B-Movie Inspirations: The Bamboo Saucer (1968)
B-Movie Inspirations is a series of articles I write where I watch really bad movies and draw RPG inspiration from them.
I found this little gem while browsing Youtube. I love the fact that Youtube is posting a ton of old B movies. By the title, it sounded stupid but they had me at Saucer. As a kid, I was obsessed with UFOs. I looked passed the “bamboo” part and gave it a chance. I mean, they remastered it for a reason, right? It starts fairly hokey but slowly progresses from fairly interesting to rather inspiring towards the middle of the second act. So let’s get into the plot.
In a long series of edited stock footage of a USAF Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, we are introduced to test pilot Fred Norwood flying the experimental X-109 jet aircraft accompanied by a chase plane. During the flight test, Norwood spots a “bogey” that appears to resemble a flying saucer. Suddenly cut off from radio communication to the ground crew, Norwood is forced to engage in a series of tricky but unapproved aerobatics to protect his aircraft.
The special effects for these scenes are on par for what you would expect from 1968 movies. They take footage they shot of a cheesy saucer model and overlay it on top of the stock footage of the Air Force Starfighter. It’s a good choice of a fighter, because for it’s time, it is futuristic looking and simply bad-a**.
Once on the ground, the commanding officers and corporate types are none too happy with Norwood’s aerobatics as they only saw on radar his jet as well as the the chase plane. Though Norwood insists he saw a flying saucer, those on the ground believe he has had a series of hallucinations and order him off the project. Blanchard, the pilot of the chase plane, does not even back Norwood up, implying a fear of being taken off the project over-riding his friendship with Norwood.
This acts as an introduction point to establish Norwood’s first encounter with the flying saucer and a lead into his obsession. In a more modern movie, we’d establish him as a washed up pilot obsessed with UFOs and show the initial encounter in vague flash backs or nightmares. It also establishes the look, sound and feel of the saucer so we can recognize it later.
This sets Norwood down a very angry and determined path to prove what he saw. For some unknown amount of time, he patrols the area in a North American P-51 Mustang equipped with laser radar until he reaches the point of exhaustion. Norwood rexruits the help of his friend and brother-in-law Joe Vetry with the patrols. On one particular patrol piloted by Joe, the radar picks up an unidentified flying object. While Norwood and and his sister (Joe’s wife) Dorothy watch in horror as Joe’s aircraft engages the object and vanishes off the radar screen.
Enter Act II where Norwood is summoned Washington D.C. by Hank Peters, a member of an unnamed agency (CIA) of the United States Government. Peters believes his account of the UFO and shows him a sketch that Norwood identifies as the same object that buzzed his test aircraft. However, Peters explains to Norwood that the sketch was provided from intelligence sources based in Communist China, hidden in an old abandoned Catholic church. Apparently it crash landed in the church some time ago, the dead bodies of two aliens were found by the locals nearby, presumably dead from lack of immunity to Earth’s bacteria. The locals burned them.
Peters needs Norwood’s expertise with aircraft on a covert mission that would include Peters and two scientists – Jack Garson, electronics expert and Dave Ephram, metallurgist – who will be parachuted into Communist China. This is when the movie grabbed me. A covert mission to recover a UFO in China sounds like a perfect adventure for modern or retro-modern RPG game. But it gets better.
At the drop zone in China, they rendezvous with American agent Sam Archibald, their contact behind the lines. He will lead them to their church and the saucer. On traveling to their destination while evading units of the Chinese military patrols, they run across a party of Russian scientists led by their own version of Agent Peters. After some tense diplomatic moments, they realize that they are both in China covertly and China would not be happy about either team being present within their borders. The two parties decide to cooperate in investigating the hidden saucer.
At this point, I really am enjoying this. I did not expect a second team and the way they ended up working together is perfect set up for a great RPG game. None characters is a lot to handle but maybe one or two could be NPCs to be killed later.
Now as one team with some trust issues, they are all lead to the the ruins of a Catholic church, destroyed and abandoned when the Communists took over. in the local overs of the Church parked in a large room is the Saucer. Sam recruits the locals who assist the Americans in any way possible, including standing guard against any Chinese patrols as the scientists do their research. There are several moments of tension and betrayal between the two groups, of course, and this could be some great role-play in a tabletop RPG environment.
The finale has the teams in sort of an Alamo situation as the scientists try to get the Saucer running. The soldier types defend the church against an on-coming Chinese army – guns, grenades and lots of explosions. All the military types die valiantly and only Anna, Garson and Norwood survive after figuring out how to fly the saucer. They burst out of the grass and palm frond roof to take off into space. A pre-programmed course instantly takes control and flies them away from Earth past the Moon, past Mars, and toward Saturn. Unable to return unless they work together to control the alien UFO, they are finally successful and able to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a final mess of cheesy hope and mutual cooperation (yea, how well did that work out?).
This movie is a great inspiration of action and intrigue for a awesome one shot. You have two teams with their own motivations and goals. Alien tech found hidden in a hostile region and the potential of discovery at any minute. You are also trusting a lot of locals for information and supplies. I would run this just as it is, in the 1960s. Of course, playing loyal Soviet communists might be a little tricky for some but a good mature group could handle it.
In another genre, you simply substitute nationalities with enemy races and make the saucer something more fitting for the setting. – a magic item or ancient alien tech. The hostile environment could be another nation, another plane of existence or a very hostile planet. It can be fun in any fashion or genre.