The Groundstar Conspiracy

The Groundstar Conspiracy

George Peppard was a popular leading man through the first half of the sixties. He was a genuine movie star, with genuine hits to his credit: Home from the Hill (the movie that made him a star), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (his most enduring classic, though not due to him), How the West Was Won, The Blue Max, and his biggest hit that can be attributed to him, The Carpetbaggers. Popular though he was, he never ascended to the superstar status that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen enjoyed. He stayed in the sixties middle tier alongside slightly older fifties leading men like Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. Yet while he was never the movie stars they were, in the sixties he was more desirable due to his youth and the fact he looked like Newman and McQueen. So producers could try for Newman and McQueen and if that didn’t work out, there was always Peppard. As Marvin Schwarz would say, “They want Marlon Brando, they get Burt Reynolds. They want Warren Beatty, they get George Hamilton. They want Newman and McQueen, they get Peppard.”
Now, most of the movies Peppard did during his mid-sixties heyday were fairly entertaining.
I can’t really make a strong case for What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?, Operation Crossbow, The Third Day and The Carpetbaggers, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them (especially Bad/Good). His most creative time was probably his three-film collaboration with British director John Guillermin (who would later direct flaming traffic in The Towering Inferno).
Not that the three movies he did with Guillermin (The Blue Max, House of Cards and P.J.) were so much better than his other movies, but Peppard seemed to vibe with Guillermin in a way he didn’t with other directors. Also during his heyday, he had the misfortune to work with the most pedestrian of the sixties studio journeymen, Edward Dmytryk, Jack Smight and Michael Anderson.
However, by the late sixties, while still a movie star, he was a movie star on the decline.
Before he could do big movies that Newman, McQueen, Sinatra and James Garner turned down. Now with the emergence of Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, there really wasn’t room for Peppard, not at the top at least. To put it in perspective, of the top twenty-eight box office stars of 1970, the year Cannon for Cordoba and The Executioner came out, Paul Newman was number one. Clint Eastwood was number two. Steve McQueen was number three. And John Wayne was number four. Robert Redford, the year after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, entered the list at number eleven (He would be between one through five the whole rest of the decade). Dean Martin was still on the list at number fourteen, but neither Frank Sinatra nor Jerry Lewis were. And for his last appearance on the list, Elvis Presley sat at twenty-one. But no George Peppard. No more big pictures like How the West Was Won, The Victors, The Blue Max or The Carpetbaggers.
Instead, he was offered the studio B-level product. Not bad movies, but modestly budgeted action vehicles, usually starring another movie star in the same boat, that were meant to make a quick buck at theaters, export well to Europe, play for the next three to four years as the lower half of studio double bills and when the time was right, move effortlessly on to network television. Westerns, Rough Night in Jericho (with Dean Martin), Cannon for Cordoba, One More Train to Rob. WW2 action, Tobruk (with Rock Hudson). Spy flick, The Executioner. Cop film, Pendulum. And The Groundstar Conspiracy. Funny thing is these are my favorite movies of Peppard’s. I never really cared for him all that much in his sixties movies. Now admittedly the mediocrity of the standard sixties studio picture could strip the shine off of any star. Just look at some of the lifeless dogs that Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and James Garner starred in (by comparison McQueen’s track record was pretty damn impressive). But my big problem with Peppard was he just wasn’t convincing in the roles he ended up getting cast in. In Home on the Hill, he’s trying like hell to play the kind of surly sexy vagabond that Paul Newman specialized in (Hud & The Long Hot Summer) and while he’s not bad, he doesn’t quite pull it off either. He was often cast as the same type of surly bastards that McQueen pulled of effortlessly. Like in his biggest hit The Carpetbaggers. And you just don’t buy it. He actually came across as a genial guy, who for some reason was usually cast as a hardass son-of-a-bitch. Why he didn’t do more comedies during his heyday is a mystery. He’s completely unconvincing playing a beatnik hippie in What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (as he was in the movie version of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans), but he’s still funny in it and seems to be having a good time.
It was a pretty weird decade. After establishing himself as a light touch comic master on his TV show Maverick, once James Garner became a genuine movie star, for the most part he was cast as colorless leads in movies like Darby’s Rangers, Cash McCall, The Pink Jungle, Up Periscope and Grand Prix.
While McQueen, who wasn’t terribly good at comedy, did far more than Peppard.
A good example of one of Peppard’s better films is action specialist Paul Wendkos’ Cannon for Cordoba. But it’s also a good example of the type of role that Peppard seemed to specialize in that I never felt he was right for. That film, written by Stephen Kandel, who also wrote Wendkos’ superior action film The Battle of the Coral Sea, was obviously designed to be the second of the Wendkos-directed and George Kennedy-starring Magnificent Seven sequels. Coming straight after their earlier film Guns of the Magnificent Seven (easily the best of the sequels). But it’s pretty clear once Kandel turned in his damn exciting script, The Mirisch Brothers (the producers) felt they could do better than George Kennedy. So they offered it to the other George, Peppard. Well, The Mirisch Brothers were right, the script was good and Peppard did respond to the material. But he’d be dammed if he was going to be the third guy to play Chris in the fourth cheapie sequel to The Magnificent Seven.
So he instructed them, if they want him, lose The Magnificent Seven connection and name the character anything but Chris. So Kandel rewrote it, and Peppard’s character went from Chris to Rod (but he kept Chris’ fondness for cigars). And the team of guys went from The Magnificent Seven to The Magnificent Five. And the title changed from Cannons for The Magnificent Seven to Cannon for Cordoba. Yet in the novelization that Stephen Kandel wrote, you can tell the character of Rod was written for George Kennedy and Kennedy would have been much better in the role. The book contains a description of the character. And it’s the type of description I’m sure most of the characters that Peppard played were described as. Descriptions that didn’t describe Peppard.

“Rod was a tall man, deceptively solid, with thick shoulders; a man laced together with a webbing of flat, sliding muscles. He had the quality of iron repose, a sense of limitless patience masking a capacity for explosive violence….he was not a man to disobey, nor a man to give orders casually. But the essential toughness was relieved by an abiding sense of the ridiculous, a twist of mockery in the eyes and mouth.”

Now admittedly that purple prose description doesn’t describe many members of the Screen Actors Guild. It describes Charles Bronson. Burt Lancaster. Lee Marvin. Maybe Eastwood a few years later. It even describes Robert DeNiro in the eighties. But it sure didn’t describe George Peppard. However, like I said, the collection of films from this period in Peppard’s career are my favorite. I still really dig Cannon for Cordoba. Pendulum is interesting despite another wildly overacted performance from Robert F. Lyons as the villain (I know after my Shoot Out review it might seem like I’m picking on him. The funny thing is, I think he’s pretty good once he got older. I like him in Cease Fire and Black Oak Conspiracy. But when he was younger, he was just terrible). In Pendulum, Peppard to some degree predates the angry abusive cop character drawn to brutality that would become a staple in the seventies. Again, he doesn’t quite pull it off, but the picture has some interest before its rotten third act. And his interesting turn in Rough Night in Jericho deserved a better picture than Rough Night in Jericho. George’s quixotic turn is far more successful than Dean Martin’s hopeless attempt at villainy.
And while he’s stuck playing a humorless German in The Blue Max, he adds an enjoyable thin slice of ham to his German prisoner of war in Tobruk.

But at the end of the day, I think it’s his performance as Security Chief extraordinaire Tuxan in The Groundstar Conspiracy that’s my favorite Peppard performance. And for once, Peppard totally nails the role of the hardass bastard.

