A test pilot is disbelieved when he encounters an unidentified flying object during the inaugural flight of a new jet plane. He’s dismissed from his job, but further sightings follow and he is recruited by the US military to join a secret mission to infiltrate Red China. An identical craft has been reported hidden in the ruins of an isolated church…
Late 1960’s Cold War adventure spiced up with a science fiction gimmick and a surprising, if heavy-handed, message about international tolerance and co-operation. But that’s for later, the focus at the start is handsome, square-jawed top gun John Ericson shooting through the wild blue yonder and putting an experimental jet through its paces. There’s a lot riding on the flight; top military brass are watching and a big fat defence contract is almost a certainty. In fact, bossman Bartlett Robinson is so sure of success that he’s even had the plane fitted out with air force insignia and markings. That decision must have gone down well with writer-director Frank Telford. It meant that he could source lots of jet plane stock footage from a reasonably priced local film library.
But does Ericson really have the right stuff? When he panics due to sunlight reflecting off clouds (the best explanation for a UFO sighting ever!), and starts flying all over the sky, he’s persona non grata when he gets his boots back on terra firma. Of course, no-one believes his ridiculous story of being buzzed by a bright blue badly animated flying saucer so he’s out on his ear. After comrade Bill Mims is killed during another close encounter, Ericson gets the call from Washington where he meets stiff-necked army spook Dan Duryea. There’s strange rumblings in communist China and when Ericson confirms that a five year-old’s scribbled drawing is an accurate depiction of the alien craft that he saw (it’s not), he’s off to the Chinese outback (heroically played by a mis-cast Southern California) as part of Duryea’s investigative team.
To give Telford’s film credit, all these developments are crammed into the first half hour and seconds after landing on Chinese soil, our heroes run into some Russians on the same mission. The commies are led by suspicious Vincent Beck and include blonde scientist Lois Nettelton. She clashes with Ericson immediately, of course, and just as predictably they start making the old goo-goo eyes at each other minutes later.
Reluctantly agreeing to co-operate to avoid Chinese patrols, the mismatched teams reach the church and find the spacecraft with only half the movie gone! I’d expected an endless trek with their objective only reached in the closing stages. And here’s another surprise! It really is an alien spaceship, not a hoax or a Chinese super weapon. Sure, entry is gained by pointing an electric razor in its general direction (it’s the sound frequency, you see) and the extra-terrestrial crew died offscreen before the film even began, but nevertheless it is from out of this world, so it’s a legitimate science fiction film. Ok, the craft’s interior is painted silver and it’s just a round room with lots of knobs, levers and control panels that wouldn’t look out of place in any radio room of the time but at least it uses magnetic lines as its form of propulsion! I’m not sure if this is a scientifically feasible energy source but it might be because…you know…aliens!
Unfortunately, the film sags after the initial discovery. Duryea and Beck don’t trust each other, there’s a local mother with a sick young baby, the enemies are forced to work together, and the Chinese turn up waving guns about near the end. But the ship does get off the ground and a dangerous outer space journey is completed using brains, rather than brawn. Which is nice. Just not very exciting.
This is a middling adventure at best, but with some very obvious good and bad points. Nettleton throws herself into her role and spends a lot of time acting as interpreter between Duryea and Beck. So much so in fact that I’m guessing that the Russian language used must have been genuine, although the frequent back and forth translations do slow things down quite a bit. Performances are decent enough with Duryea good value as ever, although Ericson does lack a little personality as a leading man. Unfortunately, there is an elephant in the room here, and that’s the SFX. Simply put, they are atrocious. The saucer is even animated when it’s on the ground and it looks hopelessly cheap and tatty. This was never going to be a great film, but it is a shame that wasn’t a sufficient budget for at least something a little better.
This was Duryea’s final film, and it seems certain that he was already battling the cancer that killed him during its production. He was gone several months before the film even hit theatres and there’s a moment where he (unconsciously?) hitches up his trousers which seem suddenly at least a size too big for him. He’d only become an actor in the first place due to health issues, seeking out a less stressful profession after a heart attack in his twenties left him bedridden for a year. Advertising’s loss was the screen’s gain, however, and he enjoyed a long and successful career, mostly in noir pictures and Westerns, playing both heroes and psychotic villains with serious panache and charisma.
Writer-director Frank Telford provided scripts for many hit network TV shows over the years, including adventures for ‘T.J. Hooker’, ‘Police Woman’, ‘Gemini Man’ and the crew of ‘Hawaii Five-0’. He also wrote Jack Arnold’s rather damp underwater-science fiction comedy ‘Hello Down There’ (1969).
Considering the obvious lack of resources, this is a reasonable enough ‘B’ picture of its time, helped enormously by the prescience of both Duryea and Nettleton.