Silent Running (1972)

G | 89-90 mins | Science fiction | March 1972

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HISTORY

The working title of this film was Running Silent . As noted by Filmfacts , the title Silent Running refers to a nautical term describing a submarine "running silent" by lying on the ocean's floor with its engines cut in order to prevent detection. Sometimes the submarine will jettison debris and fluids in order to make the enemy think that it has been damaged. In the ending credits, a written acknowledgment thanks a number of companies, including American Airlines, which lent its logo for the "American Airline Space Freighter" sign on the U.S.S. Valley Forge space freighter, and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service. The names of the three drones—Huey, Dewey and Louie—were the names of the nephews of Disney cartoon character Donald Duck.
       1969 and 1970 news items noted that the film was to be made within the independent unit overseen by Ned Tanen, a vice-president at Universal Studios. As with other films supervised by Tanen, Silent Running was given a $1,000,000 budget and a guarantee of final cut to first-time director Douglas Trumbull, who had previously worked on the special and visual effects for films such as the 1968 release 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1971 production The Andromeda Strain (see entries below and above).
       Although a 21 Aug 1970 HR news item reported that Robert Dillon and Dennis Clark had written the screenplay, which contemporary sources noted was based on a story by Trumbull, the extent of Dillon’s and Clark’s contribution, if any, to the completed film has not been determined. Contemporary sources reported ... More Less

The working title of this film was Running Silent . As noted by Filmfacts , the title Silent Running refers to a nautical term describing a submarine "running silent" by lying on the ocean's floor with its engines cut in order to prevent detection. Sometimes the submarine will jettison debris and fluids in order to make the enemy think that it has been damaged. In the ending credits, a written acknowledgment thanks a number of companies, including American Airlines, which lent its logo for the "American Airline Space Freighter" sign on the U.S.S. Valley Forge space freighter, and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service. The names of the three drones—Huey, Dewey and Louie—were the names of the nephews of Disney cartoon character Donald Duck.
       1969 and 1970 news items noted that the film was to be made within the independent unit overseen by Ned Tanen, a vice-president at Universal Studios. As with other films supervised by Tanen, Silent Running was given a $1,000,000 budget and a guarantee of final cut to first-time director Douglas Trumbull, who had previously worked on the special and visual effects for films such as the 1968 release 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1971 production The Andromeda Strain (see entries below and above).
       Although a 21 Aug 1970 HR news item reported that Robert Dillon and Dennis Clark had written the screenplay, which contemporary sources noted was based on a story by Trumbull, the extent of Dillon’s and Clark’s contribution, if any, to the completed film has not been determined. Contemporary sources reported that the majority of the film was shot on location inside the U.S.S. Valley Forge , a decommissioned aircraft carrier moored at the Terminal Island Naval Station off Long Beach Harbor in Southern California. The interior of the carrier was extensively remodeled, using styrene vacuum forms, plywood, rubber and other materials, to make it look like a space freighter, according to a 1972 documentary on the film's making, which was included in the 2001 DVD release of Silent Running . The documentary also reported that the forest scenes were shot in an airplane hanger at the Van Nuys Airport in California. In a modern interview included on the DVD, Trumbull related that he personally photographed the brief scenes of Lowell’s recollection of a real forest in the Muir Woods, near San Francisco. Producer Michael Gruskoff, a former agent, had been Bruce Dern’s first agent and recommended him for the role of “Freeman Lowell,” according to the DVD commentary, to which Trumbull added that Larry Hagman was among the actors considered for the role.
       As reported by the 1972 documentary, the costumes for the drone units were vacuum-formed, styrene plastic shells. The lightweight costumes were worn by bilateral amputees (double amputees without legs), whose arms fit into the legs of the drones. The amputees walked on their arms and breathed through the slotted fronts of the costumes. In a modern interview, Trumbull stated that he had been inspired to cast real actors as the drones after seeing the 1932 Tod Browning-directed film Freaks (see above), which features an actor known as "The Living Torso."
       Trumbull also related that the geodesic domes housing the forests used in the film were inspired by a dome designed by Buckminster Fuller located at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, MO, and that the design of the spaceship was inspired by a tower at the 1970 Osaka World Expo. Many of the special effects for the picture were created “in camera,” according to Trumbull, by using front projection equipment to project still photographic plates of stars, the domes and other images in front of the actors or models while the live-action sequences were being shot, as opposed to optical visual effects being inserted after principal photography was completed. The model for the Valley Forge was approximately twenty-five feet long, according to the 1972 documentary, with the domes being twenty-seven inches in diameter.
       According to contemporary sources, the film was initially rated GP--the rating listed by Filmfacts and several preview reviews--but was re-edited before its general release in order to receive a G rating. According to the 13 Mar 1972 Box review, two minutes were cut from the film in order for it to qualify for the G rating. The picture won the 1972 Golden Astroid for best picture at the International Science-Fiction Film Festival in Trieste, Italy. The 1972 making of documentary about Silent Running also received an award at the Trieste festival in 1974. Silent Running received generally warm reviews, with many critics comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey , because of Trumbull’s connection to both productions. Time magazine’s critic, Jay Cocks, praised Silent Running for having the earlier film’s “same kind of technical virtuosity, the same sense of still, vast symmetry of the galaxies.” The Washington Post reviewer pronounced Silent Running “a new classic of the genre” and asserted that he preferred its “scaled-down secular, humane perspective” to the “philosophic-mythic-religious dimensions of 2001 .”
       Paul D. Zimmerman, writing for Newsweek , asserted that the picture “beyond being a good family film, will become the object of cult worship by the young romantics of the Tolkien-Vonnegut generation.” Despite modest box-office returns, as Zimmerman predicted, Silent Running went on to become a cult hit after being discovered on television by a new generation of fans.
       Wardrobe advisor Ann Vidor married Trumbull after Silent Running finished production. Although Trumbull did not make another feature film until the 1983 release Brainstorm , he continued to work in visual effects, including on the Academy-Award nominated pictures Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as creating interactive theme park rides such as the Back to the Future attraction at Universal Studios. Don Trumbull (1909—2004), the director's father, had worked in motion picture special effects in the 1930s, but moved into a career in the aerospace industry. Trumbull requested his father's help with Silent Running , and the elder Trumbull aided with the design of the drones and the transmissions of the motorized carts in which the astronauts race. The carts became the prototypes for the four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles that soon became popular. Don Trumbull went on to design much of the photographic equipment used in Star Wars (1977). Composer Peter Schickele, who had worked with singer Joan Baez previously as an arranger on her albums, also performed under the name P. D. Q. Bach.
       Silent Running marked the feature film debuts of writer Michael Cimino, billed onscreen as Mike Cimino, and special effects designer John Dykstra. Cimino, who became a director and producer as well as a screenplay author, became well-known for films such as 1978's The Deer Hunter and 1980's Heaven's Gate . Dykstra, an influential special effects supervisor, worked on Star Wars as well as 2002's Spider-Man and its 2004 sequel, Spider-Man 2 .
       According to a 14 Aug 1981 HR article, Universal sued Twentieth Century-Fox, claiming that the droid “R2-D2” in Star Wars was an infringement upon the design of drones Huey, Dewey and Louie. Judge Irving Hill of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles dismissed the case before trial, however, stating that “no one has a monopoly on the use of robots in art,” and that the robots in question were not similar. Universal appealed the decision, but the Court of Appeals also dismissed the case. Although Trumbull and Dern revealed in their DVD commentary for the film that both a sequel to and a remake of Silent Running have been contemplated, with a completed sequel screenplay having been written by John Curtis, neither project has been made as of 2007. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
13 Mar 1972
p. 4469.
Daily Variety
19 Dec 1969.
---
Daily Variety
16 Feb 1971.
---
Daily Variety
9 Mar 1972.
---
Filmfacts
1972
pp. 157-60.
Films and Filming
Dec 1972.
---
Hollywood Reporter
21 Aug 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
26 Feb 1971
p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter
14 May 1971
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jul 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 Mar 1972
pp. 3-4.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Mar 1972.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jul 1972.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Aug 1981
p. 16.
