Classic sci-fi was getting more rare in the late 60s, but it was not dead yet. The Bamboo Saucer (TBS) is solid 50s B sci-fi in many ways. It has a flying saucer, dashing hero, beautiful lady scientist, stock footage of military jets and even a close-call with a meteorite in space. The first half (after the saucer buzzing), amounts to an average spy story with the mysterious saucer as MacGuffin. After that, the sci-fi adventure takes over. The product of various small-time producers, TBS appears aimed at the television market, but apparently had at least a modest theatrical release too. (not the extra-cheap poster) As a minor trivia note, John Ericson stars. He played the fallen hero "Dutch" in another of 1968's indie sci-fi: The Destructors.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Fred Norwood (Ericson) is a crack test pilot, flying the experimental X-109 (actually footage of the F-104 Starfighter). He is buzzed and chased by a glowing blue flying saucer. His radical maneuvering gets him in hot water with his bosses on the ground. No one saw his flying saucer. No radar blip either. He is scrubbed from the X-109 program as unstable. Fred convinces his brother in law to let him use the laser radar gizmo he's been working on to look for blips invisible to regular radar. Eventually, one is found, but Joe goes up to check it out while Fred sleeps. Joe's plane is broken up in the air. Fred tells FAA investigators about his saucer. This gets him an appointment with Hank Peters (Dan Duryea) in Washington. The NIA has a sketch by a chinese peasant of a flying saucer. Fred says it's his! The saucer landed in Communist China, in an abandoned church. The peasants kept it secret because they disliked the Reds. Hank wants Fred to join his recon team, along with Jack the electrician and Dave the metallurgist. They parachute inside China, aided by Sam (a chinese) and other natives. They stumble upon a Russian team on the exact same mission. One of their scientists just happens to be a beautiful blonde: Anna. They all agree to an uneasy alliance to find the saucer, but keep the Chinese Communists from finding it. The two teams do find the saucer inside the church. They explore it and discover some things. The Russians try to steal it for Moscow, but their pilot dies of mismanaged stresses inside. Dubovsky tries to force Fred to be the new pilot. A fight breaks out. Hank and the Americans prevail. Red Chinese patrols are coming. Fred, Anna and Jack try to figure out the controls. Dave, Zagorsky, Dubovsky and Hank hold them off with guns and grenades. Eventually, the Chinese prevail, killing the four in gun battles. Fred and Anna figure out how to take off, and do so, escaping the Chinese. However, the autopilot engages and zips them deep into space. They have a close call with a meteorite and are on a collision course with Saturn. At the last minute, they figure out how to disengage the autopilot. Fred flies the saucer back to earth. He plans to land it in Geneva, Switzerland, so both nations can claim credit. He gives a little speech about world peace. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
For a fan of 50s sci-fi, there is so much to love. An actual alien saucer, international intrigue, fights, a beautiful blonde scientist, etc. The pace is pretty good and the techno-blather is nice and thick.
Cold War Angle
The moral of the story in TBS, is that the Americans and the Soviets should learn to get along -- ending the Cold War. TBS is a blatant appeal to reconciliation, instead of the more customary metaphors for things going wrong.
UFOs Got Legs -- By the late 60s, the UFO craze (hysteria?) had begun to be absorbed into American culture. Once an object fear and suspicion, the flying saucer had become familiar enough (and banal enough) to made into kids' toys, night lights, table lamps, and used in local marketing gimmicks. But, the venerable flying saucer had not quite gone completely kitsch yet. TBS captured some of the mystique and cache it still had. The preamble to the movie even suggests that it's dedicated to all those misunderstood souls who've seen flying saucers but are not believed. Even this late in the game, UFOs still had "legs."
50s Roots -- Some of the strength TBS's cache may be due to its original story writer, Rip Van Ronkel, who was very much a 50s guy. He wrote for Destination Moon ('50) and the '59 TV series, Destination Space. Ronkel died in 1965, so did not get to see his story become a film in '68.
Mikel Conrad Redux -- The scenario in TBS is curiously close to that in the 1950 film, The Flying Saucer by Mikel Conrad. In TFS, an American intelligence team (Conrad and his "nurse") explore a remote area (Alaska, in this case) looking for a hidden flying saucer which appeared briefly in public earlier. While searching, the American team become aware of a Soviet team also looking for the same saucer. In the end, they find it. Familiar? A notable difference between the two films is that Conrad's saucer was an earth scientist's invention and was destroyed in the end. No one got it. TBS's machine was alien and all of mankind got it.
Pretty Speeches -- Evidently, the impetus for the story, and perhaps its moral too, was that the traditional Cold War way of thinking -- extreme Us vs. Them patriotism -- was wrong. This was clear in an argument between Fred and Hank after the Americans foil Dubovsky's attempt to capture them.
Hank: "... take them prisoners."
Fred: "You're beginning to sound like Dubovsky."
Hank: "You mean because he's loyal to his side, and I'm loyal to my side?"
Fred: "I mean you keep wanting to blow each other up."
Hank: "Whose side are you on?"
Fred: "i'm on the side of survival. Whose to gain if we kill each other?"
Watch The Skies! -- Fred's little epilogue echoes the messages of many sci-fi movies from the 50s. We have to stop our petty squabbling and stand together to face the aliens. As Fred flies the saucer to Geneva, he says: "You know, when the world sees this ship, they'll realize there are other intelligent beings out there in the universe. And that we'll have to meet them one day. All the nations of this earth better be ready to stand together" Amen, says jack.
Bottom line? TBS is actually a pretty entertaining tale, and one solidly in the classic sci-fi orbit. Fans of 50s B movies about flying saucers will feel right at home. The special effects are modest, but adequate. The saucer set was also modest, but workable. At least there wasn't any WWII surplus electronics in there. TBS is a bit obscure, but worth checking out.