Three skydivers and their travelling thrill show barnstorm through a small midwestern town one Fourth of July weekend.
Director John Frankenheimer’s and MGM’s fairly-slow action-melodrama was titled for its trio of amateur barn-storming skydivers, in a tale based upon James Drought’s novel. During a Fourth of July weekend during a hot summer (with plentiful thunderstorms), a daredevil acrobatic troupe entertained and thrilled residents of the small Midwestern town of Bridgeville, Kansas with a spectacular air-show (filmed with dazzling aerial cinematography).
The tagline emphasized the danger and risk of the sport for the troupe of ‘gypsy moths’ – allegorically drawn to a burning flame:
“When the ground comes up at you like a sledge-hammer…when the sweat freezes on your brow…when jumping isn’t only a way to live, but a way to die, too… you’re a Gypsy Moth.”
It was reported that traditional English star Deborah Kerr decided to go topless in this film, during the era of “The New Hollywood” – (with greater permissiveness), to allegedly compete with younger actresses who were willing to bare it all. Her disrobing was remarkable and notable — it was the first feature film in which an established and respected actress nearly 50 years of age was performing a nude scene.
[Note: It was famous for being a ‘quasi-reprise’ of a scene filmed 16 years earlier between the same two stars Lancaster and Kerr, when they were making adulterous love in the Hawaiian surf. Now, the two were 56 and 48 years old respectively.]
In the sex scene (after a long meandering walk through town to a playground), brooding, stoic and quiet lead skydiver Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) ended the evening with a one-night stand on the sofa in the living room of Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr). The repressed, bored middle-aged woman was stuck in a loveless and unhappy marriage with her cold-hearted husband John Brandon (William Windom). She was also the married Aunt of the youngest skydiver in the group, a 22 year-old local boy named Malcolm “The Kid” Webson (Scott Wilson). She told how 12 years earlier, she had reluctantly given Malcolm up for adoption when his parents died in a car crash – Elizabeth had wanted to keep Malcolm, but her husband refused (“John didn’t want him”).
Slightly earlier in the film, the skydivers’ talkative business manager Joe Browdy (a young Gene Hackman) was at the local Paradise Club with his two buddies having beers, and flirting with the waitress Mary (Sheree North). Then after she ascended onto the stripper stage and began performing a Go-Go Girl number topless (with pink pasties on her busty figure), he watched her intently. Afterwards, they had a quickie in a motel, although she fell asleep after sex when he began talking about his future: (“One of these days, I’m gonna cut out, I’m gonna go out to Hollywood. I’m gonna get me a job as one of those stuntmen – and make good dough. I know that for a fact….I’m not gonna be doin’ this forever. I have plans”).
The film’s startling and unsatisfying conclusion was ambiguous, unclear, and unexplained – there was no reason for Mike Rettig to fall to his death when he opted to not open his chute during the Cape Stunt on Sunday, July 3rd, in full view of the stands of spectators, except that he possibly had an inexplicable suicidal ‘death wish’ or became delirious and thought he was flying. In Rettig’s honor during a memorial show the next day on the July 4th holiday, “The Kid” performed the same stunt in front of the crowd, and scared audiences when he pulled his rip-cord at the last possible moment.
In the film’s denouement, Mike’s two partners decided to part ways – Malcolm was awaiting a train at the station, while Browdy was headed westward (“I thought I might head west”). Elizabeth had been unwilling to forsake her life and marriage to ‘fly’ away with Mike during their affair as a way out of her life, and in the last scene (in the film’s final lines) confessed to her husband:
Elizabeth: “He wanted me to go with him.”
John: “Did he?”
Elizabeth: “The thought terrified me.”
John: “And me.”
Director: John Frankenheimer