I am a child of the space age. For me The Right Stuff is an iconic film of larger than life heroes, and Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise its opposite in every respect. And somehow they are the same. At the core, at the heart, in their souls.
And oh god I love them both. So be warned, beneath the cuts is quite possibly the longest post I’ve ever written.
The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff starts with the demon that lived out there in the air, guarding the wall in the sky that couldn’t be broken. The wall that could be found at Mach 1, the sound barrier. It ends with the last of the Mercury flights.
But truly it starts with a man and a plane. The man was Chuck Yeager and the plane was technically known as the Bell X-1 but lets call her by her true name: Glamorous Glennis, after his wife (and by all accounts she was). Chuck Yeager was one of the greatest pilots the world has ever seen and the movie catches the spirit of the man as he breaks the sound barrier the day after he broke some ribs falling off a horse.
Equally truly, it ends with a man and a rocket. A man so relaxed, so confident of himself and his machine that he fell asleep on the launch pad while sitting on top of thousands of pounds of high explosive. Gordo Cooper who if you asked him “who was the best pilot you ever saw?” would always answer, and always believe, “You’re looking at him.”
And each man was, in his time and in his place, the fastest man alive. The man who flew faster, higher, and farther than anyone had ever flown before.
And between Yeager and Cooper? As always it is the people, not the machines, who matter. In the 50s and 60s the life of a test pilot was hard, dangerous, and often short [Aside: I rather doubt that this has changed much, if at all.]. What then of the women who married them and put up with a life of deprivation, isolation, and funerals out there in the desert? What of their courage, their endurance, their strength?
The Right Stuff treats the ladies with the respect that they so richly deserved. Particularly during the Mercury launches when the press gang swarmed around them as they waited for news.
Meanwhile the press are treated with a healthy serving of contempt – the chattering locusts sound track that accompanies the press was a superb choice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great believer in the freedom of the press but the attentions that gang of paparazzi were handing out deserved nothing less.
The 50s and 60s the height of the Cold War, and in the paranoia of the age is the driver for many of the events in the film. Looking back at such acts of glory I sometimes find it hard to comprehend the fear that was driving the United States forward (although with considerably more justification than current events, but I digress). This paranoia was what suppressed the news that Yeager had broken the sound barrier, it was what drove the insistence that the Astronauts be heroes rather than specimens, drove the insanely funny testing procedures used to select the Mercury Seven.
And those procedures are insanely funny if you don’t have to live through them yourself. In particular, the competition between Alan Shepard and John Glenn is priceless.
Shepard is another fascinating character from the era described in Tom Wolfe’s book as almost having two personalities: Smiling Al and The Commander. Smiling Al was the Shepard who cracked jokes on final approach to a carrier landing, and later smuggled a golf club to the moon. But heaven help the ensign, or the rocket scientist, who went too far because just around the corner was the cold-blooded Annapolis graduate who could make you wish you’d never been born. On the 1st Mercury launch both sides of Shepard were on display. After having to, ah, relieve himself in his suit he lazily announces his status as real wetback now…and then angrily demands that they light the candle. Which, having dealt with the Commander before the (still mostly) German rocket scientists do.
The next to launch was Gus Grissom. I won’t say too much about Grissom except to note that he’s one of the more tragic figures of the space age. Whilst some of his behaviour with the souvenirs wasn’t the best, overall I think he was poorly treated.
And so we come to John Glenn. Its hard to talk about Glenn without descending into cliche; in many respects the cliches about “Dudley Do-Right” were invented to describe Glenn. Nevertheless the scene where Glenn supports his wife Annie’s desire for privacy (she had a speech impediment) against the media and the Vice President has the right feel for the man. I chose the word “supports” rather than “protects” for a reason; there was nothing weak about Annie Glenn but in the face of that much pressure anyone might need support and it truly speaks well for Glenn that he was prepared to sacrifice his flight to give it. And also for the rest of the Mercury Seven, and their wives, that they stood firmly behind the Glenn’s. [Aside: the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is probably a touch unfair but then he’s not one of the heroes of this story] Also very amusing is Glenn’s reentry into the atmosphere whilst humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic as Shepard wryly notes “He does that”.
One of the most iconic scenes of The Right Stuff is the one of the full group walking line abreast down a corridor in their space suits and it represents the sense of unity the group had for each other well. This scene has been
ripped off paid homage to by movies from Armageddon to Monsters Inc. [Aside: The commentary on the latter indicates that many younger audiences attribute it to the former. Sigh]
But a better view is the scene where the scientists present them with what the scientists fondly believed to be the final version of the Mercury capsule (no window, no internally controllable hatch, no flight controls). The astronauts team up to face the scientists down with Shepard in full-flight Commander mode, Grissom playing Bad-Cop and Glenn being smoother about it but no less insistent.
