The Right Stuff is a 1983 American epic historical drama film written and directed by Philip Kaufman.
It was adapted from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book of the same name about the Navy, Marine, and Air Force test pilots who were involved in aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as well as the Mercury Seven, the seven military pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight by the United States.
The film was written and directed by Philip Kaufman and stars Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, and Barbara Hershey. Levon Helm narrates, and plays Air Force test pilot Jack Ridley.
A TV series of the same name aired in 2020.
The film begins in 1947 at the Muroc Army Air Field in California, with civilian and military test pilots flight-testing high-speed aircraft, including the rocket-powered Bell X-1. Death is a part of their life. After privateer Slick Goodlin demands $150,000 (equivalent to $1,718,000 in 2019) to attempt to break the sound barrier in the X1, World War II hero Captain Chuck Yeager is given the chance. While horseback riding with his wife, Glennis, the evening before his historic flight, Yeager falls and breaks his ribs, an injury which inhibits his ability to lock the door on the X-1. Worried that he might not fly the secret mission, he confides in friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley, who solves the problem by giving Yeager the stump of a broom handle to use as leverage. Though the X1 bucks like a wild bronco, and pushes him to his limit, Yeager goes supersonic and lives. Yet the attendant sonic boom initially causes people to think his plane has exploded. However, an officer immediately classifies his achievement, denying him the fame of his accomplishment, which some people thought couldn’t be done in an airplane.
Six years later, Muroc, by then Edwards Air Force Base, remains a beehive of danger, competition, and risky behaviour. Major Yeager and friendly rival Scott Crossfield repeatedly break each other’s speed records. Crossfield gets featured on the newsreels for achieving Mach 2, while Yeager, unnamed, shakes his hand as the former record-holder. They often visit the Happy Bottom Riding Club run by pioneering aviatrix Pancho Barnes for raucous nights of drinking. Loud and vulgar, she favours the pilots at Edwards who fly the best equipment, such as Yeager and Crossfield, whom she dubs “prime”, over green “pudknockers” who only dream about it. Newly arrived United States Air Force captains Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Donald “Deke” Slayton hope to prove that they have “the Right Stuff”. Publicity has replaced secrecy to generate continued funding, adding further pressure to the pilots. Cooper’s wife, Trudy, and other wives fear becoming widows as the ever more gripping competitions of man versus machine, man versus Nature, and man versus man grow, but cannot change their husbands’ powerful ambitions and what they lead to. The stress and deprivations result in Trudy taking the kids and going to live with her parents.
In 1957, the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite triggers a crisis for the United States government. Politicians such as Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and military leaders demand America wage and win an emerging Space Race. NASA is founded, and seeks to develop the first US astronauts. When approached, Yeager is dismissive of the “spam in a can” program, saying they don’t need pilots. The recruiters then don’t pursue him in spite of his proven abilities, saying he lacks a college degree. Air Force Pilots Cooper, Grissom and Slayton decide to tryout for the program as their opportunities are limited as second-tier pilots behind Yeager and Crossfield. Gruelling physical and mental tests select an initial roster of gentlemen officers drawn from the US Air Force and naval aviation. These include Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter of the United States Navy, John Glenn from the United States Marine Corps, and Cooper, Grissom and Slayton. Dubbed the “Mercury Seven”, the men immediately become national heroes. They along with their wives receive compensation for exclusive features in Life magazine. In spite of repeated launchpad and in-flight explosions of the booster rockets which will carry them, the ambitious competitors all hope to be the first in Space as part of Project Mercury. Early US test flights include a chimpanzee to test G-forces and other loads upon animal life. NASA engineers view the astronauts basically similarly, as mere passengers on pre-programmed flight paths. This comes up during an argument among themselves over conduct, where they realize they must present a united front to compete with the “monkey”. The men insist that the Mercury spacecraft at least have a window, a hatch with explosive bolts, and pitch-yaw-roll controls to give them some role in its piloting. They say that the public supports funding for “Buck Rogers” and “that’s us”. While agreeing to this, Wernher von Braun next launches the capsule with the chimpanzee. Russia then beats them into Space on 12 April 1961 with the launch of Vostok 1 carrying Yuri Gagarin. US efforts redouble.
Shepard is the first American to reach space on the 15-minute sub-orbital flight of Mercury-Redstone 3, on 05 May 1961. He and his wife are given a White House visit, meeting the president and first lady, John and Jackie Kennedy. After Grissom’s similar flight of Mercury-Redstone 04 on July 21, the capsule’s hatch blows open upon splashdown and quickly fills with water. Grissom escapes, but the spacecraft sinks. Many accuse him of opening the hatch prematurely and panicking, a personal smirch, not on the programme. The Grissoms do not get a parade, and Betty Grissom is distraught as she will not get to meet Jackie, which was her dream and feels is her due for all the years of being a test pilot’s wife. Meanwhile test pilots at Edwards mock the Mercury program, saying Gus Grissom should have been washed out. Yeager states that “it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it’s on national TV.” They then recognize the courage it takes, irrespective of flying skill.
