|Category||Drama||Theatrical Trailer(s)||Yes, 1 - 1.85:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0|
|Year Released||1983||Commentary Tracks||None|
|Running Time||184:55 minutes||Other Extras||Biographies - Cast and Crew
Biographies - Mercury Astronauts
Biographies - Pioneers
Warner Home Video
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||MPEG||None|
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1||Dolby Digital||5.1|
||Soundtrack Languages||English (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384 Kb/s)|
|Theatrical Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||
English for the Hearing Impaired
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
Now, I suppose it is appropriate that I take you on a little voyage here, and I beg your indulgence for some serious reminiscing, but I feel it is important that you understand how much this film represents to me. The film is, of course, based upon the book of the same name by Tom Wolfe. Published way back in 1979, I always remember the first time that I got hold of this book for a read. It was recommended to me by a university friend, and shortly thereafter I acquired a copy from the local shopping centre. It turned out to be one of the greatest literary purchases I had ever made and, outside of perhaps some of the Robot stories of Isaac Asimov, is a book that over the years I have read more frequently than any other. Having always had a more than passing fascination with aircraft, and more especially space exploration, since I am after all born in the year that the space race sort-of began, the book struck me as one of the greatest ever written about pilots and the almost-mythology of The Right Stuff. Since 1979 I think I must have read the book about seventy times, and it is as glorious a read today as it was the very first time that I read it. Some years later of course, I discovered that a film based upon the book had been made but I never got the chance to see it during its theatrical release.
It was not until about 1985 that I eventually got to see the film, which was pretty much during a drunken haze from which I can barely recall it being on television. Fortunately, I was not drunk enough to prevent me from recognizing the name of the film nor the obvious derivation from the book that I so treasured. So, I decided to track it down on video (then really coming into vogue), but to no avail. It was unavailable on video in Australia at the time, but I eventually tracked down a copy in the United States. Since it was horrendously expensive to buy it and get it sent over here (how times have changed with the Internet), I passed on the opportunity but resolved that the first time I went to the United States I would get it on video, which I dutifully did, on a double VHS tape that set me back a fair number of dollars at a Sam Goody store. Shortly thereafter it came out on tape in Australia (amazing how often that happens to me) and I naturally indulged in that, too. Over the years, the NTSC tape survived through basically lack of use, but the VHS tape was replaced on two occasions owing to overuse, and that was the situation that existed until 1998 - which means of course that despite having watched the film far more times than I can possibly enumerate, and despite the film being my greatest film of all time, I had never, ever seen the film in widescreen.
On 2nd October, 1998 Warner Home Video released their first batch of Region 4 DVDs, and amongst the titles included in that initial batch was The Right Stuff. Wandering through K-Mart on that weekend I happened across the Warners DVD display and saw the DVD. I felt an instant need to acquire the DVD which I dutifully did - the first DVD I ever bought, and four months before I even had anything to play it on. But I knew that I would have to get the player, for I knew that this film was going to be something special on DVD, and so, when I finally acquired my home theatre gear in February 1999, you can pretty much guess which DVD of the small collection that I had acquired by that date was the first to grace my player. It was also the first film that I ever watched three times in a row - once on NTSC tape, once on PAL tape and then on PAL DVD. It was like an epiphany to see this film in all its digital widescreen wonder after all those years of patently sub-standard VHS tapes of every description and price range. The pan and scan disaster of the NTSC tape lacked any sort of colour to it at all, being very pale and muted, the PAL tape was hardly any better, but that DVD - stunning stuff! Since then, it has been watched more often than any other DVD (although The Fifth Element would run a pretty close second), and despite some of the wondrous DVDs I have seen over that time, this still holds up pretty well indeed.
Of course, this is just a long-winded way of saying that if you want a completely unbiased opinion on this film, then you will be sadly disappointed. It is my number one film of all time and has been from the very first time I saw it (drunk or otherwise) and few films have come close to the impact that this film has had on me. It is because of this film that I have taken such a keen interest in space exploration, resulting in exorbitant amounts of money being spent on visits to the Kennedy Space Centre and the Johnson Space Centre, books, videos and other "stuff". But I begrudge none of it as it is a truly fascinating area of interest.
