THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
From a historical perspective, this is a reasonably accurate account of the recruitment, training and deployment of the seven Mercury Astronauts chosen for America’s first space program back in the 1960s. It mostly looks at the astronauts although, refreshingly, it gives more than a passing nod to the wives of these men and the trials and tribulations they endured as the spouses of husbands who risked their lives regularly simply by heading off to work most mornings. The movie also pays tribute to the greatest test pilot of all, Chuck Yeager, a hero of legendary proportions who was not wanted for the space program basically because he did not have a college background! Most of what we see in The Right Stuff is factual, even if a few scenes were subject to a little dramatic license. For instance, the bit where astronaut Gordon ‘Gordo’ Cooper (Dennis Quaid) is sent to the Muchea Tracking Station in Western Australia (about 60 kilometres north-east of Perth) as NASA’s representative in April 1963. His main task was to provide a friendly, recognizable voice for his fellow astronaut John Glenn as he hurtles through the night sky above in Friendship 7.
Dennis Quaid (slouch hat and all) as Gordon Cooper with David Gulpilil
Author’s note: I have lived in the Perth/Fremantle area all my life, so I was curious to see how this segment of the movie was to be handled. I had grave forebodings the instant Quaid appeared on-screen wearing an Australian Army slouch hat! Ouch! Did the producers really think such headwear was common in peacetime Australia? Next, we hear him and his driver singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (of course) as they journey to Muchea! Once again I wondered – is that the only song Americans think Aussies ever sing? I was sixteen years of age back in 1963 and no-one I knew ever sang the bloody thing – including me! My mind was immediately cast back to 1959 when I saw On the Beach and was assailed with ‘Waltzing Matilda’ throughout the picture – from start to finish. The stuff of nightmares.
As ‘Gordo’ heads for the tracking station the vehicle has to slow down because – you guessed it – a kangaroo is leisurely bouncing along the road in front of them. In real life these beautiful animals are known to occasionally come out of nowhere (at night-time) and violently collide with one’s car, but they certainly do not casually bob along in front of your vehicle in broad daylight! There was another bit of ‘Australiana’ tossed into the mix when the car arrives at the tracking station. Standing about in the hot sun, right outside the door to the facility, were several local Aborigines! This was the early sixties when the appalling White Australia Policy was still alive and kicking. A group of locals (especially indigenous ones) would not have been allowed anywhere near the place. Anyway, these guys promptly tell ‘Gordo’ that their people are also familiar with space and the stars and he looks suitably impressed. In the movie, not only are the Aborigines permitted to wander about so close to the tracking facility, (particularly when a NASA mission is in progress), they are also permitted to light a great big fire nearby that same evening and hold a corroboree, didgeridoos and all! Only in Hollywood.
Ed Harris as John Glenn aboard Friendship 7
History records that Glenn encountered ‘fireflies’ during the first of his three orbits in Friendship 7. Of course, they were not really fireflies dancing around outside the window of his craft; but tiny flakes of frost illuminated by sunlight. The sub-zero temperatures (in darkness) caused condensation to freeze on the skin of the spacecraft. When warmed by the sun on the other side of the orbit, some of these particles broke free and were illuminated. That explanation was clearly not exciting enough for those making the decisions for The Right Stuff. They chose instead to cut back and forth between the ‘fireflies’ and the sparks blown into the air by the corroboree fire – and allow viewers to draw whatever spiritual conclusions they fancied from the images presented. The fact that Glenn observed his ‘fireflies’ while he was long past Australia and over the ocean, out of communication with NASA or Australia, was conveniently ignored.
Jane Dornacker as Nurse Murch
The role of Nurse Murch was played by former US Postal worker and musician Jane Dornacker. In the 1980s she started doing traffic reports on radio stations in San Francisco and New York City. On October 22, 1986 she was killed while doing a traffic report on WNBC-AM over New York City. Millions of listeners were horrified to hear her terrified voice screaming ‘Hit the water! Hit the Water! Hit the Water!’ as the helicopter from which she and pilot Bill Pate were reporting suffered a mechanical breakdown and fell about thirty metres from the sky into the Hudson River. Both occupants were trapped in the wreckage for 10-15 minutes before help arrived. The pilot was severely injured but survived. Sadly, the thirty-nine year old Jane died on the way to Saint Vincent’s Hospital.
