The Right Stuff (film): Wikis


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The Right Stuff

Theatrical poster
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Written by Philip Kaufman
Tom Wolfe (book)
Starring Fred Ward
Dennis Quaid
Ed Harris
Scott Glenn
Sam Shepard
Barbara Hershey
Lance Henriksen
Veronica Cartwright
Jane Dornacker
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography Caleb Deschanel
Editing by Glenn Farr
Lisa Fruchtman
Stephen A. Rotter
Douglas Steward
Tom Rolf
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) October 21, 1983
Running time 193 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Gross revenue $21,192,102[1]

The Right Stuff is a 1983 American film adapted from Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff about the test pilots who were involved in high-speed aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base as well as those selected to be astronauts for Project Mercury, the United States' first attempt at manned spaceflight. The story contrasts the "Mercury Seven" and their families with pilots like Chuck Yeager, who was considered by many test pilots to be the best of them all, but was never selected as an astronaut. The Mercury Seven were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. In some aspects of the film its creators undertook great efforts to make it historically accurate. In others, they took some artistic freedom, downplaying and sometimes ridiculing the collective scientific and technical effort of the Mercury program, emphasizing instead the individual adventure and heroism of the test pilots and astronauts.



Muroc Army Air Field in 1947 sets the scene for the start of the movie. This dusty, arid Air Force base is where high-speed aircraft are being tested in secret including the rocket-powered X-1, poised to fly at supersonic speeds. When a number of test pilots have died in the attempt to break the so-called "sound barrier," the base liaison officer, war hero Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is offered the chance to fly the X-1. While on a horseback romp with his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) through the underbrush surrounding the base, Yeager collides with a tree branch and suffers a couple of broken ribs. Refusing to admit defeat, he triumphs (with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle) in flying the X-1 faster than the speed of sound, beating the "demon in the sky."

The film travels forward to 1953, where Edwards Air Force Base (renamed for one of the test pilots killed at the base) remains the place to be for the "prime" pilots with Yeager engaged in a contest with test pilot Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson).[2] Crossfield and Yeager were fierce but friendly rivals for speed and altitude records. Edwards is both a very different place and yet remains the same with the celebrated Happy Bottom Riding Club run by Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley) still the gathering place for those with the "right stuff." New pilots such as Gordon "Gordo" Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Fred Ward) are part of a constant stream of "pudknockers" as Barnes characterizes them. Cooper's wife, Trudy (Pamela Reed) questions the need for pushing dangerous boundaries to the limit, but is resigned to the fact that her husband like all the others, is driven by ambition as well as chasing fame. Other wives that share similar feelings have to learn to suppress their fears. By that time, the press are a familiar part of the background, recognized as the key to ensuring that essential funding never dries up.

In 1957, the historic launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite throws the entire American military and scientific worlds into chaos. Both politicians and military leaders descend upon NASA to develop a response to a perceived "Space Race" with the USSR. The search for the first Americans in space excludes test pilots like Yeager who isn't interested in being "spam-in-a-can" in creating the Mercury 7 program. The Mercury 7 astronauts that emerge from a gruelling competition include rivals U.S. Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) and U.S. Navy pilot Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) as well as Cooper, Grissom and others. The dangers of space flight are accentuated when the rockets that will send them into space keep blowing up. For the test pilots and astronauts who are portrayed, the realization that "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" idiom has clouded their efforts, is one of the telling aspects of the film's theme.

The Mercury Seven episodes are contrasted with events at Edwards where test pilots such as Yeager, who was shut out of the astronaut program after NASA officials decided to use college-degreed pilots, continue in their dangerous work. While testing a new Lockheed NF-104A hybrid rocket and jet, Yeager sets a new altitude record at the edge of space but is seriously burned and nearly killed in a subsequent high-speed ejection when his aircraft goes into a flat spin and tumbles toward earth.

The film reverts to the story of the Project Mercury program, chronicling the missions of Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and Cooper. Shepard's 15-minute sub-orbital flight is the first to place Americans within the reaches of space, and his successful mission is met with national acclaim. Following close on the heels of Shepard is Gus Grissom's sub-orbital flight, which is marred by near tragedy, when the capsule's hatch inexplicably jettisons during the ocean recovery and quickly fills with water. Grissom narrowly escapes, but the capsule, overweight with seawater, is allowed to sink. Questions and controversy dog Grissom as to whether he may have panicked and opened the hatch prematurely.

