“Opération Lune”: How Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing

By on May 28, 2015

“In six days God created the heavens and the earth. On the seventh day, Stanley Kubrick sent everything back for modifications.” So begins the voiceover narration for Opération Lune (English title: Dark Side of the Moon), William Karel’s 2002 French documentary exposé on how director Stanley Kubrick helped NASA fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.

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The documentary featured interviews from many key players in NASA and the US government, including astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Alexander Haig, Richard Helms, Henry Kissinger, and Donald Rumsfeld, to name just a few, as well as Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick and her brother, his surviving brother-in-law, executive producer Jan Harlan.

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It begins with the startling revelation that Kubrick was approached to film footage for the Apollo 11 moon landing in a studio setting; NASA had wanted a fallback contingency plan in case astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps could not be filmed, knowing that this was going to be a global event seen worldwide. If there were any problems, and the actual first steps on the moon were not captured, then NASA and other branches of the U.S. government were afraid that it would cause unforeseeable problems, and perhaps even embolden our enemies, and so they wanted something to show viewers so that any issues that Apollo 11 were having could be dealt with privately.

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In exchange for creating this film footage, NASA would loan Kubrick a unique and secretive camera lens that he had wanted to use on his movie Barry Lyndon, which he was already involved with in production. That lens — identified as Carl Zeiss 50mm f/0.7, which had been designed by Zeiss in 1966 on a special request for the Apollo program — was initially created by NASA to be used by the U.S. government for the purposes of Cold War spying. The narrator tells us the lens was the only one capable of filming in pitch darkness (the narrator for the original French version was Philippe Faure, and was later redone in English by Andrew Solomon).

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Ten of these lens were made, and Barry Lyndon’s cinematographer, John Alcott, claimed that Kubrick brought three of the leftover lenses from this batch that had been sold to NASA, and they had to be extensively modified for him to be able to use on his 35mm movie camera (one of the lenses is located in the German Movie Museum in Frankfurt).

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Kubrick with NASA officials in the late 60s. Left to right: Frederick Ordway (in white), Deke Slayton, Arthur C. Clarke, unidentified man (behind Clarke), Stanley Kubrick, George Mueller
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Arthur C. Clarke talking to Kubrick in England. George Mueller of NASA is on the far right.

Co-produced by Point du Jour Production and ARTE France, the documentary was first air on French TV on October 16, 2002, and there was quite a bit of interest in the topic of whether or not Kubrick had filmed this footage. It was aired again on SBS TV in Australia on April 1, 2003 (note the date), and then a year later, at least ten television channels worldwide on the same calendar date, April 1, 2004, and afterwards the TV audience were treated to a debate, and also sent to a website which featured an interview with the director.

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In England it was aired on Channel 4, but not until September that same year (initially the BBC had rejected it because they perceived it as being part of an “anti-American campaign” in French documentaries), and in 2005, it was broadcast on the Canadian TV series “The Passionate Eye”, who described it this way:

How could the flag flutter when there’s no wind on the moon? During an interview with Stanley Kubrick’s widow an extraordinary story came to light. She claims Kubrick and other Hollywood producers were recruited to help the U.S. win the high stakes race to the moon. In order to finance the space program through public funds, the U.S. government needed huge popular support, and that meant they couldn’t afford any expensive public relations failures. Fearing that no live pictures could be transmitted from the first moon landing, President Nixon enlisted the creative efforts of Kubrick, whose 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) had provided much inspiration, to ensure promotional opportunities wouldn’t be missed. In return, Kubrick got a special NASA lens to help him shoot Barry Lyndon (1975).

Space Exploration. Apollo 11. pic: circa 25th July 1969. U.S. President Richard Nixon applauds the Apollo 11 astronauts, l-r, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin who are confined in the quarantine trailer. Apollo 11 with it's crew Neil Armstrong

If you have not yet deduced this from the information we’ve provided here, the documentary is actually a mockumentary.

Still, it was quite well done but entirely fake, of course. A lot of the people Karel worked with were in on the gag, but sometimes documentary footage was used from other sources and made to look real: the footage of President Richard Nixon, Lawrence Eagleburger and CIA director Richard Helms (among others was recycled from Karel’s earlier documentary Les hommes de la Maison Blanche.

The Plot Summary from Wikipedia explains it all quite well, and it’s pretty entertaining too:

The first part tells in an apparently neutral way the inception of the NASA lunar programme, emphasizing the issues related to its funding and the necessary public support to the programme. NASA regards Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the prototype of the show that the space programme needs to be in order to gain this support, leading them to pimp up the spacesuits and vessels and even to hire 700 Hollywood technicians, making all of Hollywood stop working on other projects. But the outcome of Apollo 11 is disappointing: although the landing is successful, Neil Armstrong makes a fool of himself and not a single shot of the moonwalk is usable.

The incapability of shooting images on the moon had been anticipated by Richard Nixon and his staff who had decided to fake the pictures on the moon, using the set of 2001 that was still available in London. Kubrick had refused, then accepted and finally directed the fake footage himself, appalled by the lack of skills of the CIA crew. KGB soon realized that “the whole thing was a hoax”, that Apollo 11 had indeed landed but it was physically impossible to make pictures in the lunar environment. Besides, they had found a photo showing a portrait of Kubrick lying on the false lunar soil in the studio.

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After the success of the fake footage, Nixon gets scared that the truth might be discovered, and in a drunken state asks CIA colonel George Kaplan to dispose of the whole film crew. The next morning he tries to cancel the order, but it’s too late: meanwhile Kaplan has gone mad, sent his killers and disappeared. The death squad goes to Vietnam where the film crew has sought refuge, but is immediately caught by the villagers: despite perfect accent and disguise, their commanding officer was black. Nixon decides to pull out the big guns and sends 150,000 men and a half of the 6th fleet to find and kill the four members of the crew. They fail. CIA takes over and assassinates them all but one, who takes shelter in a yeshiva in Brooklyn where he dies ten years later. Only Kubrick is spared.

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Five years after Apollo 11, Kubrick calls NASA to borrow the top-secret wide-aperture Zeiss lens he needs to make Barry Lyndon. As a result, Nixon’s successor decides to get rid of him as the last witness of the conspiracy. Informed of the threat to his life, Kubrick locks himself up in his home and never leaves it until his death.

As a conclusion, General Vernon Walters accepts to reveal the secret of Kubrick’s demise, but unexpectedly dies the next evening: he has accepted to break the CIA rule of silence and anonymity.

BONUS: Finally, please check out Night Flight’s friend Fabrice Mathieu‘s parody film mash-up MOON SHINING or: How Stanley Kubrick shot the Apollo 11 Mission? (added in May 2019):

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.