Movie: Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark spawned many imitators, resulting in multiplexes of the 1980’s becoming clogged with action comedies where various scoundrels end up in some exotic location as they pursue treasure of some sorts.  Given the timing, I’m not sure if Race for the Yankee Zephyr (also released as Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr) owes it a debt, but many elements of it feel too similar to be mere coincidence.

We open on a fake newsreel showing an airplane, the Yankee Zephyr, being loaded up with Christmas goods and mail for WWII troops in New Zealand.  Something that confused me is it maintains the appearance of a newsreel even as the narration ends and we see the plane’s engines smoking.  I honestly couldn’t tell what was happening, though I guess it was abandoning the pretense of being historical footage at that point.

Cut to two helicopters manned by guys hunting deer, just not with guns.  In one helicopter, a guy traps a deer via one of those guns that fire nets out of them.  In the other, Donald Pleasance and pilot Ken Wahl argue over which one forgot to bring the net.  Eventually, Pleasance ends up dangling from the helicopter with a rope tied around his waist before Wahl drops him into a lake.  Wahl just flies on—not that I would blame him.

The next morning, Pleasance wakes up on the shore face-to-painted-face with the cartoon woman on the side of the lost Yankee Zephyr.  Consider the title, that was a short race!

The nose of the plane is just barely on the shore and it is obvious the aircraft is in danger of sinking back into the lake.  Exploring the craft, Pleasance finds a crate of Old Crow whiskey.  Thrilled by this treasure, he doesn’t even notice the first crate he moves out of the plane is filled with gold.  

Not sure how he could not help but observe how outrageously heavy that crate had to be, as I suspect it would be too much weight for him to shift in the first place.  But, no, he’s just happy with some medals he finds and the crate of whiskey.  This is definitely a “step over a dollar to get a dime” kind of guy.

Pleasance goes to an antiques dealer to try to sell the medals, but is informed they aren’t worth anything.  Wahl, however, realizes how much gold they would have if the medals were melted down.  And, with that, the race is on to return to the Zephyr for more medals.

Soon, we have two teams competing to get to the wreckage first.  Pleasance and Wahl will be joined by Lesley Ann Warren, playing Pleasance’s uptight daughter who is embarrassed by her father’s antics.  Their competition is a murderous group led by George Peppard.

I feel it is time to address the performances in this feature, starting with Pleasance.  Although I don’t seek out his films to the extent I do those of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, I have always felt that, similar to those two actors, Pleasance never phones it in.  He is one of those rare actors that is talented, yet will apparently do anything for a paycheck, while also giving a solid performance no matter the budget.

Alas, I’m not sure what he is trying to do here.  In the part of an incredibly destructive drunk, he chews the scenery with such gusto that I’m not sure I have seen its equal elsewhere.  Was this really the actor’s decision or did the director encourage this?  Even the movie seems to find him repellant, as the crowd in a bar cheers when Wahl throws him out.  Next, in what I feel is a bizarre metaphor, Pleasance grabs a chainsaw that was just lying around outside and proceeds to destroy the scenery in a different way, by cutting through the walls of the establishment.  Interesting how, once again, horror and comedy can be so similar.

Leslie Ann Warren fares only slightly worse, as a shrill killjoy who I can only guess was told to channel Olive Oyl from Popeye.  Ken Wahl is serviceable in what would normally be the Kurt Russell part if he was in such a film.  Unfortunately, George Peppard delivers his dialogue in an atrocious “British” accent.  I’m just glad he didn’t say “I love it when a plan comes together” in that voice.

One positive I can note about this picture is the cinematography is gorgeous.  I think it’s interesting so few filmmakers outside of New Zealand shot anything there prior to Lord of the Rings.  But most of the footage here is of helicopters, often with one in pursuit of the other.  I find it odd how a helicopter chase always sounds like that would be an amazing spectacle, when they are always inevitably boring.

A different type of chase scene is between two speedboats and that is the most exciting setpiece of the movie.  Unfortunately, knowing three stuntmen lost their lives in the filming of this sequence negates the excitement on the screen.

A behind-the-scenes tragedy seems so incongruous for a movie so thoroughly separated from how the real world operates.  This is the kind of picture where it can be dead quiet for miles, yet a henchman won’t hear the approaching footsteps of a character walking across gravel, leaves and twigs.

That said, one of the most genuinely hilarious and memorable moments is courtesy of a repurposed helicopter cockpit put on top of some of undercarriage with tank treads.  The resulting “helitractor” seems to foretell the radical vehicle hybrids of the Mad Max sequels.

If Race of the Yankee Zephyr wasn’t riffing on Raiders, then I am at a loss to explain a scene with Wahl that seemingly parodies the bit in that latter picture where a swordsman does all kinds of fancy stuff and Harrison Ford just shoots him.  At best, Zephyr is a watered-down retread of the cliches of such action movies of the 80’s.  What is baffling is how it arrived at the start of the decade instead of the end, at which point any original ideas had been exhausted and tired pictures like this were the standard.

Dir: David Hemmings

Starring Ken Wahl, Donald Pleasance, Lesley Ann Warren

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray