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Countdown (1968 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Countdown FilmPoster.jpeg
Directed byRobert Altman
Produced byWilliam Conrad
Screenplay byLoring Mandel
Based onThe Pilgrim Project
1964 novel
by Hank Searls
StarringJames Caan
Joanna Moore
Robert Duvall
Barbara Baxley
Michael Murphy
Ted Knight
Music byLeonard Rosenman
CinematographyWilliam W. Spencer
Edited byGene Milford
A William Conrad Production
Distributed byWarner Bros.-Seven Arts
Release date
  • May 1, 1968 (1968-05-01)
Running time
101 minutes
CountryUnited States

Countdown is a 1968 science fiction film directed by Robert Altman, based on the 1964 novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls. Made before M*A*S*H, the film was subject to re-editing by the studio.[1] Countdown 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.[2]


In the late 1960s, astronauts training in an Apollo simulator have their session ended early. They grumble about it, but their commander, Chiz (Robert Duvall), knows the reason for the abort: the Pilgrim Program. The Russians will be sending a Moon landing mission up in four weeks. The Americans had a secret alternate plan to the Apollo program, the fictional program Pilgrim, in case this happened. One man would be sent to the Moon in a one-way rocket (depicted in the film as a Titan II), using a modified Project Gemini craft. He would stay on the Moon for a few months in a shelter pod launched and landed before him. Later, a manned Apollo mission would come to retrieve him.

The equipment is ready, but the Russians complicate matters by sending up a civilian. Chiz, although trained and qualified, is an Air Force colonel. NASA and the White House insist that an American civilian be their first man on the Moon. Lee (James Caan), one of Chiz's crew, is tapped. Chiz is outraged, but agrees to train Lee in the few days they have. Chiz pushes Lee's training hard, half to get him ready, half hoping he will drop out and Chiz can step in. Lee persists, driven by the same astronaut dream.

After a press leak about Pilgrim, the Russians launch a week early. Deflated at not being first, everyone carries on. The shelter pod (a LEM lander) is launched and landed successfully. Lee is launched on schedule. He encounters a power drain malfunction en route which tests his character and hinders radio contact. The Russians have also lost contact with their team. As Lee orbits the Moon, he does not see the beacon of the shelter. With only seconds left before he must abort and return to Earth, he lies about seeing it. Mission Control okays his retro burn and he lands. Now all radio contact is lost. Lee gets out of the Gemini lander and walks around with one hour of oxygen in his suit. He finds the crashed Russian lander on its side, the three dead cosmonauts sprawled around it.

Everyone on Earth is nervously awaiting news, but none comes. Lee takes the Soviet flag from a dead cosmonaut and lays it on a nearby rock with his own American flag. With little air left and nowhere to go, Lee spins the toy mouse his son gave him. It points right, so he walks in that direction. People on Earth are losing hope as his time has run out. Lee looks at his watch to see that he has just minutes of air left. A red glow on his arm catches his attention. It is the locator beacon atop the shelter. Lee is last seen walking towards the shelter... towards survival.



Under the working title of Moonshot, production on Countdown benefited from the cooperation of NASA, lending facilities at Cocoa Beach, Florida, to enhance the production. Altman was fired as director of the film for delivering footage that featured actors talking over each other. While this went on to be a signature invention of Altman, it was so new that studio executives considered it incompetence rather than an attempt to make scenes more realistic. In the documentary Altman, the director explains that he was "just trying to get the illusion of reality" but that he was fired for "overlapping dialogue."[3]


Critics were harsh with the unrealistic presentation of a rushed moon landing by an inexperienced astronaut. In a May 1968 review of Countdown for The New York Times, critic Howard Thompson calls the film a "limp space-flight drama" which "makes the moon seem just as dull as Mother Earth".[4] A February 1985 review in Malaysia's New Straits Times calls Countdown "dated" and complains that the characters have "no depth or direction".[5]

In Visions of the future, relics of the past, a June 1995 story in The New York Times, dealing with the history of spaceflight movies, Thomas Mallon appreciates that the film "highlights the space program's early can-do ethos". He also calls Countdown, a "little movie" with "few touches of Mr. Altman's later cynical wit" and "somehow not terribly suspenseful".[6][N 1]

See also



  1. ^ A comic book adaptation of the film was published by Dell Comics in October 1967.[7][8]


  1. ^ Pym 2004, p. 242.
  2. ^ Maltin 2012, p. 288.
  3. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "Articles: Countdown." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: May 18, 2013.
  4. ^ Thompson, Howard. "Review: 'Countdown' begins." The New York Times, May 2, 1968, p. 57.
  5. ^ "Fast forward." New Straits Times, (Malaysia), February 7, 1985. Retrieved: August 19, 2012.
  6. ^ Mallon, Thomas "Visions of the future, relics of the past." The New York Times, June 25, 1995. Retrieved: August 19, 2012.
  7. ^ Dell Movie Classic: Countdown at the Grand Comics Database
  8. ^ Dell Movie Classic: Countdown at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)


  • Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide 2013. New York: New American Library, 2012 (originally published as TV Movies, then Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide), First edition 1969, published annually since 1988. ISBN 978-0-451-23774-3.
  • Pym, John, ed. Time Out Film Guide. London: Time Out Guides Limited, 2004. ISBN 978-0-14101-354-1.

External links

This page was last edited on 20 September 2020, at 18:54
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