Back at Edwards, the test pilots look upon the astronauts with disdain, noting they are essentially passengers on board the rockets, as opposed to the test pilots who completely control their crafts. One test pilot suggests that a chimp could do what the astronauts are doing. Yeager quietly silences this talk, noting that a chimp is not aware of his own mortality, and that the astronauts are deserving of respect because "it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it's on national TV." The other test pilots admit that he is right.

Both sides of the space race (US and USSR) used experienced German engineers and rocket scientists. In a particularly humorous moment in the film , Senator Lyndon Johnson attends a meeting where the politicians are reacting to the news of Sputnik's 1957 launch. Senator Johnson asks "Is it their [the Soviets] German scientists that got them up there first?". At that moment, the "German scientist" (a composite character, heavily patterned on Wernher von Braun) responds: "No Senator... our Germans are better than their Germans." Later, Johnson, as vice president, advances President Kennedy's initiative to stay on top in the space race, and a celebration he hosts in Houston, Texas, the new headquarters of NASA (that Johnson personally lobbied for his home state), highlights the surreal aspects of the competition.

As the film continues into the final launches and orbit missions of Glenn and Cooper, the overall atmosphere of competition against a backdrop of Cold War tension seeps into the family lives of the astronauts. Among others, Glenn's wife, Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel) had a particularly harrowing time in the public spotlight due to her innate stutter. John Glenn finally had to intercede to protect her from the ever oppressive press corps, whose every move in the film is characterized by the omnipresent hum and blast of cameras and flashes. Glenn's mission to become the first American to completely orbit the Earth nearly turns tragic, as concerns mount that the heat shield on his capule may have loosened, which would expose him to the searing heat of re-entry. Glenn lands safely and is accorded perhaps the largest hero's welcome since that of Charles Lindbergh.

The films concludes with Cooper's successful launch in May 1963—the last in which an American flew alone into space.


As appearing in order of screen credits (main roles identified):[3]

A number of cameos were actually based on archival footage:

  • Ed Sullivan: Himself (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Nikolai Bulganin: Himself – Viewing Parade for Gagarin (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Bill Dana: Jose Jimenez (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Yuri Gagarin: Himself – Embracing Khrushchev (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Lyndon B. Johnson: Himself – Standing behind JFK (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • John F. Kennedy: Himself (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Nikita Khrushchev: Himself – Embracing Gagarin (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Georgi Malenkov: Himself – Viewing Parade for Gagarin (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Anastas Mikoyan: Himself – Viewing Parade for Gagarin (archive footage) (uncredited)
  • Kliment Voroshilov: Himself – Viewing Parade for Gagarin (archive footage) (uncredited)

Although considered relative unknowns at the time of the film's release, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer played the often befuddled NASA recruiters that were sent to find astronaut candidates.


In 1979, independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler overbid Universal Pictures for the movie rights to Tom Wolfe's book.[4] They hired William Goldman to write the screenplay and his version focused on the astronauts and entirely ignored Chuck Yeager. United Artists agreed to finance the film but the producers were not satisfied with Goldman's take on the book. They approached director Philip Kaufman and he shared their dissatisfaction with the existing script. Kaufman began working on the film as early as 1980 and Goldman quit the project. When Wolfe showed no interest in adapting his own book, Kaufman wrote a draft in eight weeks.[4] His draft restored Yeager to the story because "if you're tracing how the future began, the future in space travel, it began really with Yeager and the world of the test pilots. The astronauts descended from them".[5]

After the financial failure of Heaven's Gate, the studio put The Right Stuff in turnaround and The Ladd Company stepped in with an estimated $17 million. According to Alan Ladd, Jr., the final budget was closer to $27 million.[4] Actor Ed Harris auditioned twice in 1981 for the role John Glenn. The first time was in an office with Chartoff and Kaufman and the actor felt that he did not do a good job. A month later, he auditioned again on videotape.[6] Originally, Kaufman wanted to use a troupe of contortionists to portray the press corps, but settled on the improvisational comedy troupe Fratelli Bologna, known for its sponsorship of "St. Stupid's Day" in San Francisco.[7] The director created a snake-like hiss to accompany the press corps whenever they appear, which was achieved through a sound combination of (among other things) motorized Nikon cameras and clicking beetles.[7]

Shot between March and October 1982, with additional filming continuing into January 1983, most of the film was shot in and around San Francisco, where a waterfront warehouse was transformed into a studio.[4] Location shooting took place primarily at the abandoned Hamilton Air Force Base north of San Francisco which was converted into a sound stage for the numerous interior sets.[8] No location could substitute for the distinctive Edwards Air Force Base landscape which necessitated the entire production crew move to the Mojave Desert for the opening sequences that framed the story of the test pilots at Edwards.[9]

