The Gypsy Moths

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The Gypsy Moths
The Gypsy Moths Movie poster
Directed byJohn Frankenheimer
Produced byHal Landers
Bobby Roberts
Edward Lewis (executive)
Screenplay byWilliam Hanley
Based onThe Gypsy Moths novel
by James Drought
StarringBurt Lancaster
Deborah Kerr
Gene Hackman
Scott Wilson
Music byElmer Bernstein
CinematographyPhilip H. Lathrop
Edited byHenry Berman
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • August 28, 1969 (1969-08-28)
Running time
107 min./110 min.
CountryUnited States

The Gypsy Moths is a 1969 American drama film, based on the 1955 novel of the same name by James Drought and directed by John Frankenheimer. The film tells the story of three barnstorming skydivers and their effect on a Midwestern American town, focusing on the differences in values between the town folk and the hard-living skydivers.

The Gypsy Moths starred Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The film also features Gene Hackman. Kerr had worked previously with Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Separate Tables (1958). The film had the only nude love scene in her movie career.[1]

Elmer Bernstein composed the score.


A skydiving team called the Gypsy Moths visits a small town in Kansas to put on a show for the Fourth of July weekend. Their leader, Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster), is accompanied by his partners, Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) and Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson).

The skydivers stay at the home of Malcolm's uncle and aunt, John and Elizabeth Brandon (William Windom and Deborah Kerr). Distractions begin almost immediately when Mike becomes romantically involved with Elizabeth, whose husband overhears her making love with Mike in their home. Malcolm falls for local student Annie Burke (Bonnie Bedelia), a boarder in the Brandon house, while Joe takes an interest in a topless dancer.

Mike eventually asks Elizabeth to leave town with him, but she declines. During the next skydiving exhibition, Mike intends to do a spectacular "cape jump" stunt, but fails to pull the ripcord, which he intentionally fell to his death as he hits the ground upon impact at over 100 miles per hour. Although nobody wants to discuss it, there is a suspicion that he committed suicide. That night, Annie consoles Malcolm, and they make love. Before the team leaves for good, they have to bury Mike. To pay for the funeral, Malcolm does the same stunt that killed Mike. He leaves by train that night without attending Mike's funeral.



The aerial sequences in The Gypsy Moths were filmed at locations in and around Benton, Kansas, with a Howard DGA-15 (N22418) used as the jump ship, flown by David Llorente and Larry Perkins.[2] Browdy, Gene Hackman after decoding the "DGA" designation, jokes that "You're much better off jumping out of it, than taking a chance on landing it."[3]

At the time, the sport of skydiving was in its infancy, yet the film featured an extreme variation of the sport, the use of "batwings", a precursor to modern wingsuit flying. Jerry Rouillard was a key technical advisor and stunt double for Lancaster. Carl Boenish and Jay Gifford were responsible for the aerial photography, including photographing the jumps with a 35 mm camera mounted on their helmets, while they jumped with the stunt doubles, a team of a half dozen skydivers; Mike Milts, Garth Taggart, Russ Benefiel, Dave Thompson, Bill Ledbetter and Jerry Rouillard.[4]

John Phillip Law was originally in the cast, but Scott Wilson replaced him after Law broke his wrist.[5]


The Gypsy Moths ran in limited release in the U.S. and saw few theaters giving it extended showings. Frankenheimer was depressed and felt that a regime change at MGM resulted in the film only being partially re-edited "so it could debut at family-friendly Radio City Music Hall, where it promptly bombed. Only in Hollywood could dealing with clueless studio executives be more frightening than jumping out of an airplane into free fall."[6]

In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that The Gypsy Moths had the semblance of an "action film," but "if this were a real action movie, I would be required to do little except look up at the sky and squint. Unfortunately, there isn't that much skydiving."[7]

After its initial showings, the film was lengthened to 110 minutes and the rating changed to M for mature audiences. This rating was an early version of the later R.[8] As soon as it appeared, The Gypsy Moths disappeared. Director Frankenheimer claimed the film did not get the same attention as his thrillers,[clarification needed] like Seconds (1966) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Despite this, he would call The Gypsy Moths one of his two favorite films.[9]

The Gypsy Moths was widely seen in Australia, with a local skydiving fraternity quick to seize the opportunity to promote their sport, showing a 16 mm print at many club meetings.[10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Capua 2010, p. 152.
  2. ^ Rouillard 1969, p. 33.
  3. ^ Bushell 1987, p. 41.
  4. ^ Rouillard, p. 10.
  5. ^ Armstrong 2013, p. 35.
  6. ^ Tatara, Paul. "Articles: 'The Gypsy Moths' (1969)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 18, 2015.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent. "Movie Review: 'The Gypsy Moths; (1969); The Screen: Barnstorming parachutists." The New York Times, August 29, 1969.
  8. ^ "Notes: 'The Gypsy Moths' (1969)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 18, 2015.
  9. ^ Champlin 1995, pp. 117–118.
  10. ^ Swann, Steve. "The Gypsy Moths." Youtube, October 21, 2013. Retrieved: July 18, 2015.


  • Armstrong, Stephen B. John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays, and Profiles. Washington D.C.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. ISBN 978-0-81089-057-2.
  • Bushell, Sue J. "Some Damn Good Airplanes". Air Enthusiast, Thirty-two, December 1986-April 1987. Bromley, UK: Pilot Press, pp. 32–44.
  • Capua, Michelangelo. Deborah Kerr: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7864-5882-0.
  • Champlin, Charles. John Frankenheimer: A Conversation with Charles Champlin. Ashland, Oregon: Riverwood Press, 1995. ISBN 978-1-88075-613-3,
  • Rouillard, Jerry. "Will the REAL 'Gypsy Moths' Please Stand Up?," Parachutist magazine, November 1969, pp. 10–12.

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