Thought for the Day: “The Gypsy Moths”

Builders:

In the middle of the night, the classic movie channel ran a little remembered film from 1969,” The Gypsy Moths.” I stayed up to watch it straight through. The film has always meant something to me since I first saw it in the 1970s.  I had not seen it in 25 years.  Of course the film never changes, but my life has, and in this way, some pieces of literature and art that have always spoken to you, offer an excellent yardstick to see what you have learned thought and felt in the last quarter century. And so it was, and I watched the film again, uninterrupted in the quiet hours of the night.

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Burt Lancaster, in the dark jumpsuit, was the center of the film. He was 56 at the time, at the peak of his power in Hollywood. He spent the late 1960s making films like “The Swimmer” which were important to him, but had no hope of being popular, widely appreciated nor commercially successful. “The Gypsy Moths” is one of these films.

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  The 1940 Howard DGA-15  above was the only plane in the film. In the 1990s I did a lot of work on two magnificent Howard restorations, and a bit of flying in them. As great as they were, I am drawn much more to the plane in the film, with it chipped paint and worn condition. In 1969 no one had given much thought to creating an industry around competitively restoring old aircraft and handing out trophies and awards, and writing articles about them for spectators to admire. In 1969, a DGA-15 was not an investment nor anyone’s personal trophy, it was just a big old workhorse, a plane valued for it flying abilities only.   The particular Howard from the film is still on the FAA roles, it lives in Temecula California. There is a part of me that really hopes it looks exactly as it did in the film, and if it doesn’t, I would actually prefer not to know that.

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Most people think of The Gypsy Moths as a film centered on skydiving.  To Paraphrase Gene Shalit, A Streetcar Named Desire was not a film about public transportation, nor is The Gypsy Moths a film about skydiving. The film is a harsh examination of the differences between people who discard “normal” lives in pursuit of feeling alive, and those that watch this from the outside, knowing that the security they got in trade for their own dreams may not have been such a good deal. When you tell people you are building your own plane, and they have an emotional negative reaction, you are looking at the exact same human terrain that is covered in this film.

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  The most poignant moment in the film happens when Burt Lancaster asks Debora Kerr, the secure but anguished housewife to leave with him, and experience life. As desperately as she wants release from her middle-aged life in small town America, she is terrified of change and will not go. She is the horse who will not leave the burning barn. There is a part of her that just wants to be abducted to a new life, but Lancaster softly explains that being alive is something you have to want for yourself.

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It isn’t a “nice” film, and frankly, almost none of the films that mean something to me are “nice” the same way that don’t need paintings or photos to be “pretty.” I have people I care about, who spend their lives in pursuit of “happiness” as a goal to give meaning to their lives. Such people would find this film distasteful because it highlights conflicting lives and evolves as an unresolved tragedy, there is precious little happiness to be found in it, however, it is filled with awareness and understanding, which happen to be the things I have pursued to give meaning to my life.

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-ww.

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