Yeager was hired as a technical consultant on the film. He took the actors flying, studied the storyboards and special effects, and pointed out the errors. To prepare for their roles, Kaufman gave an extensive videotape collection for the actors playing the seven astronauts to study.[4]

The efforts at making an authentic feature led to the use of many full size aircraft, scale models and special effects to replicate the scenes at Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral.[10] According to special visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, the first special effects were too clean and they wanted a "dirty, funky, early NASA look."[4] Kaufman was unhappy with the results and shut down work and fired many of the effects crew. Gutierrez and his team started from scratch, employing unconventional techniques—like going up a hill with model airplanes on wires and fog machines to create clouds, or shooting model F-104s from a crossbow device and capturing their flight with up to four cameras.[4] Avant garde filmmaker Jordan Belson created the background of the Earth as seen from high-flying planes and from orbiting spacecraft.[5]

Kaufman gave his five editors a list of documentary images the film required and they searched the country for film from NASA, the Air Force, and Bell Aircraft vaults.[4] They also discovered Russian stock footage that had not been seen by human eyes in thirty years. During the course of the production, Kaufman met with resistance from the Ladd Company and threatened to quit several times.[4] In December 1982, 8,000 feet of film portraying John Glenn's trip in orbit and return to Earth disappeared or was stolen from Kaufman's editing facility in Berkeley, California. The missing footage was never found but the footage was reconstructed from copies.[7]


Film models

A large number of film models were assembled for the production; for the more than 80 aircraft appearing in the film, static mock-ups and models were used as well as authentic aircraft of the period.[11] Lt. Col. Duncan Wilmore (ret.) acted as the United States Air Force liaison to the production, beginning his role as a technical consultant in 1980 when the pre-production planning had begun. The first draft of the script in 1980 had concentrated only on the Mercury 7 but as subsequent revisions developed the treatment into more of the original story that Wolfe had envisioned, the aircraft of late-1940s that would have been seen at Edwards AFB were required. Wilmore gathered World War II era "prop" aircraft including:

The first group were mainly "set dressing" on the ramp while the Confederate Air Force (now renamed the Commemorative Air Force) B-29 was modified to act as the "mothership" to carry the Bell X-1 and X-1A rocket-powered record-breakers.[12]

Other "real" aircraft included the early jet fighters and trainers as well as current USAF and United States Navy examples. These flying aircraft and helicopters included:

A number of aircraft significant to the story had to be recreated. The first was an essentially static X-1 that had to at least roll and even realistically "belch flame" which was accomplished by a simulated rocket blast from the exhaust pipes.[11] A series of wooden mock-up X-1s were used to depict interior shots of the cockpit, the mating up of the X-1 to a modified B-29 fuselage and bomb bay and ultimately to recreate flight in a combination of model work and live-action photography. The "follow-up" X-1A was also an all-wooden model.[12]

The U.S. Navy's Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket that Crossfield duelled with Yeager's X-1 and X-1A was recreated from a modified Hawker Hunter jet fighter. The climactic flight of Yeager in a Lockheed NF-104A was originally to be made with a modified F-104 Starfighter but ultimately Wilmore made the decision that a Luftwaffe F-104G could work as a stand-in for the dual rocket and jet-powered test aircraft.[12]

Wooden mock-ups of the Mercury space capsules also realistically depicted the NASA spacecraft and were built from the original mold.[5]

For many of the flying sequences, scale models were produced by USFX Studios and filmed outdoors in natural sunlight against the sky. Even off-the-shelf plastic scale models were utilized for aerial scenes. The X-1, F-104 and B-29 models were built in large numbers as a number of the more than 40 scale models were destroyed in the process of filming.[14] The blending together of miniatures, full-scale mock-ups and actual aircraft was seamlessly integrated into the live-action footage. The addition of original newsreel footage was used sparingly but to effect to provide another layer of authenticity.[15]


Box office

The Right Stuff had its world premiere on October 16, 1983 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to benefit the American Film Institute.[16][17] It was given a limited release on October 21, 1983 in 229 theaters, grossing $1.6 million on its opening weekend. It went into wide release on February 17, 1984 in 627 theaters where it grossed an additional $1.6 million on that weekend. Despite immense critical acclaim, and winning four Academy Awards, the film grossed only $21.6 million in North America on an estimated $27 million dollar budget.

