Category Archives: film

50 Year Old History Lesson-Man on the Moon

On July 16th 1969 Apollo X1 launched 3 astronauts on a historic mission into space: the goal, to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. These last few days I’ve enjoyed learning more about Apollo 11’s story and seeing it through fresh eyes, thanks to three fabulous pieces of film. I’d like to share some thoughts about them here.

By chance, I discovered the “Apollo11 Movie” was showing in selected cinemas for a limited period, none of them local to where I live. Luckily I was on a whistle stop visit to Glasgow and managed to see it at the Film Theatre. Shortly after, at the local VUE cinema I attended a “one night only” Q&A viewing of the documentary film “Armstrong”. Then a few days ago, I watched a docu-drama on BBC2 called “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back”.  For “Armstrong” Neil’s family provided interviews and access to private home movies, whilst former work colleagues’ and friends, shared their memories of the man who made history. It greatly helped in understanding Neil a little bit more. The other two films used previously unseen footage mixed with recognisable archive material, and declassified audio files giving access to crew dialogue never heard before, which allowed a fresh perspective on events.

Sitting watching the “Apollo11 Movie” the sheer magnitude of the operation was overwhelming. I always knew the rocket was big, BUT the sight of workmen walking in front/alongside the platform taking Apollo XI to the launch pad, was stunning. The enormous platform tracks moving so slowly, giving the sense of barely perceptible movement emphasised just how huge the platform and its rocket load were. How tiny those men seemed in the vastness of it all, rather like the photo showing the lunar module on the moon surface, with a tiny Earth hanging above them in the blackness of space. Similarly the lunar module appeared miniscule against the moon backdrop on its return to the command module. The sheer size and weight of the rocket was unwittingly summed up by Neil’s eldest son in the “Armstrong” documentary. He couldn’t see the actual rocket on the launch pad after ignition, because it was engulfed in clouds of billowing smoke and initially rose very slowly. In every film the noise created by the fireball of burning rocket fuel was tremendous. The background music in the “Apollo 11 Movie” was powerfully atmospheric, complimented the spoken audio and beautifully enhanced the pictures seen. I wasn’t aware that as the astronauts were climbing into the capsule ready for lift-off, engineers were still at work fixing a critical valve that was showing a malfunction! I knew there was little fuel left in the lunar module as it approached the moon surface, but was shocked to read 16 seconds worth in the film. During the Q&A segment after “Armstrong” I heard it was 18 seconds, but both films agreed that less than 5% capacity was left in the tank.

The documentary regarding Neil Armstrong was informative, evocative and heartbreaking at times. The footage of Neil and Janet with their first two children Eric and Karen was particularly poignant, as Karen developed a brain tumour and died aged three on her parents wedding anniversary. Everyone was devastated, and clearly Neil threw himself into his work even more as a way of coping, or perhaps avoiding the emotional fallout. His wife Janet, the glue of the family kept things going, and had another son Mark shortly after Karen’s passing. Throughout the interviews it was obvious Neil’s long absences for work and his reluctance to talk about much of anything, hugely impacted on Janet.

From his first 20 cent toy aeroplane Armstrong was obsessed with flight, gaining his pilot’s licence before his driver’s one. He got a navy scholarship to university, served in Korea and returned afterwards to complete his studies. From there he went on to fly F-15s before joining the space program. NASA  protocol would have had Buzz Aldrin as first man, but Neil’s more measured quiet and introspective nature seems to have been considered more appropriate, considering the magnitude and significance of the moment. And so Buzz was relegated. I wonder if it was him who saluted the US flag after President Nixon’s phone call. I hadn’t fully appreciated the flag salute, until I recalled that Armstrong was termed a civilian astronaut. I thought they were either all military or civilian, having left the services to enter the space program. Another thing that surprised me, was the fact there had been great debate about whether the US or UN flag should be unfurled on the moon. Neil apparently said that “others cleverer and better educated than him made the decision”. Dumb debate I thought, American mission, money, vision and astronauts, so a no brainer for me. A beautiful song played as the credits rolled for “Armstrong”, and during the Q&A I discovered it was a poem written by Neil Armstrong’s son Mark and sung by Mark’s daughter. It was a fitting tribute.

