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DVD SAVANT

X-15


X-15
MGM Home Entertainment
1962 / Color / 2:35 letterboxed flat / 107 min. / Street Date February 3, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter, James Gregory, Lisabeth Hush, David McLean, Mary Tyler Moore, Patricia Owens, Kenneth Tobey, Ralph Taeger, Stanley Livingston
Narrated by James Stewart
Cinematography Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction Rolland M. Brooks
Film Editor Stanley Rabjohn
Original Music Nathan Scott
Written by James Warner Bellah and Tony Lazzarino
Produced by Howard W. Koch, Tony Lazzarino, Henry W. Sanicola, Frank Sinatra
Directed by Richard Donner

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Here's good news for directors who've just made awful first films: there's always hope. Richard Donner (Superman The Movie, Lethal Weapon) is nominally responsible for this rather terrible drama about intrepid test pilots. It's his first theatrical effort, and one would think it had been directed by a paint-by-numbers kit instead of a man with talent.

As a record of the exciting research happening in the early 60s out at Edwards Air Force Base, X-15 is fairly accurate. It's just not very dramatic. The film can boast many minutes of authentic test flight footage, but the the way it was put together (I'll have to explain this down below) makes it difficult to watch.

Synopsis:

Gallant test pilots Lt. Col. Lee Brandon (Charles Bronson), Matt Powell (David McLean), and Major Ernest Wilde (Ralph Taeger) risk life and limb testing the experimental rocket plane X-15. Lee and Ernest are Air Force personnel and live with their wives Diane (Lisabeth Hush) and Margaret (Patricia Owens) on Edwards Air Force Base, but Matt is a civilian bachelor who at first is none too pleased when his girlfriend Pamela Stewart (Mary Tyler Moore) shows up unannounced. Diane is pregnant, but is afraid she'll lose her baby to the same worry that caused a previous miscarriage. Margaret worries that Lee's dangerous work may make her a widow and her son Mike (Stanley Livingston of TV's My Three Sons) an orphan. Meanwhile, the testing continues, ramrodded by project chief Tom Deparma (James Gregory) and Air Force Col. Craig Brewster (Kenneth Tobey).

A newsman asks James Gregory's project chief why we're going into space, if it just means opening a new arena of Cold War combat for our arms race with the Russians. Gregory thinks about this question a moment, and then reasons that the best way to keep things peaceful is to get our weapons up there first!

Thus X-15 becomes the umpteenth movie, starting with Destination Moon twelve years earlier, to directly link the conquest of space with military aims. Our space effort in those years was a wonderful enterprise that gave the country direction and spurred scientific progress ... and then some assassinations and wars got in the way. The military and civilian personnel who manned the experimental flight program on the high California desert were indeed pioneers. Of all the endeavours we've invented in which brave volunteers purposely risk their lives, this has to be one of the most worthy.

As a drama, X-15 would be a big laugh if it wasn't so, well, boring. Very little of import happens to its eight or so characters, who seem to exist only to talk exposition. There are roughly 3 minutes of drama in the movie, and none of it goes anywhere. The three handsome pilots and their nervous wives are handsome, nervous, and that's it. Charles Bronson walks through the film without changing his facial expression; he has 30 interesting seconds with his son talking about shaving, a dramatic highlight. Patricia Owens, from The Fly and Sayonara has what should be the big emotional role, but just as her interesting conflict develops, the women drop out of the picture entirely!

Everyone who's seen The Right Stuff knows the situation where the wives must wait at home, dreading the day some officer will drive up and tell them their husband has been killed in a crash. Stuff makes this fairly dramatic. In X-15 ,when the girls hear a siren they run outside in party dresses to fret and worry. In reality, although they'd rarely talk about the possibility of tragedy, aviator's wives were in general a tougher breed.

