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"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." President John F. Kennedy, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961
It was in this spirit that the United States began its race to the moon, a race against not only the sheer technological challenges involved, but more pointedly against the USSR, whose own space program had seen enormous progress and who, unthinkably to any patriotic American, might reach Luna before us. From satellites, to monkey missions, to manned orbital flights, and finally to the Apollo project, the American space program was a lofty inspiration to a nation in the midst of conflict, both at home and abroad. It was a source of excitement, too, especially to flight-happy author Martin Caidin (1927 1997), who had a sterling reputation as a writer of over 150 extremely well-researched and scrupulously accurate military, scientific and hardware-based novels and histories, including many WW II-based (some written in collaboration with former Japanese officers), and many more just on the edge of science fiction. His novel Marooned from 1964 was the gripping tale of three orbiting U.S. astronauts aboard spacecraft Ironman 1 who are stranded in space without any hope of rescue. Initial Hollywood interest in the novel came from director Frank Capra - bitten by the space bug after making a short documentary for the 1964 NY World's Fair -- who struggled to envision a movie that could meet Columbia Picture's budgetary constraints. He couldn't, and gave up trying in mid-1966. By that time the U.S. Apollo space program was on it way, but suffered a horrifying setback when the three astronauts who were to have flown on Apollo 1 Grissom, White and Chaffee were killed when their capsule burned up during a launch pad test. America now realized with grim certainty that the space program, until then mostly a positive story for the U.S., contained unforeseen dangers which could befall its brave astronauts.
Martin Caidin's novel looked more relevant than ever. Columbia Pictures' former head of production -- now independent producer -- Mike Frankovich (son of broad-mawed comedian Joe E. Brown), who had put the kibosh on Frank Capra's earlier Marooned plans, stepped up to produce, with Frank Capra, Jr. as associate producer. Veteran helmer John Sturges was brought in as director. Sturges started his film career at RKO Studios in the art department, and soon moved into editing, a skill which served him well when America entered WW II. During his time in the Air Force, Captain Sturges, who earned a fistful of military commendations during his service in battle locations such as Africa, Italy and Britain, also earned a solid reputation editing and directing over forty training films and documentaries. After the war, Sturges joined Columbia Pictures as a director in their low-budget unit, churning out serviceable programmers on a twelve-day schedule. In 1950, hoping for bigger budgets to work with, he moved on to MGM and other studios, achieving his biggest successes with taut, and vigorous movies, many of them Westerns, such as Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Sturges' 1963 The Great Escape was even more popular, and the offbeat western Hour of the Gun (1967) was certainly one of his best. But it was his America-meets-USSR-under-the-ice Arctic submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra (1968) which was the closest in terms of its military/technological milieu to his new assignment, Marooned.
Gregory Peck, who won the role of space agency head Charles Keith in the film, had been cast as the lead in Ice Station Zebra when it was in development at Columbia, but pre-production troubles killed the project and it later moved over to MGM, where Rock Hudson stepped into the lead when Peck had previous commitments. Columbia offered him the lead in Marooned, where he would be joined by a cast of solid performers, most of whom were familiar faces, at least to TV viewers. David Janssen, who had just concluded his spectacularly successful four season run in 1967 as wrongly accused Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, was brought in to play renegade pilot Ted Dougherty. Richard Crenna, best known as Luke from The Real McCoys (1957 1963), had just scored a screen hit in Wait Until Dark (1967) and was cast as head astronaut Pruett. His two astro-comrades are played by Gene Hackman and James Franciscus, who had the lead role in the high-school-set TV drama Mr. Novak (1963 1968) and was a steady presence in many TV and movie roles. Hackman, near the beginning of his now-towering screen career, also came from a predominantly-TV background to burst into prominence in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but his movie career was already well on its way. Astronaut Crenna's wife was the always-interesting Lee Grant, who got her start in NY theater and live TV, and eventually became an Academy Award winner for Shampoo (1975), and an acclaimed director of movies and TV.