Life
24 Mar 1972.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
30 May 1971.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
10 Mar 1972.
---
Los Angeles Times
10 Mar 1972
Section IV, p. 1.
Motion Picture Herald
Apr 1972.
---
New York Times
31 May 1970.
---
New York Times
1 Apr 1972
p. 30.
New Yorker
13 Apr 1972.
---
Newsweek
20 Mar 1972.
---
Time
17 Apr 1972.
---
Variety
26 Aug 1970.
---
Variety
8 Mar 1972
p. 24.
Variety
31 Jul 1974.
---
Village Voice
4 May 1972.
---
Washington Post
1 May 1971.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Douglas Trumbull--Michael Gruskoff Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
COSTUMES
Ward adv
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec photog eff
Spec photog eff
Spec photog eff
Drone units
Drone units
Drone units
Spec electronic consultant
Video consultant
Spec lighting eff
Titles consultant
Spec des
Spec des
Spec des
Spec des
Spec des
Spec des
MAKEUP
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Prod mgr
Tech adv
Unit pub
SOURCES
SONGS
"Silent Running" and "Rejoice in the Sun," music by Peter Schickele, lyrics by Diane Lampert, sung by Joan Baez.
PERFORMER
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Running Silent
Release Date:
March 1972
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 10 March 1972
New York opening: 31 March 1972
Production Date:
22 February--mid May 1971
Copyright Claimant:
Universal Pictures
Copyright Date:
19 March 1972
Copyright Number:
LP41091
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
Duration(in mins):
89-90
MPAA Rating:
G
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the future, Earth has lost all of its vegetation due to neglect and pollution, with the only remaining specimens carefully tended to in huge geodesic domes attached to several far-roving space freighters. Each ship maintains different ecosystems, with the U.S.S. Valley Forge sustaining six large forests, complete with woodland animals. Freeman Lowell, the most dedicated member of the project, has been on the Valley Forge for eight years and fervently believes that Earth will be repopulated with trees, flowers, vegetables and fruits, despite the derision of his fellow astronauts, John Wolf, Marty Barker and Andy Keenan. The other men, younger than Lowell, refuse to eat the produce he grows, instead preferring synthetic foods manufactured by the kitchen units. Maintenance aboard the vast ship is carried out by three small drones, each equipped with short legs, a mobile arm that can use a variety of tools and a camera through which the crew can see what the drone sees. Lowell frequently bickers with the other men, especially Barker and Keenan, who assert that if anyone on Earth really cared, the reforestation program would have been taken more seriously years earlier. Despite their antagonism, the men often relieve their boredom by playing poker, at which Lowell usually wins. One day, Lowell’s worst fears are realized when the group receives orders that all of the domes are to be exploded and the ships returned to commercial service, with their crews to report back to Earth. ... +


In the future, Earth has lost all of its vegetation due to neglect and pollution, with the only remaining specimens carefully tended to in huge geodesic domes attached to several far-roving space freighters. Each ship maintains different ecosystems, with the U.S.S. Valley Forge sustaining six large forests, complete with woodland animals. Freeman Lowell, the most dedicated member of the project, has been on the Valley Forge for eight years and fervently believes that Earth will be repopulated with trees, flowers, vegetables and fruits, despite the derision of his fellow astronauts, John Wolf, Marty Barker and Andy Keenan. The other men, younger than Lowell, refuse to eat the produce he grows, instead preferring synthetic foods manufactured by the kitchen units. Maintenance aboard the vast ship is carried out by three small drones, each equipped with short legs, a mobile arm that can use a variety of tools and a camera through which the crew can see what the drone sees. Lowell frequently bickers with the other men, especially Barker and Keenan, who assert that if anyone on Earth really cared, the reforestation program would have been taken more seriously years earlier. Despite their antagonism, the men often relieve their boredom by playing poker, at which Lowell usually wins. One day, Lowell’s worst fears are realized when the group receives orders that all of the domes are to be exploded and the ships returned to commercial service, with their crews to report back to Earth. Although the other astronauts are thrilled by the prospect of returning home, Lowell glumly goes to his gardens to save a few flowers. Wolf reminds Lowell that there is no more poverty or unemployment on Earth, as well as very little disease, but Lowell retorts that there is also