John Glenn is in the capsule and expected to be launched into orbit, but the mission that day is postponed. Meanwhile, the vice-president, LBJ, is trying to get Glenn’s wife to appear with him on TV. She refuses, as she speaks with a stutter. Incensed, LBJ decides to “go to the top”. Once out of the capsule, Glenn is ordered by the director to tell his wife to cooperate. He refuses, telling his wife by phone not to let the vice-president into their home. When the director suggests someone else will be given his spot, his fellow astronauts back him up, asking, “and who are you going to get?” Soon Glenn, boosted on Mercury-Atlas 6, becomes the first American to orbit the Earth on 20 February 1962. Arriving at a communications site in Australia, Cooper meets Australian aborigines and explains their mission. One says their elder has been to space in his mind. Glenn’s mission is cut short from 7 orbits to 3, as an alarm suggests a possibly loose heat shield, while he sees sparks outside the capsule in the Earth’s shadow, which he calls “fireflies”. While initially keeping the danger of a catastrophic failure from Glenn, his fellow astronauts insist he be told the condition of his craft. Von Braun decides that the capsule’s best chance is to not jettison the package below the heat shield, hoping the straps will keep it and the heat shield in place for re-entry. Glenn is heard humming as the capsule violently hits the atmosphere. He survives and receives a ticker-tape parade. The entire Mercury Seven and their families become celebrities, and are feted at a gigantic celebration to announce the opening of the Manned Space Center in Houston. During an interview, Cooper is asked, who is the greatest pilot he has ever seen. In a long answer he is about to name Chuck Yeager, but is interrupted by other reporters, so says “You’re looking at him,” which he often says to his wife.
Back in California, Yeager hears that a Soviet pilot holds the altitude record in a jet plane. A new Lockheed NF-104A has arrived for testing, but funding for his program is being cut as NASA’s funding is increasing. Yeager decides to take it out to attempt to beat the altitude record. Upon breaking it, the jets flame out and can’t be reignited. His aircraft spins out of control and he is nearly killed in a high-speed ejection. Seriously burned, Yeager simply gathers up his parachute upon landing and walks to the ambulance, proving that he still has the “Right Stuff.”
On 15 May 1963, Cooper has a successful launch on Mercury-Atlas 9, ending the Mercury programme. As the last American to fly into space alone, the narrator notes he “went higher, farther, and faster than any other American… for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.”
- Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, USAF.
- Fred Ward as Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, USAF.
- Dennis Quaid as Gordo Cooper, USAF.
- Ed Harris as John Glenn, USMC.
- Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, USN.
- Lance Henriksen as Walter “Wally” Schirra, USN.
- Scott Paulin as Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, USAF.
- Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager.
- Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom.
- Jane Dornacker as Nurse Murch.
- Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as NASA recruiters sent to find astronaut candidates.
- Kim Stanley as Pancho Barnes.
- Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper.
- Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter, USN.
- Donald Moffat as U.S. Senator and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
- Levon Helm as Jack Ridley, USAF; Helm also provides voice-over at the beginning and end of the film.
- Mary Jo Deschanel as Annie Glenn.
- Scott Wilson as Scott Crossfield, civilian test pilot for North American Aviation.
- Kathy Baker as Louise Shepard.
- Mickey Crocker as Marge Slayton.
- Susan Kase as Rene Carpenter.
- Mittie Smith as Jo Schirra.
- Royal Dano as a minister.
- David Clennon as a liaison man.
- Scott Beach as head NASA scientist based on German immigrant Wernher von Braun.
- John P. Ryan as the Head of the Manned Space Programme.
- Eric Sevareid as himself.
- William Russ as Slick Goodlin.
- Robert Beer as President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
- Peggy Davis as Sally Rand.
- John Dehner as Henry Luce.
- Royce Grones as the first X-1 pilot, Jack Woolams.
- Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, USAF (Ret) as Fred, the bartender at Pancho’s saloon.
- Anthony Muñoz as Gonzales.
- David Gulpilil as aboriginal man.
The following appeared as themselves in archive footage:
- Ed Sullivan with Bill Dana (in character as José Jiménez).
- Yuri Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev embracing at a review, joined by Georgi Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin, Kliment Voroshilov, and Anastas Mikoyan.
- Lyndon B. Johnson.
- John F. Kennedy.
- Alan Shepard (in Kennedy footage).
- James E. Webb, director of NASA during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
In 1979, independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler outbid Universal Pictures for the movie rights to Tom Wolfe’s book, paying $350,000. They hired William Goldman to write the screenplay. Goldman wrote in his memoirs that his adaptation should focus on the astronauts, entirely ignoring Chuck Yeager. Goldman was inspired to accept the job because he wanted to say something patriotic about America in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis. Winkler writes in his memoirs that he was disappointed Goldman’s adaptation ignored Yeager.
In June 1980, United Artists agreed to finance the film up to $20 million, and the producers began looking for a director. Michael Ritchie was originally attached but fell through; so did John Avildsen who, four years prior, had won an Oscar for his work under Winkler and Chartoff on the original Rocky (The Right Stuff would have reunited Avildsen with both producers, and also with a fourth Rocky veteran, composer Bill Conti).
Ultimately, Chartoff and Winkler approached director Philip Kaufman, who agreed to make the film but did not like Goldman’s script; Kaufman disliked the emphasis on patriotism, and wanted Yeager put back in the film. Eventually, Goldman quit the project in August 1980 and United Artists pulled out.
When Wolfe showed no interest in adapting his own book, Kaufman wrote a draft in eight weeks. His draft restored Yeager to the story because “if you’re serious about tracing where the future – read: space travel – began, its roots lay with Yeager and the whole test pilot-subculture. Ultimately, astronautics descended from that point.”
After the financial failure of Heaven’s Gate, the studio put The Right Stuff in turnaround. Then returned to Universal Pictures stepped in with an estimated $17 million.
Actor Ed Harris auditioned twice in 1981 for the role of John Glenn. 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. The director created a locust-like chatter to accompany the press corps whenever they appear, which was achieved through a sound combination of (among other things) motorised Nikon cameras and clicking beetles.
Most of the film was shot in and around San Francisco between March and October 1982, with additional filming continuing into January 1983. A waterfront warehouse there was transformed into a studio. 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. No location could substitute for the distinctive Edwards Air Force Base landscape, so the entire production crew moved to the Mojave Desert to shoot the opening sequences that framed the story of the test pilots at Muroc Army Air Field, later Edwards AFB. Additional shooting took place in California City in early 1983. During the filming of a sequence portraying Chuck Yeager’s ejection from an NF-104, stuntman Joseph Svec, a former Green Beret, was killed when his parachute failed to open.
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 the actors playing the seven astronauts an extensive videotape collection to study.
The effort to make 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 Air Force Station. Special visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez said the first special effects were too clean for the desired “dirty, funky, early NASA look.” So 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. Avant garde filmmaker Jordan Belson created the background of the Earth as seen from high-flying planes and from orbiting spacecraft.
Kaufman gave his five editors a list of documentary images he needed, sending them off to search for film from NASA, the Air Force, and Bell Aircraft vaults. They also discovered Russian stock footage not viewed in 30 years. During production, Kaufman met with resistance from the Ladd Company and threatened to quit several times. In December 1982, one reel of cut workprint of the film that included portions of John Glenn’s flight disappeared from Kaufman’s editing facility in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighbourhood. The missing reel of cut workprint was never found, but was reconstructed using a black and white duplicate copy of the reel as a guide and reprinting new workprint from the original negative, which was always safely in storage at the film lab.
Although The Right Stuff was based on historic events and real people, some substantial dramatic liberties were taken. Neither Yeager’s flight in the X-1 to break the sound barrier early in the film or his later, nearly fatal flight in the NF-104A were spur-of-moment, capriciously decided events, as the film seems to imply – they actually were part of the routine testing program for both aircraft. Yeager had already test-flown both aircraft a number of times previously and was very familiar with them. Jack Ridley had actually died in 1957, even though his character appears in several key scenes taking place after that, most notably including Yeager’s 1963 flight of the NF-104A.
The Right Stuff depicts Cooper arriving at Edwards in 1953, reminiscing with Grissom there about the two of them having supposedly flown together at the Langley Air Force Base and then hanging out with Grissom and Slayton, including all three supposedly being present at Edwards when Scott Crossfield flew at Mach 2 in November 1953. The film shows the three of them being recruited together there for the astronaut program in late 1957, with Grissom supposedly expressing keen interest in becoming a “star-voyager”. According to their respective NASA biographies, none of the three was posted to Edwards before 1955 (Slayton in 1955 and Grissom and Cooper in 1956,) and neither of the latter two had previously trained at Langley. By the time astronaut recruitment began in late 1957 after the Soviets had orbited Sputnik, Grissom had already left Edwards and returned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he had served previously and was happy with his new assignment there. Grissom did not even know he was under consideration for the astronaut program until he received mysterious orders “out of the blue” to report to Washington in civilian clothing for what turned out to be a recruitment session for NASA.
