This is my contribution to the William A. Wellman Blogathon, hosted by the Now Voyaging blog. Please do visit and read the other postings.
Drawing on his own memories of his days as a pilot, William A. Wellman made aviation films right through his career, from silent masterpiece Wings right through to his deeply personal final film, Lafayette Escadrille. The Second World War film Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air is one of his lesser-known movies on this theme. This is really a slice of propaganda, looking at the training of young pilots and the close working together of the US and British forces. However, aside from a long voice-over intro and another voice-over at the end, where the Chinese pilots training at the field are also spotlighted, most of the movie is focused on a buddy story which turns into a love triangle, bringing back memories of Wings.
This film is admittedly far from being one of Wellman’s greatest – but, in purely visual terms, it might just be the most gorgeous spectacle that he ever made. The Technicolor is truly glorious, showing off the locations around Thunderbird Field in Glendale, Arizona, where Allied pilots gained their wings before going to war. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer’s colour footage of aircraft spiralling through a vivid blue sky in a series of daring stunt flights is the film’s most striking element, while the sweeping shots of desert scenery would grace any Western. Costume designer Dolly Tree also clearly decided to make the most of the opportunities presented by Technicolor. Leading lady Gene Tierney – who gets top billing despite fairly limited screen time – wears a succession of dazzlingly colourful outfits.
Although an aviation flag-waver might seem like an obvious choice for Wellman during WWII, in fact this wasn’t a film he chose to direct. As his son, William A. Wellman Jr., explains in his biography, Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel , this was one of two films his father agreed to make for Twentieth-Century Fox in return for funding for The Ox-Bow Incident. (The other was Buffalo Bill.) The studio didn’t allow Wellman to add any extra action sequences to the script – presumably because this was already an expensive production.
The story was written by studio boss Darryl Zanuck and then adapted as a screenplay by Lamar Trotti, who also scripted The Ox-Bow Incident and another great black-and-white Wellman Western, Yellow Sky. However, it must have had personal resonances for Wellman, in particular through the character of Steve Britt (Preston Foster), a First World War flier who is driven by his memories and is also something of a maverick, travelling around and unable to settle.
Steve arrives at the base unexpectedly, having suddenly decided to train the next generation of pilots. He discovers that one of the young trainees is the son and namesake of a comrade who fell in WWI, Peter Stackhouse (John Sutton). When Steve shows the young Peter an old photo of his father in 1918, it’s actually an instantly recognisable photo of the young Wellman in his days as a flying ace, enveloped in a fur coat. Unfortunately, it transpires that the younger Peter suffers from vertigo and may not make it as a pilot – but Steve won’t give up on him.
This story could have the makings of a compelling drama, and the scenes where Steve and Peter fly together, with Steve trying to talk Peter into overcoming his fear, are among the best sequences. Unfortunately, however, quite a bit of the film’s very short running time (it’s only 78 minutes, including the voice-overs at the start and end) is spent on a love triangle, as Steve tries to revive a romance with an old flame from a nearby ranch, Kay Saunders (Tierney), only for her to find herself attracted by Peter. The scene where Kay is introduced brings back memories of pre-Codes, as she is seen bathing in a huge open-air water tank, while Steve swoops overhead in his plane, hoping to catch sight of her naked body. However, since the Code was in place, neither he nor the audience actually sees much!
Although Kay looks beautiful, her character is never really developed, the love triangle is somewhat insipid and I found it hard to care about which man she will end up with. There are some enjoyably quirky sequences, like a First Aid session she attends which turns into hilarious slapstick and ends up injuring participants rather than curing them. But the film could do with more of this type of material – the sort of thing Wellman always does so well – to bring Kay, Steve and Peter fully alive as individuals. Everyone is terribly polite most of the time, probably because of the setting in a real-life base and the need to be respectful to the real pilots training there. I found myself longing for the sort of jokey arguments that feature among work buddies in Wellman’s 1930s programmers.
Another problem is that usually, with a film about soldiers or pilots training, there will be a sequence later on where the trainee is seen putting his new-found knowledge into practice in the field. This film never goes to the front line, so the pilots are not seen at war – and instead a somewhat unlikely scenario has to be developed where Peter can be forced to show what he is made of.
I found myself wishing that a few war scenes could have been included instead of the rather clumsy section of back story explaining Peter’s decision to stop being a doctor and train as a pilot. He is from an aristocratic background (when Kay asks if he has a title, he modestly says ‘only a little one’!) and, after his brother is killed in combat, his grandmother, Lady Jane (May Whitty) grandly writes a cheque to Winston Churchill for £25,000 to buy a bomber. Peter vows to fly that bomber, and is soon on his way to Arizona.
This was the third Wellman film with a partly British setting, all made over the war period, following on from the historical dramas Beau Geste and The Light That Failed. As in both of those, here Britain is shown as a land of stately homes and traditional ways of life, while the British characters are full of a quixotic determination. But it’s harder to swallow all this in a contemporary drama – especially for a UK viewer, such as myself. Whitty carries off her scenes superbly, as you’d expect, but all the grandeur is a bit too much. Fortunately, not all the Brits in the film are upper-crust – character actor Richard Haydn gives an amusing turn as a Cockney fellow pilot.
Overall, I enjoyed Thunder Birds, but it is definitely one of Wellman’s lesser efforts. However, to my mind all his films are worth seeing. This one is no exception – and the aerial footage is especially stunning.