And so on to the film itself ('at long last' I hear you say). I doubt that any film could do real justice to the American Mercury space program but this three hour epic sure gives it a fair old try. The story is pretty much an encapsulation of well over a decade of aviation history into that three hours. It essentially starts with the first supersonic flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California in October, 1947 by Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) in the Bell X-1 and ends with the last of the Mercury space missions in May, 1963 when Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) flew the longest, fastest and highest American space mission to that date. In the post World War II cold war, military one-upmanship was pushing aviation technology at a huge pace and the period from 1947 through to 1957 was a period where speed records were set aplenty in a variety of aircraft, but through it all Chuck Yeager continued to reign supreme as the most righteous of the brothers. In 1957, things changed a lot because of one little piece of metal that was put into orbit around the Earth: the Soviets launched Sputnik, and the world has never been the same. Firmly pushing the envelope into the new frontier of space, the Soviets forced the Americans to get up into space as quickly as possible. Thus, we find ourselves thrust into the selection process for seven astronauts who were to ride the Mercury missions into near space. Those seven Americans, aside from Gordo Cooper, were the first Americans into space. Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), the tragic Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) who was later to die in Apollo 1, the iconic John Glenn (Ed Harris) who is perhaps the best known American astronaut outside of Neil Armstrong, Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) made up the seven. The fact that these names were to figure prominently in subsequent Gemini and Apollo missions (Shepard went to the moon in Apollo 14 for instance), as well as senior positions in NASA indicates the importance of these men to the entire American space program. Selected as the best of the best, when their selection was announced in 1957, they were immediately elevated to the top of the pyramid as the most righteous of those with The Right Stuff. What followed was a story of competition, both with themselves and with chimpanzees, and comradeship, as they battle to be the first American in space - an ultimately pointless exercise in some respects as the Soviets always seemed to be several steps ahead of the game (at least until the Apollo program).
The fact that this is a three hour long film is usually the first thing that gets noticed - but there have rarely been films of such length that have been so engrossing as to stand repeated viewing, and to sustain your interest with ease for that length of time. This is due in no small way to the brilliant screenplay that Philip Kaufman penned: this could so easily have descended into tedium yet Kaufman has managed to bring out the humour, the drama, the uncertainty and the elation of this glorious step into space. But, you then have to take the screenplay and do something with it, and that is what makes this film. In my view, this is quite arguably the finest ensemble cast ever put together for a film and the entire cast do a superb job of bringing to life these heroes - and that is what they were to Americans of the day - to life. Quite superb performances come from Scott Glenn and Ed Harris in particular, although Sam Shepard is not less impressive as the slightly laconic Yeager, a role for which he copped an Oscar nomination in 1984. There is absolutely no weak link here and that even includes the legendary Chuck Yeager himself - yes, he does make an appearance in the film, as the barman at Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club. Add into the mix some superb cinematography (it too copped an Oscar nomination), brilliant music, stunning sound effects and great sound, not to mention some wonderful direction, and this is superb stuff from start to finish. In one of the Academy's classic goofs, this dipped out on Best Picture at the 1984 Oscars (although winning four in all) and I have never understood why. I also never understood why it did so relatively poorly at the box office, although I would suspect that both are not unrelated to its length.
Sure there are some goofs here - for instance, if I recall correctly, Chuck Yeager was flying the X-1 well before the day of the big flight, so the story about being asked to do it the day before is artistic licence, as was the last minute naming of the X-1 Glamorous Glennis (after his wife). Undoubtedly, residents of Muchea in Western Australia are amused by the depiction of their town - the last time I was in Muchea, it did not look anything like the semi-desert pictured in the film! But this really is an insightful and reasonably accurate look at the Mercury program and the men who became heroes as a result. I have seen it more times then I can recall over the last sixteen years and I can assure you that despite some faults, this film has never looked so good and sounded so good. Upon first viewing it was a revelation, as in many ways the clarity of the DVD meant that I was seeing the film for the first time, and whilst the hindsight of a collection of over 600 DVDs suggests that the DVD is not as good-looking as perhaps it could have been, it is certainly a fine looking effort that commands your attention. If you have even the slightest interest in space, then this DVD is an absolutely essential purchase.
The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced.
One of the things I will always remember about the first time I watched this DVD was how utterly stunned I was by the "visuality" of the transfer. Having been so used to a myriad of rather poor tapes, the infinitely better presentation of the DVD made it clear that this was a film meant for the big screen and not for some pan and scanned tape. With the benefit of the subsequent experience of over 600 DVDs, it is now clear that this is not as stunning a transfer as I first imagined - although that is not to say it is bad, either. The main problem is that the transfer is somewhat inconsistent. Thus, the transfer is at times absolutely razor sharp, with some stunning detail to it, whilst at others it becomes a little soft in definition with some rather mediocre detail. Part of the problem here is that Philip Kaufman photographed it in a certain way, which meant that several scenes were deliberately shot dark foreground on light background with a resultant lack of foreground detail. This adds a sort of mystique to the proceedings at times that complements the story quite well. However, it does mean that sometimes we lose background detail. Interestingly, this is quite an edge-enhanced film, but the more I watch the film the less I am worried by that: I presume this is partly due to familiarity but also partly due to the fact that the edge enhancement does give some quite noticeable lift to the image at times. Another area where age is highlighted is in the inconsistent presence of grain. At times, the picture is quite grainy, which does detract a little from the film, but then this is effectively counterbalanced by the periods where we have an absolute clarity to the transfer, the likes of which the film has probably never seen. Overall, for a film of its age this is a good transfer, but a full remastering would probably make it shine beyond belief.