As part of the promotion for the film, Veronica Cartwright, Chuck Yeager, Gordon Cooper, Scott Glenn and Dennis Quaid appeared at the 1983 World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore.[18]


The Right Stuff was well received by critics and currently holds a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[19] Film critic Roger Ebert gave The Right Stuff four out of four stars and wrote, "it joins a short list of recent American movies that might be called experimental epics: movies that have an ambitious reach through time and subject matter, that spend freely for locations or special effects, but that consider each scene as intently as an art film".[20] He later included it as one of his "Great Movies" and wrote, "The Right Stuff is a greater film because it is not a straightforward historical account but pulls back to chronicle the transition from Yeager and other test pilots to a mighty public relations enterprise".[21] In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "When The Right Stuff takes to the skies, it can't be compared with any other movie, old or new: it's simply the most thrilling flight footage ever put on film".[4] Gary Arnold in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, "The movie is obviously so solid and appealing that it's bound to go through the roof commercially and keep on soaring for the next year of so".[17] In his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Shepard's performance: "Both as the character he plays and as an iconic screen presence, Mr. Shepard gives the film much well-needed heft. He is the center of gravity".[22] Pauline Kael wrote, "The movie has the happy, excited spirit of a fanfare, and it's astonishingly entertaining, considering what a screw-up it is".[23]

Yeager said of the film: "Sam [Shepard] is not a real flamboyant actor, and I'm not a real flamboyant-type individual ... he played his role the way I fly airplanes".[4] Deke Slayton said that none of the film "was all that accurate, but it was well done".[24] Walter Schirra said, "They insulted the lovely people who talked us through the program - the NASA engineers. They made them like bumbling Germans".[24] Scott Carpenter felt that it was a "great movie in all regards".[24]

Wolfe made no secret that he disliked the film, especially because of changes from his original book. William Goldman, involved in early drafts of the script, also disliked the choices made by Kaufman, saying in his book Adventures In The Screen Trade that Kaufman believed that Yeager was a true hero, and only he had the titular "right stuff", while the astronauts had just gotten lucky and did not match up to him in any way.[25] Critics, however, generally were favorable toward the film. Robert Osborne, who introduced showings of the movie on Turner Classic Movies, was quite enthusiastic about the film. The cameo appearance by the real Chuck Yeager in the film was a particular "treat" which Osborne cited. The recounting of many of the legendary aspects of Yeager's life was left in place, including the naming of the X-1, "Glamorous Glennis" after his wife and his superstitious preflight habit of asking for a stick of Beemans chewing gum from his best friend, Jack Ridley.[26]

When the film came out, former (and future) astronaut and Senator John Glenn (Ohio) was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. It was felt that the movie might help his chances, but in fact, his candidacy did not go far.[7]

While the movie took liberties with certain historical facts as part of "dramatic license", criticism focused on one: the portrayal of Gus Grissom panicking when his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sank following splashdown. Most historians, as well as engineers working for or with NASA and many of the related contractor agencies within the aerospace industry, are now convinced that the premature detonation of the spacecraft hatch's explosive bolts was caused by disaster not associated with direct human error or deliberate detonation at the hands of Grissom.[27] This determination had, in fact, been made long before the movie was filmed,[27] and even Tom Wolfe's book only states that this possibility was considered, not that it was actually judged as being the cause of the accident.

However, the book makes clear that, at the time, Grissom was thought to have erred, and this is what is portrayed in the film. Grissom was given only token appreciation by NASA, as compared with the acclaim for Shepard and Glenn. NASA's long-term confidence in Grissom was demonstrated by his close involvement with the Gemini and early Apollo programs, which are beyond the scope of the film (and book). In fact, Grissom was assigned to command the first flights of both Gemini and Apollo. Ironically, and tragically, Grissom died in the Apollo 1 fire because there was no quick-opening hatch on the Block 1 Apollo Command Module – a design choice made because NASA had determined that the explosion in the hatch on Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 had been most likely self-initiated.

Another fact that had been altered in the film was the statement by Trudy Cooper, who commented that she "wondered how they would've felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one-in-four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting." According to the book, this actually reflected the 23% chance of dying during a 20-year career as a normal pilot. For a test pilot, these odds were higher, at 53%, but were still considerably less than the movie implied. In addition, the movie merely used the fictional Mrs. Cooper as a vehicle for the statement; the real Mrs. Cooper is not known to have said this.[28]


It won Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Shepard), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Geoffrey Kirkland, Richard Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell, Peter R. Romero, Jim Poynter, George R. Nelson), Best Cinematography and Best Picture.[29]

It was nominated for the 1984 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. [30]


On June 23, 2003, Warner Brothers released a two-DVD Special Edition that featured scene-specific commentaries with key cast and crew members, deleted scenes, three documentaries on the making of the film including interviews with Mercury astronauts and Chuck Yeager, and a feature-length documentary, John Glenn: American Hero.

