DVD: X-15 (1961)

June 16, 2017 | By

Film: Good

Transfer: Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  MGM

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 3, 2004

Genre:  Drama / Space Exploration / Air Force

Synopsis: Docu-drama on NASA’s X-15 manned rocket programme.

Special Features:  (none)

 


 

Review:

Prior to his career-making hit The Omen (1976), Richard Donner had directed a massive amount of TV, spanning westerns, cop shows, and Twilight Zone episodes, and although his first feature film came just a year after his first directorial chores on Zane Grey Theater (1960), X-15 failed to pull him out of television, forcing a 7 year wait until Salt and Pepper (1968) and Lola (1970) popped up – the former a genuine cult film, the latter a weird one, but hardly the needed leaps to theatrical blockbusters.

X-15 was a mixed blessing, an attempt at docu-drama that combined nascent space exploration through NASA’s early pilot-controlled, rocket-powered spacecraft and the fetishizing of aircraft gear & procedures – elements somewhat better dramatized in CinemaScope and booming stereo by Robert D. Webb in Fox’s On the Threshold of Space (1956), an orphan film wholly absent from home video.

Donner’s low budget drama lacked big stars, and although made in cooperation with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, it’s ultimately a dramatically sterile production with a dull script & characters by veteran James Warner Bella (The Sea Chase, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and one-timer Tony Lazzarino.

Presumably Lazzarino’s story & first draft were heavily rewritten, but it seems as much tech talk as possible was retained to maintain the film’s documentary elements, but neither the pilots – played by character actor Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson, and then newcomers David McLean (Days of Our Lives) and Ralph Taeger – nor the wives – headlined by Mary Tyler Moore, Patricia Owens (The Fly), and Lisabeth Hush (The Stone Killer) – nor the commanding officers – Kenneth Tobey (The Thing) and James Gregory (The Manchurian Candidate) – nor the addition of James Stewart (Strategic Air Command) to narrate the portentous bookends enliven the fairly banal story that relies heavily on authentic test footage to maintain momentum.

The inclusion of actual material capturing the flights, crashes, and pilots propelling the X-15 craft above Earth’s atmosphere is impressive, but it’s arguably the only reason the film maintains an attraction. Donner’s dilemma extended beyond the script’s limitations, as both the test footage and X-15 cockpit material were shot in 1.33:1, a square ratio stemming from a smaller camera that was able to fit into the rocket’s tiny cockpit, and film risky maneuvers on the desert base. Neither the army nor NASA shot anything in 2.35:1 Panavision – using a bulky camera & lenses in cramped quarters made little sense – so Donner’s only technical solutions were to stretch shots to fill out the wider screen ratio or crop them into a faux widescreen ratio, resulting is a mess of constantly changing shots that shifted radically from properly composed widescreen images to stretchee-vision.

The more logical choice would’ve been to shoot the whole film at 1.33:1, but with most studio and indie product shot in ‘scope, a standard ratio film with X-15‘s unknown cast, an unknown film director, and the reliance on test & archival footage to sustain the drama would’ve been a drawback to theatre owners. It seemed widescreen would at least give the film a shot in first run cinemas (or so the film’s makers had hoped).

The heavy use of what’s ostensibly army & NASA stock footage also meant actorly scenes had to be built around launches, and when the major characters were on the ground, dialogue & romantic interests would have to sustain our interest, most of which fails miserably.

The wives are clichés, with Moore playing ex-fiancee Pam who arrives to rekindle a love affair with Powell, while Owns plays Margaret, wife to Brandon (Bronson) and mother of son Mike (Stanley Livingston). Hush plays perpetually worrying / sometimes pregnant Diane to pilot Wilde (Taeger), and if prior and later dramas (The Right Stuff) of test pilots were closer to reality actual life on an army bases, then the homes of the three couples are outrageously stylish, packed with sexy modern conveniences, interior designs, and snazzy furniture. (As per Hollywood’s conventions, Margaret always wakes up in bed with a perfectly coiffed hair, eye makeup, and shiny bright lipstick.)

Donner and the screenwriters tried to start the film by immersing us into an active test run, but it’s an aborted run that occupies a good 20+ minutes of screen time before the story actually gets going. That opening is basically filler and redundant, since two later tests capture in detail the X-15’s successful first run, and a second with deadly consequences.

What keeps the film alive is the dramatic arc of the craft itself, a slim rocket with a tiny cockpit from where the pilot disengages from a bomber and shoots skyward, coasting in the upper atmosphere before a rapid descent; and who’s success is reliant on two chaser planes that ensure the craft is brought down successfully. When the X-15 is ready to land on the desert’s sandy flats, a shingle below the fuselage pops out, two skis extend, the craft taps land and tips downward until a set of wheels buoy the X-15 as it decelerates and comes to a stop.

Donner may well have been inspired by the regal imagery of Stewart’s Strategic Air Command (1955), since he similarly fixates on aircrafts in motion and packs as much flying gear into single shots. It’s great stuff, and you could argue the slimmed down characters ensure the gear is on equally starring footage.

Donner sometimes referred to X-15 as the movie that killed his feature film career for almost a decade, but you could also argue it enabled him to successfully choreograph action montages with stock and new footage, and get his hands on some early visual effects (which largely consist of very poor ‘animated’ shots of the X-15’s wings and fuselage heating up in the upper atmosphere).

Veteran Howard W. Koch (Manchurian Candidate, Come Blow Your Horn) executive produced for what seems to have been an uncharacteristic film for Frank Sinatra’s Essex Productions shingle; prolific B film and TV cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie handled the widescreen filming; and prolific TV editor Stanely Rabjohn managed to choreograph some effective montages using the stock and ‘scope footage. Nathan Scott’s score is a traditional mix of dramatic orchestral for the test sequences and disaster moments, and lush romanticism for scenes between the boys and their loyal, clichéd wives.

In an ideal world, aircraft and NASA fans would get a Blu-ray edition sporting a gorgeous HD transfer, maybe an isolated score track, and a featurette interview with Donner on his feature film debut, plus a gallery of archival test footage in HD to relish, but for now there’s this non-anamorphic (yes, really), bare bones 2004 DVD from MGM which still sports a clean transfer, but fails to deliver the goods.

Among the cast, Mary Tyler Moore would begin her tenure on the hit series The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), whereas Charles Bronson drifted back into TV, occasionally popping up in films (including Donner’s Lola) before emerging as a massive international star a decade later in films like Violent City (1970), The Valachi Papers (1972), and The Mechanic (1972).

As for Richard Donner, The Omen (1976) was followed by a string of blockbusters & enduring cult films, including Superman (1978), Ladyhawke (1985), and the Lethal Weapon franchise before he informally retired after 2006’s dismal 16 Blocks.

 

 

© 2017 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

 


 

Archival Documentaries:

 

 

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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