no more beauty, imagination or frontiers to conquer, and that no one cares any longer. Wolf, Barker and Keenan begin placing the nuclear bombs into the domes and preparing to jettison them, while Lowell becomes more agitated. His anger increases as he watches the domes explode, until finally, when Wolf enters the dome in which Lowell is working, Lowell blocks his path, insisting that he cannot destroy the irreplaceable forest. In the ensuing struggle, Lowell’s leg is badly injured but he succeeds in strangling Wolf. Limping to the control room, Lowell then jettisons and explodes the dome in which Barker and Keenan are working, thereby killing them also. When the lead ship, the Berkshire , inquires about the Valley Forge , Lowell responds that the other men have been killed in an accident and the ship has been damaged by an explosion, which he simulates by having the drones throw cargo pods out into space. Lowell then sets a course for the outer rings of Saturn and tells Anderson, the squad commander, that he cannot repair the damage nor change course. Anderson tells Lowell that he will probably die in the turbulence as the ship passes through the rings but promises to send a search party. Satisfied that he has eluded the others while saving one dome, Lowell then reprograms the three drones so that they can operate on his leg. With the drones’ help, Lowell survives the surgery and falls asleep. He is awakened by a fierce shaking as the ship passes through Saturn's rings and, desperate, watches the monitors showing the progress of the three drones, who are on the outside of the ship. He orders them inside and watches with great dismay as the third drone does not make it in time and is ripped away by the storm. The other two reach safety, however, and soon the intact ship floats in the quiet of the other side of Saturn. Lowell is thrilled by the success of his plan but troubled by Wolf’s body, which he orders the drones to bury. Although he regrets having resorted to violence, Lowell asserts that he had no other choice. Lowell then reprograms the drones again so that they will answer directly to him at all times. He names the smaller, gray one Dewey and the larger, orange one Huey, while noting that the third one, who would have been Louie, is no longer with them. As their new programming enables them to work closely with Lowell in caring for the forest, the drones also become less robotic in their behavior, following Lowell like pets and responding to him with squeaks and flashing lights. Despite their company, Lowell begins to feel lonely and soon is racing around the ship in a motorized cart, wandering aimlessly and sadly remembering his companions. Determined to ease his pain, Lowell programs Huey and Dewey to play poker and although the drones cheat by showing each other their cards, Lowell laughs with delight when Huey wins. Lowell’s malaise continues, however, until one day, Huey and Dewey silently stare at him while he prepares a meal of synthetic food. Feeling their reproach, Lowell admits that he has not been eating real food and jogs to the forest, which he has been neglecting. To his astonishment, the plants are turning brown and dying, and none of his research reveals an answer to the problem. As he continues to investigate, he orders Huey, who is in the forest examining specimens, to remain there while he joins him. Huey is waddling down the corridor, however, when Lowell races through on a cart and smashes into him. Although he tries to repair the damage, Lowell cannot fix Huey, who remains dented, limping and unable to use his arm fully. Grief-stricken, Lowell apologizes to Huey and Dewey and attempts to comfort them. Later, Lowell is awakened by a radio call from the Berkshire , which has successfully maneuvered around Saturn and found the Valley Forge . Lowell is horrified that he has been discovered, especially when Anderson states that he can leave the forest to die, as they are too far from the sun for it to survive, and that they will be picking him up in six hours. Finally realizing that lack of sunlight is causing the forest to wither, Lowell quickly erects a series of bright, artificial lights. With the lights in place, Lowell addresses “the boys,” telling Dewey that he has all the knowledge he needs to maintain the forest forever. After tearfully bidding Dewey farewell, Lowell takes Huey, who is too injured to help Dewey, back to the main ship. Lowell then jettisons the dome, as he knows that it will never be looked for if the others believe that the Valley Forge is gone. Setting up a series of nuclear bombs, Lowell pets Huey one last time, then blows the ship up. Later, far away in outer space, the forest dome flourishes with renewed vigor and Dewey waters a young tree with Lowell’s favorite watering can. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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