It would be hard to find a more controversial figure in the history of space exploration than the brilliant rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun, the subject of J. Lee Thompson’s biopic, I Aim at the Stars (1960).
He was the creator of the V-2 rockets which bombarded London, causing massive death and destruction in World War II, as well as the visionary who made the Apollo project a reality for NASA. He was also a member of the Nazi party and some say a willing member of the SS (Schutzstaffel), the paramilitary unit under Hitler’s command.
Von Braun was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1975 by U.S. President Gerald Ford. This was the man NASA proclaimed was “without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history. His crowning achievement…was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969.” Yet accusations of “war criminal” and “Nazi sympathizer” would hound Wernher von Braun to his grave. I Aim at the Stars is an attempt to present a balanced view of the complex figure in the guise of a film biography. By the late 1950s, von Braun was hardly less than a national hero in America with his own talk show following his successful launch of the West’s first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. It was America’s competitive response to Russia’s Sputnik, a robotic spacecraft that successfully orbited the earth in October of that year. According to film scholar Steve Chibnall in his biography of J. Lee Thompson, “The US Army saw the celebration of von Braun’s achievement as a useful promotional and recruiting tool, and producer Charles H. Schneer spent two years researching the project and developing a script with Jay Dratler.” Schneer’s own interest in sci-fi themes and space exploration is obvious from a glance at his filmography, which includes Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and First Men in the Moon (1964). The producer was also quoted in a Columbia Pictures promotional brochure for the film saying he was fascinated by how “a key scientist for the German Army during World War II [could] become one of America’s most honored citizens and a vitally valuable figure in the free world.”
The choice of director J. Lee Thompson for the film was another matter. He had garnered considerable critical acclaim for his film Tiger Bay (1959), starring Horst Buchholz, John Mills and his young daughter Hayley in her major screen debut. Thompson, who had served during WWII as an RAF flyer, experienced the devastation caused by von Braun’s V-2 rockets firsthand but his reasons for making I Aim at the Stars were less personal and more of an intellectually curious nature: “I have always been interested in controversial subjects and I was happy to accept the challenge of making this one for it provided me with the opportunity of posing four questions of international importance:
1. What constitutes a War criminal?
2. If a country at war captures a ‘brilliant enemy scientist,’ who is guilty of inventing and using atrocity weapons – should that scientist be punished or should his brains be utilized for further scientific progress?
3. Should a Scientist be burdened with a Conscience?
4. Should a Scientist be ‘Nationalistic’?”
I Aim at the Stars was an international production for Columbia and was produced at the Bavaria Studios in Geiselgasteig, Germany. Thompson spent three months in Munich on pre-production while Schneer had story conferences with historical advisor Walt Wiesman, who had worked with von Braun in Germany; production supervisor George von Block (a former Luftwaffe pilot); Major General John Medaris, commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Alabama; and Randy Morris, Chief of Technical Liaison at the U.S. Army Ordinance Mission at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico.
As for the casting, Curd Jurgens, one of the most internationally acclaimed German actors of his era, was the top choice to play von Braun. Australian actress Victoria Shaw landed the role of Maria, von Braun’s wife, and Herbert Lom, Adrian Hoven and Gia Scala filled out the key secondary roles. Scala, who plays Elizabeth Beyer, a spy for the Allies, would also portray an undercover turncoat in Thompson’s subsequent film, The Guns of Navarone (1961).
The screenplay covers the major events in von Braun’s life up to the launch of Explorer I, including his earliest rocket experiments (one of them burns down his neighbor’s greenhouse), his appointment at the age of twenty-five as the technical director of the Peenemunde Rocket Center for the German army, his surrender to U.S. forces in 1945 and eventual transfer along with his staff to Fort Bliss, Texas. It also includes his later relocation to Huntsville, Alabama to work on nuclear ballistic missile tests and his struggle and ultimate regret at losing the first phase of the space race to the Soviet Union who got there first with the Sputnik launch.
