‘Sky Riders’ Sees Mountaintop Terrorists Facing Off Against an Unflappable James Coburn
He’s not flapping because he’s gliding.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick features terrorists, James Coburn, gun fights, hang-gliding American heroes, and a certain helicopter stunt you may remember from the opening credits of TV’s The Fall Guy!
The ’80s was my decade for falling in love with the movies as I visited the theater almost every weekend, but as I got older and began exploring cinema from years past one truth became clear. While I’ve found films to love from as far back as 1926 it was the ’70s that offered up – and continue to offer – the greatest collection of masterpieces, surprises, and pure entertainment. Barely a week goes by where I don’t “discover” another film from the decade that I’d never heard of and that I truly enjoy.
The very first thing I saw or heard about 1976’s Sky Riders was the poster below. It’s a thing of beauty that checks off multiple boxes of interest for me including stunning geography, gun-related action, James Coburn, and a ludicrous scenario – I was immediately sold. Seriously, look at it and tell me you don’t immediately want to watch that movie.
The setup is simple. A group of European terrorists abduct the wife (Susannah York) and children of an American industrialist, Bracken (Robert Culp), and hold them hostage in an abandoned, cliff-side monastery. The local police are ineffective at best, and when her shady ex-husband, McCabe (Coburn), arrives to lend moral support he quickly realizes the family’s safety may require an unorthodox intervention. You’d think at this point that he’d pull an Uncommon Valor and assemble an elite team of mercenaries, or barring that maybe a Band of the Hand and put together a ragtag group of mischievous youths.
Well you’d think wrong.
Knowing the odds are against him seeing as the terrorists are heavily armed and occupying a mountaintop fortress with only a single, easily-defendable path in and out, McCabe does the one thing you wouldn’t expect. He hires a touring group of American hang-gliding enthusiasts with zero combat experience to join his life and death mission. But first they have to train him how to operate a hang-glider so he can fly solo… at night… and land amid the craggy peaks above the terrorist stronghold.
Before the third-act aerial assault begins the film spends time with Bracken’s attempts to raise the ransom (cash and a ridiculous assortment of weaponry) and shares just enough about McCabe’s life including that he spent a brief stint in jail, is good at “acquiring” things, and is the father of one of the kids. There’s a solid, unspoken dynamic between the two men that continues through to the end, but where most films would make Culp’s character the ineffectual one in the face of Coburn’s cool cat here they’re both allowed to be good and successful men in their own rights.
The woman they both love exists mostly as the hostage at the heart of the story, but she’s actually given a lot more spunk than you might expect. She stands up to her captors in defense of her kids, and York plays the protective aggression with the same raw emotion she shows upon realizing that her ex has appeared guns-blazing to save them.
These character touches are nice, but the film’s real fun is in the third act action. McCabe and the hobbyists – now armed with automatic weapons they’ve had a day to learn – assault the compound from above, rescue the three hostages, and proceed to make their getaway the same way they arrived. That’s right… they strap themselves, the woman, and the kids to the hang-gliders and leap off the cliff-side. The fight continues through the air as the revolutionaries fire on them from the ground and even take after them in a helicopter.
Terrorists in a chopper chase hang-gliders. Why isn’t this movie better known? And why hasn’t it been remade for the Point Break / Fast and Furious generation?! You’d think this part would be over quick as the gliders dive for the earth below or move away from the fortress, but no – perhaps due to some aspect of Greek wind that I’m unfamiliar with the group keeps their gliders circling the bad guys for several minutes. Why?! No clue, but it means this action sequence goes on for twenty minutes instead of two so I’m all for it.
The helicopter bit by the way features a stunt that some of you may recognize from the opening credits of Lee Majors’ popular series, The Fall Guy. (I swear it was popular.)
Director Douglas Hickox is probably best known for Theater of Blood and Zulu Dawn, his final film, but he shows an eye here for action and spectacle that I would have loved to see exploited more across his filmography. The Greek landscapes are gorgeous, and the aerial photography captures the beauty of the mountains, the sea, and the flying machines moving in between.
And a quick aside that will be of interest to two of you… Hickox, along with film editor Anne V. Coates, is parent to director Anthony Hickox who gifted the world with 1988’s delightful horror/comedy, Waxwork.
Sky Riders is a fun little action/thriller worth seeking out for fans of Coburn and ludicrous set-pieces. It’s no lost masterpiece, but there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in Coburn’s charismatic performance and the big bullet & wind-filled finale.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
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