Thunder Birds [1942]

While it certainly shows its age, Thunder Birds is still a perfectly entertaining example of the pre-war programmers that Hollywood churned out at the height of World War II. From a story conceived by Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (under the pen name "Melville Crossman"), this Technicolor tribute to bomber and fighter-pilot training was a perfect project for director William A. Wellman, an adventurous "man's man" who specialized in aviation films (including his 1927 OscarĀ®-winner Wings) and took this assignment so Zanuck would agree to finance Wellman's 1943 classic, The Ox-Bow Incident. The movie opens with patriotic commentary by celebrated journalist and author John Gunther (Death Be Not Proud), singing praises for the American, Chinese, and British allied forces who diligently train for battle under the sunny skies of Thunderbird Field, Arizona, where "their job is to fight, and they play the game to win." The standard-issue romance is strictly routine, but it gives radiant star Gene Tierney a chance to shine as she juggles the affections of a seasoned pilot trainer (Preston Foster) and a British trainee (John Sutton) who must conquer his fear of heights before earning his wings. Aviation buffs will love the dazzling Technicolor footage of vintage planes in action, and for all its cornball sincerity, Thunder Birds is worth seeing as a typical example of the kind of sturdy, well-made entertainment that wartime audiences flocked to in support of troops at home and abroad. As an added bonus, this Fox DVD includes brief clips of newsreel footage, showing Tierney christening a B-25 bomber with the name "Thunder Bird" and signing her name in cement at Graumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, promoting her film and a war that Americans were determined to win.--Jeff Shannon

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