Mary Tyler Moore has the biggest role, which means she gets about twenty seconds' more time on screen than her friends. The lighting and makeup is so flat, the three of them look like Barbie dolls. The movie clearly is more interested in the flying than the drama, and the women are really shut out of the story. At one point there's a potential mixup as to who's been killed, but when the unlucky wife gets the bad news, there's no payoff. We're curious to know how life goes on when the husband of one of three best friends is killed. The widow instantly becomes a symbol of the others' worst fear. Do her friends ignore and her remain in denial? Does she courteously sneak away in the night? Or do they other two continue to cluck over their handsome men while the widow looks on? X-15 solves this problem by never showing what happens. The entire domestic half of the story just disappears about 4/5ths of the way through. 3

The Mercury astronaut program got all the media attention, but the trials and flights of the X-15 were exciting and dramatic as well. X-15 chooses to cover the tests in almost a documentary manner, but omits discussion of the purposes of the missions or what is learned in each (in reality, plenty). The three major flights we see are long and uneventful, with plenty of repetitive ground-air communications. In the dull-looking flight command center the engineers look half-asleep. The pilots are always seen in interchangeable closeups in their cockpits, against a blue sky. James Gregory (The Manchurian Candidate) is an authentic-looking facsimile of the bureaucratic project leader. Stalwart flier commander Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World) paces quietly in his orange flight suit, like a throwback to an old aviation film. 1

The settings are so dull, they have to be authentic. All the official rooms are painted in those institutional pastels that deaden the emotions. The project command area is just a lot of telemmetry equipment and men staring at data readouts. We visit one rocket test stand bunker, a nice change of pace. The rocket engine explodes, shooting the rest of the ship 40 feet forward. Curiously, although some real footage of the accident is used, we don't see frequently seen shot from later docus, of the pilot's part of the ship blasting forward. Perhaps that angle was classified.

Unlike The Right Stuff, there's no attempt to glamorize the desert setting. The Air Force chose Edwards was chosen for its miles of dry, flat lake beds, and X-15 doesn't add any evocative cactus landscapes to make the pilots seem like latter-day cowboys. The brand new residential cul-de-sac where the wives live looks depressing as hell - there isn't so much as a bush in sight. Authenticity is maintained; one of the pilots isn't Air Force and therefore apparently doesn't live on base. Where? Lancaster is 40 miles away.

The movie is well-cast, but none of the actors make an impression, as if they had been told to keep the theatrics down. That's a good thing when we revisit older Hollywood movies about phony test pilots, like Chain Lightning with Humphrey Bogart. But X-15 doesn't compensate with any script or directorial ideas. Fliers David McLean and Ralph Taeger are practically anonymous, and they have leading roles. McLean did better as 'The Marlboro Man' for television cigarette commercials. Real television newsmen Ed Fleming, Lee Giroux and Grant Holcomb appear briefly, and one of the test engineers is the Robert Dornan, the controversial right-wing California politician once known as 'B-1' Bob. Maybe he secretly directed the movie.

X-15 plays like a bland Air Force Audio Visual Services film that turned into a feature. One of the film's producers was Frank Sinatra, and actor Brad Dexter was at this time sort of a producer wheeler-dealer as well. The film may have started as a Government publicity effort, as the idea that the X-15 program is in trouble with the press and Washington is given more attention than anything else in the movie. Gee, if X-15 had been a better movie, would our Astronauts be riding rocket planes into space now?

Actor and Air Force general James Stewart provides bookending narration. The film is so poorly structured, when we hear his 'it's all over, folks' ending speech it takes us by surprise.

A confusing format issue ...

Here's the strangest part of X-15 on DVD - the way the many minutes of excellent X-15 test footage was handled. X-15 is an anamorphic movie with an aspect ratio of 2:35. All the original docu shots of the real jets and rockets were photographed at the standard narrow 1:37. Usually, the only way to fit footage like this into a scope film is to severely crop it. It gets granier and sometimes looks cramped, but it at least looks correct - circular wheels don't become broad ovals.

