Devotion: the true story behind a film about the navy’s first Black aviator

Jesse Brown was the original top gun – a navy fighter pilot whose heroism in the Korean war earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, the loftiest award the US military pins on high fliers. That he was also the first Black pilot to pass navy flight training puts him in rarified air.

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Brown, 24, never made it home. While supporting UN ground forces engaged in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950, Brown suffered artillery damage to his F4U Corsair aircraft and crash-landed in a remote mountain valley. When his wingman, Tom Hudner, saw Brown struggling to come unpinned from his cockpit afterward, he defied orders and intentionally crash-landed his plane nearby to help Brown. But in the end Hudner, after calming a fire on Brown’s plane and hacking away at his cockpit with an ax for 45 minutes in the subzero weather, couldn’t free Brown from his aircraft, was ordered into a rescue helicopter before night fell (and visibility with it). Brown lost consciousness shortly thereafter; two days later, a squadron returned to pepper the crash site with napalm to keep Brown’s body and aircraft from falling into enemy hands. Hudner was left physically and emotionally bruised.

For his valor Hudner received the Medal of Honor, the US military’s most exalted decoration, from President Truman on the White House lawn in April 1951 – with Brown’s widow, Daisy, just behind them. “Had I been on the ground, I think I would’ve had enough faith in my shipmates for somebody to do something,” Hudner said before his death in 2017. “I felt, yes, there was a chance that I wouldn’t. But to save Jesse’s life was worth it.”

The story of that doomed deployment and the unlikely friendship it sparked is at the center of Devotion – a new theatrical release starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell. The film is based on a 2015 biography by Adam Makos, who eventually became close friends with Hudner. “He really had intentions of going back that night even, or the next day,” Makos says. “He wasn’t ready to face the reality that Jesse was really gone.”

Even though it’s full of grand action sequences and wrestles with heavy ideas like duty and race at a time in American history when the parameters for both couldn’t have been more distinct, Devotion wasn’t necessarily a lock to make it to the big screen. For as much as Hollywood loves a meaty combat flick, it treats the Korean war like a middle child relative to the second world war and Vietnam. Which is to say it’s often referenced, but largely ignored. “The last great Korean war movie, by my count, was Pork Chop Hill starring Gregory Peck – and that was in 1959,” Makos notes.

It’s called The Forgotten War even though it was the first UN war and so many American icons took part – from baseball hit king Ted Williams to Neil Armstrong to Marilyn Monroe. “The Korean war just faded, I think, because back then America didn’t want another war,” Makos says. “It was a cold, mysterious and faraway place. We were tired. It was time to move on.” When John Wayne tried to produce a movie about the Battle of Outpost Vegas, a late-stage counter-attack in which nearly every participating marine was captured or killed, the US Marine Corps – skeptical of the defeatist slant, with the working title: Giveaway Hill – nixed the project, fearing it might give a PR win to the communists. It took Powell expressing an interest in playing Hudner and producing the film as well for Devotion to really take flight. He too became close with Hudner; he and Rachel Smith, Brown’s granddaughter, were present for the navy pilot’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The first frames of Devotion unfold less like Sands of Iwo Jima than Top Gun as navy warbirds take flight over the Atlantic, the present-day South Carolina-Georgia coast standing in for 1950s Rhode Island. Where Top Gun makes aircraft carrier landings look routine, Devotion tarries in the too-real tension when it’s not underscoring the balletic majesty of formation flight.

Jonathan Majors in Devotion
Jonathan Majors in Devotion. Photograph: Eli Adé/AP

Even Majors (as Brown) wrestling with the blindspots on his Corsair fighter plane called to mind the recent air show in Dallas where six people died after a P-63 Kingcobra prop fighter collided with a B-17 bomber in midair. “The P-63 pilot might’ve lost that B-17 in his view for half a minute, and that was enough,” says Makos, who was friendly with some of the Texas Raiders who operated the B-17 and had been in discussions with them about using the plane for another film adaptation. “When I see planes flying in tight formation in the movie, I just take it for granted. Even flying through the open air without an enemy in sight requires incredible trust to let another man be on your wing 10 feet away with the ability to, in one wrong move, cut your plane in half and drop you out of the sky. That’s why the trust between these pilots is such a powerful statement.”

Makos, 41, has always been a military buff. Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, he was captive audience for two grandfathers who served – one in the marines, the other in the army air forces on a B-17 in the Pacific that touched down in Japan after the bomb dropped. He started publishing articles on military history at 15. Just before his high school French club planned a trip to Paris, Makos bailed at the last minute to go to Disney World with his family instead. That plane to Paris, TWA flight 800, wound up crashing off Long Island in the third deadliest aviation accident in US history.

Survivor’s guilt has made him an even more sympathetic ear. “Having that near-miss with death at the end of my freshman year of high school really revealed to me the depth of the sacrifice that military members are willing to make,” he says. “Jesse Brown never had to go to the Korean war. He was already the first Black navy carrier pilot. He could’ve been the first Black airline pilot. But instead, he went. My own experience showed just how precious life is and how heavy that choice must’ve been for Jesse.”

Even as Hudner neared the end of his own life, he still thought he could bring Brown back home. In 2013, when Hudner was 88, Makos organized a trip to North Korea – Hudner’s only time back since the war. They spent 10 days with the North Korean military and even plotted a mission to return to the Chosin Reservoir to search for Brown’s remains. “We didn’t know if we would find the wreckage of an airplane,” says Makos. “We didn’t know if we’d find a gravesite. We didn’t know if we’d find villagers living nearby. But somebody had to go there and just start asking those questions.”

But then just as they were about to set off, the search mission was scuttled by monsoon rains that hung up the North Korean military’s advance team. But it wasn’t all for naught. “Thank you for coming so far after so long to keep a promise to a friend,” Kim Jong-un said in a proclamation to Hudner. “I pledge that the military of the Korean People’s army will pick up the search from here and try to find your friend.”

After Devotion, the Korean war can no longer be called forgotten. If anything, the past is prologue. “It’s actually the most relevant war to our modern times,” Makos says. “You’ve got North Korea saber-rattling all the time with the South. You’ve got Russia trying to rebuild their cold war empire. You’ve got China threatening Taiwan on a weekly basis. We’re living the Korean war all over again. We’re in the preamble to it.”

  • Devotion is out in US cinemas now and in the UK in 2023 with an Australia release date to be confirmed

• This article was amended on 24 November 2022. An earlier version incorrectly described the F4U Corsair fighter plane as a “jet”.