In addition, the British Film Institute published a book on the movie by Tom Charity in October 1997 that offered a detailed analysis and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

In 2005, Tom Hanks had expressed interest in a radio interview in producing a new Right Stuff miniseries in hopes of giving the history and the myths associated a bit more in-depth representation.

See also



  1. ^ "The Right Stuff." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: January 4, 2010.
  2. ^ The Right Stuff (DVD) Pancho Barnes classifies the pilots at Edwards as either "prime" pilots flying the best equipment or "pudknockers" who only dream about it.
  3. ^ The Right Stuff Full credits
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ansen, David and Katrine Ames. "A Movie with All 'The Right Stuff'". Newsweek, October 3, 1983, p. 38.
  5. ^ a b c Wilford, John Noble. "'The Right Stuff': From Space to Screen." New York Times, October 16, 1983. Retrieved: December 29, 2008.
  6. ^ Tuck, Lon. "On a Rocket to Stardom". Washington Post, October 15, 1983, C1.
  7. ^ a b c d Williams, Christian. "A Story that Pledges Allegiance to Drama and Entertainment." Washington Post, October 20, 1983, A18.
  8. ^ Farmer 1984, p. 34.
  9. ^ Farmer 1984, p. 41.
  10. ^ Farmer 1983, p. 47.
  11. ^ a b Farmer 1983, p. 49.
  12. ^ a b c Farmer 1983, pp. 50–51.
  13. ^ Farmer 1983, p. 51.
  14. ^ Farmer 1984, pp. 72–73.
  15. ^ Farmer 1984, p. 66.
  16. ^ Morganthau, Tom and Richard Manning. "Glenn Meets the Dream Machine." Newsweek, October 3, 1983, p. 36.
  17. ^ a b Arnold, Gary. "The Stuff of Dreams." Washington Post, October 16, 1983, p. G1 .
  18. ^ 1983 World Science Fiction Convention
  19. ^ "The Right Stuff." Retrieved: February 22, 2010.
  20. ^ Ebert, Roger. "'The Right Stuff'." Chicago Sun-Times, October 21, 1983. Retrieved: December 29, 2008.
  21. ^ Ebert, Roger. "'The Right Stuff': Great Movies." Chicago Sun-Times, March 16, 2002. Retrieved: December 29, 2008.
  22. ^ Canby, Vincent. "'Right Stuff', On Astronauts." New York Times, October 21, 1983. Retrieved: December 29, 2008
  23. ^ Kael, Pauline. "The Sevens". The New Yorker, October 17, 1983.
  24. ^ a b c Bumiller, Elisabeth and Phil McCombs. "The Premiere: A Weekend Full of American Heroes and American Hype." Washington Post, October 17, 1983, p. B1.
  25. ^ Goldman 2001
  26. ^ This allusion to Beemans chewing gum was later included in The Rocketeer (1991).
  27. ^ a b Buckbee and Schirra 2005, pp. 72–73. Schirra proved that activating the hatch explosives would have left a large welt on any part of the body that came in contact with the trigger. He proved this on his Mercury flight when he intentionally blew the hatch on 3 October 1962 when his craft was on the deck of the recovery carrier.
  28. ^ Wolfe 2001, p. 22.
  29. ^ "'The Right Stuff'." New York Times. Retrieved: January 1, 2009.
  30. ^


  • Buckbee, Ed and Walter Schirra. The Real Space Cowboys. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books, 2005. ISBN 1-894959-21-3.
  • Charity, Tom. The Right Stuff (BFI Modern Classics). London: British Film Institute, 1991. ISBN 0-85170-624-X.
  • Conti, Bill (with London Symphony Orchestra). The Right Stuff: Symphonic Suite; North and South: Symphonic Suite. North Hollywood, California: Varèse Sarabande, 1986. (WorldCat)
  • Farmer, Jim. "Filming the Right Stuff." Air Classics, Part One: Vol. 19, No. 12, December 1983, Part Two: Vol. 20, No. 1, January 1984.
  • Goldman, William. Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. New York: Vintage Books USA, 2001. ISBN 0-37570-319-5.
  • Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam, 2001. ISBN 0-55338-135-0.

External links


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