Low-budget, low-key (and perhaps a tad too familiar) WWII tale, competently directed and performed. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) line of hard-to-find library titles, the Limited Edition Collection, has released The Thousand Plane Raid (the DVD cover lists it as The 1000 Plane Raid), a 1969 war drama from Mirisch Films and United Artists, directed by Boris Sagal and starring Christopher George, Laraine Stephens, Gary Marshal, and a host of familiar movie and TV faces. Those looking for a glossy, star-studded, action-packed, big-budget epic along the lines of 1969's similar Battle of Britain will be disappointed here, but loyal fans of the WWII action genre will probably enjoy it...even if they've seen this all done before. An original trailer is included.
Steeple Bassington, England, 1943. The United States Army Air Force's 8th Air Force, 103rd Heavy Bombardment Group, is mired in moral-lowering night-time bombing missions that are simultaneously dangerous and relatively ineffective against the German war-making machine. Commanding Officer Colonel Greg Brandon (Christopher George) has repeatedly made requests to his superior, General Palmer (J.D. Cannon), for consideration of an ambitious bombing plan: one thousand planes flown over Germany...in broad daylight. Now, Supreme Allied Command is ready to listen, and George must make his case―particularly to disapproving General Conway (Barry Atwater)―for such a risky plan, a plan that could render the Army Air Force powerless should losses exceed Colonel Brandon's predictions. Hard-ass, by-the-book Colonel Brandon gets the nod, and he begins to re-build the sloppy 103rd , trying to weed out the incompetents and cowards like Lieutenant Archer (Ben Murphy), while pushing too hard against the rest, like Lieutenants Quimby and Jacoby (Tim McIntire and Noam Pitlik), Captain Douglass (Bo Hopkins), and mechanic Sergeant Kruger (Gavin MacLeod). Colonel Brandon's growing doubt about the feasibility of his own plan isn't soothed by increasing tension between himself and lover WAC Lieutenant Gabrielle Ames (Larraine Stephens), and with the cheeky insubordination of banished RAF fighter pilot Wing Commander Trafton "Taffy" Howard (Gary Marshal).
The Thousand Plane Raid is one of those small-budget genre films that somehow play better on television than on a huge theatre screen, where even a 60" monitor condenses down that kind of movie's limitations, and consequently lowers expectations (you're just at home, not in a theatre where you're anticipating an elevated "experience"). If things get a little slow, you can pause it and grab a sandwich or hit the can, and then fire it up again without feeling you're breaking up an important aesthetic experience (I remember seeing The Thousand Plane Raid when I was a kid on The Late, Late Show, and it played quite well―at least in my memories―with all the used car, Belvedere Construction, and Popeil Pocket Fisherman® ads). To be clear, though, that assessment isn't meant as a pejorative. Sure, The Thousand Plane Raid, written by Donald S. Sanford (who had two other low-budget, entertaining WWII movies out in 1969: Submarine X-1 and Mosquito Squadron) and directed by TV veteran Boris Sagal (the classic sci-fi/horror/blaxploitation hybrid, The Omega Man), isn't in the same league with the movies it apes, such as Twelve O'Clock High or Command Decision, but it is competent and straightforward. It knows it's been done on the cheap, and that it's recycling themes and storylines that are already familiar to its intended audience, but it's not insulting their intelligence doing so. It has respect for itself, if you will, and that goes a long way when you're talking about low-budget exploitation fare like this.
When The Thousand Plane Raid begins, the somewhat dynamic, better-than-expected graphics in the opening title sequence make you think this might be an unexpectedly exciting little outing. However, once the stock footage starts to sink in and the relatively paltry production design bums you out (just a couple of planes, a few Jeeps, one or two false-front military buildings, soldiers with too-long hair and sideburns, a British Headquarters that consists of a vaguely Tudor-looking mansion's courtyard, probably somewhere in Hollywood), you know you're either going to have to rely on something different in the storyline, or on the professionalism of the production as a whole to get anything out of the movie (it has that claustrophobic feel of a cheap movie, with no gratuitous establishing shots of streets or towns, or even multiple sets, to create a sense of place).