Fred Ward as Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom
The memory and reputation of Mercury astronaut Virgil (Gus) Grissom (played by Fred Ward) was treated very shabbily in this movie. He was depicted as a panicky ‘hatch-blower’ because of what was assumed to have happened on his mission. The accusation would ultimately be proven to be without foundation decades after his death. Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital Freedom 7 mission had taken place in May 1961 and had gone off without a hitch. His craft had been fitted with a latch-operated hatch, but for Grissom’s flight on Liberty Bell 7, it was decided to install an explosive-activated hatch instead. Gus always maintained it ‘blew’ by itself; that he never touched it, but few believed him. When it did so, sea water poured into the craft, causing it to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. Gus got the blame.
The actors portraying the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff
A subsequent mission flown by Walter Schirra also employed an explosive-activated hatch which he activated at the appropriate time. However, the force needed to activate it severely bruised and cut his hand. NASA aeronautical engineer Sam Beddingfield, as well as Schirra and another astronaut Deke Slayton, all categorically agreed that Grissom had no sign of bruising or cutting on his hand, whatsoever. Therefore, he could not have blown the cover. It really had gone off of its own accord. Unfortunately, most people tend to believe the version of events presented in The Right Stuff. Ironically, Gus had been quite insistent with Werner von Braun and his team that ‘explosive bolts’ would enable the astronauts to escape easily, if necessary. In 1967, while doing a routine test of the Apollo 1 capsule, he and fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when a fire broke out in the cabin. The doomed men were unable to escape in time, mainly because the hatch was not designed with explosive bolts. Many of Grissom’s fellow astronauts firmly believe that, had he not been killed he would have been the first man to walk on the moon!
Brilliant composer John Barry was recruited to concoct the score for The Right Stuff, but he never lasted long. He met with director Philip Kaufman to discuss the kind of score that would best suit the picture, but after listening to Kaufman’s expectations, he suddenly opted to leave the picture. He later explained he had not the slightest idea what the director was on about when Barry asked him precisely what kind of score he wanted. Kaufman said he wanted it – ‘Sounding like you’re walking in the desert and you see a cactus, and you put your foot on it, but it just starts growing up through your foot.’ Uh-huh. No wonder Barry took a walk. Curiously, Bill Conti’s score won the Academy Award for ‘Best Music, Original Score’. It would be interesting to know if he followed Kaufman’s advice.
Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes
Pancho’s Fly Inn was the name of the watering hole enjoyed by the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the forties and early fifties. It was also known as The Happy Bottom Riding Club and was built on former barnstormer Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes’ ranch. This remarkable woman ran an ad-hoc barnstorming show and competed in air races in the twenties and thirties. In 1929, she crashed in the Women’s Air Derby but won the event the following year, breaking Amelia Earhart’s world women’s speed record with a speed of 196.19 mph (315.74 km/h). She moved to Hollywood in the early thirties and flew in several movies, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930).
The Happy Bottom Riding Club
Pancho’s bar was eventually subject to a forced buy-out by the Air Force as part of a plan to put in an extremely long runway. The bar, the Air Force insisted, was in the way. When she refused the rock bottom price offered, Pancho was falsely accused of running a house of ill-repute on her ranch! Air Force personnel were consequently barred from drinking at her establishment and its value plummeted accordingly. A fierce legal battle was actually underway and going badly for her when a fire destroyed the place in 1952. Arson was suspected but never proven. Pancho went to court to clear her name and to seek justice. And she won. Her reputation was left intact and she was awarded $375,000 remuneration for her property and business. The super-long runway was never even built. She lived on until her son found her dead from cancer in March 1975. She was seventy-three.
Test pilot Chuck Yeager 1947
In February 2020, Chuck Yeager celebrated his ninety-seventh birthday. That same month the widow of John Glenn (formerly Annie Castor) turned one hundred! They are the only true life major characters portrayed in The Right Stuff still living. All the rest have gone. In 2016, ninety-five year-old John Glenn became the last of the original seven Mercury astronauts to depart this life.