by Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer
As any student who has visited the Archives or paid any attention to the posters on the walls of the Tower conference room knows, our little slice of Glendale got its start not as a business school, but as an air force base. And it was at this base, Thunderbird Field One—which also inspired the name of British television show Thunderbirds, still running today under the name Thunderbirds Are Go—that the film Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air was filmed. A fascinating but dated piece of wartime propaganda or a hidden gem of American cinema? This reviewer took it upon herself to watch it and find out.
Opening with “Wild Blue Yonder” and the familiar original Thunderbird symbol that can still be seen on the wall of the Pub’s pool room, the film begins with a short foray into the classic morale-boosting, patriotism-fostering introduction typical of US wartime propaganda film.
The narrator introduces the Chinese, British, and American cadets in training at the base, and a Thunderbird plane, bright blue and yellow, cuts through the sky over the mostly-empty Glendale landscape, revealing the instantly recognizable avian silhouette of the campus.
From this point on, the movie follows World War I veteran Steve Britt (played by Preston Foster) as he comes to Thunderbird in search of a job as a flight instructor. Steve demonstrates expert networking skills and achieves the modern Thunderbird student’s dream of being handed the position on the spot. He then rushes off to visit an old friend.
The friend is revealed—in more ways than one—to be Steve’s old flame, Kay Saunders (played by Gene Tierney). Kay’s introductory scene also gives us a look at Steve’s flying prowess and familiarity with Kay, as well as his overconfidence in both of these. He flies low overhead to spy on her as she bathes in a water tower, and then somehow performs the unlikely task of removing his coveralls to drop them to her as he flies back upside-down, having blown away her clothes with his previous stunt.
The viewer then meets foolhardy comic relief Lockwood and his bunkmate, Peter Stackhouse (played by John Sutton)—the son of Steve’s late war buddy of the same name—as Steve begins his work instructing the RAF cadets. Following some grim humor regarding parachute safety, Steve takes up Peter for his first test flight and it is revealed that Peter is terrified of heights.
After a somewhat jarring time skip, Steve visits Peter in the barracks to attempt to gently let him down about his future as a pilot, having apparently given him several fruitless chances to overcome his fear. We are then treated to Peter’s backstory through a flashback to the death of his brother Thomas. His grandmother, Lady Jane Stackhouse, is shown donating to the war effort to have a bomber purchased in Thomas’s honor. (Interestingly, this moment references the real donation by Lady MacRobert in honor of her three sons killed in action, leading to the purchase of an aircraft which would be named MacRobert’s Reply.) Peter then abandoned his medical training in order to become a pilot and honor his brother. Touched by his story, Steve agrees to give Peter even more time to overcome his fear of heights.
When the cadets are given a day’s leave, Lockwood and Peter meet Kay in a lingerie store, and shenanigans ensue as Kay volunteers the two as practice patients for the Red Cross first-aid trainees. The hubbub draws the rest of the cadets to the Red Cross, as well as Steve, who is less than thrilled to see Kay leave with Peter.
A delicious moment of slapstick follows as Steve crashes to the floor in his attempt to follow her with his leg in a splint, falls through the stretcher he is placed on by the volunteers, and is thrown to the ground when the second stretcher flies out the back of the ambulance as it drives away.
Though Kay’s romance with Peter begins out of her spiteful desire to make Steve jealous, we see her feelings for Peter grow naturally in the following scenes as the two get to know one another. Meanwhile, Kay’s grandfather, Gramps Saunders, encourages Steve to continue to pursue her. Gramps’ sexist dismissal of Kay’s ability to make her own decisions is distractingly annoying, but not in any way unexpected.
Conflict arises when Peter essentially asks for Steve’s blessing in his intention to ask Kay for her hand in marriage. After a tense negotiation that would make Professor Leclerc proud, Steve promises not to wash Peter out of training in retaliation. The tone is effectively conveyed through the use of shadow as the men speak in the dark barracks, their faces in silhouette for most of the scene.
Eventually, Steve is commanded by his boss to put Peter through a solo flight, despite knowing he is far from ready. Peter begins to see a breakthrough when Steve compares flying to riding a bucking horse—however, Steve then leaps from the plane mid-flight to force Peter to fly on his own, but is drawn into a sandstorm which begins to drag him off a cliff by his parachute. Peter quickly lands the plane, too focused on saving Steve to be fearful, and catches him just in time.
Unfortunately, the plane is damaged in the process, and in a startlingly un-empathetic move, Peter is eliminated from the program for this. However, this is quickly remedied when Kay tells a few confusing white lies at the USO dance to convince the higher-ups to give him one last chance.
As Peter soars fearlessly above on a sandstorm-less day, on the ground below, Kay and Steve make amends. Just as Kay begins to lament falling in love with a man who’s about to be in danger of being shot down, Peter’s engine cuts out and he begins to spiral. Steve and Kay frantically rush out to Peter just as he regains control of his plane and glides it to a safe, if rough, landing.
The film draws to a close a while later, with Steve inducting a new class of cadets. The dual moments of peril—one for Steve, and one for Peter—are resolved very quickly, but help tie up any loose ends regarding the genuine bond of the main characters.
Thunder Birds is short, clocking in at only 78 minutes of screen time. However, it took me longer to watch it due to the frequency with which I found myself pausing and rewinding upon spotting a campus landmark such as the Tower or the Hangar, like hunting for Hidden Mickeys in a Disney movie. Only about five minutes of the movie is dedicated to outright nonfiction propaganda, leaving an hour and change to tell a story of friendship, honor, and romance.
Mid-Atlantic accents rattle away throughout, giving the film that classic charm of mid-20th-century cinema which, coupled with some moments of quality humor, makes it easy to forgive a good deal of the cheesiness present in the plot.
I give Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air a solid four airplanes out of five. This overlooked wartime classic is a must-see for anyone with a passion for aviation, classic movies, or who just loves Thunderbird and its storied past.