a pseudonym.
The plot of Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies is recognizably Spielbergian. Ace Eli (Cliff Robertson, who was a pilot in real life and who, after he won his Oscar of Charly, was involved in several flying films) is a stunt pilot in the 1920s. After his wife is killed in a crash, Eli and his 11 year-old son, Rodger (Eric Shea), set off on a barnstorming tour. Going from small town to small town, Eli deals with his pain through nonstop womanaizer. With Eli refusing to take any responsibility for his actions, Rodger is forced to grow up quickly. It is a typical Spielberg coming of age story, combining a nostalgia for the past with a clear-eyed portrayal of irresponsible adulthood.
In fact, it is easy to imagine the approach the Spielberg would have taken if he had been allowed to direct his story. Unfortunately, Spielberg did not get to direct the film and John Erman takes an impersonal approach to the material. Whereas Spielberg would have captured the excitement of both flying and life on the road, Erman keeps the audience at a distance. An underrated actor, Cliff Robertson is still miscast as the irresponsible Ace Eli. The reason why Cliff Robertson was perfect for the role of Uncle Ben in Spider-Man is the same reason why he feels all wrong as Ace Eli. He is just too upstanding a citizen to be as impulsive as Eli often is. An actor like Warren Oates would have been perfect for the role.
Steven Spielberg directing Warren Oates in Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies? That would have been something worth seeing!