Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Peter Hyams|
|Produced by||Paul N. Lazarus III|
|Written by||Peter Hyams|
O. J. Simpson
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Edited by||James Mitchell|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
Capricorn One is a 1978 thriller movie about a Mars landing hoax. It was written and directed by Peter Hyams and produced by Lew Grade's (British) ITC Entertainment. It stars Elliott Gould with James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson as the astronauts.
At an unspecified time, Capricorn One—the first manned mission to Mars—is on the launch pad. Such NASA authorities as Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) realize, too late, that a faulty life-support system supplied by a corrupt NASA contractor will kill the astronauts during the flight. As the manned space program needs a success to continue, they find themselves forced to falsify the landing rather than cancel the mission.
Minutes before launch, the bewildered crew of Air Force Colonel Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and Navy Commander John Walker (O. J. Simpson) are removed from Capricorn One and flown to an abandoned United States Army Air Corps desert base. The launch proceeds on schedule, but the public is unaware that the spacecraft is empty. At the base, the astronauts are informed they will help counterfeit the television footage during the flight to and from Mars, and that it is their patriotic duty to participate for the sake of national morale and prestige. Initially they refuse, but Kelloway, himself under extreme duress (from whom, what, or where is never clearly specified) to go through with the hoax, threatens their families if they do not cooperate, claiming a bomb will explode on a plane carrying the family members.
The astronauts remain in captivity during the flight and are filmed landing on Mars within a studio located at the base. The conspiracy is known to only a few officials, until alert technician Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden) notices that ground control receives the crew's television transmissions before the spacecraft telemetry arrives. Whitter mysteriously disappears before he can finish sharing his concerns with journalist friend Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould). Caulfield discovers that all evidence of his friend's life has been erased and begins investigating the mission, surviving several attacks on himself and his reputation.
Upon returning to Earth, the empty spacecraft unexpectedly burns up due to a faulty heat shield during re-entry. The captive astronauts board a plane to be placed in the spacecraft but the plane unexpectedly turns around and returns to the airfield. They realize that something has gone badly wrong with the re-entry process and that officials can never release them because doing so would automatically expose the hoax. Knowing that the only logical solution for their captors is to kill them during the cover-up process, they break out of their confinement and escape in a Learjet, which runs out of fuel soon after take-off. Forced to crash-land and stranded in the desert, they attempt to return to civilization while being pursued by "black helicopters" (actually, olive drab in the film). They start walking in three directions and Brubaker is the only one to avoid capture.
Caulfield's investigation leads him to the desert, where he finds the military base and the hangar abandoned. Looking around, he finds a necklace given to Brubaker by his wife and concludes that the astronauts were in the hangar. With the help of crop-dusting pilot Albain (Telly Savalas), he searches the desert and rescues Brubaker before the men in the helicopters can capture or kill him. The film ends with Caulfield and Brubaker arriving at the astronauts' memorial service, exposing the conspiracy in front of television cameras and scores of witnesses who are astonished at his arrival.
Peter Hyams began thinking about a film of a space hoax while working on broadcasts of the Apollo missions for CBS. He later reflected regarding the Apollo 11 moon landing, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera.”
He later elaborated:
Whenever there was something on the news about a space shuttle, they would cut to a studio in St. Louis where there was a simulation of what was going on. I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true. That turned out to be bullshit. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit too. So I was watching these simulations and I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story.
Hyams went on to become a successful television writer and director and began writing the script for Capricorn One in the mid-1970s. The failure of Peeper jeopardized his career, but Hyams and his friend, producer Paul Lazarus, were able to obtain the support of Lew Grade, head of production company ITC Entertainment, who agreed to a $4.8 million budget. The Watergate scandal from the early and mid-1970s also made the premise more plausible.
To stay within the budget, NASA's co-operation was needed. Lazarus had a good relationship with the space agency from Futureworld. The filmmakers were thus able to obtain government equipment as props despite the negative portrayal of the space agency, including a prototype lunar module.
Hyams later joked, "O. J. Simpson was in it, and Robert Blake was in (Hyams' first feature) Busting. I’ve said many times: some people have AFI Lifetime Achievement awards; some people have multiple Oscars; my bit of trivia is that I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives."
The film was originally scheduled to debut in February 1978, but good preview screenings and delays in Superman caused it to move to June. Capricorn One became the year's most-successful independent film.
Audiences just stood up and cheered at one point in the film. It wasn't because it was such a great movie, it's just that certain movies strike certain chords with people. In a successful movie, the audience, almost before they see it, know they're going to like it. I remember standing in the back of the theater and crying because I knew that something had changed in my life. Sitting on the film cans outside the screening room, I felt my cheeks were wet with tears. A bright man, [studio executive] David Picker came over to me and said, 'You're going to have a lot of new best friends tomorrow. You better know how to handle it.'
Two novelizations of the film were written and published by separate authors. The first was written by Ken Follett (under the pseudonym Bernard L. Ross) and published in the United Kingdom, the other written by Ron Goulart and published in the United States.
The Follett novel is notable for giving Robert Caulfield more development than the movie does, including giving him something of a relationship with CBS reporter Judy Drinkwater (who has more time here than in the movie) and ending the book with him and Judy (the story saves his career and results in his being employed by CBS).
- Bancroft, 2002.
- Kelloway states that he has known Brubaker for 16 years, with Apollo 11 occurring during the period.
- Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux, MIT Press, 2011. This book sites the New York Times as stating “Watergate may not have inspired ‘Capricorn One,’ but it made its thesis more acceptable, its plot more credible and some of its content strangely prophetic.”
- "Peter Hyams Film by Film" Empire accessed 30 July 2014
- Szebin, 2000
- Lew Grade, Still Dancing: My Story, William Collins & Sons 1987 p 247
- Interview with Peter Hyams by Luke Ford accessed 27 July 2014
- Allison, 2007.
- Bancroft, Colette (September 29, 2002). "Lunar lunacy". St. Petersburg Times. Archived from the original on June 28, 2011. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
- Szebin, Frederick C. (April 20, 2000). "The Making of Capricorn One". Mania. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
- Allison, Deborah (May 2007). "Film/Print: Novelisations and Capricorn One". M/C Journal 10 (2). Retrieved January 7, 2013.
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- Capricorn One at the Internet Movie Database
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- Capricorn One at the TCM Movie Database
- Capricorn One at Rotten Tomatoes