Thursday, 6 December 2012

Countdown (1968)

Countdown is a 1968 film directed by Robert Altman and based on the novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls.
It stars James Caan and Robert Duvall as astronauts vying to be the first American to walk on the Moon as part of a crash program to beat the Soviet Union.
It seems not to have garnered too many favourable reviews back in the day but from what little I've seen and read it sounds fairly interesting.  I'll be hunting this down for future viewing pleasure.




  1. Saw this once, a real long time ago, so long ago that recollection is more than a bit hazy, so I can't offer any reliable recommendations. I seem to recall the drama was focused on the Caan character's motives and his coercion into the mission, The impression remains that it was more than a bit too stereotypey and lapsed into melodrama. But it has to be said: James Cann, Robert Duval, anything with both those in has to be worth a second chance. The trouble is this flick was, mooted at a time when the US space program had suffered an enormous setback but then found itself overtaken by the real world super fast, so the topic not only dated badly it seems rather incongruous after the Apollo triumph.

  2. Yes. It's very possible I might have seen this one saturday afternoon on BBC 2 decades back and it failed to make an impression. Men in suits talking, being less memorable than alien invaders at that age. And I can see why it died on its arse at the time when the whole world was very excited about all things spaceracey. As an idea for a story it's perhapse a little misstimed. I imagine it would have a found a more open audience in the mid 70's with all the Capricorn One fans. And you would have thought the cast was big enough to keep it afloat in public memory and on tv but to some James Caan is just that bloke out of Elf I guess.

  3. For space geeks I think it is almost a must-see simply for the fact that the Cann character is acting out a scenario that some U.S. scientists/contractors contemplated - that if it appeared that the Soviets would beat us, we could land a shelter on the Moon and land a guy on a sort of Gemini-on-Steroids and then figure out how to rescue him once Apollo got going. These were among a large number of "Gemini Advanced" projects considered, including landing a guy (and returning him) in a bare-bones unpressurized lander.

  4. I've been intrigued by this story for some time, and since I just got the book for Christmas, I'll watch the film this weekend once I'm finished with my annual ritual of _Santa Claus Conquers the Martians._

  5. If a space-themed movie is declared "boring," I'll usually like it.

    In 1964 _Countdown_ was a pretty decent "near future" fiction, by 1967 it was pretty much "alternate history" in a universe where the Soviets got a super N-1 rocket working (the real-life Soviet moon program was built around a one-man lander; in the film a 3-man lander apparently set down in a dust pit and flipped over) and Apollo was delayed further.

    The space science and technology is a lot more plausible than [i]Marooned[/i]. The film seems to have almost no special effects, relying on stock footage. The good news is that the footage used aren't overly-familiar; the bad news is that we see the two-launch Pilgrim mission use a Titan II and an Atlas-Agena when two Saturn IBs at least would be needed.

    Robert Duvall is very convincing as an astronaut. James Caan's character has a bit less of the Right Stuff, but he does well. The film, unfortunately, fails to make the interpersonal tensions compelling, which is a serious failing given that every character is working for NASA.

    Overall, I'd give it a thumbs up, and I'd love to see a remake.

  6. The book (Pilgrim Project) is a big improvement over the film. Written in 1964, it's a fictionalized version of what seems to have been an actual proposal; a one man lunar landing using two launches of the Saturn IB.

    The actual mission is only a small part of either; the book handles the interpersonal stuff better. It's still very much men in suits yelling at one another, but the novel pulls it off better.

    One bit of weirdness: the author used fictionalized versions of real-life astronauts for his characters, glossing over the names. So we can be pretty confident, for example, that "The Colonel" (Chiz in the film) is John Glenn, who at 45 would place the book in 1966.

    In the 1964 novel, but not the film, the first American to reach the moon is a civilian test pilot and former Naval carrier aviator who flew the Panther in Korea. Yes, it's Neil Armstrong.