Thunderbird 6 (1968)

The second and final Thunderbirds movie from the Andersons was made alongside production of the TV series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and was released eighteen months after Thunderbirds are Go. Sadly, it was a box office flop, and it didn’t even have the excuse that the first one did for low ticket sales – everybody was watching the show on TV. So it’s picked up a reputation as being lightweight, and a failure.

I’d been saving it for a rainy day for many, many years now, and finally sat down to watch it with Daniel. It’s flawed, certainly, but not badly. It’s a really entertaining movie despite its sagging middle, and we had a very good time watching it together.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, but the main action is set at a very, very leisurely pace. Alan, Tintin, Penelope, and Parker are the guests of the maiden, round-the-world flight of Skyship One, which Brains has designed for New World Aircraft. The interior designs for New World, and Skyship One, are awesomely 1960s fabulous. The games room (above) is pretty amazing, but best of all – still pictures don’t do it justice – is the gravity room which keeps the ship aloft, and which is built around dozens of constantly revolving concentric circles.

So the maiden flight is a languid travelogue, stopping at various points of interest, and revealing that Alan has that very 20th Century fascination with big game hunting, unfortunately. Our heroes don’t know that Lady Penelope is being recorded. The crew are all villains in the employ of “Black Phantom,” and they’re trying to get Penelope to say all the words in a “call for help” script which they’ll edit together, and send Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to a remote, deserted airfield where they will be ambushed.

Now, a note on Black Phantom: there is not one thing in the script that identifies him as the Hood. He looks and talks like the Hood, but he doesn’t dress or act like him, he has a full head of black hair, and he’s perfectly willing to sit back in a decrepit, abandoned old airport with some other thugs for weeks, which doesn’t sound at all like the show’s impatient baddie. Nevertheless, some commentators insist this is the Hood. According to the audio commentary by Sylvia Anderson and director David Lane, Black Phantom might be the Hood’s son, but it’s pretty clearly a different guy.

So the movie goes on, and it’s all design and character fun with no real action for more than half the movie, until “White Ghost,” the head agent on Skyship One, sends the fake transmission from Penelope. Scott and Virgil take off for the airfield. Penelope and Alan put all the clues together and she sends a warning to Jeff in the nick of time, and then things get amazingly, incredibly fun.

By this point, Daniel’s interest had ebbed, and I coaxed him back into the action with “Oh, no! Scott and Virgil have landed in a trap! What’s going to happen?!” I had no idea. What happens is this: they don’t leave their ships, they don’t demand the hidden bad guys come out and surrender. They just lower their cannons without speaking and silently blow the almighty bejezus out of that airport. It’s so amazing.

In fact, there’s an oddly grisly edge to this movie. Earlier on, the villains casually dump the bodies of the crewmen that they’ve killed over the Atlantic Ocean, and the fellow who arranged that gets his own appropriate comeuppance later on. That’s after Brains comes to the rescue in a little Tiger, a 1930s biplane. By this point, the action has moved into one of the all-time great Thunderbirds disasters. Our heroes have killed about half the baddies but have surrendered after Tintin is captured. The gravity drive has been damaged and the skyship, slowly losing altitude, has crashed into a tower above a missile defense station. It’s balanced atop the crumbling tower, with Thunderbirds 1 and 2 on either side holding it up with cables while the military base is evacuated, and Brains, having no idea what’s going on, lands the Tiger ON the skyship, intending to fly everybody off one at a time.

This doesn’t go as planned. White Ghost pulls a gun as soon as Brains lands, and forces everybody on to it, far more weight than it should take. There’s a beautiful bit of character work here: Brains is armed, but of course he does not want to start shooting, so he discreetly passes his pistol to Alan.

The live-action filming for this bit of lunacy is astonishingly great fun, thanks to some amazing, and partially unplanned, stuntwork. A legendary pilot named Joan Hughes, who had trained RAF flyers for combat and ferried every manner of flying machine around the country during the war, was hired to do the dangerous stunts on a nearly-finished stretch of highway. Unfortunately, some very strong cross-winds reacted badly with the oddly-balanced plane. It had dummies on the wings and underneath to represent our heroes, and so she couldn’t keep the wheels on the ground as she went under the bridges. She was actually arrested upon landing for violating some municipal ordinance or other, and actually brought to trial, though she was, happily, found not guilty.

Since they had to scrap some of the live-action filming after their pilot was arrested, they actually had to rebuild the highway around the back of the studio in one-sixth scale and send a radio-controlled plane up and down it. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the backlot shots in the image above, but you honestly have to look at the movie shot-by-shot to determine which is which. Seen as a whole, it’s seamless.

It all adds up to a long and really exciting action sequence, and David Lane timed the few comedy bits with Parker, holding onto the wheels, just perfectly, providing giggles at exactly the right moments. It’s perhaps not surprising that poor Parker ends up in a tree, which Daniel said was his favorite part of the movie.

So why’s it called Thunderbird 6? Well, throughout the movie, Brains has been trying to fulfill his nebulous assignment to design a new vehicle for the team, and had three rejections. But in the end, he realizes that what International Rescue needs is something light and maneuverable, which has already been field-tested. The Tiger, repaired and repainted, is exactly what’s needed.

Although honestly, as cute as Thunderbird 6 is, it hardly makes up for FAB-1 being destroyed when Skyship One finally crashes. Maybe that’s why, thirty-something years later, Rolls-Royce was still holding a grudge…

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