Cast & Crew
J. Lee Thompson
In Berlin, in the early 1920s, Wernher von Braun, the young son of a baron, enthusiastically experiments with rocket models. By the early 1930s, von Braun is studying at the Space Rocket Society Ground. When German Army captain Walter Dornberger observes von Braun and his assistants working there, he offers to fund the society's further experiments under the auspices of the army. During World War II, von Braun and his group work on developing V-2 rockets for the army at Peenemünde Rocket Center. When von Braun realizes that the quality of steel used in the rockets is not good enough, he joins the Nazi Party to acquire money and better materials for their work. A party official, unable to countenance their early failures, threatens to close Peenemünde in thirty days unless they have a successful landing. During their intense work, von Braun's secretary, Elizabeth Beyer, an undercover spy for the U.S., secretly photographs their plans for the Allies. The next test is a success, and the Nazis plan to mass-produce V-2 rockets to launch over London, hoping the resultant devastation will lead to the war's end. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Schutzstaffel, or S.S., who is suspicious of the army, asks von Braun to join his personal staff. When von Braun, who prefers to work under Dornberger, refuses, he is arrested and accused of working on a model for a spaceship to reach the moon in addition to working on weapons. After a tape recording of von Braun referring to Adolf Hitler in an insulting manner is heard, the scientist is told he will be executed, but through Dornberger's influence, Hitler becomes convinced that von Braun's intellect puts him in a class of people too important to be executed. As they need von Braun to work on the V-2 rocket, Himmler is ordered to release him. Von Braun's fiancée Maria is upset by the scientist's indifference to the fact that his rockets may kill children in London. When London is bombed, the Allies decide to bomb Peenemünde. After receiving a call, Elizabeth hugs her lover, scientist Anton Reger, a colleague of von Braun's, and leaves the city. Peenemünde is then hit with a bomb, which kills over 700 people. Elizabeth runs back to help, but is stopped by a guard. The next day, Anton finds a secret camera in her lipstick holder and accuses her of pretending passion to get information. She insists she loves him and explains that she became a spy after S.S. officers callously shot her husband, mistaking him for someone else. Although Anton strikes her in anger, he hides the camera to protect her. As Germany nears defeat and the Russians approach, von Braun encourages his colleagues to try to reach the Americans, so that they might be able to complete work on the spaceship. Outraged, Anton calls von Braun a traitor, but the others vote to join von Braun. After surrendering to the Americans, von Braun refuses to consider himself a war criminal, but Maj. William Taggert, a former newspaperman whose wife and baby were killed in a London bombing raid, argues that because von Braun "invented an infernal device to be used to support an iniquitous regime," he should be tried and hanged. Taggert's ranking officer, however, tells von Braun that Gen. Eisenhower has approved the continuation of his research and that he has been cleared, based on Elizabeth's report, to go to the U.S. for a probationary period of one year. Von Braun is warned, though, that he might face rebuke by the American public. Taggert seethes at the perceived immorality of using someone like von Braun, whom they fought to destroy. The scientists, along with Elizabeth, who is assigned to work with them, are sent to White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where soldiers resent them. Taggert, the Special Intelligence Officer assigned to the group, blames von Braun for the death of his wife and child, and though Elizabeth, who has grown fond of Taggert, urges him to calm down, he rails against scientists who do not accept responsibility for the destruction that results from their work. After a year, when von Braun learns that Maria will soon arrive and that he may become a citizen, he comes to appreciate his adopted country. Sometime later, after he and Maria are married, war breaks out in Korea and the scientists are sent to a new installation at Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama to work on weapons. Incensed that von Braun is to work for the military, Taggert resigns to go back to work as a journalist. Although Maria agrees with Taggert that von Braun should refuse to make rockets for war, he declares that he must continue his work. The Redstone rocket is successful, yet after the truce with Korea, Congress refuses to allocate money for space research. In a televised debate with von Braun, Taggert contends that human problems are more important to solve than scientific ones. After the navy wins an important commission over the army to design a satellite, the Russians launch the first satellite into space, and von Braun blames Taggert for holding the army program back. In December 1957, after the Vanguard rocket explodes on liftoff at Cape Canaveral, Taggert goes on television to lambast von Braun's program. As they watch, Maria asks von Braun if he now cares about the potential destruction that can result from his work, and he replies that he does. Worried about the loss of U.S. prestige, the Pentagon gives von Braun ninety days to launch a satellite successfully. Taggert is among the press corps at the launch, and when another journalist accuses him of wanting it to fail and putting his own concerns above those of the country, he is reminded that this is the same accusation he once used against von Braun. After a suspenseful two hours, word arrives from stations around the world that the launch is a success. Later that evening, Taggert admits to von Braun that he has almost grown to like him. He asks what science offers in place of human values, and von Braun says it has a concern for the future and that the urge to explore is what makes man human. Taggert now wishes him good luck in exploring the universe.
