Silent Running: BFI Film Classics by Mark Kermode (book review).

I have to confess that it’s been a few years since I’ve seen the 1971 film ‘Silent Running’. Reading about it in the BFI Films Classics series by Mark Kermode brings a lot of memories back. Director Douglas Trumbull explains that he was trying to bring in the humanity that was lost in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ where he did many of the special effects. There were several films that Universal Pictures were filming where various directors were given a million dollars and no studio interference to make interesting films after the success of ‘Easy Rider’. Trumbull’s was the only SF one and he needed a little more money to complete which Universal obliged him with and it was still a tenth of the cost of ‘2001’.

For the record, one of the others was ‘American Graffiti’ (1973) and I wonder what happened to that director? When you consider how much was done on such a tight budget compared to more recent mega-million dollar films, ‘Silent Running’ becomes even more remarkable. Something I hadn’t remembered was a very young Ron Rifkin, who in his later years became ever more popular in the TV series ‘Alias’, was one of the other astronauts in the film. Seeing the pre-production illustrations of the Valley Forge being built should please any of you interested in this film. Kermode points out at the end that he had Trumbull’s full co-operation and access to his set photos making this book singularly unique.


This doesn’t mean Kermode’s book is a love letter to the film or director. He points out something that I felt was rather obvious from the time in that if the Earth had no vegetation left, how was oxygen being generated? I did have a ponder on that again and the main thing about these forests in space was that was what they were. It didn’t mean other vegetation wasn’t still growing on Earth, although one would hope that they had an alternative to paper. Oddly, one has to wonder about how these trees could reproduce in space when there was little in the way of gravity and the seed never landing in its soil. No doubt the drones gathered the seed up and incubated them before planting anew, even if they had to be taught to put the seed into and not on the ground.

Seeing stills of the actors and one actress who played inside the three drones is interesting. With the face parts covered and unable to hear, they resorted to mime to pass messages between themselves which became incorporated into their roles. I often wondered why Trumbull never considered giving them voices of some sort but that’s a question that is unanswered here or he might have thought it too HAL like.

Trumbull explains that the choice of Saturn as the destination was largely because they couldn’t do it in ‘2001’ and, with experience and time, could resolve the issues they had with the ringed planet. There’s also a lot explained about his father, Donald Trumbull, helping with the film. He was hardly a novice in film-making having been involved with ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ (1939) and four other major films after ‘Silent Running’. His son, though, moved away from film directing after ‘Brainstorm’ (1983), disgusted with the Hollywood system. Saying that, there is a hint at the end of the book that Doug Trumbull is returning to directing.

I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to enjoy this book and was pleasantly surprised to a happy read, helped along by not needing to refer to footnotes throughout. As with all of these BFI books, they are large pocket size and something you can neatly read when travelling. If you missed out on ‘Silent Running’ then this book will encourage you to give it another viewing which is all the point after all.

GF Willmetts

December 2014

(pub: BFI/Palgrave MacMillan. 87 page illustrated small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84457-832-0)

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