X-15 (film)

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Promotional movie poster for the film; taglines: The authentic ... fantastic story of the world's first rocket ship; Actually filmed in space!
(The rocket ship that challenged outer space!)
Directed by Richard D. Donner (as credited)
Produced by Howard W. Koch (executive producer)
Henry Sanicola
Tony Lazzarino
Written by
Narrated by James Stewart (uncredited)
Music by Nathan Scott
  • Carl E. Guthrie
  • Jack Freeman (aerial photography)
Edited by Stanley Rabjohn
Essex Productions
Distributed by United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
Running time
107 min. Color (Technicolor)
Country United States
Language English

X-15 is a 1961 dramatic aviation film that presents a fictionalized account of the X-15 research rocket aircraft program, the test pilots who flew the aircraft, and the associated NASA community that supported the program. X-15 starred David McLean, Charles Bronson,[Note 1] Mary Tyler Moore (in her first feature film role),[2] Kenneth Tobey and James Gregory. The film marked the directorial debut of Richard Donner,[3] and was narrated by James Stewart.[4][Note 2]


The experimental North American X-15 program at Edwards Air Force Base involves test pilots: civilian Matt Powell (David McLean), Lt. Col. Lee Brandon (Charles Bronson) and Maj. Ernest Wilde (Ralph Taeger). The cutting edge high-speed program is ramrodded by project chief Tom Deparma (James Gregory) and US Air Force Col. Craig Brewster (Kenneth Tobey). As the test pilots prepare for the planned launch of the rocket-powered aircraft from a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress mother ship, they experience emotional and physical problems, which they share with their wives and sweethearts.

Test after test results in setbacks, including a near disaster when an engine explodes during a ground test and engulfs the X-15 and its pilot in flames, but finally the X-15 begins to set records in speed and altitude for a piloted aircraft. When the X-15 "flames out" on a high altitude run, after guiding the X-15 to a safe landing, saving Powell's life, Lt. Col. Brandon, flying a chase aircraft, is killed in a crash. Powell himself takes the X-15 into outer space for the final test.


As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):[6]

Actor Role
David McLean NASA test pilot Matt Powell
Charles Bronson Lt. Col. Lee Brandon
Ralph Taeger Maj. Ernest Wilde
Brad Dexter Maj. Anthony Rinaldi
Kenneth Tobey Col. Craig Brewster
James Gregory Tom Deparma
Mary Tyler Moore Pamela Stewart
Patricia Owens Margaret Brandon
Lisabeth Hush Diane Wilde
Stanley Livingston Mike Brandon
Lauren Gilbert Col. Jessup
Phil Dean Maj. McCully
Chuck Stanford Lt. Cmdr. Joe Lacrosse
Patty McDonald Susan Brandon
James Stewart Himself / Narrator (voice) [Note 3]
Interweaving of NASA and original film footage was intended to present a realistic representation of the X-15 research flights.


Originally planned around the earlier NASA Bell X-2 program, writer/producer and later screenwriter, Tony Lazzarino shopped the project around Hollywood in 1958, appearing under several titles: Exit, Time of Departure and Beyond the Unknown. Lazzarino was successful in teaming with Bob Hope, who wanted to produce the film.[7] After approaching the USAF for stock footage of the X-2 flights, the Pentagon made a recommendation that the newly introduced X-15 aircraft held out much more promise as a film subject.[8] With $350,000 assigned for primary shooting, with an additional $72,500 for post-production work, by August 1960, pre-production had moved from Hope Enterprises (Hope’s film company) to Frank Sinatra’s Essex Productions. After reviewing the initial draft screenplay, Pentagon suggestions clarified that the X-15 test program would be the focus for the upcoming production.[9]

Pentagon assistance was largely responsible for the attention to detail and accurate portrayal of the NASA program.[9] Much of the principal photography for the film was undertaken at Edwards Air Force Base and the NASA High-Speed Flight Station (now the Dryden Flight Research Center) in California, with the direct assistance of NASA, the United States Air Force and North American Aviation.[Note 4][10] USAF Capt. Jay Hanks and NASA research pilot Milton Orville Thompson served as technical advisors on the film. Thompson himself later became an X-15 pilot.[11]

The film featured carefully edited NASA footage of X-15 flights intercut with original photography, with a minimum of special effects work using animation.[12] In a pivotal scene of the chase aircraft crashing, X-15 used US Air Force archival footage of the "Sabre dance" crash of a North American F-100 Super Sabre.[13] Another critical scene involved the X-15-3 being destroyed on the test stand when the rocket engine exploded, using stock footage of the accident.[Note 5] [15]

Aircraft used in the production[edit]