While the film 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 mechanical failure not associated with direct human error or deliberate detonation by Grissom. This determination had been made long before the film was completed. Many astronauts, including Schirra, Cooper and Shepard, were critical of The Right Stuff for its treatment of Grissom, who was killed in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in January 1967 and thus unable to defend himself when the film was being made.
Other notable inaccuracies include: early termination of Glenn’s flight after three orbits instead of seven (in reality, the flight was scheduled for at most three orbits); the engineers who built the Mercury craft are portrayed as Germans (in reality, they were mostly Americans); etc.
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. Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Wilmore, USAF (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 the late-1940s that would have been seen at Edwards AFB were required. Wilmore gathered World War II era “prop” aircraft including:
- Douglas A-26 Invader.
- North American P-51 Mustang.
- North American T-6 Texan.
- Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
The first group were mainly “set dressing” on the ramp while the Confederate Air Force (now renamed the Commemorative Air Force) B-29 “Fifi” was modified to act as the B-29 “mothership” to carry the Bell X-1 and X-1A rocket-powered record-breakers.
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:
- Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
- LTV A-7 Corsair II.
- North American F-86 Sabre.
- Convair F-106 Delta Dart.
- McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.
- Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw.
- Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King.
- Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star.
- Northrop T-38 Talon.
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 along the ground and realistically “belch flame” by a simulated rocket blast from the exhaust pipes. 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.
The US 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 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter but ultimately, Wilmore decided that the production had to make do with a repainted Luftwaffe F-104G, which lacks the rocket engine of the NF-104.
Wooden mock-ups of the Mercury space capsules also realistically depicted the NASA spacecraft and were built from the original mould.
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 utilised 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. 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.
The Right Stuff had its world premiere on 16 October 1983, at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C., to benefit the American Film Institute. It was given a limited release on 21 October 1983, in 229 theaters, grossing $1.6 million on its opening weekend. It went into wide release on 17 February 1984, in 627 theatres where it grossed an additional $1.6 million on that weekend. Despite this, the movie bombed at the box office with $21.1 million.
As part of the promotion for the film, Veronica Cartwright, Chuck Yeager, Gordon Cooper, Scott Glenn and Dennis Quaid appeared in 1983 at ConStellation, the 41st World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore.
The Right Stuff received overwhelming acclaim from critics.
Awards and Nominations
The Right Stuff won four Academy Awards: for Best Sound Effects Editing (Jay Boekelheide), for Best Film Editing, for Best Original Score and for Best Sound (Mark Berger, Tom Scott, Randy Thom and David MacMillan).
The film was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Shepard), Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Geoffrey Kirkland, Richard Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell and Peter R. Romero; Set Decoration: George R. Nelson), Best Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel) and Best Picture. The movie was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1984. Scott Glenn was also nominated for the New York Film Critics’ Award for Best Supporting Actor.
On 23 June 2003, Universal Pictures released a two-disc DVD Special Edition that featured scene-specific commentaries with key cast and crew members, deleted scenes, three documentaries on the making of The Right Stuff including interviews with Mercury astronauts and Chuck Yeager, and a feature-length PBS documentary, John Glenn: American Hero. These extras are also included in the 05 November 2013 release of the 30th Anniversary edition, which also includes a 40-page book binding case, with the film in Blu-ray format. The extras are in standard DVD format.
In addition, the British Film Institute published a book on The Right Stuff by Tom Charity in October 1997 that offered a detailed analysis and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Although an album mix had been prepared by Bill Conti in 1983 (and indeed the poster contains the credit “Original Soundtrack Available On MCA Records”), the soundtrack album release was cancelled following the film’s disappointing box office. In 1986, Conti conducted a re-recording of selections from the score and from his music for North and South, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and released by Varèse Sarabande The original soundtrack was released by Varèse Sarabande on 20 September 2013, prepared from the 1983 album mix (as the original masters of the complete score were lost).
- The film was a box-office failure, grossing about $21 million against a $27 million budget.
- Despite this, it received widespread critical acclaim and eight Oscar nominations at the 56th Academy Awards, four of which it won.
- In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Philip Kaufman.
- Producer(s): Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff.
- Writer(s): Philip Kaufman and William Goldman.
- Music: Bill Conti.
- Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel.
- Editor(s): Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, and Tom Rolf.
- Production: Winkler-Chartoff Productions.
- Distributor(s): Universal Pictures.
- Release Date: 21 October 1983 (Limited Release) and 17 February 1984 (Wide Release).
- Running Time: 193 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.