THE BAMBOO SAUCER (1968) (Blu-ray)
Director: Frank Telford
Olive Films

THE BAMBOO SAUCER belongs to the relatively tiny science fiction sub-genre of “Cold War thrillers,” other examples of which include RED PLANET MARS, INVASION U.S.A., and BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH. Little seen on television over the years, at least in the Chicagoland area, BAMBOO SAUCER has finally been dredged from the Paramount vaults to receive a simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of Olive Films.

After being buzzed by a UFO while on an experimental test flight, test pilot Fred Norwood (John Ericson, 7 FACES OF DR. LAO, HUSTLER SQUAD) faces disbelief and derision from his immediate superiors. But Pentagon security head Hank Peters (Dan Duryea, SCARLET STREET, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS) calls Norwood into his office for a debriefing, revealing that Chinese peasants have reported a downed craft matching Norwood’s description being held in an abandoned church—unbeknownst to the Red Chinese government—and the bodies of two humanoid creatures assumed to be the alien pilots. A search team consisting of Peters, Norwood, Jack Garson (Bob Hastings, probably best known as Lt. Carpenter on McHALE’S NAVY), an electronics specialist, and Dave Ephram (Bernard Fox, MUNSTER, GO HOME!, Dr. Bombay on BEWITCHED), an expert metallurgist, parachutes into China, meeting up with special agent Sam Archibald (James Hong, DESTINATION INNER SPACE, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), who guides them to the church. On the way, they meet up with a group of Soviet military operatives and their electronics expert and translator Anna Karachev (gorgeous Lois Nettleton, COME FLY WITH ME, DEADLY BLESSING), who are also hunting for the saucer. (In an oddly out-of-place bit of cheesecake, Norwood first encounters Anna stripped to the waist, bathing under a waterfall.)

After an initially tense confrontation, the Americans and Russians forge an uneasy alliance, deciding to cooperate in their search for the alien craft so that it won’t fall into Red Chinese hands. The church is located, and the American team begins conducting metallurgical and other tests on the saucer. The buzzing of Garson’s electric razor accidentally opens the saucer’s entrance hatch, revealing that much of the opaque exterior of the saucer is actually transparent from the inside, and after one of the Russians tries to fly the saucer while the others are asleep, and winds up dead, the Americans convince the Russians to let Norwood and Anna, who are slowly becoming romantically involved, attempt to fly the craft. A split begins to develop between Norwood and Peters, who remains suspicious of the Russians, and seems more concerned with the military implications of the mission than actually recovering the saucer. After they manage to levitate the craft for a few seconds, the two sides agree to cooperate fully and surrender their weapons, and Sam Archibald shows up again to advise the group that Red Chinese patrols in the area are increasing.

Dubovsky (Rico Cattani, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE), the leader of the Russians, pulls a double-cross, and Anna and comrade Zagorsky (Vincent Beck, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS) switch sides, allying themselves with the Americans (Zagorsky cites a prediction of 16th-century soothsayer Nostradamus that “the eagle and the bear will join forces to kill the dragon”). As the Chinese patrols close in, Anna and Norwood decide to try to pilot the saucer to an airbase in Formosa in order to prevent the Reds from capturing it. Once airborne, the ship kicks into autopilot, speeding past the Moon and Mars, and surviving a near miss with a huge asteroid (probably the single most exciting sequence in the film, unfortunately lasting only seconds) as Anna and Norwood desperately try to regain control of the ship to avoid a head-on collision with the planet Saturn and return the alien craft to Earth.

Having only seen part of THE BAMBOO SAUCER in fuzzy black-and-white as a teenager and being rather underwhelmed at the time, I was looking forward to revisiting the movie, particularly with a spanking new HD transfer and a more adult attitude. While the story is fairly original and interesting enough, the overall result is a bit disappointing, with the admirable ambitions of the filmmakers ultimately exceeding their grasp, mostly due to the apparently low budget and the pedestrian direction of Frank Telford, primarily a TV writer/director/producer, BAMBOO SAUCER being his sole theatrical directorial credit. Producer Jerry Fairbanks also had little experience with theatrical features (and science fiction), his credits heavy on 1930s and 1940s Popular Science and Unusual Occupations shorts, educational films, and the 1950s Crusader Rabbit TV series.

