The Groundstar Conspiracy – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Groundstar-Conspiracy-posterGeorge Peppard plays a government agent so paranoid that he even bugs his own phone in this cult classic loosely based on LP Davies’ The Alien (which I previously reviewed here). Michael Sarrazin co-stars as the scientist whose face and memories have to be reconstructed after his lab goes up in smoke - but is he responsible for the act of sabotage? It all starts with a bang …

The following review is submitted for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom and Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here).

“Welles is not one of us … “

One night there are a series of explosion at the Groundstar space research facility and only one man gets out alive – most likely, the saboteur. Badly burned, he makes it as far as a nearby house and collapses – and that’s just the title sequence! George Peppard as ultra-hardboiled head of security Greg Tuxan is choppered in, collects the man and questions Nicole, the woman staying at the house. She (the lovely Christine Belford) had only just arrived, recovering from a bitter divorce and the recent death of her parents and claims to have no idea who the man was. Tuxan is not so sure – why was the man, known as ‘John Welles,’ heading right there? It transpires that Welles is an impostor and Tuxan has to find out who he really is and where he was planning to sell his stolen secrets (a McGuffin explained away at one point as a ‘miniaturised fuel system’). He immediately shuts down all access to the site, treating everyone as potential suspects and so upsetting the three senior administrators in charge of the project: a senator (James Olson), the head of the military (Allan Oppenheimer) and Gossage, the project supervisor (played by that perennial TV presence of the era, Tim O’Connor). He locks them out of the security operation and, speaking only to PR man Mosley (Cliff Potts), focuses on saving Welles so he can find out who he was working for.

Peppard-Groundstar

After extensive plastic surgery Welles (Michael Sarrazin) emerges with complete amnesia and a face he doesn’t remember having ever seen before:

Welles: “I don’t recognise it. I don’t like it.”
Tuxan: “It’ll grow on you.”

Tuxan decides to take radical measures to get the memories back – especially after an attempt is made on the patient’s life. Welles, or whoever he is, is subjected to a relentless interrogation regime, but can’t remember a thing. While being transported by ambulance, the vehicle is forced off the road by another vehicle and Welles escapes and heads for Nicole, the only person he knows. Welles and Nicole, both emotionally fragile and seemingly innocent of the forces amassing around them (Tuxan engineered the escape and has them under video surveillance), forge an unlikely alliance and eventually fall in love. This leads to a surprisingly extented lovey-dovey section, full of post flower-power bedside chitchat that is none the less quite sweet in its own drippy way. But who is telling the truth and who was the real saboteur? And why does Welles think he might actually be from Greece?

“We challenge you to guess the ending!”

The script by Douglas Heyes (using his ‘Matthew Howard’ pseudonym) is adapted fairly loosely from LP Davies’ The Alien - where the events in the book were spread over several years, here everything is collapsed into a much tighter time frame, which greatly benefits the movie, beginning with the lab attack which we only hear about in passing in the book. The book’s two female roles are collapsed into one but in fact, even though some character names stay the same – Tuxan, Mosley, Gossage – only Tuxan and Welles (known as Maxwell in the book), most are greatly altered in the transposition. The future setting of the book is removed though the film does have an ultra modern feel, making great use of the facilities at the Burnaby campus of Simon Fraser University in Canada (where the entire film was shot). As in the book Welles in kidnapped by the baddies to see what he does remember and they ultimately decide to kill him to protect themselves – will Tuxan arrive in time – and who is Welles really?

Sarrazin-Peppard-Groundstar

Peppard walys makes for a compelling lead but it is a bit of a shame that he plays it as such a macho hard-ass. Peppard started off playing sensitive youths in the likes of Home from the Hill and even Breakfast at Tiffany’s but quickly ended up playing rather one-dimensional tough guys without a hint of vulnerability. Here he behaves as an arch conservative, but the equivocal nature of the storytelling makes even this less than certain by the end. None the less, here is a choice bit of his rhetoric – having just shocked Nicole that she has been under constant surveillance, when she demands her privacy back he confuses it, seemingly, with secrecy, declaring:

“Murders are planned in privacy. Sabotage, revolutions, they all begin in privacy. I’d put my own family, anyone, in the spotlight, naked, to protect this country.”

