Capricorn One is a 1978 government conspiracy thriller film about a Mars landing hoax. It was written and directed by Peter Hyams and produced by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment. It stars Elliott Gould with James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson as the astronauts.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Peter Hyams|
|Produced by||Paul N. Lazarus III|
|Written by||Peter Hyams|
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Edited by||James Mitchell|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Budget||$5 million (estimated)|
Capricorn One—the first manned mission to Mars—is on the launch pad. The bewildered crew of Brubaker, Willis, and Walker are removed from Capricorn One and flown to an abandoned desert base. The launch proceeds on schedule, and the public is unaware that the spacecraft is empty. At the base, the astronauts are informed by NASA official Kelloway that a faulty life-support system would have killed the astronauts during the flight, and they must help counterfeit the television footage during the flight to and from Mars. Initially, they refuse, but Kelloway threatens their families to get them to cooperate.
The astronauts remain in captivity during the flight and are filmed landing on Mars in a studio located at the base. The conspiracy is known to only a few officials until alert technician Elliot Whitter notices that ground control receives the crew's television transmissions before the spacecraft telemetry arrives. Whitter reports his concerns to his supervisors, including Kelloway, but is told that it is due to a faulty workstation. He disappears before he can finish sharing his concerns with journalist friend Robert Caulfield. Caulfield discovers that all evidence of his friend's life has been erased and he begins investigating the mission, surviving several attempts on his life in the process.
Upon returning to Earth, the empty spacecraft burns up due to a faulty heat shield during atmospheric reentry. The astronauts are said to have died due to the malfunction. The captive astronauts board a plane to be placed in the spacecraft, but the plane unexpectedly turns around and returns to the airfield. They realize that something has gone wrong with the re-entry process and that officials can never release them. They break out of confinement and escape in a plane, which runs out of fuel soon after take-off. Forced to crash-land and stranded in the desert, they attempt to return to civilization while being pursued by helicopters. Realizing that the chances of exposing the truth are increased if they split up, they start walking in three directions. Kelloway sends the helicopters after them; Willis and Walker are found, while Brubaker is the only one to avoid capture and hides in a deserted gas station.
Caulfield's investigation leads him to question Brubaker's "widow" after reviewing a conversation between the astronauts and their spouses aired on live television where Brubaker mentioned a previous family vacation that seems to confuse Mrs. Brubaker. She says that the vacation Brubaker mentioned never took place and that the family had gone to another location where a movie was being filmed. Caulfield tells Mrs. Brubaker that it seems unlikely her husband would make such a mistake and that he was probably sending her a message. She says that Brubaker was entranced by the filmmaking process and said that with enough special effects and movie magic, anything could be made to look real. As Caulfield investigates further, he is arrested by federal agents when cocaine is planted in his home and is later fired from his job.
Another reporter tells Caulfield about the military base and he goes there, finding it abandoned. Looking around, he finds a necklace given to Brubaker by his wife and concludes that the astronauts were in the hangar. With the help of crop-dusting pilot Albain, he searches the desert and rescues Brubaker from the men in the helicopters. The helicopters chase their plane through a canyon but are destroyed after being blinded with crop spray.
Ultimately, Caulfield and Brubaker arrive at the astronauts' memorial service, exposing the conspiracy.
- Elliott Gould as Robert Caulfield
- James Brolin as Colonel Charles Brubaker, USAF
- Sam Waterston as Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willis, USAF
- O. J. Simpson as Commander John Walker, USN
- Hal Holbrook as Dr. James Kelloway
- Brenda Vaccaro as Kay Brubaker
- Karen Black as Judy Drinkwater
- David Doyle as Walter Loughlin
- Robert Walden as Elliot Whitter
- Telly Savalas as Albain
- David Huddleston as Congressman Hollis Peaker
- Lee Bryant as Sharon Willis
- Denise Nicholas as Betty Walker
- Alan Fudge as Capsule Communicator
Peter Hyams began thinking about a film of a space hoax while working on broadcasts of the Apollo missions for CBS. He later reflected regarding the Apollo 11 moon landing, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera.”
He later elaborated:
Whenever there was something on the news about a space shuttle, they would cut to a studio in St. Louis where there was a simulation of what was going on. I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true. That turned out to be bullshit. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit too. So I was watching these simulations and I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story.
Hyams wrote the script in 1972 but no one wanted to make it. He says interest in the script was re-activated by the Watergate Scandal. He attached producer Paul Lazarus. Hyams and Lazarus had a meeting with Lew Grade, head of production company ITC Entertainment who had recently moved into film production with The Return of the Pink Panther. Grade agreed to make the film after only five minutes. The budget was $4.8 million.
Grade announced the film in October 1975 as a part of a slate of ten films he intended to make over the next 12 months including The Domino Principle, Action - Clear the Fast Lanes and Juarez. (The last two were ultimately not made.)
To stay within the budget, NASA's co-operation was needed. Lazarus had a good relationship with the space agency from Futureworld. The filmmakers were thus able to obtain government equipment as props despite the negative portrayal of the space agency, including a prototype lunar module.
In September 1976 it was announced the cast would include Elliott Gould, O.J. Simpson, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro and Candice Bergen. The presence of Brolin and Simpson in the cast helped secure a presale to NBC. Ultimately Bergen pulled out and was replaced by Karen Black.