The Groundstar Conspiracy is an espionage thriller – a man-on-the-run action movie – a film noir-ish man-with-amnesia movie – except instead of being done à la David Goodis, it’s told in a Michael Crichton-ish science fiction vein. During the film’s opening credits, a space science computer research facility called Groundstar is sabotaged by a terrorist/spy. His objective was to break into the master computer and find out the working details of a mini fuel system (McGuffin) that the people who hired him want to sell to either the Russians or the Chinese or back to the Americans again for thirty million dollars (the spy part). As well as blow up the Groundstar facility (the terrorist part). He manages to accomplish both things, killing six people in the process and blowing his own face practically off. The massive explosion blows the saboteur clear of the facility. The half-dead man makes it to the home of a woman who lives near the futuristic complex, Nicole (Christine Belford), whose doorstep the man with the bloody pulp face collapses on.
Enter Groundstar head of security Tuxan (George Peppard, the same year he moved to TV to do Banacek. Tuxan seems like a dry run for Banacek).
In Tuxan’s position as head of Groundstar security, he appears to be a man of unlimited power, unchecked authority, armed with an army of operatives and working with an unlimited budget. The Groundstar project is a joint venture of the Air Force (represented by TV veteran Alan Oppenheimer as a General), the private science sector (represented by TV veteran Tim O’Conner as the scientist) and with the backing of the state senator (James Olson in a nothing part two years after his leading man role in The Andromeda Strain). And much to all their chagrin, when it comes to rooting out the saboteurs, Tuxan has jurisdiction over all of them (He considers them all suspects and has them all under surveillance).
The saboteur is named Welles (Michael Sarrazin) and despite blowing half his face off, he didn’t die. But he does have legitimate amnesia. He doesn’t remember committing the terrorist act, killing the six men, the information he took from the computer, who hired him or anything at all about his identity before he came to after the explosion. The whole film is good. The script by Douglas Heyes, one of the best writers on television, is extremely well-plotted and paced. But the film’s first half an hour is the best part. That’s the section where Tuxan (Peppard) and Welles (Sarrazin) engage in a battle of wills as Peppard interrogates and tortures Sarrazin to find out what he knows and who he’s working for. But while Tuxan is torturing Welles and making his life hell on earth, he’s also keeping him alive. The people that hired Welles are trying to either kidnap him to get the valuable information he has or kill him so he won’t reveal their involvement.
One of the fun aspects of the film forty years later is how many other movies it seems to pre-date. This section can’t help but bring to mind a less grueling Zero Dark Thirty. Welles is a terrorist who killed many people committing his terrorist act in order to sell American secrets to foreign enemies. And Peppard’s Tuxan feels as justified as any character in the Kathryn Bigelow film in engaging in any form of manipulation and torture to get the results he’s after. He’s also one of American cinema’s first enthusiastic proponents for unlimited surveillance monitoring of citizens. “If I had my way there would be a bug in every bedroom in America.” When he’s asked later, “What about privacy?” He answers like a character out of Philip K. Dick, “Murders are planned and committed in private. Plots to overthrow the government are discussed in private. Assassinations are plotted in private.”

Since Sarrazin’s Welles has no memory of either the incident or his past life, we can’t help but sympathize with him; he doesn’t want to believe he killed those six men. Teddy Chan’s exciting Hong Kong thriller at the beginning of the century, Purple Storm, dealt with a similar storyline. A master terrorist who’s lost his recollection and has no memory of his villainous life. It asks a great noir question. Is an evil man, with no memory of the evil deeds he’s committed, still evil? In Jack Smight’s The Third Day, Peppard played that part. The movie makes it easier to use the word evil because it’s not about political ideology, but just a plot to make money (which begs the question, why blow up the facility?). The movie promotes Sarrazin’s Welles as the film’s protagonist due to his blank slate dilemma and due to the bastardly way George Peppard plays the slightly sinister Tuxan. Sarrazin isn’t anybody’s idea of an exciting actor, but he brings more than just his cheekbones and pouty lips and mop of gorgeous curly locks to the part of Welles. In the beginning, he holds his own with Peppard (unfortunately in his big scene at the end he turns one note). And after his facial reconstruction surgery, Sarrazin predates his turn as the monster in Frankenstein: The True Story when he looks into the mirror at a face, held together by cool looking stitches, he doesn’t recognize, “I don’t like it!”

What’s not to like?

Sarrazin also predates his turn in J. Lee Thompson’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. Like Peter Proud (a movie I love) more details of his past life are revealed to him during his dreams. He remembers seeing Grecian ruins and he speaks Greek in his sleep. He remembers a woman in a bikini swimming in water. Then later remembers she drowned (that’s almost exactly like Peter Proud).

Peppard’s Tuxan wants to find out who hired the saboteur; he even claims he knows exactly who did it, he just needs proof. In an effort to draw out the culprits responsible, Tuxan stages a masquerade of escape for Welles. Now on his own, but unaware he’s being tracked by constant surveillance, Welles goes to the last person to see him before his capture, Christine Belford’s Nicole, the woman whose door stoop he collapsed at.
Not knowing the level of her involvement, he goes to her in the hopes she can shed light on his past. At first, like Redford and Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor, he holds her hostage. Telling her, convincingly, “I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t be caught.” She claims, as she did earlier with Tuxan, not to have any knowledge about his identity. And then, also like Three Days of the Condor, they fall in love and go on the run together.

