Review: William A. Wellman’s “Thunder Birds,” Starring Gene Tierney

Preston Foster and John Sutton in “Thunder Birds”
Preston Foster and John Sutton in “Thunder Birds”

Little more than an excuse to shoot Gene Tierney and T-6 Texan aircrafts in glorious Technicolor, William A. Wellman’s Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air barely has enough material to last for 78 minutes. Steve (Preston Foster) is a hotshot pilot and WWI veteran who, realizing his age makes him less valuable on the front lines, decides to use his skills to train new recruits. He becomes an instructor at Thunderbird Field No. 1 in Arizona—a real base where the film was shot—which conveniently enough resides right nearby the ranch of his former lover Kay (Tierney). However, most of the film focuses on new cadet Peter (John Sutton), who just so happens to be the son of one of Steve’s old flying buddies. Peter feels obligated to honor his country and his father’s legacy by becoming a pilot, but gets airsick every time he takes flight. Complicating the situation even further, Peter and Kay strike up a romance, while Steve is still pining for her. That all may sound dramatic, but the film just barely hits the necessary beats in each of those subplots—it’s far more concerned with showcasing the real airplanes and locations the production had access to. A WWI fighter pilot himself, Wellman’s admiring eye is clearly at work behind the many impressive shots of the planes in action—but the story is pure padding. The filmmaker would have been better off making a propaganda short for the Army—which it practically is, considering how heavily the film pushes the idea that American, British, and Chinese troops all live harmoniously together on this base. Wellman had agreed to make the picture mostly so Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck would back his adaptation of The Ox-Bow Incident the following year—it would become one of Wellman’s most acclaimed pictures, while Thunder Birds plays out as nothing more than a prerequisite assignment.

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For More on Thunder Birds

Read the review in The New York Times

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