Saturday Matinee: Capricorn One

By Ken Zurski

Source: Unremembered

In 1976, a controversial new book was released that contended the Apollo 11 moon mission never happened. We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Million Dollar Swindle was written by Bill Kaysing, a Navy midshipman and rocket specialist, who claimed to have inside knowledge of a government conspiracy to fake the moon landing.

Kaysing believes NASA couldn’t safely put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s (a promise made by President Kennedy) so they staged it instead. Kaysing’s theories were technical and persuasive and soon a movement of nonbelievers, inspired by the book, was born.

Whether you believed Kaysing or not was a moot point for American screenwriter and director Peter Hyams.  A former TV news anchor, Hyams was more interested in how such a thing could actually be pulled off?

“I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true,” Hyams said in an interview with a film trade magazine.  For him, he admits, it was the same with television. “I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story.”

So he wrote a story based on the concept.

That was in 1972, four years before Kaysing’s book was released. Hyams shopped the script around but got no takers.  Then something unexpected happened. Watergate broke and America was thrown into a government scandal at its highest levels. Interest in a story like a fake moon landing (in the movie’s case, the first manned mission to Mars) had appeal. In 1976, Hyams was given the green light to make his movie as part of deal with ITC Entertainment to produce films with a conspiracy bent.

“Capricorn One” was released in the Summer of 1977. “Would you be shocked to find out the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?” the movie posters read.

Reviews were mixed. Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel called it “a surprisingly good thriller” while another critic Harry Themal said it was a “somewhat feeble effort at an adventure film.” Variety was even less complimentary calling it “underdeveloped” and the cast “scattershot.”

In the movie, Sam Waterston, James Brolin and O.J. Simpson play the three astronauts. Elliott Gould, Hal Holbrook, Telly Savalas, Brenda Vaccaro and Karen Black round out the cast. While Brolin was known mostly for his television role as Dr, Steven Kiley on Marcus Welby, M.D. Simpson was a celebrity athlete whose acting career was just beginning.

In hindsight the cast was impressive, but the actors weren’t as important as the story.

After the landing is staged and broadcast as real, the nation is told the three astronauts died instantly in a failed reentry.  But Gould, as journalist Robert Caulfield, is suspicious. The astronauts, who are harbored, realize they have no recourse but to escape or be killed. “If we go along with you and lie our asses off, the world of truth and ideals is, er, protected,” say’s Waterston’s Lt Col. Peter Willis. “But if we don’t want to take part in some giant rip-off of yours then somehow or other we’re managing to ruin the country.”

From there its a cat and mouse game between the good guys and bad. A dramatic helicopter chase scene ensues. In the end, Caulfield with the help from Brolin’s character exposes the conspiracy.

The movie’s tag-line accentuated the drama:

The mission was a sham. The murders were real.

“In a successful movie, the audience, almost before they see it, know they’re going to like it,” remarked Hyams. “I remember standing in the back of the theater and crying because I knew that something had changed in my life.”

The film’s final chase scenes were pure escapism. “People were clapping and cheering at the end,” Brolin relayed to a reporter shortly after the film’s release.

Today, the film’s legacy may be in the conspiracy only.  It’s impact may also have been diminished by the negative attitudes towards O.J. Simpson who in 1994 was charged and acquitted in the brutal murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown.

Even Hyams concedes to his own bizarre trivia: “I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives,” he said referring to Simpson in Capricorn One and Robert Blake in his first film Busting (1974).  

Fifty years later, on the 2019 anniversary date of July 20, 1969, the moon landing is still celebrated as one of man’s greatest achievements. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” President Kennedy prophetically said in 1962.

For some, apparently, that was just too hard to believe.

Several years after it happened, a movie showed how it could be done…Hollywood style.

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