Unaware Tuxan and his army of surveillance agents are watching their every move.

Belford’s character goes from being a hostage to trying to help Welles, to falling in love with him in record time, even for this cliché. In fact, it’s so quick that it should be suspicious, but instead, you know it’s just a movie contrivance. They want Welles to have a love interest.
Nicole is the one character that the movie, and even Tuxan, takes at face value.
Which should be a flaw. And yes, it would be better plotted if there were slightly more suspicion as to her motives. Yet Christine Belford is so charming, and her strange rosso-hued complexion is so striking and she and Sarrazin make such a good couple, that I didn’t care how contrived the whole thing was.

The whole movie plays like an early seventies pilot TV movie featuring Peppard’s character that somehow found its way in theaters. And according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that’s exactly what it was. And you can imagine Universal designing this for Peppard, then getting cold feet due to the nasty nature of his character, then coming up with Banacek. And there are elements of Tuxan that wind up in Banacek. The best episodes of Banacek were always the more fantastical ones. And this movie’s ever so slightly science fiction aspect is one of its most stand out characteristics. Is it a science fiction film? I’d say yes, but just barely. But it’s the barely part that makes it unique.
Also, in a couple of scenes, Peppard sports the fashions he’d model as Banacek, snazzy suits over turtleneck sweaters. And it’s in this movie Peppard would stop putting pomade in his hair and combing it in a half-assed pompadour. Instead sporting the dry look bangs he’d wear as Banacek and for the rest of his career. Also red-haired Groundstar co-star Christine Belford would join Peppard in the second season as a series regular.
But the real interesting thing if The Groundstar Conspiracy was intended as a pilot for Peppard’s character, is the sinister nature of the character. In the film, Tuxan isn’t exactly the villain. But until he flushes out the bad guys, he fills out the role of the antagonist. And it’s fun watching Peppard be a bastard master manipulator, pissing every character in the movie off and him not giving a fuck. But when it comes to movie masterminds, he’s definitely in the diabolical camp. It’s almost as if Cliff Robertson’s character in Three Days of the Condor wasn’t the villain, but the anti-hero co-lead (Peppard is much better in his part than Robertson was in his). Now that character, as the leader of a ‘Search’-like science fiction show? That might have been worth watching.

All this leads to the film’s big surprise ending. Now Roger Ebert used to say, even a critic revealing that there is a surprise at the ending, is spoiling the ending. Which I agree with, more or less. If I’m paying twenty dollars at a movie theatre, yes I agree. If I’m watching an old movie for free on television, really who fucking cares? Nevertheless, in the case of The Groundstar Conspiracy, Universal advertised the surprise ending right on the one-sheet.

We challenge you to guess the ending of…“The GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY”

And yes, the ending is really clever. And I would say it makes this whole movie worth watching. Up until the ending, what was good about the movie, despite its television look, was the cleverness of its plotting, but even more, was the rapid-paced clip that director Lamont Johnson (who’s better than this movie) keeps the whole film moving at.
It never wears out its welcome. Since I’ve been analyzing these films, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch a picture, even a minor one like this, set course on its destination so swiftly and assuredly. Lamont Johnson was a helluva talented director (Pauline Kael was a big admirer), and his best movies – The Last American Hero, One on One, Cattle Annie and Little Britches, the climax of The Execution of Private Slovak – move into your memory and stay in your heart.
But this throwaway studio assignment in its own way shows off his directorial skills even more obviously (Excellent use of locations. Creative framing of shots with cool foreground items. A better than usual Peppard and Sarrazin). A lot of Universal contract directors could have made this movie (Jeannot Szwarc. Bernard L. Kowalski. David Lowell Rich. Boris Sagal. Don Weis. Ted Post). But nobody working for Universal at that time could have made it better…except maybe a young Spielberg.

Admittedly, in 1972 the ending was more of a surprise than it is in 2020 after many other films have pilfered the basic idea. Yet, I suspect most viewers will still be surprised at the denouement.