“Eight Days: to the Moon & Back” was an intriguing mix of new and archive material with added dramatic enactment. The first fascinating insight was the number of hours in space each astronaut had accumulated before Apollo XI: Aldrin over 90, Collins over 70 and Armstrong barely over 13 hours. This may have been partly due to Neil’s uncomfortable ride on Gemini VIII which spun uncontrollably after docking with a target vehicle, resulting in the mission being curtailed. Talked about in the “Armstrong” film, Neil showed great presence of mind to save the situation. His eldest son recalled how NASA had installed a squawk box at home, so mission control transmissions could be heard. When things turned sour with possible fatal consequences, the squawk box went silent because NASA  didn’t want to broadcast bad news. Janet Armstrong went to mission control to find out what was going on, and was denied access or any news. Eric mused that he wouldn’t have liked to be the one facing his mother’s wrath that day.

I was reminded of a book called “The Astronaut Wives Club” that told the space program story, from the wives point of view. What was clear to me was the seemingly complete dereliction of duty NASA displayed toward the families. Effectively space program astronauts and their wives were launched into a celebrity kind of existence, without any media training, psychological, medical or pastoral care for the wives and families. The Armstrong squawk box saga was a prime example of this blasé attitude. The insatiable lust for any kind of news during the Apollo XI mission required the crew to make frequent TV broadcasts from space. And when they returned to Earth, a worldwide tour engulfed them and put them into a situation they were neither prepared nor trained for. It’s something of a miracle that Neil Armstrong with his few but pinpoint accurate words, had a way of summing up things beautifully. The sentiment “how vulnerable the Earth looked, how it must be protected not from natural disaster, or technology but from man himself” I found incredibly meaningful.

Two surprising nuggets of information came to light regarding Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on this historic mission. More than once it was acknowledged that Aldrin helped enable the lunar module to launch from the moon surface. A vital switch was broken and Aldrin fixed it with his felt tip pen. One report mentioned that Buzz found a piece of plastic on the lunar surface, which may have come off the module control panel due to a knock from a space suit. He picked it up and replaced it with the help of his pen. The second point I found extremely moving, and was reported in the “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back” program. Aldrin took a piece of communion bread from his church to the moon, so he could give thanks with his Sunday meal taken on the lunar surface. The audio accompaniment to this had Aldrin requesting “that the people of the world take a moment to give thanks in any way they feel appropriate”.  A dramatised segment depicted Aldrin taking his communion bread, before we saw real footage of Walter Cronkite the US news anchor covering the moon landing, bowing his head in silent prayer. I was deeply moved at this point, much the same as Cronkite himself had been when the lunar module safely landed. The great news man admitted to being lost for words and was seen to brush away a tear. The enormity of the whole thing still gets to me as well, and I shed tears too. Who wouldn’t be emotional witnessing humankind’s greatest technical achievement?

 

 

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My First “Big Screen” Idol

American actor Robert Wagner turned 86 on February 10th 2016 and he played a minor role in the 1974 film The Towering Inferno, my first ever experience of a cinema movie. Despite a plethora of big names on the cast Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Robert Vaughn, Fred Astaire and Richard Chamberlain to name a few, it was Robert Wagner who captivated my heart. A Google search suggests the film was released in the UK on January 30th 1975, so I would have just turned five when I set my adoring eyes on Wagner for the first time.

I barely visited the cinema as a child notching up five maybe six films until the age of about twenty. This particular memory is especially vivid because my Dad took me to see The Towering Inferno. Being a merchant seaman this was highly unusual, because he was frequently away for months at a time, home a matter of weeks then gone again. And I would NEVER have been minded by him, that duty normally falling to my beloved Granny. So I can only assume she had taken ill (her heath was quite poor) and my Dad had been told, “Do something with Angela to take her mind off things”. So he took me to the movies, and seeing how that all-action disaster unfolded is imprinted onto my mind to this day. Although I did fall asleep about half way through; (it is long); much to my Dad’s annoyance. But I was comfortable and fed, having enjoyed a plate of chips at the Italian run chip shop opposite the cinema, and it was dark. A guaranteed recipe for me to snuggle down to snooze but I’d spotted my man Robert Wagner long before that.

