Top Gun: From Script to Screen

By Dr. Bob Arnett

Top Gun did not arrive on the screen by accident. The producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, first hired the team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. to write a screenplay based on an idea the producers had had from a magazine article. Wanting to move the film in a different direction, the producers hired Warren Skaaren to re-write the Cash and Epps, Jr. screenplay. Notice how the different drafts of the screenplay reveal the strategy of the producers for the intent of the film.

Top Guns: First Draft Screenplay

Top Guns begins with Maverick, an F-14 pilot, guiding in a fellow pilot, Wolfman, on a dangerous aircraft carrier landing during a typhoon. Because of their superior flying, the squadron is sent to TopGun school at the Miramar Naval Air Station. The first night there, Maverick meets Kirsten. She is trying to find her sister at the Officers’ Club, and Maverick tries to help her.

Maverick’s flying earns him a reputation as a one-man-show. On the ground, Maverick tracks down Kirsten, a former nationally ranked gymnast and now a gym instructor. She hates pilots because her sister was left high and dry -- with a baby -- by one. Maverick’s flying is dangerous, and eventually Goose is killed during an ejection after a collision. Maverick loses his nerve (Cash and Epps, Jr. 89). Kirsten talks Maverick into returning to the school. He does not, however, engage in the dog fighting. The last major event of TopGun school is the Alpha Strike, where students fly a bombing mission against a fake-base guarded by the instructors. Viper volunteers as Maverick’s RIO. The Alpha Strike is an exciting action scene in which Viper coaches Maverick back into the battle.

After graduation, Kirsten and Maverick part. The squadron returns to its carrier. A hostage situation with an American ship surrounded by North Koreans develops. Maverick and Wolfman fly into action against North Korean MIGs. Wolfman is killed. Maverick is wounded, but still manages to finish off the remaining MIGs. In the last pages, Maverick appears at Kirsten’s gym and tells her he’s back to be an instructor at the TopGun school. Maverick, then, is “restored” to his hero status and to the romance with Kirsten.

In Top Guns, Maverick becomes a battle-scarred hero, team player, and treats women with dignity and respect. Love, of course, wins out in the end, because Maverick proves himself better than the myth Kirsten believed of the pilots. The success of their relationship means transcending the stereotype of the fighter pilot. Cash and Epps, Jr. attempt to take the characters beyond the one-dimensional aspects of genre. The independence of the characters might seem at odds with the pro-military theme, but the two work together to promote “the best of the best.”

Top Gun: Second Draft - Revised

The opening is, again, a carrier landing in which a pilot, Cougar, loses his nerve in a typhoon. The incident, though, is preceded by an encounter with two MIGs over the Indian Ocean. Maverick flies inverted over a MIG and gives the Soviet pilot the finger (Skaaren 6). Back to the carrier, Cougar and his RIO, Merlin, had been chosen for TopGun, but Cougar quits and the spot goes to Maverick and Goose. The orientation scene is moved up to establish the antagonism between Iceman and Maverick. Maverick, trying to pick up the love interest, (Charlotte/Charlie) becomes the major plot event that guides the story. Maverick sits next to her, and tries to pick her up, because he has a bet with Goose that he can “score” in the building. Charlie turns out to be “a Ph.D in astrophysics. She’s a civilian contractor, so you don’t salute her, but you’d better listen to her, ‘cause the Pentagon listens to her -- about YOUR proficiency” (33). Plot logic is replaced with coincidence. Charlie then finds out that Maverick is the famous “MIG insulter.” Maverick is interested in something else.

Skaaren’s screenplay is much leaner than the Cash and Epps, Jr. draft. The scenes are shorter and the events portrayed stick to the pilot-training and love-interest story lines. Charlie has been incorporated into the pilot training story line, and the sister has been dropped altogether. There is, also, much less dialogue. Maverick’s long portions of dialogue during the falling-in-love scenes are eliminated. Wolfman’s wife becomes Goose’s wife, but Goose is still killed while ejecting (76). The last act begins with Charlie talking Maverick out of leaving. She, too, is moving on to another job in Washington, D. C. Maverick returns and graduates. Iceman receives the TopGun trophy and there is no Alpha Strike. Viper announces at graduation there are some “hot spots” out there, and, Iceman and Slider, Hollywood and Wolfman (their roles reversed by Skaaren), and Maverick are sent to Maverick’s carrier, in one of the hot spots (more coincidence). Skaaren bookends the story with encounters with MIG jets. To make the second encounter more tense, we do not know if Maverick has regained his nerve, lost after the death of Goose.

In the dog fight at the end, Maverick is Iceman’s backup, which means he is sent into the battle after Hollywood and Wolfman are downed. After a couple of tense moments, Maverick dives into the fight and he and Iceman work effectively as a team. After the battle, Maverick is given his choice of assignments, and he says he wants to return to TopGun as an instructor. Charlie is there because she has replaced the man she was meeting in the bar in the first act (one last coincidence). This draft is even more of a genre film than the version by Cash and Epps, Jr., because the atypical aspects of the story have been eliminated. The two lead characters are no longer derived of common backgrounds, but up in the strata of the military elite. With Skaaren there is more obvious glamorization and more myth-making, and less character development and personal revelation. Filming Skaaren’s screenplay takes everything one step further.

Top Gun (1986): Directed by Tony Scott; Produced

The structure of the film is identical to Skaaren’s screenplay in placement of the major events. The film, though, contains less material than Skaaren’s screenplay. What remains is strictly plot material that causes the next scene or is a pay-off from a previous scene. Ansen argued that the film went too far in this direction, “For all it reliance on old movie cliches, Top Gun is devoid of a strong dramatic line” (72). He suggested it is just spectacle “about flying school bracketed by two arbitrary action sequences” (72). The events which make up the structure of the film “restore” the characters to each other, but structure and character are one-dimensional, leaving only the glamour of the events and a set of odd plot coincidences. The style and spectacle of bodies and machines fulfills Shoos and George’s notion that “spectacle lingers on the image, obsesses on the moment, [and] simply is” (35). With glamorization, as Denby claims, the film makers “designed the material to flatter teenage boys and reduce girls to jelly” (102). Ansen, similarly, suggests, the film is “a young man’s macho fantasy about jet-fighter pilots” (72). The original screenplay has been effectively boiled down to a single theme, glamorization.

Works Cited

Ansen, David. "Movies: Macho Myth-making: Solemn Flyboy Fantasies Set to a Rock-and-Roll Beat." Newsweek (May 19, 1986): 72.

Cash, Jim and Epps, Jr., Jack. Top Guns. Screenplay. Hollywood: Collector's Book Store.

Denby, David. "Movies: Pop Gun." New York (May 19, 1986): 102; 105.

Shoos, Diane and George, Diana. "Top Gun and Postmodern Mass Culture Aesthetics." Post Script 9, no. 3 (1990): 21-35.

Skaaren, Warren. Top Gun. Screenplay. Hollywood: Hollywood Scripts.

Top Gun. Dir. Tony Scott. Prods. Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. Associate Prod. Warren Skaaren. With Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis.