Thunderbolt (1947)


Introduction

Thunderbolt is a 1947 film directed by William Wyler and John Sturges which documented the American aerial operations of Operation Strangle in World War II, when flyers of the Twelfth Air Force based on Corsica successfully impeded Axis supply lines to the Gustav Line and Anzio beachhead.

Find out more in the docuseries “Five Came Back“.

Outline

Thunderbolt opens with an introduction by James Stewart, who remarks that 1944 has become “ancient history”, but reads a message from postwar Army Air Forces commander General Carl Spaatz that, even though the units in the picture happen to be American, the mission depicted could easily have been an RAF mission, and indeed belongs to all people who desire freedom.

Some of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft were modified with cameras: a pair mounted in the cockpit behind the pilot to film both ahead and behind the aircraft, under the wing, in the wheel well of the landing gear, on the instrument panel to film the pilot, or in the guns, synchronised to film when the guns fired.

The storyline of Thunderbolt begins by showing desolate areas of Italy in March 1944, noting that this was the fulfilment of the promise of Fascism, an idea dedicated to the proposition that some men are meant to be the slaves of others. The film next brings the audience to Alto Air Base, Corsica, introducing us to members of the 65th Fighter Squadron and explains the objectives of Operation Strangle by way of an after-breakfast briefing that merges into an animated map of Italy showing the Allies stuck at the Gustav line, and the mission to cut off the supply lines by destroying bridges and roads in Northern Italy.

The film then follows the pilots led by their young squadron commander through the tense moments before the flight, identifies them by name as they take off in pairs, and observes their journey to the mainland while flying in formation. The pilots are shown finding their target, a bridge, and successfully taking it out; then they go on independent strafing of targets of opportunity, seeking trains, lighthouses, anything that could be used by the enemy and destroying it.

When the pilots return, the film shows how they try to relax in the makeshift American community in Corsica. It also takes a melancholy look into how some of them are getting along emotionally, thinking of what else they could be doing with “the best years of their lives.”

Thunderbolt ends with the Allied forces liberating Rome on 04 June 1944. The narrators note that it is the “evening” of the mission in Corsica, but not the end of the war. At the end of the film, the words “THE END” appear, to be joined by a red question mark behind it.

Trivia

  • Following the success of his documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, filmed in the first half of 1943, Wyler returned to Europe with a team consisting of Sturges and screenwriter Lester Koenig.
  • Narrated by Lloyd Bridges and Eugene Kern, Thunderbolt! purports to follow a P-47 Thunderbolt squadron of the group through an interdiction mission from the time they wake up to their return to base afterwards with one aircraft missing.
  • The directors edited their footage to recreate a mission against an unidentified target in northern Italy that resembles that of a 01 May 1944, mission against a railroad tunnel at Rignano sull’Arno, Italy, in which Lt. Col. Gilbert O. Wymond Jr. was awarded the Silver Star for destroying an ammunition dump concealed in a house near Siena and incurred severe damage to his P-47, Hun Hunter XIV.
  • Wymond appears prominently with his P-47 throughout the documentary.
  • Directors Wyler and Sturges, serving as officers in the AAF, were attached to the 12th CCU during the period it filmed the activities of the 57th Fighter Group.
  • Wyler used his association as a “passport” to visit many areas of liberated Europe after completion of the initial shooting.
  • Although shown to the press late in 1945, Thunderbolt! was not generally released until 1947 by Monogram Pictures, and was re-released in 1950 during the Korean War.
  • Half of the 1947 profits from the film’s release went to the Army Air Force Relief Society and the United States Treasury.
  • The introduction to the film by James Stewart was filmed in late January 1947. Stewart had commanded a bomber wing as a colonel during the war.

Production & Filming Details

  • Narrator(s): Lloyd Bridges, Eugene Kim, and James Stewart.
  • Director(s): William Wyler and John Sturges.
  • Producer(s): US Army Air Forces.
  • Writer(s): Lester Koenig.
  • Music: Gail Kubik.
  • Editor(s): William Wyler and John Sturges.
  • Production: Carl Krueger Productions and US War Department.
  • Distributor(s): Monogram Pictures.
  • Release Date: 26 July 1947.
  • Running Time: 44 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

 

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