Wagner’s character was Dan Bigelow in the film and he appears in a very early scene, only to succumb to the flames later. I remember thinking how brave Dan Bigelow was at the time, but with maturity and hind-sight he behaved very irresponsibly. I’d woken before the end of the film to find Bigelow had died and I was distraught. My Mammy had to explain later that it was all make believe and that the actor would be on the TV again very soon hale and hearty, so I had nothing to worry about. But although I did see Robert Wagner on TV quite a lot after my first encounter with him, I was acutely aware he was a younger version in all of them. So my young mind remained unsure of my screen idol’s survival from The Towering Inferno, until Hart to Hart came to British TV screens at the end of the 70s. Then I was reassured beyond doubt, and happily enjoyed the unmistakeable on-screen chemistry between Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. I could easily envisage these two actors portraying Jonathan & Jennifer Hart, a couple deeply in love. My Mammy cynically commented “no married couple is ever as happy as that, and as I’ve always said TV and film is mainly make believe”. But Hart to Hart gave me a hope that maybe people could be happily married and content together, and I hung onto that notion for dear life. Because looking around me at the relatives I knew about, not one of them was a shining example for anything much, let alone a paragon of marital bliss.

During the filming of Hart to Hart, the real wife of Robert Wagner tragically died at a very young age. As I viewed pictures of the Natalie Wood funeral in the papers, my heart went out to Wagner and his daughters, particularly Courtney who wasn’t much younger than me. The look of utter desolation on her face reminded me of how I felt at losing my Granny. I wanted to write to her and say how sorry I was but where do you send such a thing?

I was a devoted reader of the “Showbiz Sam” section of the Saturday Daily Record, reading the answers to queries made about TV and film. Included each week was a write to the stars sub-section that had about five addresses for celebrities. I used these with great success to accumulate a few treasured photos of TV personalities. About three years ago I unearthed a very old address book and to my surprise found a contact for Robert Wagner. Regretfully I had never used it, words strangely failing me when contemplating writing to my screen idol. My only excuse for this over sight is that I must have acquired the information as a teenager, a period where I became so unsure of myself I retreated into my shell for several years.

When I bought Wagner’s autobiography “Pieces of my Heart” the book shop assistant positively swooned over his picture on the front cover, which made me chuckle as it wasn’t just me who found him adorable. On reading it I discovered that in 1990 Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers had appeared on the London stage in “Love Letters”. Had I known, I’d have been first in the queue for a ticket. But I had no idea the production was happening at all, so my one chance to see Robert Wagner perform live eluded me. The closest I came to my two Hart’s was in Washington DC in April 2003 when I spotted their stars and signatures outside a theatre.

Starstruck in Washington DC. Image credit abmj70
              Starstruck in Washington DC. Image credit abmj70

Over the years I’ve reduced the amount of TV I watch, but I was delighted to see Wagner portray the father of DiNozzo in NCIS. With a shock of white hair he was undoubtedly older (as I was) but none the less the same guy I had adored from such a young age. All those years ago I had described the man on screen that had captivated my heart as “having a twinkle in his eyes, a great smile and a lovely voice (sigh) that just washed over you”. None of that has changed, and funnily enough one of those aspects was picked up on when Robert Wagner won his first studio contract. In his biography, drama coach Helena Sorrell viewed a screen test and said “Look at his smile. I think I can do something with that smile”.

The actor Robert Wagner has held a piece of my heart for most of my life and I’ve no regrets in adopting him as my first big screen idol. Thanks for the memories RJ.

Treasured Library Book. Image credit abmj70
Treasured Library Book. Image    credit abmj70

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH Film Review

This film is based upon the memoir of Vera Brittain, an upper-middle class young woman fighting for the same opportunities available to her younger brother in pre World War One Great Britain. The story begins in the springtime of 1914 and we then progress through to around 1920, seeing events unfold through the eyes of Vera. It is a beautifully shot film and incredibly evocative of the time with a much slower pace to the story, a more romantic theme than a war one really. Anyone used to seeing movies with all out shooting, mass explosions and in your face armed combat should not go and see this; frankly such a viewer would probably feel rather bored by it all. What this film does have is heart and a deeply felt poignancy for an era and way of life that no longer exists, mainly because of the outbreak of The Great War.

