Thursday, April 16, 2009

Flying Saucers at the Alamo

It’s always a little dangerous watching a movie you liked as a kid but have never seen as a grown-up. You never know when you might ruin a fond memory by discovering what you once thought was cool turns out to be lousy storytelling when seen through adult eyes.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I took this chance when I watched Disney’s The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. This paid off—as the movie turned out to be super-cool no matter how old its audience.

I took the same chance again when I watched a little-known science fiction film from 1968 titled The Bamboo Saucer. I saw it on a Saturday afternoon “Creature Feature” when I was about 13 years old. I still remember enthusiastically recounting the story to some friends at school that Monday. Heck, it had everything from a flying saucer to a desperate last-stand gun battle against the Red Chinese army. How cool was that?

Well, I’ve now seen it as an adult and, while it’s not as cool as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, it still holds up as an entertaining attempt at combining believable science fiction with cold war shenanigans.

A flying saucer has landing in a remote area of China. The crew dies (presumably from Earth bacteria), but the ship is intact.

The Chinese government doesn’t know about it (it’s well-hidden inside the roofless, abandoned church where it had landed), but an American agent gets word of it back to our government. Soon, a small team of scientists and a test pilot parachute in to examine the craft. It’s too much to hope that they can figure out how to fly it, but they plan on studying it for as long as they safely can, then destroying it to keep it out of the hands of the Reds.

But a Russian team (including—not surprisingly—a hot blonde lady scientist) has entered China with pretty much the same plan. Both teams reluctantly team up to examine the craft. But can they learn to trust each other—or will they end up killing one another to possess an incredible new technology?

It’s all done reasonably well, with some talented character actors (including Dan Duryea, Bob Hastings, Bernard Fox and James Hong) bringing life to some otherwise one-dimensional characters. The tension comes from both having to hide out from the Red Chinese and worry about the two groups double-crossing each other.

In the end, though, most of the characters must pull off an Alamo-like last stand, holding off a company of Chinese troops long enough for the test pilot and a couple of scientists to figure out how to fly the saucer out. (It proved too durable to destroy.)

I really liked a number of different elements of the film. Duryea’s character—the military commander of the American group—is very reluctant to trust his Russian counterpoint (the feeling is mutual). But he’s not presented as a jingoistic or bull-headed jerk, just as a man who is loyal to his side.

I liked that the science fiction elements were believable, both in the explanation of how the saucer worked and in the problems run into during an unintentional trip in the saucer through our solar system.

I liked that the scientists were allowed to act smart, gradually figuring out bits and pieces of an alien technology, but never getting quite enough of it right to make flying it a safe thing to do. I liked that the finale pretty much depends on one character doing complex math quickly and coming up with what is hopefully the answer needed to save three lives.

I liked some little touches—whenever the saucer is powered up, its hull briefly becomes magnetic. The Russian C.O. always painfully holds his mouth when this happens because he’s got metal caps on his teeth. Later, when the saucer has taken off on its trip through the solar system, one of the scientists is methodically opening and closing circuits to try to get the vessel off auto-pilot. When he hits the right sequence, it makes a panel he didn’t know about snap open and thus gets whacked on the head. Both these events are small details, but I thought they helped add verisimilitude to the plot.

There’s also a truly funny line early on in the film. Just before parachuting into China, one character wonders aloud why he’s there. “Because you’re the most expendable brilliant electronics expert we could find,” he’s told.

At least one on-line review I found thought The Bamboo Saucer was a bit racist, since it shows the Red Chinese as hard-core bad guys, but showed the Americans able to form a détente with the Russians. I disagree, though. This movie was made smack dab in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, during which the Chinese Government (always a brutal entity) was being particularly oppressive and violent. Keeping them from getting advanced alien technology was a perfectly sensible thing to do. Besides, there are elements to the movie that differentiate between an evil government and the average people being oppressed by it.

The film’s very, very small budget shows a few times. The most notable instant is during the last stand battle near the climax. At one point, the good guys toss a volley of hand grenades at the attacking Chinese soldiers. The montage of explosions that follow re-uses the same shot of a particular explosion knocking down some soldiers at least five times.

But that fight is otherwise a fairly tense and exciting set piece. The rest of the movie was good as well. Though I’m not as knocked dead with the movie’s awesomeness as I was when I was 13, it was still well worth revisiting.


  1. Where do you find these movies?

  2. I have it on DVD. If I remember correctly, I found this one for $1.00 at a dollar store. I had it awhile before I watched it, though, so I'm not sure if I'm remembering that correctly.


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