Although the movie X-15, starring Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore, is today viewed unfavorably by movie and aviation fans, it was well received by critics in November 1961. The Washington Evening Star raved, “Whatever its serious scientific intentions, the X-15 is an almost unbelievable screen spectacular.”
Scripted by Tony Lazzarino and James Warner Bellah, X-15 underwent several name changes including Exit, Time of Departure, and Beyond the Unknown. In March 1958, when Lazzarino first approached the Department of Defense for assistance, he had just come from working on the 1950s TV series, NORAD. In his initial correspondence with the DoD, he requested access to X-2 footage. As the following letter notes, U.S. Air Force Major Stockton Shaw recommended that the subject be the X-15, which had rolled out of North American hangars just four weeks previous. Some $350,000 was put aside for primary shooting, with an additional $72,500 for post-production work. By August 1960, production had moved from Bob Hope’s company to Frank Sinatra’s Essex Productions.
In September 1960, producer Hank Sanicola at Essex requested access to X-15 footage. At this point, Lazzarino was in the middle of a rewrite, presumably to add the latest X-15 data. The final shooting script is dated April 7. Richard Donner (best known today for the Lethal Weapon and Superman franchises) directed. Narrator Brigadier General James Stewart introduced the film to moviegoers.
The following letter shows just how involved the Pentagon was in helping the producers do justice to the subject.
Department of the Air Force, Washington
Office of the Secretary
18 November 1958
Memorandum for Chief, Production Branch Audio-Visual Division, Office of News Services
1. The story outlines placing a man in orbit on a crash basis because of a desire on the part of the government to “top” the Russian Sputnik. Neither promise does credit to the government or the U.S. Air Force and the latter is no longer valid. We recommend that some other premise be established and suggest that the reason for the fast pace is a breakthrough in propellants which makes space flight possible.
2. The participating pilots appear to add very little to the program except their presence. They are tested, probed and finally given the seal of approval with almost no evidence of having contributed to the program itself. This trend is noted in the following dialogue. Scene 132, page 67: Dr. Anthony says, “I’ll have someone ready by Saturday.” Scene 134, page 67, Dr. Anthony again says, “If anything at all goes wong before the drop…I want you to abort the mission.” The pilot answers, “Right, Sir, thank you!” The total impression is that the pilot is another piece of complicated equipment that is to be modified, perfected, and then brought out to take its place at the right time with the rest of the machinery. We believe this downgrades our pilots to a great extent considering the fact that they are engineers and have worked with the factory throughout the production of the aircraft. In addition the pilot’s tests seem solely to be concerned with their physical aptitude and ability. Nothing indicates either a mental aptitude, ability, or any contribution which they had made to the project.
3. The story relies on quantities of stock footage of the X-2 flights. We realize that there is no other source of footage to make the points required by the story, but the X-2 program ended over two years ago and the aircraft does not exist any longer. The X-15 is now of great interest to the public and will probably be engaged in the contractor demonstration program at the time this picture is released. In this case, fact would overtake fiction and the picture would be out of phase unless the technical advisor who represents the Air Force weighs carefully each bit of dialogue so that the X-2 is used as an airframe only and not identified with its historical flights.
That the chase planes depicted in the script be updated from the F-86 to the F-100F and F-104 to reflect currently used aircraft if the stock footage will allow.
General Holden should be referred to as a Brig. Gen. and Commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center, not Commanding General.
c. Specific changes
Page 9, Scene 9: Should be aileron roll to the left, instead of slow roll.
Page 10, Scene 16: “Hold your position” is impossible, suggest instructions to make a 360-degree turn.
Page 29, Scene 53: NACA should be changed to NASA
Page 49, Scene 81: Proper terminology would refer to aircraft number or code name, not “B-52 to control.”
Page 50, Scene 91: Use of check list always requires that the pilot answer with the action taken and not with the word “check” or some other term such as OK, or roger.
Page 70, Scene 146: Terrminology used would probably be “pull her up,” not “lift her off,” since the airplane is already airborne.
Page 71, Scene 153: We believe the reference to pulling stick “as far back as it will go” is incorrect. Obviously, no one in the Air Force Flight Test Center has exact knowledge of the X-15, but the stick travel on most airplanes to pull up is very slight and never back as far as it will go.
Page 73, scene 162: Reference to altitude and % of earth’s atmosphere is incorrect. 95% of the earth’s atmosphere is below 75,000 feet, not 75 miles.
Page 79, Scene 175: It appears impossible to expect a visual sighting considering the distance between the two aircraft.
Page 90. Scene 202: Fuel is not measured in inches. Correct terminology is “minimum fuel.”
Page 91, Scene 208: Two planes flying upside down and side by side during a test operation is rather far fetched and not considered practical.
Page 92, Scene 211: F-100 engines don’t sputter.
Page 145, Scene 398: Reference to the Edwards Air Force Base landing area as “pancake” is unknown. Suggest “dry lake” or “lake bed” be used.
Stockton B. Shaw
Deputy Chief Pictorial Branch Office of Information Services
Adapted by permission from X-15: The NASA Mission Reports, compiled and edited by Robert Godwin. Apogee Books, 2000.