At the start Vera is desperately trying to persuade her father to let her try for the Oxford entrance exam, whilst enjoying spending time with her brother and his chums on their last spring school holiday. Due to her gender and class, Vera’s parents expect her to be nothing more than educated and cultured enough to run a good house when she marries well. Vera’s fury toward this is palpable and she is only allowed to try for Oxford, after her brother Edward intercedes on his sister’s behalf. The university acceptance letter for Vera arrives on the day her brother and his friends leave Uppingham School. All the boys enjoy a passing out parade as members of the school Officer Training Corps (OTC). Ominously the newspapers report the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

As soon as war is declared Edward Brittain and his fellow OTC pals immediately volunteer and sign up. Being only 18 and not at the age of majority, Edward needs Vera to petition their father to be allowed to join the army, and she is persuasive. So we see Vera travel to Oxford in the autumn of 1914 to begin her studies, with all the boys who should have gone along with her, going into uniform instead. This includes Roland Leighton, who through family connections is accelerated through training and onto the front, at his behest. Despite his obvious growing love for Vera, Roland feels an over-riding compulsion to do his duty for king and country. His class, upbringing and education have moulded Roland into feeling honour-bound into being of service to his nation. All the other boys in Vera’s social sphere feel exactly the same, and it is only when Roland gets his first leave home, do you glimpse that the realities of war are not as glorious as Roland was taught.

Realising the gravity of the war situation, Vera decides on becoming a nurse, feeling her studies are somewhat frivolous under the circumstances. She undergoes her training and then proceeds to tend the wounded soldiers sent back to England. Vera then transfers to France to feel nearer her brother and to nurse the injured behind the front lines. Ironically she finds herself attending to German soldiers’ wounds, but is also instrumental in returning her brother to full health as well. Vera’s recall from frontline nursing is very indicative of her class status and undoubtedly exasperates her. Whilst at home news comes of her brother’s death in Italy, where she thought the fighting was less intense.

Vera makes good on the promise she made to her brother at their final parting and returns to Oxford. Initially she does not thrive weighed down by all the ghosts around her. At the end her healing begins with a powerful statement at a demonstration and her personal resolve to ensure that those whom she loved and lost would not be forgotten.

I have not read Testament of Youth but if the film is a reasonable interpretation of it, then I think Vera succeeded in her quest to remember those lost in battle. The overwhelming sense I got from the film was that of a very innocent almost naive generation within Vera’s class in society. They were from another world where privilege cushioned members from a harsher reality. Women had servants to run the home, so were always immaculate and genteel and virtually a social adornment for the men, whose stiff upper lip was highly evident. The war shattered the illusionary world that Vera inhabited and became a great leveller of society in some respects. Officers from the upper classes fought alongside the sons of the working class. They faced the same bullets, barbed wire, shells and mustard gas and were wounded and killed in the same awful way. With her own wartime experiences Vera kicked against and helped bring down her world and the etiquettes she despised.

Vera Brittain’s book has been described as the voice of a generation and I can see why as the film is full of service, honour, loss and the futility of it. It is one person trying to comprehend and live with the aftermath of war and find some meaning to the ravages of conflict. This film (and presumably the book) espouses a generation of men who sacrificed their youth, vigour, optimism, hope and lives to fight for a cause that was bigger than them. In that respect they are the Glorious Dead and should be honoured and remembered for paying the ultimate price for our freedom. But as I listened to Vera’s impassioned statement at the end of the film, I was reminded of a poem I learned about in school which still affects me deeply. Dulce et Decorum Est is from Wilfred Owen a voice from the trenches, who I suspect came from a similar world to Vera Brittain. In those lines the hideous consequences of war are laid bare and show the utter lack of glory in drowning in your own bodily fluids after a gas attack, and every nationality on the battlefield faced the same horrific fate. Each new battle and counter-attack perpetuated a cycle of revenge with hardly any gain for either side. Vera Brittain came to realise this as did Wilfred Owen who implored future generations with this plea:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori”. (my translation-to die for one’s country is a great and noble thing).