East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Sky Bandits (1986)


What was it about 1986 and planes, and adventure movies? Because we just had the time to take stock of the disappointing weirdness that was Sky Pirates/Dakota Harris that we find ourselves back again in the time of Biggles – well, the real time of Biggles, the Great War – for another one of those weird eccentric movies that would have been a great first episode for a franchise, only the franchise never happened, and maybe it’s better this way. The movie in question is the 1986 British independent movie Sky Bandits, aka Gunbus – that I saw back to back with Sky Pirates over the weekend (hence this episode of the series so close to the previous).

Not to be confused with the 1940 Monogram movie also known as Renfrew of the Royal Mounted in Sky Bandits, Sky Bandits/Gunbus is a historical adventure movie with some weird/science fictional elements (not enough to make it dieselpunk or what – just plain weird).
The plot in a nutshell (courtesy of Wikipedia): In the dying days of the old west, two bank robbers, Barney and Luke, find themselves fighting in World War One in France.

Nice and smooth.
Well, not exactly.

Sky Bandits opens as a rather straightforward western – with an obvious debt to Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker – and then moves into war movie territory when the two (insufferable – but that’s just me) main characters are shipped off to the trenches and the air fields of France.

A pity the rambling storyline does not hold – the two leads have little to do but play the cool/boorish Americans among stiff-upper-lip and/or eccentric Brits, and go from one air action scene to the next. And when they are not flying, they are pretty lame, and it feels like we are watching “The Dukes of Hazzard’s Great War”. The story drags.
And while the experimental German airship and the weird “suicide” air squadron housed under a circus tent do give the movie its pulp chops (what a neat idea!), the end result is bland, and at 105 minutes is probably overlong. A missed opportunity.

The movie had been in development hell since 1977, and it is therefore one of those movies that got a belated green light thanks to the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Shot in Pinewood studios, the film was to be directed by Brian G. Hutton, of Where Eagles Dare fame, but he bailed out due to money problems. The film was thus directed by Zoran Parisic – the man who had done the flight SFX for Superman. As a result, Gunbus has some really good air combat scenes (and the Vickers FB5 that gives the movie its title is a beauty, in its way).

The production values are very high. This was a monstruously expensive movie – it allegedly cost 18 million dollars, the most expensive independent British film ever, and boasted a crew of 532 craftsmen and technicians – once again, a record-setting figure.

It also got a one star review from Roger Ebert, that just like me (aha!) noticed how dismal and sad was the role of the two leading ladies in the movie:

The airships look great. They’re a reminder of the wonderous things that can be done with matte shots and scale models. Nothing human in this picture engaged my interest, however, and so I was left to reflect on the plight of Yvette (Valerie Steffen) and Mitsou (Ingrid Held), the two women in the story. They’re local groupies who are picked up one night by Barney and Luke and immediately move into their tents at the air base (the commanding officer is rather permissive).
Then their duties consist of standing around disconsolately, looking up at the sky after their departed masters. (A dog played this role more touchingly in “Battle of Britain.”) There’s not a second of passion or real caring between the women and their lovers. At the end of the film, Barney and Luke are back out West again, blowing up more banks with more dynamite, ho, ho, and the plot has dropped the women cold. There’s not even a mention of their fate.

Roger Ebert

Gunbus sold tickets for 2.3 million dollars – roughly one eighth of the cost.
It was a disaster. As for the sequel, none materialized, despite Roger Ebert’s suggestions for a plot:

Maybe we’ll get a sequel, “The Bitter Tears of Fighter Ace Widows,” in which Yvette and Mitsou mope around the deserted airfield, wrapped in castoff parachute cloth and refusing to believe reports that the war is over.

Roger Ebert

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

3 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Sky Bandits (1986)

  1. A great review – able to let us know a lot about another Lost Franchise. Thank you!!!

    Any review containing some words from Roger Ebert deserves a plus, indeed.

    What to say, then? This time, the trailer really excited me – Gustav Holst’s music mixed with air battle, what could go wrong? And the fact that the director realized the flying effects for Superman explains how the combat scenes here looks so well-made. The model of the German zeppelin, in particular, looks wonderful. The idea of two cowboys fighting on the side of the sterotypical British officers sounds interesting as well – it’s a pity that it hasn’t been developed in a proper way. I’ll find this movie just to enjoy the air battles, and to find the Pulp touch you talked about in your review. The movie’s poster it’s another plus – I think it will do a good impression, put up on the walls.

    Moreover, I’d like to add that this wave of “vintage air battles” did not reach only Hollywood movies; in 1990 Disney made Talespin, one of its most interest franchises. It combined a fictional version of the 30’s with the Jungle Book. So we had monkeys and bears piloting hydroplanes and fighting against…the sky pirates! It’s just like this…arrives a moment in which a single idea starts to be used by everyone, like the zombies setting in more recent years.

    PS: the two actresses are very good-looking, and the idea of a Bergman-style sequel about them it’s just too hilarious to not be considered.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.