J. Lee Thompson
George Von Block
H. W. John
Maj. Gen. John Medaris
Paul F. Mertz Maj. Usa (s.c.)
Charles H. Schneer
I Aim at the Stars
By the late 1950s, von Braun was hardly less than a national hero in America with his own talk show following his successful launch of the West's first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. It was America's competitive response to Russia's Sputnik, a robotic spacecraft that successfully orbited the earth in October of that year. According to film scholar Steve Chibnall in his biography of J. Lee Thompson, "The US Army saw the celebration of von Braun's achievement as a useful promotional and recruiting tool, and producer Charles H. Schneer spent two years researching the project and developing a script with Jay Dratler." Schneer's own interest in sci-fi themes and space exploration is obvious from a glance at his filmography which includes Earth vs. the Flying Saucers , 20 Million Miles to Earth  and First Men in the Moon . The producer was also quoted in a Columbia Pictures promotional brochure for the film saying he was fascinated by how "a key scientist for the German Army during World War II [could] become one of America's most honored citizens and a vitally valuable figure in the free world."
The choice of director J. Lee Thompson for the film was another matter. He had garnered considerable critical acclaim for his film Tiger Bay , starring Horst Buchholz, John Mills and his young daughter Hayley in her screen debut. Thompson, who had served during WWII as an RAF flyer, experienced the devastation caused by von Braun's V-2 rockets firsthand but his reasons for making I Aim at the Stars were less personal and more of an intellectually curious nature: "I have always been interested in controversial subjects and I was happy to accept the challenge of making this one for it provided me with the opportunity of posing four questions of international importance:
1. What constitutes a War criminal?
2. If a country at war captures a 'brilliant enemy scientist,' who is guilty of inventing and using atrocity weapons - should that scientist be punished or should his brains be utilised for further scientific progress?
3. Should a Scientist be burdened with a Conscience?
4. Should a Scientist be 'Nationalistic'?"
I Aim at the Stars was an international production for Columbia and was produced at the Bavaria Studios in Geiselgasteig, Germany. Thompson spent three months in Munich on pre-production while Schneer had story conferences with historical advisor Walt Wiesman, who had worked with von Braun in Germany, production supervisor George von Block (a former Luftwaffe pilot), Major General John Medaris, commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Alabama, and Randy Morris, Chief of Technical Liaison at the U.S. Army Ordinance Mission at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. As for the casting, Curd Jurgens, one of the most internationally acclaimed German actors of his era, was the top choice to play von Braun. Australian actress Victoria Shaw landed the role of Maria, von Braun's wife, and Herbert Lom, Adrian Hoven and Gia Scala filled out the key secondary roles. Scala, who plays Elizabeth Beyer, a spy for the Allies, would also portray an undercover turncoat in Thompson's subsequent film, The Guns of Navarone .
The screenplay covers the major events in von Braun's life up to the launch of Explorer I, including his earliest rocket experiments as a boy (one burns down his neighbor's greenhouse), his appointment at the age of twenty-five as the technical director of the Peenemunde Rocket Center for the German army, his surrender to U.S. forces in 1945 and eventual transfer along with his staff to Fort Bliss, Texas, a later relocation to Huntsville, Alabama to work on nuclear ballistic missile tests and his struggle and ultimate regret at losing the first phase of the space race to the Soviet Union who got there first with the Sputnik launch. As usual with screen biographies, some characters have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes or created as composites of several people as in the case of Major William Taggert (played by James Daly in the film), an American officer and von Braun's major detractor who lost his wife and child in the London blitz. Upon completion, von Braun approved the script and was "personally allowed to answer some of the charges leveled against him," according to a Variety news item.
