(director: John Sturges; screenwriters: Mayo Simon/from the novel by Martin Caidin; cinematographer: Daniel Fapp; editor: Walter Thompson; cast: Gregory Peck (Charles Keith), Richard Crenna (Jim Pruett), David Janssen (Ted Dougherty), James Franciscus (Clayton Stone), Gene Hackman (Buzz Lloyd), Lee Grant (Celia Pruett), Nancy Kovack (Teresa Stone), Mariette Hartley (Betty Lloyd); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Frank Capra, Jr./M.J. Frankovich; Columbia Pictures; 1969)
“… heavy on the technical details.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoiler in first paragraph.

John Sturges’ (“The Satan Bug”/”The Great Escape”/”The Magnificent Seven”) Marooned is based on the 1964 novel by former pilot Martin Caidin (best known for the novel Cyborg (1972), which became the basis of the tv series from 1973 to 1978 called The Six Million Dollar Man) and written by Mayo Simon. It’s a competent but dry telling of a space rescue mission, heavy on the technical details and even more heavy-going in its inert melodramatics and its trite dialogue (spacemen talk to the nth degree). It has a motionless pace, seemingly simulating tedium, that left me suffering from rocket lag, though to its credit everything is kept real and not dummied down.

A trio of American astronauts–pilot Buzz Lloyd (Gene Hackman), captain pilot Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna) and scientist Clayton Stone (James Franciscus)–are returning to Houston from their five month Ironman I mission to establish a Skylab-style space station. Unfortunately its retro-rockets fail leaving the men no way to get home. The trapped men in orbit have their oxygen supply in the space capsule severely drop to a dangerous point, as they exercise caution in breathing as they only have enough supply for a few days. On the ground, NASA head supervisor Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) tries to get them safely home by using his expertise and the suggestion is thrown out that one of them commit suicide to give them more oxygen. Veteran astronaut Ted Dougherty (David Janssen) convinces the reluctant Keith to begin a rescue effort. The launching of Dougherty’s spaceship from Cape Kennedy, Florida, however, is scrubbed because of a hurricane. Meanwhile the wives are brought to Houston and grim televised conversations with their husbands take place. The most touching scene is Celia Pruett (Lee Grant) in her farewell to her hero astronaut husband. Things seem hopeless, but as Yogi Berra says “It isn’t over, until it’s over.” Who would have ‘thunk’ a Russian spaceship would arrive in the nick of time with sufficient oxygen to rescue the surviving American astronauts–conjuring up a happy image of superpower cooperation to make a better world.

The film fell under the radar and was a dud at the box office, though NASA loved it. The film about three stranded fictional astronauts was released before the successful Apollo 11 moon landing but, believe it or not, just before the near-disaster of Apollo 13 in April 1970. It was faced with a similar accident, as an oxygen explosion left three real-life astronauts nearly marooned in space. The real-life competition was probably too much competition for the fictional film. Marooned was highly praised for Peck’s taut performance and deservedly won an Oscar for “Best Special Visual Effects.”

Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley, David Janssen, and Nancy Kovack in Marooned (1969)