Filming started in January 1977. Filming took place at Cinema Center Films in Studio City and in Red Rock Canyon.
Hyams later joked, "O. J. Simpson was in it, and Robert Blake was in (Hyams' first feature) Busting. I’ve said many times: some people have AFI Lifetime Achievement awards; some people have multiple Oscars; my bit of trivia is that I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives."
The film was originally scheduled to debut in the United States in February 1978, but good preview screenings and delays in Superman caused it to move to June. Capricorn One became the year's most-successful independent film.
Hyams later said:
Audiences just stood up and cheered at one point in the film. It wasn't because it was such a great movie, it's just that certain movies strike certain chords with people. In a successful movie, the audience, almost before they see it, know they're going to like it. I remember standing in the back of the theater and crying because I knew that something had changed in my life. Sitting on the film cans outside the screening room, I felt my cheeks were wet with tears. A bright man, [studio executive] David Picker came over to me and said, 'You're going to have a lot of new best friends tomorrow. You better know how to handle it.'
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "an expensive stylistically bankrupt suspense melodrama" while describing much of its screenplay as "humorless comic-strip stuff." Conversely, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "a surprisingly good thriller" with a runaway car sequence "that provides some of the best action footage I've seen in a long time." Variety faulted the film's "underdeveloped script" and "scattershot casting," calling the duo of Savalas and Gould "a bullseye" but Waterston and Simpson lacking in "group chemistry." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times thought the beginning of the film was the best part, and what follows "is wildly uneven, veering between the serious and the merely silly, and ending up likely to please only the least demanding." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "'Capricorn One' harks back to the old adventure serials, but Hyams doesn't have remotely enough wit or technique to achieve a fresh stylization of vintage formulas." Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin stated, "Somewhere within this flabby, overproduced fantasy about space-age double-dealing and Watergate-type sleuthing lives a smaller, tighter film—and a much wittier satire on the space program and technologies, like Hollywood, designed to deceive and manipulate. The trouble is that this more ideal version is not really struggling to get out but wallowing complacently in the limitless excess that has become the Lew Grade trademark."
In a retrospective review, AllMovie critic Donald Guarisco wrote: "This agreeable high-concept effort is one of Peter Hyams' most accomplished films. The script's conspiracy-theory premise requires a major suspension of disbelief, but Hyams makes it worthwhile for those willing to make that leap."
Two novelizations of the film were written and published by separate authors. The first was written by Ken Follett (under the pseudonym Bernard L. Ross) and published in the United Kingdom; the other was written by Ron Goulart and published in the United States.
The Follett novel is notable for giving Robert Caulfield more development than the movie does, including giving him something of a relationship with CBS reporter Judy Drinkwater (who has more time in the book than in the movie) and ending the book with him and Judy. The story saves his career and results in his being employed by CBS.
Clips from the faked Mars landing scenes have been used for illustration purposes in various moon landing hoax conspiracy documentaries, notably the Fox TV show Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land On The Moon and Bart Sibrel's film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon (2001). The latter also features a still shot from the hoax scene on the DVD's front cover.
- Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux, MIT Press, 2011. This book sites the New York Times as stating “Watergate may not have inspired ‘Capricorn One,’ but it made its thesis more acceptable, its plot more credible and some of its content strangely prophetic.”
- "Peter Hyams Film by Film" Empire accessed 30 July 2014
- The Film That Watergate Got Off the Ground Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times 30 Jan 1977: s36.
- Szebin, 2000
- Lew Grade, Still Dancing: My Story, William Collins & Sons 1987 p 247
- Sir Lew's massive film deal Barker, Dennis. The Guardian 22 Oct 1975: 7.
- The Space Shot as a Sham Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times 13 Oct 1976: f9.
- Pepitone will run disco in Las Vegas Daly, Maggie. Chicago Tribune 14 Sep 1976: b12.
- What If a Mars Landing Were Faked? Asks Peter Hyams: A Fake Landing On Mars? By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE. New York Times 28 May 1978: D10.
- Interview with Peter Hyams by Luke Ford accessed 27 July 2014
- Canby, Vincent (June 2, 1978). "Film: 'Capricorn One'". The New York Times. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
- Siskel, Gene (June 8, 1978). "'Capricorn' is a pure joy ride". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 4.
- "Film Reviews: Capricorn One". Variety. June 7, 1978. 25.
- Thomas, Kevin (June 2, 1978). "Meanwhile, Back at the Launch..." Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 24.
- Arnold, Gary (June 6, 1978). "Hoax: 'Capricorn One' Never Gets Off the Ground". The Washington Post. B5.
- Combs, Richard (July 1978). "Capricorn One". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 45 (534): 131.
- Guarisco, Donald. "Capricorn One: Review". AllMovie. Retrieved August 1, 2016.
- Allison, 2007.
- Bancroft, Colette (September 29, 2002). "Lunar lunacy". St. Petersburg Times. Archived from the original on June 28, 2011. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
- Szebin, Frederick C. (April 20, 2000). "The Making of Capricorn One". Mania. Archived from the original on 2009-03-02. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
- Allison, Deborah (May 2007). "Film/Print: Novelisations and Capricorn One". M/C Journal. 10 (2). Retrieved January 7, 2013.