As for something different in the storyline...you can forget it. Nothing in The Thousand Plane Raid's script delves into startlingly new territory; it's basically a rehash of countless other war movie themes and dynamics already made clichéd by 1969, right down to the unbending professional authority figure commander who loves his men enough to hate them (Dad!), and the G.I. slobs who hate their
father C.O. enough to love him (my boys!). So we're left with the movie's professionalism, and except for a few off-tune performances, director Sagal handles the easily-predicted dramatic trials and tribulations with a steady, sure, unobtrusive hand. It's too bad that Marshal's performance as Wing Commander "Taffy" Howard (that delightful name deserves a much more fully-drawn character) wasn't strong enough against George's Colonel Brandon. Howard, whom I only know briefly from Logan's Camelot, isn't nearly snotty enough, or arch enough, or "British" enough (if you'll allow me, Mr. Marshal), to contrast effectively enough against the thoroughly domineering American George to stir up our genre conventions-loving expectations (Howard acts almost immediately like George's friend...where's the fun in that? I want some snide comments about uncouth Americans, and retorts about pompous British twits).
It's also a shame that Sanford didn't do more with the first hinted-at (and then immediately dropped) love triangle conflict between Brandon, Gabby, and Taffy (I love typing that name). If you're going to trot out all the WWII movie clichés you can find for The Thousand Plane Raid, why not exploit one of the most familiar and reliable in the genre, with George and company plowing through a messy, complicated romance? In an undemanding genre effort, there's absolutely nothing wrong with falling back on clichés―in fact, that's a rather comforting scheme to the viewer who isn't looking for revelation but rather expected, fully anticipated satisfaction. So don't skimp―put them all out there (it doesn't help, either, that beautiful, too-placid Laraine Stephens is merely beautiful here: when you keep noticing how lovely her hairstyle is for every scene...you've got a problem with the performance).
Luckily, one or two good action scenes crop up in The Thousand Plane Raid, such as those low-flying B-17 bomber shots when Taffy buzzes the field ("Oh, I say...good show this bally flying bucket, what?"―that's my own cool dialogue Taffy should have delivered), where Taffy's massive plane can't be much more than 10 or 20 feet off the ground, which are thoroughly impressive (in one shot, real-life Marine Corps pilot George reacts and ducks spontaneously to this buzz, looking seriously worried at the insanely low plane). If at the movie's end Sagal can't really disguise the fact that the budget doesn't truly allow for a convincing depiction of a 1000 plane raid, he at least keeps the insert shots tight and fast of the small cast getting shot up, getting more juice out of the sequence than one might expect. As for George, he's really quite good here (as he usually was) as the uncompromising commanding officer; his performance is probably the movie's strongest draw. It's a tough, no-nonsense turn, without any tricks or winks to the audience, or hammy, heavy overreactions. George was always a welcome face on television when I was growing up (with a real-life backstory that was far more fascinating than any plot he enacted on screen), but he never scored the right kind of projects that would have catapulted him into the A-list realm (where he could have done quite well, to my thinking), with The Thousand Plane Raid being a perfect example. Considering his background in the military, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he comes off cool and competent here. He has the weight of authenticity behind this performance―this was familiar territory to him. The Thousand Plane Raid certainly didn't, or won't, win any prizes in the heavily-populated WWII genre list...but it has its own pluses, and it goes about accentuating them with an admirably straight-ahead attitude.
The anamorphically-enhanced, 1.85:1 widescreen transfer for The Thousand Plane Raid looks alright, with medium grain, slightly washed-out colors (pinkish at times), and a fair-to-sharp image. No great shakes...but I've never seen it widescreen, so I was happy.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track was serviceable, with minimal hiss and all dialogue heard clearly. No subtitles or close-captions available.
An original trailer is included here, making The Thousand Plane Raid seem a lot more exciting than it really plays...which means the trailer did its job.
Thoroughly familiar, even clichéd...but competent. Dedicated fans of WWII action films won't find anything here they haven't seen a 1000 times before, but The Thousand Plane Raid at least goes about its low-budget business with a straight, focused face. Christopher George is excellent in a low-key, authoritative performance. I'm recommending The Thousand Plane Raid for WWII movie fans.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.