The 1000 Plane Raid (1969)
DB-17P 44-83684 (N3713G)
The 1969 film The 1000 Plane Raid has a long-held reputation as a terrible war movie, one that is probably a bit overstated and maybe undeserved. Admittedly, it does have a simplistic and predictable plot, a marginal script, wooden performances by those not-quite-A List actors, and features more than a few bold-faced clichés. Not surprisingly, it has been long forgotten by film fans in general, but it is notable for vintage aircraft enthusiasts in that three flyable B-17s were gathered for the production. The trio of Flying Fortresses, and two cameraship B-25s, were based at the Santa Maria, California, airport during January 1968 for the on-location filming, spending two weeks flying from the airport and using a corner of the airfield redressed as an Eighth Air Force heavy bomber group headquarters.
The film starred actor Christopher George, perhaps better known for his role as Sam Troy in the 1960s television series Rat Patrol. He is joined in The 1000 Plane Raid by a slew of later 1970s TV actors including Ben Murphy, J.D. Cannon, and Gavin MacCleod. Also on the screen is Laraine Stephens as Lt. Gabrielle Ames, a fellow AAF officer and the love interest for George’s character, Col. Greg Brandon. All the acting is a bit stiff and uneven, giving the film the feel of a TV movie and not a major Hollywood effort.
The plot of The 1000 Plane Raid is straightforward but a blend of two much better films: 12 O'Clock High and Command Decision. In 1943, Col. Greg Brandon commands the fictional 103rd Bomb Group from England’s Steeple Bassington, and suffers the angst of sending young airmen to their deaths every day. He has put forward a plan for a maximum effort 1,000 plane raid to destroy a German target, knowing many airmen will die in their falling B-17s but also knowing that the raid will shorten the war and save many more soldiers in the end. The upper “brass,” in typical Hollywood fashion, is opposed to the raid because the cost will be too high, and even Col. Brandon begins to have his doubts. After much gnashing of teeth and verbal battles, the 1,000 plane raid is flown and Brandon is vindicated. There are expected sub-stories, one of which involves the cowardice of a young pilot and he, too, ends up vindicated in the end. Another subplot depicted a brash, snobbish RAF Spitfire pilot assigned to Brandon’s group to teach the bomber pilots enemy fighter pilot tactics. A third sub-plot runs between "Gabby" and "Sam", er, "Greg", the intent of which is to apparently broaden the film's appeal with a bit, albeit small bit, of 'edgy' skin.
The airport at Santa Maria was selected as the place to reconstruct the bomber base for the 103rd Bomb Group. The town of Santa Maria is located on the central California coast between Vandenberg AFB and Morro Bay, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Its general topography doesn’t really resemble that of England, but it’s near the ocean and there is green foliage available, so it fit the requirements of the admittedly low budget production values for the film. Santa Maria was used as a wartime P-38 pilot training facility, so it already had the atmosphere of a wartime base with a triangular runway pattern, a perimeter taxiway, and remote hardstands around the periphery of the airfield. There are also rows of distinctive eucalyptus trees not generally found in England but common in California and used for wind breaks.
The on-location filming was accomplished in the last two weeks of January 1968 at the Santa Maria location. Afterwards, the actors and film crew headed for one of the Samuel Goldwyn studios in Hollywood to complete four weeks of shooting the interior scenes. Once the filming was completed in the spring of 1968, the editing process was begun. The film borrowed a significant amount of footage from the wartime documentary The Memphis Belle and it was cut into the scenes shot with the 1968 B-17s. The film was not released until June 18, 1969, a full year and half after the B-17s had been worked at Santa Maria. It was not an Oscar contender. The movie is not yet available on VHS or DVD and can only be caught once in a long while on the late movie.
Editorial Comment from the Film Reviewer (me) and while it is just an Opinion it is an Especially Enhanced Opinion: this film, while not of a high caliber, has gotten a bad rap over the years. For those of us who have a particular affinity for B-17s, this movie has some interest with the three airplanes used, and also with the incorporation of the Memphis Belle color footage. Though it does lack in some areas (primarily plot, dialog, and acting), there was a fair amount of effort taken by some of those involved with the film to increase the accuracy of some of the technical details (markings of N17W to match the Mantz footage; use of actual bomb group names and bases; discussion of B-17 gunships (i.e. B-40 program); the paint scheme of N3713G; to name a few). There is some nice air-to-air formation work showing 44-83525 and 44-83684, shot from the tail of the B-25. On the B-17-O-Meter film scale, this rates a six out of ten.
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Balls of Fire, otherwise known as DB-17P 44-83525, at Santa Maria during the filming of the movie. (James H. Farmer)
Studio still shows actors Ben Murphy (later of Alias Smith and Jones), Gary Marshal, and Christoper George (fresh from The Rat Patrol) flying Can Do during the climax, such as it was, of the film. (via Bruce Orriss)
Filming on the ground at Santa Maria during the last two weeks of January 1968. You can see the "Triangle A" tail marking on 44-83684 beneath the thin coat of movie paint, the last vestiges of the markings it wore for the TV series Twelve O'Clock High a few years earlier. (James H. Farmer)
The scene that ended up in the film that was shot in the photo above this one, with Bucking Bronco (44-83684) wearing Memphis Belle colors for the filming. That would be Christopher "Rat Man" George on the left, and Gary Marshal on the right.
A view of the Air Museum's DB-17P, 44-83684, that operated as N3713G at the time. This airplane, as was the Tallmantz B-17G used in the film, was on long-term loan from the USAF. The Air Museum, now Planes of Fame, eventually obtained legal title to the airplane and it is the subject of a pending restoration to airworthy condition at Chino. (T. Piedmonte via Roger Besecker)
B-17F 42-29782 positioned in deep trenches to set up for shots after a supposed belly landing. The markings on the airplane were carefully matched to those worn by the B-17G Paul Mantz crash-landed for the 1949 film 12 O'Clock High as the footage was borrowed an inserted in The 1000 Plane Raid. (T. Piedmonte via Roger Besecker)
Yep, the highlight of the film for just about everybody is the beat-up of Santa Maria done by Don Lykins and Bob Grider using the Air Museum's 44-83684. That's the tail of 42-29782 (N17W) on the left.
Reportedly, the nose glass of a Douglas A-26 was fitted to 44-83525 for this scene, where it is broken out to remove a dead bombardier. Not sure how this worked with a flat bomb-aimer panel above and below the nose position.
The cockpit mockup was the Fox Studios section that first appeared in the 1949 12 O'Clock High, the later TV series of the same name, Tora Tora Tora, and is now owned by a group led by Bruce Orriss and is in the midst of a restoration project.
44-83525 in the blue California skies near Santa Maria with Jim Appleby and Frank Tallman at the controls during the air-to-air filming that appeared in the completed movie. This airplane, as of two weeks earlier, was being pulled from USAF storage at Davis-Monthan AFB.
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Updated: January 10, 2012