Sky Riders is “the hang glider movie,” yet another product of the weird and wonderful world of 1976. This 20th Century Fox movie filmed entirely in Greece, giving it an exotic flavor and production values that make it feel wildly different from standard studio-produced fare. The movie has a low budget (reported to be around $350,000), but the film has to work around those limitations and the end result is better for it. Stunts are practical and the spectacle is real, not carefully crafted in special effects studio. Sky Riders has that slow burn I associate with seventies movies, especially the ones that are more political in nature, but this movie absolutely delivers on the promise of the poster. Like Grizzly, this movie draws viewers in with the promise of a something they haven’t seen. Unlike Grizzly, though, Sky Riders actually has intrigue at the heart of the plot, and takes time to breathe and lay the groundwork for what’s to come.
The real star of this movie, though, is James Coburn, the famous tough guy known for films like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and the swinging-sixties spy classic Our Man Flint and its sequel, In Like Flint. Sadly, Coburn never starred on Columbo, so we’ll never know how his career could have taken off if he had. Anyway, he seems like a cross between Indiana Jones and a mercenary, flying his seaplane into dangerous areas and hauling deadly cargo. Comparisons to Baloo on the ‘90s Disney cartoon series TaleSpin would not be unfounded. Coburn and Culp have a weird relationship that the movie only partially explores. In the story, Coburn is the ex-husband of Susannah York and the father of a son that Robert Culp is now raising. But Culp doesn’t have resentment for Coburn; he actually seems to kind of admire him. It’s hinted at in the movie that Coburn agreed to walk away from his young family because his lifestyle was just too dangerous. He’s a gypsy, and so he and Culp are forever tied to one another. They respect each other. Weird, but totally seventies.
Zero Dark Thirty on summer vacation!
The more sensational aspects of this movie are absolutely the reason to watch it, and I can only imagine the difficulty in setting up some of the shots we see. Logistically, it must have been really difficult to mount cameras onto the hang gliders for close ups and still give the viewer a sense of where they are in space. The stunt work is equally impressive. While this movie doesn’t feature a ton of over-the-top kills, there are still some really impressive stunts. For instance, in the balls-to-the-wall third act in which all hell breaks loose, Coburn jumps onto the landing gear of a helicopter in flight. We’ve all seen a stunt like that before, but the director goes out of his way to show us that this is really James Coburn hanging from this chopper. There’s a shot that starts tight on the actor and then pulls back, and we see that this is really him and that he’s really hanging there, thousands of feet above the ground. I’m not used to seeing lead actors doing dirty work like that.
One of the most interesting bits of trivia about Sky Riders is too juicy not to repeat. A Greek electrician was accidentally killed during a planned explosion on the set (which is terrible), and two of the film’s producers were arrested by the Greek authorities. They were held for several weeks and the American crew member behind the accident was going to be arrested and prosecuted until the producers settled for $250,000, at which point everyone was finally allowed to leave the country.
It’s kind of a bummer that a movie as special and unique as Sky Riders has become so obscure. Shout! Factory released it on DVD back in 2012 paired with another Coburn film, The Last Hard Men. Why this never got the deluxe Shout! Factory Blu-ray treatment is beyond me, though. The UK-based distributor 101 Films released this on Blu-ray in 2017 in the international market. I think the movie is very satisfying and could only have been made in the window of time in which it was created, but part of me wonders what could have been if it had been made just a little bit later. This is the same kind of gimmicky exploitation that The Cannon Group excelled at creating, and it’s fun for me to imagine what could have been different in this movie had been made in, say, 1984 instead of 1976. How would this movie play with someone like Chuck Norris in the James Coburn role? Or with Charles Bronson as the wealthy American industrialist?
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!