Interestingly, the original story was co-written by Alford “Rip” Van Ronkel, co-writer of the groundbreaking DESTINATION MOON, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton—whose hundreds of credits include virtually all of the 1930s and 1940s Universal horrors, CONQUEST OF SPACE, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, several 1950s Hitchcock pictures, and late-1950s SF classics THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE. Fulton is also credited alongside mechanical effects technician Glen Robinson (THE WIZARD OF OZ, FORBIDDEN PLANET) for special (photographic) effects, and the cinematography is by the great Hal Mohr (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA [1943], THE WILD ONE, THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS), so the live action scenes looks fine, though the studio-shot “outdoor” sequences don’t mesh very well with the actual location footage.

The cast all acquit themselves admirably, though not surprisingly, Bernard Fox emerges as perhaps the most engaging character, providing a few moments of welcome humor, and I found myself wishing he had a lot more screen time. Other aspects of the production are more problematic: Having the Russians speak their native language was probably a nod toward realism, but the constant translating by Nettleton gets a bit tedious, and her Russian accent is less than completely convincing. The UFO model in the opening scene is poorly realized, looking more like cel animation, the matted-in model saucer never seems to quite match the full-size mockup in the church scenes (the model is a deep blue color, while the full-scale saucer is a metallic silver), and, most disappointingly, John P. Fulton’s usually impeccable photographic effects suffer from thick black matte lines, speckling, and debris. Another unfortunate effects shot depicts a half-moon with stars clearly showing through the supposedly dark side.

While the movie held my interest and is never really boring, the middle hour of the picture where they’re examining the saucer tends to drag, the action really only catching fire in the last 20 minutes or so as the Red Chinese make their assault on the church and Norwood and Anna take off in the saucer. Clocking in at 103 minutes, the pacing would probably have benefited dramatically with at least 10 or 15 minutes cut or trimmed, particularly from the church sequences. Even with these flaws, the movie overall is moderately entertaining, and you can’t fault the producers’ mostly serious approach to the subject matter—even shoehorning in a not-so-subtle plea for international tolerance and cooperation—particularly in a low-budget, independent genre movie, though their lofty ideals are undone somewhat by the lackluster production values. I would still recommend THE BAMBOO SAUCER to those with a taste for the offbeat or a little politics in their science fiction, but it’s a bit of a letdown because this could have been a minor classic of the genre with a more inspired director, a larger budget, and greater care taken with the effects.

Produced by Jerry Fairbanks Productions in association with National Telefilm Associates (NTA), THE BAMBOO SAUCER received an apparently limited release through World Entertainment Corporation in 1968 (I’m assuming it was limited as advertising paper on this release is exceedingly rare) and was later re-released by Harris Associates under the title COLLISION COURSE. There was an NTA clamshell VHS release in the mid-1980s and another by Republic Home Video in the mid-1990s, but BAMBOO SAUCER has never legitimately appeared on any digital home video format until now.

Olive Films presents THE BAMBOO SAUCER on region A Blu-ray in a 1080p AVC 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with a DTS-HD 1.0 mono audio encode. There is a light sheen of grain throughout, providing a nice filmic texture, but it’s unobtrusive save for a scattered handful of shots. The DeLuxe color is adequately saturated—a bit less so in the bright exterior scenes—and reasonably well balanced, although skin tones lean a bit toward the red end of the spectrum. On the downside, there is moderate to heavy speckling, scratching, dirt, and debris for about the first five to 10 minutes or so, which fortunately subsides to an acceptably low level throughout most of the rest of the movie. Sadly, a majority of the sporadic blemishing appears to have been caused by a dirty optical printer as the distracting speckling and debris return periodically during the optical effects shots, but do not bleed into the surrounding live action. Dialogue, effects, and music are clear with no hum, clicks or pops, or other issues. As with most Olive Films discs, there are no extras whatsoever. (Paul Tabili)