aka … Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr

Whether one enjoys this Indiana Jones like adventure or not, we can all clearly agree that the film itself could easily have served as a tourist commercial to visit the gorgeous landscapes and mountainous regions of New Zealand. It’s a truly breathtaking film.

It also stars four very well known actors of the day. One of which comes off as a being badly miscast or just a lousy interpretation of a Bond like villain, two youngsters who do just fine as the romantic leads and then we have Donald Pleasence giving us everything he’s got as a drunken sod having fun and not surprisingly stealing every scene he’s in. If it weren’t for the scenery I’d champion the notion that he walks away with the entire film.

Unreleased in the United States until 1984, the film plays much like a Clive Cussler novel with Ken Wahl assuming the lead role of an adventurer/salvager. He’s got a run down helicopter and the booze guzzling Pleasence as a partner. It’s through a comical mishap while chasing down wildlife using his chopper that Pleasence ends up separated and left for the night in the far reaches of untamed country. It’s here that Pleasence will come across a lost WW2 plane, The Yankee Zephyr, along the coast of a inland lake.

The plane was smartly featured over the opening credits in a recreated newsreel from the WW2 era. It’s cargo was 15 million in gold bars to aid the war effort. It went down and has been lost to time ever since.

Pleasence climbs aboard and finds everything from skeletons in the cockpit to cases of age old whiskey. Enough to keep him drunk, cheerful and oblivious to the millions in the crates surrounding him. He will by chance open a crate full of sparkling new Purple Heart medals destined for the wounded soldiers of WW2. These he’ll pocket and once back to the town he calls home he wanders into a local pawnshop with them and from there our story will pick up steam at a rollercoaster pace.

The pawnshop owner makes a call while Wahl wants to hurry out and salvage the crates full of purple hearts that Pleasence tells him are on board the Zephyr. As for that pawnshop owner, his life is about to come to an abrupt end thanks to that phone call. He’s opened Pandora’s Box. Arriving in short order is a treasure hunter with a nasty accent played by George Peppard accompanied by an army of goons making him worthy of a poor man’s James Bond villain.

As for Wahl and Pleasence, they’re broke and turn to Donald’s daughter, Lesley Ann Warren, for a loan to get the chopper up and running and hurry out to salvage the cargo. She’s not responsive to her drunken father’s pleas and only gives in when she’s guaranteed both a piece of the action and Wahl’s business.

Time for the race to begin when Peppard issues some not so subtle threats at Wahl who immediately realizes Peppard isn’t playing games over just a few boxes of war medals and in no time he’s got both Pleasence and Warren in his barely working chopper as they make their way over one beautiful vista after another heading inland to Pleasence’s targeted lake.

The problem is Peppard and his goons are hot on their trail prompting some dynamic stunt flying from the production crew and great footage captured by the film’s director, actor David Hemmings.

I guess I could go on but that would take the fun out out of the adventure. One that sees Pleasence caught by Peppard’s thugs leading them in circles to the marching music of The Great Escape. Easily one of the greatest movies that this wonderful actor ever appeared in playing The Forger.

There’s a really fun movie here that just needed a better hand guiding it. Peppard is badly miscast in a role that was meant for the likes of Klaus Kinski or maybe Christopher Plummer. Why not director Hemmings? He’d have done well as the heavy. Perhaps Peppard wouldn’t feel so out of place if he wasn’t doing his best to ham it up with an accent but rather have played it straight.

Hemmings is perhaps best known as the star of films like Blow-Up and Deep Red though he kept his hand in the directing circle over a number of years, mainly for TV. Among his directing credits are 9 episodes of Peppard’s hit series, The A-Team.

Miss Warren scores as the stuffy daughter of Pleasence who comes alive once a little excitement and a good looking man enter her life. Warren was and remains a busy actress going back to the 1960’s as a teenager. She’s been in everything from Columbo and Clue to Life Stinks opposite Mel Brooks and a favorite James Woods film of mine, Cop, released in 1988.

Ken Wahl was a most popular dude back in the day playing opposite heavy hitters like Paul Newman in Fort Apache, The Bronx to headlining the hit TV series Wiseguy. Still, his career was a short one following his retirement from the industry in 1996.

I suppose this could be best described as a missed opportunity but thanks to Pleasence it carries a fair amount of charm highlighted by Wahl, Warren, a fine score by Brian May and the location shoot that only serves to remind me that movies can take us on journeys we may never actually embark upon during our lifetimes.

That alone makes this movie a memorable one.

Haven’t seen or maybe even heard of this one? I saw it ages ago on late night TV growing up thanks to my love of Donald Pleasence and thankfully it’s been put out by Kino Lorber Studio Classics on blu ray for me to revisit and for all of us to enjoy. If by chance you have seen it let me know what what you think. It’s not a film that is referenced very often if at all.