Tom Wolfe’s book on the history of the U.S. Space program reads like a novel, and the film has that same fictional quality. It covers the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager to the Mercury 7 astronauts, showing that no one had a clue how to run a space program or how to select people to be in it. Thrilling, funny, charming and electrifying all at once.
The Right Stuff is a 1983 American epic historical drama film that was adapted from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book of the same name about the Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots who were involved in aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as well as the seven military pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight by the United States.
The Right Stuff stars Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid and Barbara Hershey. Levon Helm is the narrator in the introduction and elsewhere in the film, as well as having a co-starring role as Air Force test pilot Jack Ridley. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
About the Story
In 1947, the Muroc Army Air Field in California has test pilots fly high-speed aircraft such as the rocket-powered Bell X-1, but they die as a result. After another pilot, Slick Goodlin, demands $150,000 to attempt to break the sound barrier, war hero Captain Chuck Yeager receives the chance to fly the X-1.
While on a horseback ride with his wife Glennis, Yeager collides with a tree branch and breaks his ribs, which inhibits him from leaning over and locking the door to the X-1. Worried that he might not fly the mission, Yeager confides in friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley. Ridley cuts off part of a broomstick and tells Yeager to use it as a lever to help seal the hatch to the X-1, and Yeager becomes the first person to fly at supersonic speed, defeating the “demon in the sky”.
Six years later, Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base, still attracts the best test pilots. Yeager (now a major) and friendly rival Scott Crossfield repeatedly break the other’s speed records. They often visit the Happy Bottom Riding Club run by Pancho Barnes, who classifies the pilots at Edwards as either “prime” (such as Yeager and Crossfield) that fly the best equipment or newer “pudknockers” who only dream about it.
Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Donald “Deke” Slayton, captains of the United States Air Force, are among the “pudknockers” who hope to also prove that they have “the Right Stuff”. The tests are no longer secret, as the military soon recognizes that it needs good publicity for funding, and with “no bucks, no Buck Rogers”. Cooper’s wife, Trudy, and other wives are afraid of becoming widows, but cannot change their husbands’ ambitions and desire for success and fame.
In 1957, the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite alarms the United States government. Politicians such as Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and military leaders demand that NASA help America defeat the Russians in the new Space Race. The search for the first Americans in space excludes Yeager because he lacks a college degree. Grueling physical and mental tests select the Mercury Seven astronauts, including John Glenn of the United States Marine Corps, Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra and Scott Carpenter of the United States Navy, as well as Cooper, Grissom and Slayton; they immediately become national heroes.
Although many early NASA rockets explode during launch, the ambitious astronauts all hope to be the first in space as part of Project Mercury. Although engineers see the men as passengers, the pilots insist that the Mercury spacecraft have a window, a hatch with explosive bolts, and pitch-yaw-roll controls. However, Russia beats them on April 12, 1961 with the launch of Vostok 1 carrying Yuri Gagarin into space. The seven astronauts immediately decide to start the Mercury program.
The Right Stuff (1984)
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed
Screenplay by: Philip Kaufman
Production Design by: Geoffrey Kirkland
Cinematography by: Caleb Deschanel
Film Editing by: Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Tom Rolf, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart
Set Decoration by: George R. Nelson, Jim Poynter
Art Direction by: W. Stewart Campbell, Richard Lawrence, Peter R. Romero
Music by: Bill Conti
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: February 17, 1984