Even as the focus, and all of the budget (“no bucks, no Buck Rogers”) is shifting to the Astronauts we are given one last look at Chuck Yeager trying to break one more record for power climbs. The flight does not go well and Yeager is forced to punch out over the desert. It can happen to the best but at the end we are treated to another iconic scene: a wounded Yeager stumbling across the desert with the flaming wreckage of his plane behind him as the recovery vehicle drives towards him. Independence Day anyone?
And then, at the very end, Gordo Cooper catching some shuteye on the launchpad with Glenn having to wake him up before they can light the candle.
Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise
On the surface in almost every way you can think of, Wings of Honneamise is the complete opposite of The Right Stuff.
It isn’t set on Earth, propeller planes are pushers rather than pullers, its set in a hot war, the space force are a bunch of losers and dropkicks, the rocket owes more to Russian design than American (clustered rather than vertical staging), the program goes ahead against the wishes of the main military establishment.
And none of the differences matter, the dream is still the same.
The world building in Wings is quite frankly superb. The technology is about 1950s but different. In one country only the Navy have jets and the aircraft carriers are double deckers. When a new computer shows up, you walk down corridors inside it. Most of the planes are still propeller jobs, and pushers with the propellers at the back of the planes. There are more examples but everywhere you look you get the feel of a real but alien world with people just like us. With this much thought in the setting, the willing suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy a movie is easily achieved, and only really challenged once.
The main character, Shiro Lhadatt, wanted to be a jet pilot but just didn’t have the grades. The space force? Well, its a job that doesn’t involve anything too strenuous or being shot at. Mostly. Its a mostly cushy spot with an embarrassing uniform but no real danger.
And then he meets the girl, Riquinni Nonderaiko who is deeply religious and starts challenging his view of the world. [Aside: I had to look the character name up on the web as it is used so infrequently in the movie as to be forgotten almost immediately]
It is from this slowly developing relationship that Shiro is moved to volunteer for a manned orbital flight and starts training. It is here that yet another difference to The Right Stuff emerges: there are no other volunteers. None. Even for the senior officers accept Shiro’s offer is Hobsons Choice.
But, somewhere along the line, Shiro begins to emerge if not as a hero then as a capable enough fellow who can achieve when he works at it. An everyman rather than a paladin. The training sequences are unashamed nods to The Right Stuff and great fun to watch. One sequence deserves special mention as again highlights the difference: the scene where Shiro is sent to an Air Force base to get flight experience and which is clearly the first time he’s ever flown, much less flown in a high performance plane doing aerobatics…
As Shiro is training, the international and internal tensions are rising. This inexorably leads to a scenario where the other branches of the military plan to use the upcoming launch as a trigger for a battle by offering the rocket as a target to the enemy. This is mirrored by tensions in Shiro’s relationship with the Riquinni that culminate in an attempted rape scene that challenges the suspension of disbelief (although the reconciliation afterwards is even harder to swallow in my opinion). A friend who watched the film with me (and who reminded me about the Monsters Inc commentary mentioned earlier) speculated that this scene was due to a sense of nihilism arising as Shiro attempted to deal with a newly religious worldview; the sight of Riquinni hoarding money may have been a factor as well.
Whenever I watch Wings I have trouble accepting this scene, and certainly have trouble viewing him as a sympathetic character afterwards. As for Riquinni apologising for knocking him unconscious, well I can’t understand that at all.
Fortunately there’s an assassination attempt on the now-famous Shiro that goes a fair way towards redeeming him as a sympathetic character. It is in Shiro’s fame that another difference to The Right Stuff emerges: the media. Much of the media in Wings is very similar to that of the The Right Stuff but one journalist hauls Shiro over the coals over the cost of the program, and the number of starving and homeless that could have been helped by it.
Even more fortunately the film moves into its final phase leading up to the launch from a (currently) demilitarised zone. Knowing that the other branches of their own military are conspiring against them the Space Force move up the launch and still get called upon to evacuate the site when the enemy invade.
It is at this moment that Shiro becomes the hero as he gives a speech exhorting the ground crew to not give up on the Dream and go ahead with the launch. Its a much longer speech in more dramatic circumstances but still I heard in my mind Alan Shepard demanding that they light the candle.
For this is where the two films are the same and this is where both are glorious indeed.
As for the launch sequence itself, well you have a rocket launching through the middle of a furious dogfight past people who’ve never seen the like. Despite its age (Wings dates to 1987) this sequence is still one of the most spectacular scenes ever animated, just superb.
One thing I see I forgot to mention was the rocket scientists in Wings, colloquially known as the Old Farts they are a tribute to the early pioneers of rocketry before it became cool. They add some light humour with their walkers and wheelchairs but also provide an opportunity for Shiro’s colleagues to develop over the course of the film as they take on the jobs that the Old Farts can’t handle anymore.
In retrospect, Wings does have some flaws as I mentioned above but its still a superb film overall and one I’ll happily see again and again. It turns out my LaserDisc is dub only (its not a bad dub, just a bit clumsy in places) so I’ll have to see if I can track down a DVD copy with a subtitled version somewhere.