Gene Hackman's better half back on earth was Mariette Hartley, whose promising debut in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) led to a career primarily in TV guest roles and commercials (including her Polaroid stint with James Garner), and who later won an Emmy for being Mrs. Incredible Hulk. Nancy Kovack played the wife of James Franciscus; most of her credits were on TV but she had a few prominent movie roles in titles like Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Elvis' Frankie and Johnny (1966).
Far more important to Marooned than its cast was the authenticity the filmmakers hoped to bring to the project. With the actual space program being broadcast on television on a regular basis, the average American had a pretty good idea of what rocket launches were supposed to look like, and it was crucial that Marooned live up to those expectations. Taking this mandate seriously, they enlisted the help of NASA for design plans and were able to use actual Apollo hardware supplied by North American Aviation, one of the primary contractors for the program. In a bid for precision, the capsule interior set was actually built inside the capsule exterior, portions of which could be removed for filming set-ups. Crenna, Hackman and Franciscus sat in real NASA astronaut crew chairs in an authentically cramped mock crew cabin. The actual orbiting Skylab concept was in the early planning stages at the time of Marooned, and that early simplistic design, without decks or interior up or down orientation, was used for the orbiting lab in the film. The service module was also an accurate representation, though it was built shorter than the real thing because it would only be filmed from certain angles; they did, however, film from all angles and it ended up looking slightly wrong. (At Academy Award time though, the Special Effects got an Oscar®, winning out over Krakatoa: East of Java with its earthquake/tidal wave simulations. Marooned also received nominations for Cinematography and Sound.)
The NASA space program intersected with Marooned on more than just the design front. Marooned's production timetable coincided with several important Apollo missions, including Apollo 7 in October of 1968, the first manned flight of an Apollo spacecraft. Production was halted and everyone on set watched in rapt attention on December 12, 1968, as Apollo 8, the first manned voyage to orbit the moon, launched from Cape Canaveral. Apollo's rapid and regular schedule was breathtaking, with March 1969 bringing the first launch of the Lunar Excursion Module of Apollo 9, which in May 1969 went around the moon in the Apollo 10 mission. More exciting than any movie, of course, was the July 21, 1969 landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon's surface, a little over four months before Marooned's release. Nothing that Hollywood could ever cobble together would even come close to the budget, cast, crew or majesty of that particular milestone.
With Marooned on target for a late fall release, the producers decided, in another choice supporting realism, to jettison a traditional musical score in favor of a selection of varying electronic tones, beeps and hums to accompany each particular space vehicle on screen. It may have been just a tad too much authenticity. When Marooned was released in December 1969, the taut, admirable and intelligent production nevertheless was met with a lackluster reception. The absence of musical cues to help along the drama, the dialogue filled with intricate technical jargon and astronaut shop-talk, and the long, slow and painfully precise outer space extravehicular maneuvers combined to slow down the pace and ultimately strain audience - and critical - interest.
Some faulted Marooned for the contrivance of its last-minute astronaut rescue, and by the Russians, no less, and others felt that the movie was too tedious - though indisputably genuine -- for its own good. The cast received generally good reviews, especially Gregory Peck and Lee Grant for her farewell scene with astronaut husband Crenna, but ultimately Marooned was a box-office disappointment and didn't make back its budget. NASA, however, was pleased with the production and gave it an official commendation, and some say that Marooned's climax, the American-Russian spacecraft link-up, inspired the real-life Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. Perhaps the movie's legacy lay more as blueprint than as entertainment; Marooned's three stranded fictional astronauts presaged April 1970's Apollo 13 near-disaster as an oxygen explosion left three very real astronauts far out in space, nearly...marooned.
Producer: Frank Capra, Jr., M.J. Frankovich
Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: Mayo Simon, Martin Caidin (novel)
Cinematography: Daniel Fapp
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Lyle R. Wheeler
Cast: Gregory Peck (Charles Keith), Richard Crenna (Jim Pruett), David Janssen (Ted Dougherty), James Franciscus (Clayton Stone), Gene Hackman (Buzz Lloyd), Lee Grant (Celia Pruett).
by Lisa Mateas