This 1969 film about a troupe of barnstorming skydivers has plenty of
* It paints a picture of small-town America in the days before the mass
media standardized American culture. In those days, the script reminds us,
a skydiving show could be the highlight of everyone's summer. There is one
fascinating scene in which a high school band, after having practiced for
months under the baton of a persnickety martinet, heads into Main Street
on the July 4th parade, only to see it abandoned and looking desolate
because every single person in town is at the big air show.
* It features a great cast which provides a cross-section of two Hollywood
generations. Bert Lancaster, William Windom, Sheree North, and Deborah
Kerr are there from the crowd which dominated the forties and fifties; Bonnie Bedelia and Gene
Hackman represent the new generation which would emerge in the seventies.
Bedelia was 20 or 21 when she filmed this role, and Hackman was still in
his thirties. Hackman had established himself as a dependable character
actor two years earlier in Bonnie and Clyde, but Popeye Doyle, the role
which would elevate him to leading man status, was still two years in the
* Lancaster and Kerr rekindled the screen sparks they had ignited in
From Here to Eternity - except that this time the cultural climate allowed them
to do it with their clothes off. This they did and looked quite good in
the process, even though Lancaster was 56 and Kerr 48.
* It's unusual to see Lancaster play a guy with a
tremendous amount of screen time and virtually no dialogue. He played a
strong, silent guy who kept everything internalized.
* There is some very impressive aerial photography of the skydiving
* The film was directed by John Frankenheimer, who was still in his
thirties, and only a few years removed from a string of very impressive
movies when he was Hollywood's boy wonder.
Seven Days in May
Birdman of Alcatraz
The DVD version of the film can also be characterized as outstanding in
* It's rare to have a director's commentary available for a movie which
is about 40 years old. Fortunately, Frankenheimer was still with us long
enough to do a DVD commentary in 2002. I didn't listen to the entire commentary, but I caught about
twenty minutes' worth scattered through the film, and Frankenheimer seemed
to provide an interesting melange of insights. Sometimes he reminisced
about making the movie, and at other times he discussed the actors or the
studio's marketing of the film (or mismarketing, as he saw it, because the
film was barely released). The commentary was interesting enough that I'll
probably go back and listen to the rest someday.
* The DVD producers also managed to find the original trailer and a
fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the action scenes were filmed.
There's also a fairly interesting, if disappointingly generic, featurette
about real skydivers.
* The widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film is quite satisfactory,
especially for a film four decades old.
Having offered all those kind words, I regret to say that it's only an
average movie, competent and occasionally interesting, but often slow and
sometimes opaque. It has some
sections which clip along quite nicely, especially the action scenes, but
other parts of the film really drag. There is a full eight minute
conversation (really, I timed it - minutes 40-48, more or less) between
Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the middle of the film, and that slows
the film's heartbeat down to flat-line status.
The film has an odd kind of vibe to it. Instead of a smooth consistent
tone, it seems like one of those anthologies of short stories where the
stories have a connection, but are written or directed by different people.
The first half of the film is similar to the famous film Picnic, in which an
outsider disturbs the complacency of a small town in summertime. In this
case, all three of the skydivers manage to score one-night stands on their
first night in town, and this virtually rends the time-space continuum in
the town. Lancaster and Kerr, for example, get it on in Kerr's living room
with her husband (Windom) sleeping upstairs, soon to become aware of his
cuckolded condition. The second half of the film consists predominantly of
actual skydiving - much too much of it for my taste, to the point where the
pulse of the film again dropped to corpse status.
Frustratingly, the most important plot development in the entire film is
heavy with ambiguity. The action itself takes place entirely before our
eyes, but we are never clear whether it was intentional or accidental, and
precisely why it went down that way. Then there is a brief post-airshow
epilogue in the film, which offers no insights on the major event, and
instead presents some additional developments in relationships, most of
which weren't fully explained. It was typical in the late sixties and early
seventies to end films with unresolved or unexplained matters, leaving the
viewer a chance to speculate on how various relationships and situations
would develop, and thus to participate in the artistic process. I don't know
whether I miss that form of audience involvement or whether I am relieved to
see it pass, but I do miss the sorts of post-movie conversations we used to
have about matters like, "Why do you think he did that? Did he mean to? What
did such-and-such all mean? What happened to the relationship between X and
Y?" And so forth. It seems that movies have become more transparent, or less
subtle, or both.