The movie’s denouement, set on the campus late at night, is very atmospheric and dramatic and much better that the book’s rather odd finale while retaining the all-essential plot twist. Directed punchily by Lamont Johnson and nicely-shot in widescreen by Michael Reed, this is an exciting if low-key film, a modest production that does on occasion have the feel of a big budget TV Movie but which benefits from great work from its lead actors (Peppard and Belford would be reunited as more friendly antagonists shortly afterwards in the first season of Banacek), some fine location work, an unusual score by experimental composer Paul Hoffert and a really solid story – I only wish it were easier to find on home video …

DVD Availability: Once released on a decent anamorphic DVD, his went OOP years ago and now goes on sale for silly money. I have been hanging on to my old TV recording for over a decade but would love to replace it with something better eventually …

The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Trevor Wallace, Hal Roach Jr
Screenplay: Matthew Howard (pseudonym for Douglas Heyes)
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Art Direction: Cam Porteous
Music: Paul Hoffert
Cast: George Peppard, Michael Sarrazin, Christine Belford, James Olson, Cliff Potts, James McEachin, Tim O’Connor, Anna Hagan

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, Amnesia, Douglas Heyes, Friday's Forgotten Book, LP Davies, The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to The Groundstar Conspiracy – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – As always, an excellent review. You make a well-taken point too about Peppard. One wishes he played characters with more depth. But still, glad to see that you thought this was a decent view. And I do like the very dry wit in the bits of dialogue that you’ve shared.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    I remember so enjoying this conspiratorial thriller. Wish I could watch it again, and not a lot of $$$. Fine spotlight, Sergio.

  3. TracyK says:

    This does sound great, and it is disappointing that it is not easily available. I will comfort myself with the fact that I already have way too many unwatched movies and TV series on DVD and Blu-Ray and hope it gets a release someday.

  4. Colin says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen this, and it sounds pretty entertaining. As you say, it will hopefully reappear at some point.

    Good point about Peppard too. I thought he was pretty good in the earlier part of his career and was generally interesting to watch. I wonder why he decided to alter his approach? I think it ended up limiting his choice of roles.

  5. I found him wooden in BREAKFAST too. He got by on his face.

  6. Yvette says:

    I love amnesia stories, Sergio. But somehow I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one. I do remember George Peppard early on – thought he’d have a Big Career. But it was not to be. I think, possibly, he was just too good looking in a Prince Charming sort of way. He came in on the cusp of those sorts of looks being taken over by the unkempt Marlon Brando ideal.

    Thanks for another terrific review, kiddo.

  7. Well reviewed, Sergio. I’ve seen films that had George Peppard in them but I haven’t seen this particular one. The one movie I remember him well is in NIGHT OF THE FOX based on a fairly readable WWII novel by Jack Higgins. Although he acted well, I didn’t think the role suited him. I also thought the book was better than the film version.

  8. Jeff says:

    I first saw Groundstar on late night television probably thirty years ago. Back when local television stations would show movies from their stations. It wasn’t unusual to catch a theatrical R rated movie at midnight (unedited) and I think they often went with movies that were cheap to rent and often the prints they showed would be pretty worn out. They would have unpredictable breaks for commercials and sometimes the last hour would have no commercials. Now of course it’s all syndicated digital downloads and what not. Things are tighter, professional and slicker, but there are times. Anyway I’ve always found this movie to be interesting. A cold war thriller made in the early seventies.Actually it premiered in the U.S. on June 21, 1972 and the Watergate burglary happened on June 17, 1972. Considering what was going on in the U.S.A. in the early seventies it was an interesting movie to make, but it works.

    • Thanks very Jeff, fascinating stuff. The Internet does seem to have taken over as the place to unearth unexpected little gems, doesn’t it? I can remember scouring obscure TV channles while growing upo in Italy in the 80s and there was nothing really to match the feeling of finding of something unexpectedly exciting, almost as if you were the first to see it! Ah, the past … I remember it so well. Right, abck to work …

  9. C. Lee says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of this movie, I remember the first time seeing it at the drive-in in ’72. The only thing I wasn’t fond of was the music…always seemed too shrill to me. I was a fan of Peppard, saw most of his movies but didn’t watch too much A-Team. I picked up a good DVD copy years ago. It’s a definite recommendation for mystery fans.

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