Capricorn One, Moon-landing Deniers, Nil

Run, it’s another conspiracy nut!

On Saturday, August 25, 2012, the most famous man in the world passed away at the age of 82-Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Not just an American hero, but a hero to anybody who “dared to dream” as his Apollo 11 crew mate Buzz Aldrin paid tribute.

Yet incredibly, even with all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still numbskulls who believe he and those who followed behind never set foot on soil not of this earth. Perhaps in the 1970’s, this may, just may, have been understandable, at a stretch – they were crazy times. Post-Watergate, paranoid Americans were reeling from the lies and half-truths of the establishment. Conspiracy thrillers were a big thing back then and, inspired by (but not for a second believing in) the moon mission deniers, writer / director Peter Hyams set out to make a satirical thriller set around the space race. The result was Capricorn One.

Capricorn One is supposed to be the first American manned mission to Mars (some going in 1977!). When the NASA project leader (a slimy Hal Holbrook) discovers that the life support system supplied by a penny pinching outsourced contractor will fail, he has the crew removed from the command module minutes before launch. They are: Commander Brubaker (James Brolin), Willis (Sam Waterston), and Walker (O.J.Simpson). Too much is riding on the success of the mission in terms of prestige and future funding, and the crew are blackmailed into taking part in an elaborate charade. From studios in an abandoned air force base in the Mojave desert, they fake broadcasts of their journey to Mars, exploration of the surface, and their return. When a fault with the heat shield causes the landing capsule to burn up in Earth re-entry, the trio (who were supposed to be flown to the off-course landing sight in time to fool the press), realise they cannot be allowed to live. They escape (incredibly easily, by prising the hinges off a door!) and nick a Learjet, crashing in the desert and splitting up. Meanwhile, Elliott Gould’s journalist Robert Caulfield, tipped off by a suspicious technician friend inside mission control, is pursuing a parallel investigation that will interconnect in dramatic fashion.

Somewhere along the way the satirical element was dropped, and for the most part Capricorn One plays as a straight out, if far fetched thriller. Gould does, however, play his usual bumbling clown out of his depth schtick – an approach carried over from his updated take on Phil Marlowe in 1973’s The Long Goodbye.

Hyams had trouble selling his script until the Watergate scandal blew up. Apparently in the 1970’s it was expected that the authorities were corrupt, and Capricorn One was a goer, even if it was an independent feature. It had a miniscule budget, and was lucky it received a helping hand from NASA, who supplied some major props. Why on earth did they agree to co-operate with a film that portrayed their organisation as corrupt  murderers at worst, inept at best? I guess they had the last laugh – the prototype Lunar Lander supplied is in no way suitable for a landing in the Mars atmosphere. Also, a quick check with NASA scientists would have covered the gaff in the story where the wives talk to their husbands in the space craft – there should be at least 25 minutes delay between each end of the conversation, from Mars to Mission Control on Earth. Not to mention the time it would take to travel there and back, plus waiting on Mars for the planets to re-align – all in all, almost three years!

Producer Paul Lazurus (appropriate name, for a film where the crew rise from the dead!) had some interesting insights when he was interviewed by Frederick C Szebin. He had previously produced Michael Crichton’s Futureworld, which received some cooperation from NASA. Again, Lazarus submitted the Capricorn One script to his NASA contact, who liked it, as simple as that, having enjoyed working with him before. His contact did admit that if his request had gone further up the chain, it would have been denied.

The film was financed outside Hollywood by ITC impresario Lew Grade. Grade paid for Lazurus and Hyams to fly to his New York hotel. Lazurus stated : “He (Grade) opens the door. Standing there in his silk bathrobe with the whitest legs I’ve ever seen in my life, and this enormous Churchill cigar in his mouth. He said “Hello boys. You’re the people with the Mars shot?” I said “Yes.” He said “Wonderful, You have a deal. Thank you for coming.” And that was it.”

Grade funded on condition there were re-writes, and he had a say in casting, which is why Telly Savalas, famous as T.V ‘tec Kojak, plays the eccentric crop-duster pilot who helps Gould and Brolin, and not Hyams’ initial preference, Donald Pleasence. Grade said “If I put Savalas in, it’s worth another half a million dollars from Network Television.” From then on, the film-makers had a free hand.

For a film with a stunt filled second half, featuring rock climbing, desert trekking, climbing on wings and (fake) snake eating, it was remarkably mishap free. Apart from the cameraman falling out of a very low flying helicopter, filming the large scale model rocket on the launch pad in the film’s opening sequence. The doctor who examined him told Lazarus “He’s fine, but he does have the worst case of clap I’ve ever seen!” Lazarus replied “That’s his problem. It’s not covered by workman’s comp.”

It’s the cinematography by DP Bill Butler that really helps sell the peril the characters are in. The Mars studio scenes are well shot, and the desert especially looks like a dangerous, unforgiving hell (made-up peeling skin helps, too). This is a manly film, as signified by Brolin tearing a strip from his flight suit to wrap around his bloodied scalp, a la the later Rambo. At one point he buries himself beneath the sand, breathing through a plant stalk, as the menacing black-ops choppers hover above. The choppers are a nice symbol of the faceless system tracking the men. W e never hear any inter-pilot chatter, instead they dip and nod towards each other, as if communicating silently.

The highlight is the twisting, stomach turning chase as Savalas flies through canyons with Brolin (or a dummy!) hanging on his wing, the choppers in pursuit. Jerry Goldsmith‘s score is superb here as well, adding to the drama.

The film climaxes in a freeze frame (remember when they were popular?) as Brolin and Gould manage to gatecrash the astronauts memorial service. This prompted me to make this terrible joke when watching it recently: “You know his problem? He’s late for his own funeral!”

Capricorn One is a fun thriller with a far-fetched, but engaging premise. It serves though in its errors to debunk the naysayers who refuse to believe in the incredible feats of  the thousands of technicians and glamour boys (and women) who push the boundaries of human endeavour. To those numbskulls, I leave the last word to Buzz Aldrin:

You can’t fake that teary-eyed joy: RIP Neil Armstrong



Originally posted 2012-08-27 17:13:54. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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