William A. Wellman’s ‘Thunder Birds,’ or ‘Wings’ Light

In 1942, World War II was just getting started for the United States, although many other parts of the world had already been at war since 1939 (and the conflict between China and Japan began even earlier, in 1937). The U.S. Army needed pilots fast, and many were trained at Thunderbird Field in Glandale, Arizona. That is the setting for 20th Century Fox’s propaganda film Thunder Birds, released in November 1942. Directed by William A. Wellman, this brief, 78-minute movie is pure propaganda mixed with just enough Hollywood melodrama to make it entertaining 78 years later.

Following the success of A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck decided to go in the opposite direction for the follow-up. Rather than make a movie about an American training in England, he made a movie about an Englishman training in the U.S. In Thunder Birds, the British pilot is Peter Stackhouse (John Sutton, who coincidentally starred in Yank), who falls in love with American Kay Saunders (Gene Tierney). They make up two-thirds of a love triangle, with Stackhouse’s flight instructor Steve Britt (Preston Foster) as the third point. Coincidentally, Britt is old enough to be Peter’s father, as he served with the late senior Stackhouse during World War I, and Britt was in love with Kay first.

Love triangles playing out with flying in the background was nothing new for “Wild Bill” Wellman, so he was a natural fit to direct. Since the Wings filmmaker only had a threadbare plot to work with here, he took full advantage of making daring flight sequences shot in beautiful Technicolor. There was more thought and care taken in making the flight sequences work than the silly action playing out on the ground. There’s a stronger love between planes and Wellman than there is between any two human characters on the ground in Thunder Birds.

The best thing to come out of Thunder Birds, aside from more gorgeous shots of Tierney in Technicolor, is that Wellman made this just so he could make The Ox-Bow Incident. There were a couple of directors attached to the film before Wellman was approached. Since Wellman had also wanted to adapt The Ox-Bow Incident for the screen, Zanuck agreed to make the passion project if Wellman directed Thunder Birds. Lamar Trotti, who got producer and screenplay credit on Thunder Birds, also wrote the script for Ox-Bow. (Trotti was a long-time Fox writer who also worked with Wellman on Yellow Sky. He won an Oscar for writing Zanuck’s bloated Woodrow Wilson biopic.)

There really isn’t too much to say about Thunder Birds, other than it does its job, which is to entertain while boosting morale as a simple propaganda feature. It’s silly and breaks no new ground, but it features some fine flying action. Fox released the movie on DVD back in 2006, with the only extras being two short Fox Movietone Reels and the film’s trailer.

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