An X-15, the subject of the film, in flight

Released just as the actual rocket aircraft was making headlines in breaking speed and altitude records and reaching the upper edges of the stratosphere, X-15 was critically reviewed, receiving praise for its authenticity.[17] Following its premiere in Washington, D.C., The Washington Evening Star raved, "Whatever its serious scientific intentions, the X-15 is an almost unbelievable screen spectacular."[9] Considered a realistic look at the lives of the X-15 pilots and the efforts to fly into space, the review in The New York Times commented that it was "A surprisingly appealing and sensible low-budget picture—a semi-documentary with some harmless fictional embroidery ..." [18] Most reviews centered on the accurate portrayal of the U.S. space effort, but disparaged the tepid romantic storyline, even suggesting that the film should have been made as a documentary.[10] Despite generally favorable reviews, Variety sounded a cautious note, calling it "a rather dubious prospect. Much too technically involved for the layman—at times, it resembles a training film more than popular entertainment."[7]

In a more recent appraisal of the film, reviewer Glenn Erickson confronted the two critical failings of the film, emphasizing that Donner's direction resulted in an insipid portrait while short-cutting production values also led to an unsatisfying result. Erickson states clearly, "X-15 plays like a bland Air Force Audio Visual Services film that turned into a feature. One of the film's producers was Frank Sinatra, and actor Brad Dexter was at this time sort of a producer wheeler-dealer as well. The film may have started as a government publicity effort, as the idea that the X-15 program is in trouble with the press and Washington is given more attention than anything else in the movie." Even for aviation aficionados, the film is a failure because the production is an "anamorphic movie with an aspect ratio of 2:35. All the original "docu" shots of the real jets and rockets were photographed at the standard narrow 1:37." The jarring back-and-forth between a standard widescreen format and NASA footage that is stretched and distorted relegates the film to a curiosity. Only the USAF crash scene footage retains the Panavision anamorphic format, although careful review shows that the aircraft involved is not the chase aircraft.[19]

Home video[edit]

After its initial successful introduction, X-15 quickly faded from movie screens, and was unable to gain much traction from foreign releases.[Note 7] Rarely shown on television, with its first airing only in 1979, the film was released briefly in VHS in 1983 and was re-released in DVD in 2004.[20]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Besides James Stewart, Charles Bronson had a unique combat history as a USAAF aerial gunner in World War II.[1]
  2. ^ Stewart was not only interested in aviation but was also a brigadier general in the United States Air Force Reserve.[5]
  3. ^ Broadcasters Ed Fleming and Lee Giroux appear as themselves in a media "scrum" scene.
  4. ^ North American Aviation was the manufacturer of both the X-15 and the F-100s used as NASA chase aircraft.
  5. ^ On June 8, 1960, the explosion of the definitive XLR-99 engine ruptured the X-15-3 while pilot Scott Crossfield was on board. The X-15 was eventually repaired and modified to emerge as the X-15A-3.[14]
  6. ^ Bell X-1E #46-063, is on display in front of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center headquarters building.
  7. ^ In Germany, X-15 was known as Die X-15 startklar (The X-15, ready for takeoff).


  1. ^ "Corrections." The New York Times, September 18, 2003. Retrieved: November 4, 2011.
  2. ^ Finn 1996, p. 32.
  3. ^ Von Gunden 1989, p. 160.
  4. ^ Parish et al. 1977, p. 397.
  5. ^ "Brigadier General James Stewart." Archived March 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. National Museum of the United States Air Force. Retrieved: November 2, 2011.
  6. ^ "Credits: X-15 (1961)." IMDb. Retrieved: November 2, 2011.
  7. ^ a b Godwin 2001, p. 384.
  8. ^ Ethell 1993, p. 28.
  9. ^ a b c "X-15: The Hollywood Version: Charles Bronson starred. The Pentagon had a few minor corrections." airspacemag.com, August 1, 2007. Retrieved: November 4, 2011.
  10. ^ a b Hardwick and Schnepf 1983, p. 63.
  11. ^ Evans 2013, pp. 265, 270-272.
  12. ^ Thompson 1992, p. 185.
  13. ^ Cockrell, Alan. "Hollywood." Lt. Barty Ray Brooks Memorial Website. Retrieved: November 2, 2011.
  14. ^ Thompson 1992, p. 76.
  15. ^ "Scott Crossfield's X-15 Emergency." on YouTube Discovery Channel Interview, September 10, 2006. Retrieved: November 4, 2011.
  16. ^ Godwin 2001, p. 204.
  17. ^ Mannikka, Eleanor. "X-15 (1961)." The New York Times. Retrieved: November 2, 2011.
  18. ^ "Screen: The X-15 Project: Story about U.S. space effort opens here." The New York Times, April 2, 1962.
  19. ^ Erickson, Glenn. "X-15." DVD Savant, February 7, 2004.
  20. ^ "X-15 (1961)." Homecinema World, 2011. Retrieved: November 5, 2011.


External links[edit]