Roy Scheider reveals the reason why he made Blue Thunder, a frightening movie dealing with the threat to our personal freedom. “There’s a spooky aspect to this film that I think is important,” he says in this Ken Ferguson report…
Appeared in Photoplay - Movies & Video magazine
By Ken Ferguson
We are just a few months away from George Orwell’s “Big Brother” society of 1984, but already with spy satellites, computer data banks, high-technology surveillance systems monitoring us all the time, no one individual is immune from investigation or detection. Big Brother is all around us, and there’s no escape, for the individual or, indeed, nations.
The whole harrowing, disturbing and frightening question concerning the invasion of a person’s privacy is brought into terrifying, sharp focus in John Badham’s remarkable new movie Blue Thunder starring Roy Scheider.
“Blue Thunder” is the name given to an amazing helicopter developed by military and government enlists as a weapon of immense fire-power that could be used in warfare, and, more disturbingly, as a “spy in the sky” with resources to observe everything that happens in a city or town over which it hovers.
Such is its incredible technology development that it can even record the whispers of lovers through the thickness of a building’s wall as well as being able to “see” through those same walls and record what it sees and hears on audio-video tape. It carries a computer with access to data banks around the United States which provide instant read-out on any individual background.
Its weaponry includes a multi-barrelled cannon capable of blasting out 4,000 rounds of 20-mm shells in just one minute.
“Blue Thunder” is developed in the name of “justice” but you can imagine to what frightening lengths its abilities could be used. And it’s this aspect of Blue Thunder’s potential from which the film’s central issue is derived.
Scheider plays a pilot, who, sensing the danger of its enormous threat to personal freedom, revels against its use and ultimately finds himself in dramatic conflict with the authorities when he takes off in “Blue Thunder” to be pursued in the air and on land by a variety of law enforcement and military interests. He has stumbled across a secret operation in which the craft will be used to gain control of Los Angeles’ ghetto streets during its experimental use as an observer for the 1984 Olympic games to be hed in Los Angeles thus ensuring the safety of its participants.
Scheider, the star of The French Connection; the two Jaws movies, All That Jazz and more recently Still Of The Night, says he felt somewhat wary about doing Blue Thunder at first.
“I’d read the script, which my agent sent me, and the first few pages of it indicated all this helicopter stuff. Having done a picture called Sorcerers in the Dominican Republic for about seven months in which I flew in a helicopter 75 miles each day to the locations, my first reason to it was “I don’t want anything to do with helicopters!”
“But the more I got into the story the more exciting it became. It would make a hell of an action picture! But it also had a very, very important political message. And so I thought, well, I’ll just have to get over my helicopter phobia and get in those things again, and make this film.
“The story supposes that some right thing or conservative group in the government decides that it will be a great idea for crowd control in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, to use these helicopters for surveillance, and to arm them, which is a pretty frightening idea.
“Unfortunately, the other equipment they want to put aboard is equipment that can look through into your house, see anything that’s alive and be able to record any conversation from five, six, hundred feet up in the air. The ship then becomes a representation of total invasion of privacy, a flying big brother.
“In the film, the character I play, Murphy, a Los Angeles helicopter pilot, knows that this is a very evil and unnecessary thing. So he does something about it.”
The action its director, John Badham, has captured on film not only looks breathtaking but extremely dangerous to do. Just how dangerous was it for Scheider?
“Firstly, we could only film on Sundays when there were less people down there on the streets of L.A. We had to have special permits. Flying around all those buildings was a little hair, I can tell you!
“When we first started to make the film, the thought of Malcolm McDowell (who turns out to be the film’s main villain) and myself flying around in ‘copters wasn’t really considered that much, but as we began to process the shots were so much better whenever we were in the ‘copters. So it really required that we both appeared in them, and we wound up doing most of the stunts ourselves. I mean, there was a stunt pilot aboard, and he was set back in the machine so you couldn’t see him. But he was piloting all the stunts around the buildings and through the aquaducts. Everything you see out of the window is what we saw, and sometimes it was pretty scary.”
Just how authentic is the equipment on board “Blue Thunder”?
Said Sheider: “That’s the interesting and significant thing. All the armament used in the film is real. It does exist. It’s manufactured by aviation firms. Now, not only do they have armaments but they have devices that can X-ray and see into your house. They have recording devices that can overhear any conversation in a car, in a closet, in the cellar, any place!”
“So you seem the underlying theme of the movie is that it’s a total invasion of privacy. Although this kind of device to control crowd would be very effective it would also be invasion of your personal liberties. What my character does in the film is to show the community that this kind of device isn’t necessary to be flying over anyone’s life.”
What about the background in Murphy, the man he plays?
“He’s a ex-Vietnamese air-force flyer who comes back to civilian life to continue flying. He starts working for the Los Angeles Police Department but his background and his memories of that war are not very pleasant. This new Peeping Tom aspect of his job reminds in, in many ways, of that kind of surveillance he had done in Vietnam. What the introduction of all the new ideas and equipment he really starts to get shaky about the horrendous possibilities of using this stuff. The whole idea of Big Brotherism with the helicopter doesn’t sit well with him, but he wants to continue with his job believing that the helicopter squadron, as it assists, does serve a great function in society. He feels his job is worthwhile, but not as a snoop. He doesn’t like that. But he’s a good cop. I call him Clean Harry of the Airways!
“I guess I have been very fortunate in having been in some very good action-adventure movies like The French Connection and Jaws. I’m a little wary about doing too many of those kind of pictures. But as far as Blue Thunder is concerned, because it has both the action and the excitement, and because politically it said something that needed to be said, I thought, well yeah, this is a worthwhile thing to do.
“If the public become as wary and understandable, and as anxious, about helicopters as the audience in Jaws were about sharks, then I think the picture will have served its purpose.
“I think it’s a very important movie because it alerts people to the kind of ultra conservative of even fascistic tendencies of some law enforcement personnel. There are people who would like to make sure your life is very well run and near and that you cooperate with the government and that they know at all times you are behaving as a good citizen. In other words, your personal freedom and your personal life is of great interest to them. Not really, but interested in making sure you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re also not free. You’re not alive. You live in fear. You have no relationships with anyone that can mean anything because someone is always listening. So there’s a spooky aspect to this film that I think is important.”