The Right Stuff

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1983

The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman

Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\

Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

Music by Bill Conti

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Legend of Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.

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And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.

But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.

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The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.

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And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.

This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.

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And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.

Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.

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192 Minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackthorn

2011

Magnolia Pictures/Universal Pictures

Directed by Mateo Gil

Written by Miguel Barros

Produced by Andres Santana and Paolo Agazzi

Every Western fan worth a plug nickel knows the classic ending to the legendary 1969 “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” Wounded, vastly outnumbered and running low on ammo, Butch and Sundance charge dozens of Bolivian soldiers. The movie ends on a freeze frame shot as the sound of the soldiers repeatedly firing on the pair gets louder and louder. The conclusion we can draw is plain.

But there have been claims that continue to this day that neither of them died in Bolivia but that Butch and Sundance returned to the United States and lived out their lives in peace. It’s certainly an intriguing theory and one that most people would like to believe as we all like to see likeable rogues and scoundrels get away with it. BLACKTHORN explores this possibility. It’s certainly not a direct sequel to “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” but there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of people are going to view it as such. And in truth the movie does have a couple of flashbacks to the young Butch and Sundance that attempt to recapture the mood and freewheeling attitude of the earlier film. But BLACKTHORN doesn’t need the flashbacks. It’s good enough to stand on its own feet without the earlier movie to give it a prop-up.

Twenty years after his supposed death, Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) is still alive and well and living in Bolivia. Under the name James Blackthorn he’s had some success as a horse breeder in the region. Enough success that he’s got enough money to return to the United States at last. He wants to see familiar faces and places in whatever time he’s got left.

The plan goes gangaglay when Blackthorn is ambushed by Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noreiga) who claims he is being hunted by a posse and thought Blackthorn was with them. Apodaca tells Blackthorn that he’s stolen $50,000 from Simon Patino, a mine owner and the most powerful man in that region. Eduardo offers to share part of the money with Blackthorn if Blackthorn helps him get away from the posse.

The recovering of the loot, which Eduardo has stashed away hidden in an abandoned mine and evading the relentless pursuit of the posse revives his memories of his Butch Cassidy days and Blackthorn finds himself enjoying reliving his outlaw life. Maybe too much as he comes to the attention of former Pinkerton detective MacKinley  (Stephen Rea) who once followed Butch and Sundance all the way down to Bolivia. MacKinley never was convinced that it was actually Butch and Sundance who died in that showdown and he’s determined to get the Bolivian army to help him track James Blackthorn down and prove that the gringo riding with the Spanish bandit is actually Butch Cassidy.

BLACKTHORN has a lot going for it. First of all, the locations are absolutely gorgeous. It was filmed in Bolivia and the country is absolutely magnificent. Westerns should look big with plains that go on forever and mountains that scrape the bottom of clouds and this movie does have that. I liked the twists and turns the story takes, especially at the end where we learn a few truths about both Eduardo and Blackthorn. And yes, the movie explains what happened to both The Sundance Kid and Etta Place and I could have done without it. The fate of The Sundance Kid especially left a bad blot in my brain.

It’s easy to forget or overlook just how really good of an actor Sam Shepard is. I’m always a sucker for a story like this where a grizzled old gunslinger proves that despite his age he’s still one up on whippersnappers half his age. And apparently Butch has gotten better as a shot as in not only “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” but also “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days” Butch is depicted as being not a good shot at all. But here in BLACKTHORN he demonstrates astonishingly proficient skill as a marksman. Only Sam Elliot can play grizzled better than Sam Shepard who is most certainly no slouch here.  I like how as the movie unfolds, he first enjoys being back on the outlaw trail, especially in a nice little scene where he sings the old ballad ‘Sam Hall’ while riding with Eduardo to his hideout but quickly comes to remember why Butch Cassidy had to die and why he should stay dead.

Eduardo Noreiga is the weakest actor in the movie. He tries hard and it’s way too obvious that he’s trying to imitate the Butch and Sundance partnership from the earlier movie and it just doesn’t work. Stephen Rea is much better as the disgraced Pinkerton who has let his obsession with the outlaws turn him into an alcoholic wreck. I’d have loved to see more scenes between Shepard and Rea.

So should you see BLACKTHORN? I’m going to tell you right up front that it’s not a wall-to-wall-shoot-‘em-up and actually is quite slow in spots. But that was okay by me because it isn’t that type of Western. I’d recommend it just for the Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea performances and the amazing cinematography alone. I say give it a try, especially if you’re a long time Western fan like me. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

108 minutes

Rated R