Thunder Birds (1942 film)

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Thunder Birds
Poster - Thunder Birds 01.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by William A. Wellman
Produced by Lamar Trotti
Written by Lamar Trotti
Darryl F. Zanuck (as Melville Crossman)
Starring Gene Tierney
Preston Foster
John Sutton
Jack Holt
Dame May Whitty
Music by David Buttolph
Cinematography Ernest Palmer
Edited by Walter Thompson
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date(s) October 19, 1942 (1942-10-19)
Running time 78 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Thunder Birds (1942) (subtitled "Soldiers of the Air")[1] is a Technicolor film directed by William A. Wellman and starring Gene Tierney, Preston Foster, and John Sutton. It features visually stunning aerial photography and location filming at an actual Arizona training base of the United States Army Air Forces named Thunderbird Field No. 1 during World War II.

The film was made as a propaganda vehicle to boost civilian morale at a time when American involvement in World War II was still much in doubt,[2] while at the same time providing a look at training activities and promoting airpower as a means of winning the war. Wellman was himself a veteran of the U.S. Air Service as a World War I fighter pilot.


Soon after the US enters World War II, Steve Britt (Preston Foster), a former World War I flying ace, arrives at Thunderbird Field looking for a job as a civilian primary flight instructor. The base commander is an old friend, Lt. Col. "Mac" MacDonald (Jack Holt); Squadron Leader Barrett (Reginald Denny) is in charge of Royal Air Force cadets at the base.

Steve says he wants the job because he's too old for combat and the war will be won by pilots trained on bases like Thunderbird, but it is soon clear that he chose this base because his former girlfriend Kay Saunders (Gene Tierney) lives nearby with her grandfather, retired Colonel Cyrus "Gramps" Saunders (George Barbier), also a close friend of Steve's.

Steve immediately flies to their ranch and flies stunts over a water tank where Kay is bathing, blowing her robe away and then dropping her his flying coveralls. When he lands she seems miffed, but responds to his passionate kiss of greeting. Kay is still very fond of him, but no longer deeply in love.

Steve is introduced to the new class of RAF cadets, including Peter Stackhouse (John Sutton), whose father Steve knew. (Another cadet is Peter Lawford in an uncredited role.) But Peter flies clumsily and is sick from acrophobia. Mac warns Steve to "wash them out fast" if cadets can't perform, so after three such failures, Steve tries to persuade Peter to transfer.

But Peter is confident he can overcome what he calls his "conditional reflex", and asks for more time. In a flashback, he relates that his brother was killed on a bombing mission. Their grandmother, Lady Jane Stackhouse (Dame May Whitty), summons Peter (an intern at a London hospital) home to show him the check she is sending Winston Churchill for the purchase of a new bomber to carry on the fight in Tom's memory, since no male is left in the family to do so. Peter contradicts her: he has left his hospital service and transferred to the RAF to learn to fly. After hearing his story, Steve agrees to keep Peter in training.

On his first leave from duty, Peter meets Kay Saunders and is immediately infatuated. She dates Peter, but warns him that she might still be in love with Steve. Still, her instincts warn her that Steve would make a poor husband: he seems a carefree nomad not interested in settling down.

Peter admires Steve and is grateful to him, so he warns Steve that he is in love with Kay and intends to propose marriage. Steve promises that he won't wash out Peter because of their rivalry. His judgment tells him that Peter will one day be a fine pilot. Squadron Leader Barrett gives Peter a check flight and he gets sick again. Steve stands by Peter in a showdown, threatening to resign.

Gramps throws a Fourth of July party for the cadets and, to help Steve win Kay, tricks Peter into riding a bucking bronco. This backfires when Peter proves to be an adept horseman. Steve sees that Kay has fallen in love with Peter, even before she realizes it herself.

The decision on Peter's training must be made. Steve tells Peter to fly the plane just as he rode the bronco, by easing up and relaxing. The advice works. Steve then forces Peter to fly solo by bailing out! But he descends into a sandstorm and is blown along the ground toward a cliff.

Peter lands nearby and saves Steve, but the wind flips his airplane over before they can return to it. Mac believes that Peter's incompetence caused the damage, washes him out, and fires Steve. Kay tricks Mac and Barrett into giving them one more chance. She tells Steve that she has decided to marry Peter, and reminds him of his own words about where the war will be won. Peter makes good on the faith shown in him, making a deadstick landing when his engine fails during his solo. Soon after, Steve, hobbling on a cane, greets an incoming class of new RAF cadets.


Production notes[edit]

Thunder Birds was intended by Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to be a follow-up to his popular A Yank in the R.A.F., given the working title of A Tommy in the U.S.A. Using the pen name "Melville Crossman," Zanuck himself wrote the original story.[3] William Wellman agreed to direct in exchange for financial backing from Zanuck to film the novel The Ox-Bow Incident,[1][3] which Wellman began immediately after production ended for Thunder Birds.[4]

At one point it was announced that Dana Andrews would play the lead in Thunder Birds opposite Gene Tierney, with whom he eventually made five films.[1]

Filming of Thunder Birds coincided with the time frame of the story. Production filming began on location at the actual Thunderbird Field No. 1 northwest of Phoenix, Arizona from mid-March 1942 and ended May 6. Additional sequences were filmed in the first week of June 1942, and retakes during July.[2] The storyline revolved around cadets flying the Stearman PT-17 primary trainer, but also featured many live action formation flights of BT-13 Valiant and North American AT-6 trainers. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz flew the live action flying scenes.

Home video release[edit]

20th Century Fox released Thunder Birds on June 6, 2006 as a Region 1 DVD, while in Region 2, it is available as part of a DVD box-set of Gene Tierney's films for TCF.


  1. ^ a b c "Wiliam A. Wellman's Thunder Birds (1942)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  2. ^ a b "Overview for Thunder Birds (1942)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  3. ^ a b Shannon, Jeff. "Review, Thunder Birds". Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  4. ^ "Overview of Ox Bow Incident (1943)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 

External links[edit]