What’s it about?
This period comedy adventure features Scott McGinnis as Barney and Jeff Osterhage as Luke, a pair of bumbling Wild West bandits who spend their time accidentally blowing up entire banks with dynamite instead of just their safes.
The duo ride into a town where a WWI recruitment fair is going on and decide to stage a night-time robbery on the local bank there. When they break in they discover the law is lying in wait for them. However, instead of being sent to jail they are handed over to the army recruitment officer who packs them up to fight on the frontline in France.
While there, the battalion they are with is bombarded by a huge German aircraft, which they manage to take down via a well-aimed pistol shot. Seeing an opportunity amongst the explosive chaos they make a break for it and desert their posts. While driving across French territory they come across a British Officers’ Cafe and decide to con their way inside by impersonating a couple of Limeys themselves. When discovered, they end up getting into a drunken bet with a pair of broke officers; if they manage to take a combat biplane (or “gunbus”) into the skies then bring her back down for a successful landing (“any landing you can walk away from”) they win, thus winning their French girlfriends away from them.
While up in the clouds they come across a huge, heavily fortified German airship. They beat a hasty retreat and manage to crash-land, hitting a plane used by a British military suicide squadron who have disguised themselves as a flying circus. It’s still a landing that they somehow manage to walk away from without any significant injuries, but nonetheless, the squadron leader Bannock is keen for them to be shot for the damage they have caused. The duo manages to get out of their fate when he discovers that they have taken down the huge German plane earlier and know of the whereabouts of the airship - and thus end up being recruited into the team.
No, I’m not making any of this up.
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Why is it significant?
It was one of a series of big budget British-made movies that helped, during the course of the 1980s, to drag the country’s film industry from being one of the world’s most prestigious to a past-it backwater. Costing around $18 million it grossed a disastrously low $2.3 million at the US/Canada box office (where it was released under the name Sky Bandits), meaning that it ironically didn’t even get a cinema release on its own home turf, or anywhere else outside of North American territory for that matter. Instead, it went straight to video and then disappeared into obscurity, only resurfacing on a recent German DVD release.
Its failure to attract an audience in the crucial US/Canada market might have been partially attributable to the fact that there were no marketable names attached. Zoran Perisic was a leading figure in the movie SFX industry having patented several techniques - the best known of which was the Zoptic technique (for which he won multiple Oscars) that gave the illusion of Superman’s flight during the first three Christopher Reeve-starring movies. However, he was an unknown quantity in the director’s chair. The two leads Scott McGinnis and Jeff Osterhage weren’t well-known actors before (or since) this effort. The most familiar faces in the cast were Nicholas Lyndhurst, who was famous in Britain for playing the hapless Rodney in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses (but wouldn’t have been so familiar amongst American audiences), and Ronald Lacey - perhaps best known for playing the villainous Nazi henchman Arnold Toht in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but not exactly someone who would qualify as a bankable star.
The main reason for its financial failure, however, becomes obvious when you sit down and try to watch the thing.
How does it hold up?
Well, let's just say it's not a fine wine. It’s actually quite sad that Gunbus turned out to be so awful, since it does show some imagination and was clearly a labour of love for Zoran Perisic. It’s a sort of mix of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, the popular Biggles series of children’s books (which was adapted into another 1986 film that wasn’t a great deal better than this) and the 1960s TV show Wild, Wild West (which, funnily enough, was also adapted into a 1999 film that wasn’t a great deal better than this). Certain elements aren’t too bad; the two unknown leads are personable enough, Alfi Kabiljo’s classical score is suitably rousing and the production design is packed with neat details. However, the whole is just so misconceived and badly constructed that it fails to work on any level.
While the tone is clearly intended to be humorous, director Perisic and writer Thom Keyes seemed to believe that comedy is all about caricatured national stereotypes, overdone mayhem and ridiculous situations. It’s not; comedy needs wit and a sense of timing to work - both of which are totally absent here. To make matters worse, this failed comedy takes place within a real-life backdrop where millions lost their lives. Comedy can be pulled off successfully from similarly grim subject matter (see Dr. Strangelove), but those behind Gunbus clearly had no clue about how to go about it.
Given that such an award-winning special effects artist was sitting in the director’s chair here armed with a (then sizeable) $18 million budget we would at least expect the SFX sequences to be up to scratch. However, these are also a letdown; although we get plenty of elaborate miniatures and matte paintings these are poorly matched to the live action. The process shots on the flying scenes are just as bad, with numerous actors’ shots obviously taking place on a soundstage with rear projection, and wider shots featuring superimposed aircraft rather ineptly matched to the backdrops whizzing behind them. Champions of practical effects over more modern CGI should take note that these kinds of in-camera effects usually worked best in darkened settings (which is why space-based movies such as the Star Wars and Star Trek films looked so good) rather than with broad daylight as we see here. Even so, it’s still sloppier than it could have been.
The worst thing about Gunbus though is that it makes absolutely no sense - something that can be attributed largely to bad writing and editing. Take a look at the “What’s it about?” section above; why, for instance, would the law officers who arrested these two characters (who have just gone on a spree of robbery and property destruction) send them to fight in a war rather than putting them under close surveillance behind bars? How does the duo plausibly manage to survive getting caught in that plane crash, with them emerging entirely unscathed from the twisted wreckage? Things don’t make any more sense later on; at one point Barney rescues Luke from capture by the Germans by going in wearing a lederhosen disguise. However, a few scenes later we see him cycling through the base (in one of the many badly back-projected sequences) and throwing sticks of dynamite here, there and everywhere. So much for stealth and subterfuge - in the real world he would have been shot full of holes within 5 seconds of attempting to pull such a stunt.
The way scenes are cut frequently destroys the rhythm and logic of the action; we often get moments where the heroes are in immediate danger, but then the editing cuts away from them and allows important events to transpire unelaborated off-camera. The worst instance of this occurs during the finale, when we cut away from what should have been a suspenseful cliffhanger moment to a scene with our heroes back in America, running away from the law again.
It’s almost a shame that Gunbus has largely gone unseen over the years; it’s actually worth viewing as a lesson in how filmmaking can go badly wrong, even when a large budget is attached.
Runtime: 88 mins
Dir: Zoran Perisic
Script: Thom Keyes
Starring: Scott McGinnis, Jeff Osterhage, Ronald Lacey, Miles Anderson, Valerie Steffen, Ingrid Held, Nicholas Lyndhurst