Among the film's many working titles were The Wernher von Braun Story, A Rocket and Four Stars and Give Me the Stars before Columbia decided to release it as I Aim at the Stars. Comedian Mort Sahl, whose opinion of von Braun was less than reverential, suggested the title be changed to I Aim at the Stars, but Sometimes I Hit London. In an attempt to lend the film some additional credibility, the movie opens with a special acknowledgment: "To the Department of Defense and particularly the Department of the Army of the United States our sincere appreciation for their cooperation and assistance during the making of the film."
Like the real Wernher von Braun, controversy surrounded the theatrical release of I Aim at the Stars. It was particularly savaged by the British critics as was expected since feelings about the London blitz still ran high in the post-war years. C.A. Lejeune of the Observer wrote, "It horrifies me. In my view this is a film which ought never to have been made for the purpose of public entertainment." Derek Hill of the Tribune observed, "Like a true clown, J. Lee Thompson has wound up the performance with the whitewash bucket on his own head." Demonstrators passing out anti-Nazi pamphlets showed up at various screenings in London and anti-Fascists youth groups picketed the movie in other locations as well. Of course, von Braun anticipated all of this and held a press conference in Munich, prior to the film's premiere there, stating, "I have very deep and sincere regrets for the victims of the V-2 rockets, but there were victims on both sides. A war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help with that war."
I Aim at the Stars enjoyed a slightly better reception in the U.S. but critics were still divided over the movie. The New York Times noted that "the film is conspicuously fuzzy and takes its stand on the none too certain ground that Dr. von Braun's driving interest from boyhood was simply to develop rockets that could reach out into space." Time magazine said "Unhappily, this cinema vehicle fails to fire. Instead, it explodes in a splatter of platitudes about the moral dereliction of the scientific community - personified in von Braun." And Paul V. Beckley of The N.Y. Herald Tribune wrote, "As for the general tone of apology, I am personally a little fed up with this kind of thing...It would be refreshing to see a film in which a German is neither heroized nor villainized but studied with a scientific detachment. Some effort to do so is noticeable in this picture but not enough." There were positive reviews too such as Variety which deemed the movie an "exciting, artfully constructed picture."
I Aim at the Stars is certainly a stylish film, in terms of art direction and production values, and boasts solid performances and a fast pace for its 107 minute running time. Oddly enough, the real von Braun was movie star handsome, a charming raconteur and all-round charismatic individual but Jurgens portrays him as a cold, emotionally remote intellectual for most of the film. While the subject matter lends it an undeniable fascination, there is also much time devoted in the film's first half to the subplot of Anton Reger's one-sided love affair with undercover spy Elizabeth Beyer, a situation that could be completely fabricated for dramatic effect. There is also a heavy-handed emphasis on the ongoing animosity between Maj. Taggert and von Braun, who eventually debate each other on television and turn the film at times into a philosophical polemic. Nevertheless, I Aim at the Stars raises important questions about morality and ethics that most mainstream movies avoid and is worth seeing for anyone with an interest in von Braun's life story. Thompson had no regrets about making it and later said, "I knew that the British press would accuse me of making a hero out of Wernher von Braun, but what I did was, really, I told the true story, which is a fascinating one, and I Aim at the Stars is for me one of my better films."
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: Jay Dratler; George Froeschel; H.W. John (story); Udo Wolter (story)
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Hans Berthel
Music: Laurie Johnson
Film Editing: Frederick Wilson
Cast: Curd Jürgens (Wernher von Braun), Victoria Shaw (Maria), Herbert Lom (Anton Reger), Gia Scala (Elizabeth Beyer), James Daly (Maj. William Taggert), Adrian Hoven (Mischke), Gunther Mruwka (Young Wernher von Braun), Arpad Diener (Horst), Hans Schumm (Baron von Braun), Lea Seidl (Baroness von Braun), Gerard Heinz (Prof. Oberth), Karel Stepanek (Captain Bomberger), Peter Capell (Dr. Neumann), Helmo Kindermann (General Kulp).
by Jeff Stafford
J. Lee Thompson by Steve Chibnall (Manchester University Press)
I Aim at the Stars
The film's working titles were The Wernher von Braun Story, A Rocket and Four Stars and Give Me the Stars. The film's title card reads "I Aim at the Stars The Wernher von Braun story." The opening credits contain the following acknowledgment: "to the Department of Defense and particularly the Department of the Army of the United States our sincere appreciation for their cooperation and assistance during the making of this film." Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) was one of the first and foremost rocket developers and champions of space exploration from the 1930s through the early 1970s.
