Over the years we here at Turner Classics have been proud to present your favorite films like you’ve never seen them before. And today, we are especially excited to finally present Stanley Kubrick’s director’s cut of the 1969 Apollo moon landing: Moonlanding!
This lengthy cut has been locked away in CIA headquarters since filming wrapped in June 1969. Moonlanding! only once graced the silver screen, in a private viewing for CIA operatives and the cast’s friends and family. In the end, the CIA demanded NASA submit to the networks a more restrained version that bore little resemblance to what Kubrick had envisioned: an eight-hour space epic, featuring adventure, romance, Vaudevillian-inspired comedy and nearly a dozen extravagant musical numbers.
Considering the film’s tragic end, it’s no surprise that the production of Moonlanding! was somewhat of a drama itself, one that could’ve come straight off the lot of Paramount Pictures or MGM. What better conflict, after all, than between the young Kubrick’s audacious vision of an ill-fated cosmic romance, and the bureaucratic rigidity of a notoriously prudish Uncle Sam? Set against the backdrop of a Cold War that made expeditious completion of the film a matter of national security, one wonders how such a film could’ve been made at all.
Our story begins in the spring of 1968, after the release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was met with critical acclaim, particularly with regard to its special effects, which New York Times critic Renata Adler called the best she’d ever seen. Hollywood took notice, but they weren’t the only ones. A cut of 2001 was sent to the CIA, which then devised a plan to get ahead in the Space Race against the Soviets: Hire auteur director Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing.
Initially, Kubrick conceived of the 1969 U.S. moon landing as a light-hearted adventure romp in the vein of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. All that changed once Kubrick met his leading man, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Neil Armstrong. With his strong jawline and boyish good looks, a heart-throb like Armstrong was the perfect fit for a romance picture. “I can’t believe it!” Kubrick writes in his notes. “This Armstrong fellow looks just like Heston! This changes everything. And I must say, it’s for the better.” But to allow for the romance element, the script required a total rewrite, which Kubrick scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin and mailed to CIA headquarters:
RE: APOLLO 11 SCRIPT REWRITE (CLASSIFIED)
Exciting New Plot! Heroes (“Fearless/Lovestruck” Armstrong; “Wacky” Aldrin and Collins) land on moon. Heroes greeted by Moon Kingdom emissaries and taken back to feast / celebrate. But! Armstrong falls for Moon King’s daughter, Zorp (Fey Dunaway?)! Moon King finds out and imprisons Armstrong! Zorp frees Heroes and they escape back to earth.
Crunched for time and already committed to Kubrick’s vision, the CIA begrudgingly approved the changes.
If Armstrong was Kubrick’s rugged leading man, then it was in astronauts Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin that the director found his odd couple, whose zany antics would provide much needed comic relief from the romance that children might find boring. The two spend much of the movie hatching increasingly harebrained schemes in an attempt to rescue the captured Armstrong. In one memorable scene, Buzz concocts a plan to steal the uniforms of two royal guards – a ludicrous idea to which Collins reluctantly agrees. But the duo are soon dismayed to find that the “guards” were in fact the Moon King’s royal foot masseuses! It’s a knee slapper of a scene, worthy of Chaplin, and one that allowed Aldrin to showcase his knack for physical comedy.
There’s not much to say about the music in Moonlanding! except that Kubrick wasn’t nearly as gifted a songwriter as he was a filmmaker. Yet there are still moments of genius, despite the glaring amateurishness of the composition. The opening song “See You Soon, Mr. Moon!”is a catchy and up-beat tune that could’ve been pulled straight from a Rodgers and Hammerstein production. And the titular full-cast number “Moonlanding!” is also fun, if not a bit derivative of “Oklahoma!” Unfortunately, Kubrick quickly shifts his focus to the romance aspect, and the ballads between Armstrong and Zorp, though moving at first, get old fast.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Moonlanding! was scrapped. Indeed, the whole idea seems ridiculous by any reasonable standard, even bordering on farcical. Yet perhaps now, with its simultaneous release on Blu-Ray, DVD and VHS, audiences can finally appreciate Moonlanding! for its audacity, innovation and unrelenting extravagance. As Armstrong wrote in his now declassified memoir, One Small Role, “The world wanted us to go to the moon. Stanley brought the moon to us.”
Runtime 8 hours and 42 minutes; Rated G
Hey, my name’s Peter. I live and work in Philadelphia as a lawyer (“objection!”, etc.). Anyway, I like to write on the side if I have a funny idea, and I play drums when I can.