70’s Memories: Marooned (1969)

Written by Mayo Simon
Directed by John Sturges
Starring Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman
US Release Dec. 11, 1969
RT 134 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

Marooned-film-images-05f18620-5504-4396-84f9-079845ec16c (1)

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

The opening of Marooned sets the calm, some may say “leisurely,” pace at which the 134-minute movie will unfold. There’s a lovely view of a golden pond as the sun rises, the only sound being radio communications among NASA engineers as they prepare for the launch of “Ironman One,” with astronauts Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna), Clayton Stone (James Franciscus) and Buzz Lloyd (Gene Hackman).  Their star power in space is matched only by that on the ground with David Janssen and Gregory Peck, who lead the journey from Houston mission control.

It’s a cold, clinical start for a movie that’s pretty in its setting, whether it’s on Earth or looking at Earth from orbit.  When Ironman One docks with a space station that is about the same size, mission control is recording all their activity for study.  20 minutes into the story, it’s suddenly five months later and the crew is suffering from fatigue causing Charles Keith (Peck) to order “bring them down.”  The trip originally planned for seven months is being cut short.  As its title might indicate, they’re going to have trouble making it: their ship has no “retrofire.”

Keith is quick to write them off, even when Ted Dougherty (Janssen) pitches a rescue mission.  It takes the President of the United States, talking to Keith on a highway patrolman’s radio when he is stopped for speeding, to convince him they have to give it a try.  Thus begins the slowest 42-hour race against time I’ve ever seen.  If you think the opening launch is long, wait for the launch of the Air Force XRV midway through the movie.  It’s an interesting approach to suspense.  Instead of short, hurried shots showing the desperation of the characters, the long, detailed shots create discomfort and impatience for the audience.

While you can’t say it’s action-packed, Marooned is nevertheless a terrific thriller.  Several factors contribute to the effect.  One is the claustrophobia of the space travelers as they sit in the cockpit of a ship that’s only about three times the length of a man’s height.  Another is that their oxygen supply is diminishing rapidly.  Another is that a hurricane is changing direction and heading toward the launch pad.  I don’t know the scientific validity of the timeline or the measures they take for the rescue, but it all seems very logical.  Talk among the characters, as well as eloquent news reports from the press, make certain we know what is happening at all times.

Although its treatment of women is dated, the wives of the astronauts pack an emotional punch as they sit stoically in the NASA gallery.  Lloyd’s wife, Betty (Mariette Hartley), the 10-year veteran of such drama, tells Stone’s newcomer wife, Teresa (Nancy Kovack), “We’ve learned to keep our feelings to ourselves and let the men get on with their business.”  Pruett’s 15-year veteran wife, Celia (Lee Grant), says the least, until the time comes for each of them to talk to their husbands.  As Dougherty tells them, “It’s important to show how confident you are,” they also realize they’re saying, “Goodbye.”

This is not a movie where you can necessarily expect a happy ending.  Everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.  Of course the hurricane causes the rescue launch to be scrubbed.  However, every storm cloud has a silver lining and someone comes up with the brilliant idea of flying right up through its eye.  It delays the trip, though, and when the transfer will take place in 75 min. but the crew has only 55 min. of oxygen, Keith must diplomatically suggest that their air supply will run out “only if you continue using it at the present rate.  Let’s think about that.  If you could work out something it would be a great help.”

As grim as it seems at times, not every person who floats off into space will remain marooned for all eternity.  With the aid of a Russian craft that changes its course to offer assistance and the heartfelt participation of Dougherty flying the XRV without a computer, at least some of them have a decent chance of returning home.  When (or if) they do, though, the movie will end with about as much fanfare as it began, not with a loud, heartwarming celebration, but with a quiet, contemplative countdown to re-entry and a single shot of an abandoned Ironman One drifting above our atmosphere.

Marooned was written by Mayo Simon (Phase IV, Futureworld) and is based on the novel by Martin Caidin (Cyborg, upon which The Six Million Dollar Man was based).  If the early 70s significance of those achievements don’t impress you, it was directed by John Sturges.  Although he was on the downward slope of his career, he helmed such classics as The Magnificant Seven and The Great Escape.  In essence, there’s as much star power off screen as there is on.  I remember seeing it in theaters; my mother cried.  I don’t think I’ve seen it since, but I’m glad I watched it again.

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