The Harrier Is Simply An Amazing Piece of Aviation History: In 1994, James Cameron’s True Lies debuted, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film was popular. Audiences enjoyed the blend of humor and action, the relationship between Schwarzenegger’s character and his on-screen wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. But the inclusion of a piece of novel military technology stole the show, prompting audiences to ask: Is that real?
The scene-stealing military technology was the AV-8B Harrier, a subsonic military jet capable of vertical take-off and landing.
Spoiler alert: Cameron employed the Harrier for the film’s climactic scene, in which Arnold hovers around downtown Miami to save his daughter and foil nuclear-armed terrorists. The film highlights the Harrier’s ability to, essentially, hover-in-place.
To film the scene, Cameron didn’t cut any corners. Whereas most filmmakers would have built a model of a Harrier cockpit, set the thing against a green screen, and added some camera shakes every now and again, Cameron wasn’t having it. Bear in mind, Cameron is a uniquely particular filmmaker. It took the guy 13 years to make an Avatar sequel because he felt the technology he needed to shoot the film he envisioned did not yet exist. So, he waited.
Cameron already had that perfectionist mindset when filming True Lies. So, instead of setting a Harrier cockpit against a green screen, Cameron had his team construct an elaborate system of cranes and rigs, which was then used to hoist a full-scale model Harrier high above a Miami street.
The Harrier model weighed 7,000 pounds. Of course, that is much lighter than a true Harrier jet, which, loaded with engines and avionics, and hydraulics, weighs nearly 15,000 pounds. To manipulate the model Harrier, filmmakers used a computerized motion-control system that depended on a complex system of hydraulics. The movements were precisely programmed with the computer system. Cameron threw Schwarzenegger in the cockpit and the cameras rolled. The results were special effects substantially ahead of their time. They still look pretty good 30 years later. Audiences responded favorably. True Lies was the third highest grossing film in a year packed with hits including The Lion King, Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Speed, Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pulp Fiction, and Interview with the Vampire.
Much of True Lies’ success against such remarkable competition is owed to the Harrier scene, as Schwarzenegger seemed to understand. According to John Bruno, the VFX producer on True Lies, Schwarzenegger knew they had something special: “Well at first everybody was kind of nervous because of the scale of this whole thing. You know, it was a 20,000-pound motion base and 7,000-pound jet on the top of a roof with these huge hydraulic systems…I overheard Arnold say to Jim [Cameron], he goes, ‘You know, Jim, this is the money. This is the money. This is where the money is. This is great.’”
Schwarzenegger was correct. True Lies raked in $146,282,411. That may seem modest according to today’s standards, but in 1994, it was a lot of money for a flick. By comparison, the two films of 1994 that outgrossed True Lies were both transcendent and enduring films, both recognized as foundational American classics: The Lion King ($298,879,911) and Forrest Gump ($298,096,620).
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.