Von Braun spent the early part of his career as leader of the German rocket team that developed for the Nazis the V-2 ballistic missile at a secret laboratory in Peenemünde, Germany, during World War II. As it became obvious that Germany was going to lose the war, von Braun engineered the surrender of 500 of his fellow scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans. Von Braun and his scientists were installed at Fort Bliss, TX, where they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army and later at the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, AL. In 1960, he was appointed the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, where he became the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, a superbooster that propelled Americans to the moon.
According to a December 1959 Daily Variety news item, producer Charles H. Schneer had been in London when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite, in 1957. Schneer, who had been depressed when the European press deemed the U.S. a "second class power," viewed the January 31, 1958 launch of the U.S. satellite, Explorer I, developed by von Braun's team, as reasserting American scientific preeminence and decided to make a film based on von Braun's life. According to a Columbia Pictures informational brochure contained in the film's file at the AMPAS Library, Schneer was intrigued by how "a key scientist for the German Army during World War II [could] become one of America's most honored citizens and a vitally valuable figure in the free world."
Controversy about the film during preproduction centered on whether von Braun's past would be whitewashed. According to a July 1959 Beverly Hills Citizen article, actor Curt Jurgens, who played von Braun in the film, met with the scientist before accepting the part and convinced him that the picture should be frank about his role in the development of weapons used by the Nazi war effort. According to a December 1959 Variety news item, von Braun approved the screenplay, although he was "personally allowed to answer some of the charges leveled against him." The article noted that von Braun's answers were then incorporated into the script. "Maj. William Taggert" and several other characters in the film were fictional.
The film was produced at the Bavaria Studios in Geiselgasteig, Germany. Early pre-production news items stated that Schneer was producing the film in association with Friedrich Mainz of Rhombus Films, Germany. It is not known if Rhombus was involved in the actual production. According to news items, Schneer had a number of conferences with Maj. Gen. John Medaris, commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, and with Randy Morris, Chief of Technical Liaison, U.S. Army Ordinance Mission at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, the range where von Braun's missiles were tested. Historical advisor Walt Wiesman, on leave from the Missile Agency, had worked with von Braun at Peenemünde, and production supervisor George von Block had been a former Luftwaffe pilot, according to a Los Angeles Times news item.
The film was greeted with demonstrations against von Braun at showings in Europe and New York, according to various news stories. Prior to the world premiere in Munich, von Braun and Jurgens held a press conference during which members of the Communist and British press hounded von Braun with charges that the film whitewashed his war work. The press conference prompted von Braun to issue the following statement: "I have very deep and sincere regrets for the victims of the V-2 rockets, but there were victims on both sides. A war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help win that war." Later, a crowd of protesters mobbed the theater where the premiere was held. Demonstrators in London dropped anti-Nazi pamphlets onto theatergoers from a balcony. In New York, the film was picketed by an anti-Fascist youth organization. The film was previewed in Washington at the Senate Office auditorium, and its October 1960 opening in Washington was attended by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The film was chosen to open the Edinburgh Film Festival, where it received a special diploma of merit.
Reviews in the U.S. were generally critical of the film. Hollywood Reporter commented, "This film indicates von Braun was an unwilling Nazi. But it never suggests he regrets what he did for the Nazis. So the spectator must make his own choice." New York Times stated that "the film is conspicuously fuzzy and takes its stand on the none too certain ground that Dr. von Braun's driving interest from boyhood was simply to develop rockets that could reach out into space. The possibility of reaching intently into the depths of his scientist's mind and comprehending his certainly complex motivations is not achieved in this poorly written film."
Released in United States Fall October 1960
Released in United States Fall October 1960