As usual with screen biographies, some characters have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes or created as composites of several people as in the case of U.S. officer Major William Taggert (played by James Daly) and von Braun’s major detractor who lost his wife and child in the London blitz. Upon completion, von Braun approved the script and was “personally allowed to answer some of the charges leveled against him,” according to a Variety news item.
Among the film’s many working titles were The Wernher von Braun Story, A Rocket and Four Stars and Give Me the Stars before Columbia decided to release it as I Aim at the Stars. Comedian Mort Sahl, whose opinion of von Braun was less than reverential, suggested the title be changed to I Aim at the Stars, but Sometimes I Hit London. In an attempt to lend the film some additional credibility, the movie opens with a special acknowledgment: “To the Department of Defense and particularly the Department of the Army of the United States our sincere appreciation for their cooperation and assistance during the making of the film.”
Like the real Wernher von Braun, controversy surrounded the theatrical release of I Aim at the Stars. It was particularly savaged by the British critics as was expected since feelings about the London blitz still ran high in the post-war years. C.A. Lejeune of the Observer wrote, “It horrifies me. In my view this is a film which ought never to have been made for the purpose of public entertainment.” Derek Hill of the Tribune observed, “Like a true clown, J. Lee Thompson has wound up the performance with the whitewash bucket on his own head.”
Demonstrators passing out anti-Nazi pamphlets showed up at various screenings in London and anti-Fascists youth groups picketed the movie in other locations as well. Of course, von Braun anticipated all of this and held a press conference in Munich prior to the film’s premiere there, stating, “I have very deep and sincere regrets for the victims of the V-2 rockets, but there were victims on both sides. A war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help with that war.”
I Aim at the Stars enjoyed a slightly better reception in the U.S. but critics were still divided over the movie. The New York Times noted that, “the film is conspicuously fuzzy and takes its stand on the none too certain ground that Dr. von Braun’s driving interest from boyhood was simply to develop rockets that could reach out into space.” Time magazine said “Unhappily, this cinema vehicle fails to fire. Instead, it explodes in a splatter of platitudes about the moral dereliction of the scientific community – personified in von Braun.” And Paul V. Beckley of The N.Y. Herald Tribune wrote, “As for the general tone of apology, I am personally a little fed up with this kind of thing…It would be refreshing to see a film in which a German is neither heroized nor villainized but studied with a scientific detachment. Some effort to do so is noticeable in this picture but not enough.” There were positive reviews too such as Variety which deemed the movie an “exciting, artfully constructed picture.”
I Aim at the Stars is certainly a stylish film in terms of art direction and production values and boasts solid performances and a fast pace for its 107 minute running time. Oddly enough, the real von Braun was movie star handsome, a charming raconteur and all-round charismatic individual but Jurgens portrays him as a cold, emotionally remote intellectual for most of the film. While the subject matter lends it an undeniable fascination, there is also much time devoted in the film’s first half to the subplot of Anton Reger’s one-sided love affair with undercover spy Elizabeth Beyer, a situation that could be completely fabricated for dramatic effect.
There is also a heavy-handed emphasis on the ongoing animosity between Maj. Taggert and von Braun, who eventually debate each other on television and turn the film at times into a philosophical polemic. Nevertheless, I Aim at the Stars raises important questions about morality and ethics that most mainstream movies avoid today and it is worth seeing for anyone with an interest in von Braun’s life story. Thompson had no regrets about making it and later said, “I knew that the British press would accuse me of making a hero out of Wernher von Braun, but what I did was, really, I told the true story, which is a fascinating one, and I Aim at the Stars is for me one of my better films.”
It is interesting to note that after von Braun died in Alexandria, Virginia on June 16, 1977, the majority of his obituaries focused on his achievements in space explorations and very few even noted his Nazi party background. The Mittelwerk, the V-2 “buzz bomb” rocket factory that was instrumental in the London Blitz, and von Braun’s position of rank in the SS were never mentioned at all.
I Aim at the Stars is not currently available in any authorized digital or analog format in the U.S. (or Europe for that matter) but it has been shown in the past on Turner Classic Movies and may show up there again in the future.
* This is a revised and updated version of the original article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
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