There is a rather diverse range of colours on offer here and these vary from being quite muted (deliberately of course) through to well oversaturated (probably not deliberately). Overall, it is a quite vibrant transfer with a nice definition to the colours within their context. The main problem area is a case of rather noticeable oversaturation at around the 88:30 mark on Side One, when the astronaut groupies enter the bar ("four down, three to go"!): the oversaturation of red is really quite grotesque in my view, although I believe that this is an intended oversaturation, just possibly not to this extent. There were a number of instances where there appeared to be a degree of undersaturation of colours at times, but these were handled somewhat better than the oversaturation. The big thing here, though, is a lack of solidity to the blacks - I found these to be much more like dark greys, and this is possibly another obvious indication of the age of the film. Naturally, given the time period involved, there are not many instances of bright colours on offer here. Overall, this transfer exhibits a slightly inconsistent approach to the colours, but nothing that I would call outrightly offensive apart from that short oversaturated sequence. There did not appear to be any problems with low level noise in the transfer.
There were no apparent MPEG artefacts in the transfer, and apart from some relatively minor shimmering that most would probably not notice, there did not appear to be any significant film-to-video artefacts in the transfer. There were, however, plenty of film artefacts on offer here, although you should be aware that some of these were intended so as to produce an aged look to the image, most particularly in the black and white sequences on televisions. Still, for a film of its age, the extent of these film artefacts were just a little on the wrong side of expectations.
This is a FLIPPER disc with the flip point coming at 97:40. Whilst I normally would hate the fact that this is a dual-sided disc necessitating one to get up and flip the disc, in this instance I found it less bothersome. Obviously, this is partly due to the fact that I like the film so much, but also is a reflection of the fact that I am used to the NTSC double video tape issue which similarly required manual assistance. Besides which, three hours is a long time to sit watching a film and it does provide an opportunity to stretch the legs, make a cup of tea and use the bathroom. Obviously RSDL formatting would be much more preferable though.
There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and a quite dynamic effort it is, too.
Surprisingly for a film that has to balance plenty of action noise with plenty of dialogue, this ends up being a delightfully easy soundtrack to listen to. At no stage does the sound muddy and the dialogue is always easy to understand. There is no problem with audio sync in the transfer, either.
The original music score is from Bill Conti and it thoroughly deserved its Oscar. Indeed, it is possibly the best thing that he has ever done. It blends some well-known classical themes with original scoring that superbly supports and drives the film. In fact, it perhaps does its job too well, as at the end of the film that memorable theme continues to play through my head for hours. It is one of those very rare scores that really does stand out in its own right whilst still allowing the film to stand out, and in my view this makes it one of the very best scores ever to grace a film.
The main problem with the soundtrack is the slight lack of consistency, with some evident drops in the audio level and a number of instances where the surround channel use is not up to the standard of other parts of the soundtrack. Overall though, given that the source material is sixteen years old this is not too shabby an effort at all. The bass channel gives some lovely support when necessary (rocket launches, overhead aircraft fly-bys and so forth) and in some instances the surround effect created is quite stunning. Particularly notable for this is the first fly-over of jet trainers at the funeral, which is one of the best demonstrations of Dolby Digital surround sound around. Imagine how it sounded being the very first time that such surround sound was experienced! There is some wonderful ambience from the surround channels at times, although minor lapses here and there are noted, but the overall effect is of a stunning soundtrack It is a very natural sounding soundtrack with a very nice sound picture that just exudes quality, with a wonderful three dimensional effect on offer. Even on the basis of subsequent experiences with over five hundred DVDs watched, this is still one of the best efforts that I have heard - even with the minor quibbles.
Warners have reissued the Region 2 version with RSDL formatting, which would make that the clear first choice, at least until Warners pick up the idea here.
A good video transfer, especially for a film of this age.
A very fine audio transfer, with some minor problems.
A reasonable extras package, but could have been better.
But the one thing that really stands out about this release? It really does highlight just how bad Warners releases have become over the past twelve months, for I have seen nothing from this source recently that is a patch on this effort.
© Ian Morris (have a
laugh, check out the bio)
24th June 2000
|DVD||Pioneer DV-515; S-video output|
|Display||Sony Trinitron Wega 84cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in|
|Amplification||Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.|
|Speakers||Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL|