By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Three skydivers, who make a living going around the country doing airshows for the public, stop off at a small Kansas town on a fourth of July weekend that ends up changing all of their lives. Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) is the eldest and the leader of the group. He seems unhappy and suffering from some inner turmoil that he is reluctant to elaborate on. He ends up having an affair with one of the attractive middle-aged women in town named Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr). Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) is restless and impatient and has a fling with the town stripper (Sheree North). Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) is the introspective member of the trio. He grew up in the town that they are in and uses to the visit as a way to reconcile with his demons from the past.
MGM was hoping for a big hit with this one as it reteamed Lancaster and Kerr 16 years after their famous embrace in From Here to Eternity. The film broke ground as it was the first to feature an established and respected actress who was nearly 50 years of age doing a nude scene. Kerr, who looked great both with her clothes on and off, can be seen fully nude from the front and back during a lovemaking scene with Lancaster. Yet the film failed to gel with the public.
There were some things that I did like. One is the fact that it was filmed on location in Kansas. The opening shots capturing the countryside of the Midwest really gives a strong visual sense of Americana. The scenes taking place in the neighborhoods of the small town give the film an added dimension that a studio back-lot just couldn’t do. The skydiving sequences, which take up the majority of the time, are breathtaking and exciting. The aerial photography makes you feel like you are right there jumping out of the plane and free falling into the air.
The basic plot though is dull and uninteresting. The characters and situations are contrived and derivative. It is almost like the story was a second thought to the stunt work and put in merely as filler. I also didn’t like the pretentious quality of the production that made it seem like it was making some sort of profound statement when in reality it was nothing more than second rate soap opera. The whole thing would have worked better had they skipped the story and made it into a documentary on skydiving instead.
(If you are interested in viewing this film and don’t want to know how it turns out than please don’t read the next two paragraphs as they could be considered spoilers)
The most frustrating thing about the movie is the fact that the Mike character dies at the end when he decides, for no apparent reason, not to open his chute and goes, literally, splat on the ground right in front of a throng of spectators. I actually thought this was one of Lancaster’s better later career performances and I was intrigued as to what was causing his character’s inner-strife, but the film offers us no clue, or hint. I thought there should have been a backstory and even some flashbacks. The ambiguity leaves the viewer cold and unsatisfied and makes the film seem incomplete.
The only possible explanation may come through researching actual Gypsy moths and then correlating the species to the characters. Per Wikipedia, the female gypsy moth is unable to fly. This would then explain why Elizabeth refused to run off with Mike despite her unhappy marriage simply because she could not ‘spread her wings’. The adult male moth always dies in July, which would then explain Mike’s death. No reason for his demise was needed because his life cycle was ending regardless. July is also the time when the moth lays her eggs, which would explain why Joe and Malcolm, who were much younger than Mike, decided to go off on their own separate ways at the end.
Of course this is all speculative and I still ended up finding more misses than hits and couldn’t help but label it a misfire.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: August 28, 1969
Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes
Director: John Frankenheimer
Available: VHS, DVD