Film Discussion

Blue Thunder – Throwback 40

We live in an age where concerns relating to police overreach look to be cropping up in the news on an alarmingly regular basis. Look at the stories about misuse of lockdown powers during the pandemic, or what has widely been perceived as a draconian response to potential issues during the King’s coronation.

In Britain, the reputation of the police has taken somewhat of a significant downturn, highlighted by the resignation of Dame Cressida Dick as the head of the Metropolitan Police, after the force was hit by a series of major scandals. Over in America, there have been repeated calls to defund the police, in the wake of events like the death of George Floyd. There is also a push to resist what has been seen as the militarisation of police across the United States. Once, the notion of there being robots patrolling the streets would have been entirely the province of science fiction, such as Robocop, instead of it now being a reality.

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The encroachment of the military-industrial complex onto civil liberties and law enforcement is something which was anticipated some four decades ago, by writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby. The duo had been friends since film school, and O’Bannon was fresh from the success of his script for the 1979 sci-fi horror feature film Alien. Talk had turned to the pair writing something together, but O’Bannon was ill with Crohn’s disease, so for practical reasons it was agreed for the purposes of doing a spec script, Jakoby would do most of the writing, with O’Bannon’s name being listed first, in order to open doors in Hollywood by making use of any weight that it carried at the time from Alien.

At the time of their discussions, O’Bannon noticed there was an LAPD helicopter overhead which was acting in a manner he felt to be intrusive. The conversation turned to 1976’s Taxi Driver, and the idea was hatched of creating a story about an LAPD helicopter pilot who goes crazy and starts shooting up Los Angeles in a spree of destruction and mayhem. Neither of the pair had any actual knowledge of helicopters, so their research consisted of a half-hour talk with executives from Hughes Aircraft Company, which was established by Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire who was the topic of Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic The Aviator.

© 1983 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

Their spec script attracted attention from a range of studios, including Paramount, before being picked up by production company Rastar and Columbia Pictures. John Badham, the director of 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, became attached to the project – known as Blue Thunder – and work set about retooling the script, as there were concerns about a movie in which the ‘hero’ has a psychotic breakdown and essentially becomes a terrorist, attacking Los Angeles with a high-tech helicopter. A more conventional antagonist was created, in the form of a former Vietnam War arch-rival, and adding in a conspiracy theory element to the story.

The script went through a series of different drafts, and was worked on at one point by Joe Eszterhas, with an uncredited rewrite produced in five days. Eszterhas – who would later pen Basic Instinct and Showgirls – would claim he came up with the ending of the movie. Dean Reisner – a former child actor who appeared with Charlie Chaplin, and who was also briefly married to Maila Nurmi, better known as TV horror host Vampira, who featured in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space – would also be brought in to do a polish. However, it was estimated by O’Bannon that 85% of what had ended up on screen was by Jakoby and himself.

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The final script involved a haunted former Vietnam veteran, Frank Murphy, who was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was under psychiatric evaluation by his bosses at the LAPD, after having an incident with a colleague. A pilot for the airborne ASTRO Division, Murphy is selected to take part in the trials of a new advanced helicopter equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance capabilities and military-style armaments. The vehicle – formally dubbed ‘The Special’, but carrying the nickname ‘Blue Thunder’ – is being evaluated as a possible tool for use in dealing with any issues which could potentially arise in conjunction with 1984’s Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

The chief test pilot of Blue Thunder is someone who Murphy encountered whilst serving in Vietnam, and had attempted to have Murphy court-martialed: Colonel F.E. Cochrane. In a secret investigation into the killing of a city councillor on his watch, Murphy – and his new partner, rookie Richard Lymangood – uses Blue Thunder’s capabilities to uncover a high-level conspiracy: it transpires that the real intention is to use the helicopter as a means of quelling disorder as part of a project under codename ‘T.H.O.R.’ – Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response (with Thor being the God of Thunder) – which would see minorities being oppressed.

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The real-life inspiration behind all this was the Watts riots, which took place in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles – as well as surrounding areas – in August 1966. A sustained period of civil unrest occurred over a period of some six days, after a traffic stop of an African-American man by a member of the California Highway Patrol acted as a flashpoint, with allegations by the local community of police abuse. With LA seen as being a source of unresolved racial tensions, Jakoby and O’Bannon set Blue Thunder there, using it as a warning of how the authorities could use military-style hardware to subjugate what could be seen as undesirable or troublesome elements, and instigate a police state.

Roy Scheider – who had played cops in a number of movies, such as The French Connection and Jaws – was cast as Frank Murphy, with it being suggested that one of his motivations for taking the role was to ensure he would be unavailable to play Chief Brody in Jaws 3. Originally lined up for the part of Cochrane was Bryan Brown, but due to a scheduling conflict with TV mini-series The Thorn Birds, he had to drop out. His last-minute replacement was Malcolm McDowell, who had it written into his contract that he would not have to go up in a helicopter, due to his fear of flying. When he saw Scheider being filmed in them, however, McDowell decided to try and get over his phobia, in order that some aerial close-ups could be shot of him at the controls.

© 1983 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

One of the huge strengths of the movie is the sheer amount of airborne action which takes place for real. Nowadays, the vast majority of this kind of material would likely be filmed against green screens and then digitally composited in post-production, probably due to more stringent rules put in place about the use of helicopters in such productions, following the tragic deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children when making the movie version of The Twilight Zone. The shots of Scheider and McDowell in actual choppers give proceedings a true dynamism and verisimilitude, and the finished product is even more remarkable given the latter’s aerophobia.

Blue Thunder was a moderate success, taking in more than $42 million in ticket sales. It appears to have been enough to convince Rastar and Columbia there was still some life in the concept, as they soon adapted it into a short-lived TV series, which starred James Farentino (although Gil Gerard of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century fame was apparently first pick, but turned it down) and Dana Carvey. O’Bannon and Jakoby had a slight involvement, even penning two episodes. All the political elements were stripped out, however, and it ended up as a rather banal, generic action-adventure series of the kind which was popular at the time, being cancelled after 11 episodes due to poor ratings.

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Although Blue Thunder was no more, the helicopters used for the film and series lived on, for a while at least. One of the ‘Specials’ turned up in the 1985 pilot of MacGyver, with both of the copters appearing together in the alternative Cold War history mini-series Amerika in 1987. A 1985 Super Bowl TV ad for Wang Laboratories also made use of one of the pair. In spite of this, the ‘Specials’ came to a rather ignominious end, with the Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters being dismantled in rather short order, leaving one of the bolted-on cockpits – used to modify the look of the vehicle – ending up sitting as a static exhibit on the backlot tour at Disney MGM Studios in Florida for a number of years.

Oddly enough, the SAS currently uses a model of helicopter – the Eurocopter Dauphin – which has been nicknamed as ‘Blue Thunder’, showing the evident endurance of the film in popular culture, even after 40 years. The themes of Blue Thunder – surveillance culture, misuse of power, arming of Police forces – seem even more potent and relevant now, a fact which might be reflected in the talks over the last few years of producing a remake, based around the use of drone technology.

Blue Thunder was released in the USA on 13th May 1983.

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