Technicolor tale of honor and romance. This drama from 1942 was directed by Oscar-winner William A. Wellman, and features stunning aerial photography, that was highly advanced for the time. John Sutton stars as Peter Stackhouse, a British aviophobe who is nonetheless determined to become a pilot. Stackhouse's resolution comes from his desire to serve his country, and his strength is recognized by Steve Britt (Preston Foster), who becomes his patient teacher. The two men's bond is tested, however, when they both fall for the same girl (Gene Tierney). Written by
Though little remembered today and garnering only the briefest of mentions in Gene Tierney's own "Self-Portrait" autobiography, 1942's "Thunder Birds," the actress' ninth film, is assuredly deserving of a greater renown. In this one, Gene plays Kay Saunders, the granddaughter of an Arizona ranch owner whose property is adjacent to the U.S. Army flying school known as Thunderbird Field (at which the picture was partially filmed). Kay's life itself is thrown up in the air when her old flame, flying ace Steve Britt (played with an appealing mix of heart and toughness by Preston Foster), decides to become a civilian instructor at the school. It is made even more problematic when she falls in love with Peter Stackhouse (hunky John Sutton, who had been featured in Gene's second film, "Hudson's Bay"), a British doctor with a fear of heights who is determined to become a pilot under Britt's instruction. Thus, the "eternal triangle" is formed again, while Stackhouse learns that it might be easier to master his Stearman PT-17 biwing than his own physical and emotional responses....
Very much a product of its time and surely a live-action poster ad for our brave young men who would one day win WW2 for the Allies (although, back in 1942, that outcome, it must be remembered, was far from certain), "Thunder Birds" yet offers some very real pleasures for the audience of today. Shot in supersaturated Technicolor, the film looks marvelous, and features some truly eye-popping aerial cinematography. William A. Wellman, a veteran of WW1's Lafayette Escadrille who would go on to become a stunt pilot before embarking on a filmmaking career, was of course the perfect director to bring this film in for a safe landing. He had previously worked on such high-flying adventures as 1927's "Wings" (the first Oscar winner for Best Picture) and the almost-impossible-to-see "Central Airport," and would go on to direct the John Wayne pictures "Island in the Sky" and "The High and the Mighty," as well as his final film, 1958's "Lafayette Escadrille" (AND, parenthetically, the 1948 Tierney vehicle "The Iron Curtain"). Besides the eye-popping nature of the aerial cinematography, "Thunder Birds" features still another eye-popping aspect, and that is Gene Tierney herself, who has rarely looked more beautiful on screen. Gene made 20 films in the 1940s, and of those 20, only five were in color: "The Return of Frank James" (her first), "Belle Starr," "Thunder Birds," "Heaven Can Wait" and "Leave Her to Heaven," and other than "Leave Her to Heaven" (in which, gorgeous as she is, she is yet eclipsed, IMHO, by the vision that is Jeanne Crain), I have never seen her look more ravishing than here. Just look at her bathing in an outdoor water tank, her mouth still painted with bright-red lipstick; simply stunning! And Wellman, wisely, gives the 22-year-old Tierney any number of luminous close-ups; absolute heaven for all fans of the beloved actress. Throw in a compact story line (the whole film runs only 78 minutes) and fine supporting work from such wonderful character actors as Dame May Witty, Jack Holt, Richard Haydn and Reginald Denny and you've got yourself quite an entertaining package indeed; surely more than just some rah-rah wartime propaganda! This is a highly entertaining, time-capsule tribute to some very brave young men as well as to the beauty and talent of one very special actress: Miss Gene Tierney.
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