The Gypsy Moths


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This 1969 film about a troupe of barnstorming skydivers has plenty of positives:

* It paints a picture of small-town America in the days before the mass media standardized American culture. In those days, the script reminds us, a skydiving show could be the highlight of everyone's summer. There is one fascinating scene in which a high school band, after having practiced for months under the baton of a persnickety martinet, heads into Main Street on the July 4th parade, only to see it abandoned and looking desolate because every single person in town is at the big air show.

* It features a great cast which provides a cross-section of two Hollywood generations. Bert Lancaster, William Windom, Sheree North, and Deborah Kerr are there from the crowd which dominated the forties and fifties; Bonnie Bedelia and Gene Hackman represent the new generation which would emerge in the seventies. Bedelia was 20 or 21 when she filmed this role, and Hackman was still in his thirties. Hackman had established himself as a dependable character actor two years earlier in Bonnie and Clyde, but Popeye Doyle, the role which would elevate him to leading man status, was still two years in the future.

* Lancaster and Kerr rekindled the screen sparks they had ignited in From Here to Eternity - except that this time the cultural climate allowed them to do it with their clothes off. This they did and looked quite good in the process, even though Lancaster was 56 and Kerr 48.

* It's unusual to see Lancaster play a guy with a tremendous amount of screen time and virtually no dialogue. He played a strong, silent guy who kept everything internalized.

* There is some very impressive aerial photography of the skydiving stunts.

* The film was directed by John Frankenheimer, who was still in his thirties, and only a few years removed from a string of very impressive movies when he was Hollywood's boy wonder.

  1. Seven Days in May (1964)
  2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  3. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The DVD version of the film can also be characterized as outstanding in many ways.

* It's rare to have a director's commentary available for a movie which is about 40 years old. Fortunately, Frankenheimer was still with us long enough to do a DVD commentary in 2002. I didn't listen to the entire commentary, but I caught about twenty minutes' worth scattered through the film, and Frankenheimer seemed to provide an interesting melange of insights. Sometimes he reminisced about making the movie, and at other times he discussed the actors or the studio's marketing of the film (or mismarketing, as he saw it, because the film was barely released). The commentary was interesting enough that I'll probably go back and listen to the rest someday.

* The DVD producers also managed to find the original trailer and a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the action scenes were filmed. There's also a fairly interesting, if disappointingly generic, featurette about real skydivers.

* The widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film is quite satisfactory, especially for a film four decades old.

Having offered all those kind words, I regret to say that it's only an average movie, competent and occasionally interesting, but often slow and sometimes opaque. It has some sections which clip along quite nicely, especially the action scenes, but other parts of the film really drag. There is a full eight minute conversation (really, I timed it - minutes 40-48, more or less) between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the middle of the film, and that slows the film's heartbeat down to flat-line status.

The film has an odd kind of vibe to it. Instead of a smooth consistent tone, it seems like one of those anthologies of short stories where the stories have a connection, but are written or directed by different people. The first half of the film is similar to the famous film Picnic, in which an outsider disturbs the complacency of a small town in summertime. In this case, all three of the skydivers manage to score one-night stands on their first night in town, and this virtually rends the time-space continuum in the town. Lancaster and Kerr, for example, get it on in Kerr's living room with her husband (Windom) sleeping upstairs, soon to become aware of his cuckolded condition. The second half of the film consists predominantly of actual skydiving - much too much of it for my taste, to the point where the pulse of the film again dropped to corpse status.

Frustratingly, the most important plot development in the entire film is heavy with ambiguity. The action itself takes place entirely before our eyes, but we are never clear whether it was intentional or accidental, and precisely why it went down that way. Then there is a brief post-airshow epilogue in the film, which offers no insights on the major event, and instead presents some additional developments in relationships, most of which weren't fully explained. It was typical in the late sixties and early seventies to end films with unresolved or unexplained matters, leaving the viewer a chance to speculate on how various relationships and situations would develop, and thus to participate in the artistic process. I don't know whether I miss that form of audience involvement or whether I am relieved to see it pass, but I do miss the sorts of post-movie conversations we used to have about matters like, "Why do you think he did that? Did he mean to? What did such-and-such all mean? What happened to the relationship between X and Y?" And so forth. It seems that movies have become more transparent, or less subtle, or both.


* widescreen anamorphic

* Several special features. See the main commentary for details.







2.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)


5.8 IMDB top thousand voters (of 10)


Unknown. In the director's commentary, Frankenheimer claims that the film was released with no promotion or marketing - "dumped" - and consequently did virtually no business.


  • Bonnie Bedelia - one breast
  • Deborah Kerr - breasts and bum (aged 48)
  • Sheree North - breasts with pasties and side-breasts














Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is a good movie, but not an excellent one.