Many films are instant classics such as: Gone With The Wind or theLord of the Rings series. However, many of our most cherished movies have been sleepers; Bringing up Baby and Citizen Kane were both box office busts and required decades to achieve their current status. Classic movies must prove themselves by speaking to more than one generation. So I think that at least one other commercial flop will eventually find its way into Hollywood’s Valhalla; I speak of Philip Kaufman’s 1983 Film, The Right Stuff.
Recently I happened upon an interview of Mr. Kaufman on Reelz Channel. He lamented all the bad fortune that befell the early efforts to promote his film. For whatever reason, The Right Stuff did not have it; a box office failure. However, since its release the film has gradually risen in stature, recently included among the American Film Institute’s 400 greatest films. I believe it is one of the finest American films and I am not alone. It has received some of the highest praise from many of the most respected critics as well as four Oscars (best: Sound, Sound Effects, Film Editing and Original Score.)
Kaufman has done a masterful job of adapting the film from Tom Wolfe’s novel about the early heroes of the U.S. space program; It was a time for great exploits; with a sense of panic in the air after the early success of Soviet efforts.
It is extremely rare when a film is able to portray, often with humor, great heroism and sacrifice and not become a trite exercise in flag waving. Vincent Canby in the New York Times states that “these men remain virtually flawless heroes, almost too good, decent and brave to be true, and it’s a measure of how successful the movie is that one is inclined to believe it.” Kaufman is able to poke fun at the hype and pomp of the promotion of the early space program. Film scholar David Thomson writes that “He made a movie that was classical and subversive at the same time…bold, dangerous, and uncategorizable…maybe the last movie of the heroic 1970’s”
The Right Stuff is fashioned around the story of legendary WW II ace, Chuck Yaeger, he who truly possessed “The right stuff;” the intangible that all great pilots possessed; who systematically tests himself as well as his aircraft, continually ”pushing the outside of the envelope.” He is brilliantly played in a taciturn, Gary Cooper-like manner by lanky actor/playwright Sam Shepard; capturing Yaeger’s West Virginia accent perfectly.
As the film wonderfully relates, in 1947 Yaeger became the first man in the world to break the sound barrier, which at that time was thought by many aeronautical engineers to be impossible. His knowledge of aircraft engines and airframes was unparalleled, but he was not picked to be one of the seven Mercury astronauts because he lacked a college education.
Among the other great performances in the film, by many actors who were relatively unheralded at the time, we have Ed Harris as John Glenn, Fred Wardas Gus Grissom, Dennis Quaid as “Gordo” Cooper, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepherd, Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager, Mary Jo Deschanel as Anne Glenn and Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper.
In a bar scene filled with irony, Yeager, looking at the pictures on the wall asks tavern owner, Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley) “what does it take” to get your picture up there? . She answered “you have to die, sweetie”
In one of many other memorable scenes “Gordo”Cooper (Dennis Quaid) playfully asks his wife (Pamela Reed) “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” much later in the film, he tries to answer that same question with a story about Yeager, but is interrupted; in the final scene, the question is finally answered.
Yeager’s theme runs throughout the film, culminating in one of the greatest montages in cinema; the final sequence in which the film cross-cuts between the heroic Yeager, trying for an altitude record in the sleek NF-104 Starfighter over the California desert; and the Mercury astronauts in Texas, being feted at a larger than life, LBJ-hosted barbecue featuring fan dancer Sally Rand performing to Claude Debussy’s sublime Clair de lune; finally we hear the rousing strains of Bill Conti’s Academy Award winning score.
The film runs over three hours, but does not seem nearly that long. It is as close to a prefect film as I have seen; containing everything you could want in a movie: great cinematography, extraordinary musical score, and well integrated vignettes of the astronauts’ family lives. The venerable Roger Ebert calls it an “adventure film, a special effects film, a social commentary and a satire…It’s a great film.” The Right Stuff is truly the stuff that dreams and legends are made of.
Chuck Wiebe teaches Film Studies at the Pittsburgh Campus of the University of Phoenix. He has published over 60 articles on film as the National DVD Movies Examiner on www.examiner.com . His work has also appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He holds a BA in Fine Art from West Virginia University, and an MA in Art History from The Pennsylvania State University. He also studied at the University of Rome, Italy. He believes that film is the most influential art form of our time.