The Man Who Fell to Earth in White Sands [Updated]

Updated: Since I wrote this, I got hold of the Criterion DVD with the extras, including interviews with Production Designer Brian Eatwell and Costume Designer Mary Routh. Additions in green.

Trying without success to figure out how astronaut Capt. Jim Lovell landed in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Hallo Spaceboys), I came across a number of interesting bits. The scenes depicting the home planet of Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, and the hours before Newton’s lift-off in the rocket he had built to get home were shot at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Perhaps Lovell just happened to be visiting the Missile Range or the New Mexico Museum of Space History. This is possible. After all, Lovell isn’t the only one playing himself in the film; novelist Terry Southern is also at the festivities preceding the non-launch of Thomas Jerome Newton’s spacecraft, but  Southern was involved in the film world, and was visiting Bowie’s co-star Rip Torn (Dr. Nathan Bryce) during filming in New Mexico.

Using White Sands as a set posed some problems, as crew member Alan Swain recalled recently:

“All of the cast and crew had to be cleared by the government,” he recalled. “There was even a time when we were filming that the military police showed up and made us stop filming. The range was doing a missile test and I think they remembered that there was a foreign crew on the ground. We had to wait until the missile was up and then it was fine.”

Here’s another picture making the rounds: our favorite visitor, having a look through the camera, on location in White Sands, New Mexico.

The film was shot in July and August, 1975. Temperatures average in the very high 90’s during these months in White Sands.

Newton comes from a planet suffering from severe drought. He and his family wear tight-fitting body stockings criss-crossed with plastic tubing attached to a tank on their backs.

While not all deserts are hot, the Newtons appear to be not just thirsty, but broiling, as Bowie must have been on the set.

So why this costume?

What we sort of have here is one layer of an Earth astronaut’s spacesuit, which would function as a personal air-conditioning system. The NASA version was a lot tidier, of course:

“Lunar crews also wore a three-layer Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCG) or “union suit” with plastic tubing which circulated water to cool the astronaut down, minimizing sweating and fogging of the suit helmet. Water was supplied to the LCG from the PLSS backpack, where the circulating water was chilled by an ice sublimator.”

Mary Routh says she was challenged by Nic Roeg to include in the aliens’ costumes what they valued most — water, and that she had in mind representing the veins of the body through lace when she came up with the circuits of hosing through which ran colored water. The apparatus was fragile, and forever having to be patched and adjusted, she remembers. Co-star Candy Clark added that the body suits themselves were quite thin, nearly transparent, in fact.

It took me a long time to find the next image. What words would you use to search for this thing? It’s a puzzler, isn’t it. Why would a society with the technology to get Newton to Earth with all those patents that made him a billionaire design their transit vehicle to resemble a Teletubbies’ playhouse? And why if their situation alone in that desert was so dire didn’t Newton’s wife and kids hop on? Anywhere had to be better than where they were.

Brian Eatwell remembers wanting the aliens to have a vehicle that didn’t look typically sci-fi shiny metallic. So he built an A-frame over a cart, covered it with a hay mulch mess, and spray-painted it orange. Then when it came time for the thing to move along the rail, the scrapyard engine powering the contraption failed. A man on the set solved the locomotion crisis by bringing in two white horses draft horses. The ropes were edited out, but horsepower is what moves the extraterrestrial train. While Eatwell didn’t mention this, there is a very brief shot of two white horses in a lush green field during the scene when Newton recalls his planet before its drought, and I bet those horses are the same two.

What does this have to do with White Sands? I can only think that it was the presence of rails in the desert that inspired someone to build this thing.

Here’s an example of a stretch of track, now moved to the museum in Alamogordo. Rocket sleds were used to test craft considered too experimental for launch, see how many G forces a man could tolerate,  perfect ejection seats, and test missile components. In 2003 a land speed record was set on Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo of  Mach 8.5 (6,416 mph / 10,325 km/h).

And poor Tommy, who had trouble with elevators, would complain when his chauffeur exceeded 35 mph.

Be sure to read the comment below regarding the tracks.

6 thoughts on “The Man Who Fell to Earth in White Sands [Updated]

  1. Having worked at the Holloman High Speed Test Track (rocket sled track) in the 1960s, I would like to make a couple of corrections. The rocket sled track is not at White Sands Missile Range, it is at the nearby Holloman Air Force Base. Also, the track shown in the photo was not part of the rocket sled track. It is from the “Daisy Track”, which was named that because it was propelled by compressed air (like a Daisy-brand air rifle). It was an indoor track at Holloman that was used to conduct tests on things like seat belts, etc.

    1. Thank you so much for writing. The source for the photo (released into public domain) of what I thought was a rocket sled track is The caption reads, “Daisy Track, a test track for an air-powered rocket sled used at Holloman Air Force Base. Now located at the New Mexico Museum of Space History at Alamogordo, New Mexico.” Do you have any idea if the track on the still from The Man Who Fell to Earth is a track found at White Sands or Holloman?

  2. The track in the movie still posted above is just a prop constructed for the film.
    Here are three YouTube links to videos about Holloman and the High Speed Test Track:
    If you send me an email with your email address, I can send you an unclassified photo of a liquid fueled rocket sled firing from the early 1960s.

  3. Colonel Stapp’s (he was a major at the time of the tests) manned tests in the late 1950s were done at the track at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. I don’t know if anyone did any manned track tests at Edwards AFB.
    Manned tests at the track at Holloman had ceased before I started working there in late 1963.

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