The film begins in 1947 at Muroc Army Air Field, an arid California military base where test pilots often die flying high-speed aircraft such as the rocket-powered Bell X-1. After another pilot demands $150,000 to attempt to break the sound barrier, war hero Captain Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) receives the chance to fly the X-1.
While on a horseback ride with his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey), 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 his injury might become known, Yeager confides in friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley (Levon Helm). 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 man to fly at supersonic speed, defeating the “demon in the sky”.
In 1953 Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base, still attracts the best test pilots. Yeager (now a colonel) and friendly rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) repeatedly break the other’s speed records. The “prime” pilots often visit the Happy Bottom Riding Club run by Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley), where Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin), all captains of the United States Air Force, are among the newer “pudknockers” that hope to also prove that they have “the Right Stuff”.
Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley) classifies the pilots at Edwards as either “prime” pilots (such as Yeager and Crossfield) that fly the best equipment or “pudknockers” who only dream about it. 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 (Pamela Reed), 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 (Ed Harris) of the United States Marine Corps, Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) 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 12th, 1961 with the launch of Vostok 1 carrying Yuri Gagarin into space. The 7 astronauts then decide they’ve being waiting long enough, and to “get the show on the road”.
Director: Philip Kaufman
Year of Release: 1983
Character to watch: Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager.
Journal your answers to the following questions after you watch the movie.
- How does this particular character’s journey compare with yours?
- Did the character develop certain characteristics during the movie that you have or that you would like to have? If so, what are those characteristics?
- What obstacles did this character face? What was his or her biggest challenge?
- What would you have done differently if you had been in the same position as the character?
- Is this character the type of person you would be friends with? Why or why not?