In X-15 we see the standard procedure with one piece of stock footage, the real crash of a Thunderchief fighter jet. It's the same spectacularly horrible shot used in the 1958 movie The Hunters (where a Sabre Jet suddenly transforms into a different make of plane). The picture suddenly gets grainy, and looks like an optical blowup, but the image is not distorted.

In X-15, almost all of the flat aerial footage is simply cut into the scope film 'as is,' and allowed to 'scope out', stretch and distort. We watch 35 or 40 minutes of footage with skinny, exaggerated jets and rocketships. The B-52 planes carrying the rocket look ridiculous. When the camera turns, the airplanes warp out of shape - first the bodies are too long, then the wings are. There are even some cockpit interior shots that do this. It's distracting, annoying, and frankly gives us a headache.  4

The only real reason to see X-15 is to enjoy the spectacular aerial footage, with its real rocket plane launches - just as the leisurely shots of giant jets in Strategic Air Command were a pleasure for aviation buffs. This stuff is unwatchable. It's too bad the DVD isn't a 16:9 anamorphic-enhanced disc, because then we could view the movie flat-squeezed, and all those shots would be corrected, or close to corrected. 2

When the rocket planes almost reach outer space, we're given some unconvincing matted models and animated heat glows, courtesy of Howard Anderson effects. They're not very exciting and resemble the kind of simulation animation that showed up in government aviation movies - very dry stuff.


As I've just explained, MGM's DVD of X-15 is a very questionable disc, a real puzzler. It's either an accurate rendering of a terribly-formatted theatrical release, or something has been lost between 1962 and 2004, resulting in 40% of the picture playing grotesquely squashed-out.

Otherwise, the transfer is accurate and unblemished, and the soundtrack is clear. There are no extras. The nicely designed cover is an improvement over the original poster art. The cover blurb reads, "Before there was Apollo 13, there was X-15." Except for making an associative connection to the Ron Howard film, I don't really know what that's supposed to mean.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, X-15 rates:
Movie: Fair -, would be Good for documentary aspect, but for the distorted images
Video: Good transfer, Poor due to distortion, even if it's 'correct'
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 7, 2004


Footnotes:

1. But since this is a color film, we do get to see Tobey's red, red hair. Wow. No wonder they called him 'red'.
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2. This brings up another issue. Is this how X-15 really looked on the big screen? If so, it certainly explains why the film wasn't a hit. The docu footage is of extremely good quality. I can invent explanations for how the footage could have been correct on screen, yet wrong on this DVD, but they're all rather farfetched.

Web Weenies frequently clobber DVD companies for their arbitrary presentation of aspect ratios, but this is one case where I think doing something is necessary, as the movie in this condition is practically unwatchable.

If this were my call, I'd never have let the DVD go out this way. The best solution would be to compromise with a 16:9 anamorphic transfer. I'd crop and repo the flat docu footage to 1:85 or so as best I could, and then do a partial pan-scan on the 35mm 'scope footage. It's the only way.

As it is now, the disc looks like somebody made a terrible mistake, either back in 1962, or some time after.

If MGM made a pan-scan transfer of X-15, would they just pan-scan the stretched shots, and make it worse?

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3. How do the wives react socially to another wife whose test-pilot husband has crashed? Anybody ever fired from a large company knows. Most work relationships are based on the work, and not any real personal connection. You work alongside people every day for years. When the bad news comes and you're laid off, all of a sudden you cease to exist. One or two close associates will drop by, but everyone else looks the other way, like you just crashed in the desert and they don't want the embarrassment of having to talk to the burned body! You just disappear, and life goes on.
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4. Crazy confirmation from reader Joe Kaufman, 2.10.04:
Dear Glenn, Yes, that's how X-15 came out back in 1962. I remember clearly the anamorphically "enhanced" airplanes. Why didn't they just shoot in 1.85? Who knows? - Joe Kaufman

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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