The Marabar Caves

Graham Coster

Faking it is no good.

If you need caves, and there are no caves – if you’re shooting A Passage to India you need caves – then you need dynamite. If you need grass on the battlefield – in Heaven’s Gate there was to be grass on the battlefield, and at Kalispell, Montana there was no grass – then you need a comprehensive under-battlefield irrigation system. Raise the Titanic? You must raise a Titanic. To film it, you must film it.

This story is indeed true. It invented itself as it happened. The richest man; the biggest airplane; the greatest feat of construction; the tallest hangar; the longest delays; the bitterest government hearings; the narrowest escape from cancellation; the sheerest thrill on 2 November 1947 of the first flight, and the shortest, and last. This picture is the story of How Howard Hughes Built The Spruce Goose. It will be huge, How-weird-Huge. This film will gross.

The Director’s last has been massive. The next will be a cathedral to itself before which people will be quiet. His brief is unbounded. The Director envisions.

Solemn, rapt faces craned over drawing boards. A floor littered with curling blueprints of strange, multiple-fuselaged craft, bulbous and finny as if trawled from the deep sea. A complicit nodding coven around the sleek pencilled prototype. The corner of the frame peeling over into the next tableau. All this in silence.

And then the noise, so that the very grain of the film seems tremulous and dancing on the screen. The thundery clank of tackle traversing vast gantries. The soaring of saws. Dull, expanding thuds and detonations unlocatable in the hangar’s hovering shadows. Ant-men scurrying over the fuselage. A wing as wide as a road: close on a man working inside it – it is his own sloping-roofed attic, endlessly receding. In the cockpit a hundred needles quiver in a hundred dials. The crazed booming of the engines ...

But the Director is jumping ahead. This is what it is like, he says – I’ll tell you:

You are building a Boeing 747 out of plywood. (Why plywood? asks the film company executive.) Metal is rationed. All for fighters and bombers. 1942.

You make the wings a hundred feet wider still – use the wings off a B-52, if you like.

You take out the four RB-211 turbofans, and hope your eight propeller radials will get it up instead. (-----?) Unless you want to invent the jet engine as well!

You pull off the undercarriage, and you drop the Jumbo in the sea! That’s where it has to take off, and where it has to land again. (I hope the crew can swim, says the executive.) You make it, therefore, float. You have built a giant flying boat.

Put like that, says the executive, Put like that ... They can only have built it for someone to make a film about it!

They were going to build five hundred! says the Director. (Do this as Pathé News sub-titles over rapid succession of monochrome stills: ship blazing in a rose of fire against corrugated sea; ship canted over into the sluggish waves like a shoe lost in mud ...)

1941, and the German U-boats’ terrifying vendetta is at its height.

The American Merchant Navy is being decimated

Supplies are not getting through.

The war effort is sinking fast

At the eleventh hour a possible solution is hit upon – an idea audacious but breathtaking in its ambition

Quite simply: you cannot torpedo a plane.

A Merchant Air Force! (the executive) – sailing its cargo above the seas! A serene, whirring, sky-borne flotilla! Beautiful ponderous birds!

They made only one, says the Director. By the time they got started the U-boat threat was past anyway.

They should still have built them all, says the executive.

Howard is the only man who will take the project on. He has no formal training in engineering or aeronautics. (Director’s grim pause.) Five – long – years. By the end he is desperately trying to get it ready to fly, or at least taxi, in order to answer the critics m the government who have summoned him to special hearings alleging violation and non-fulfilment of contract and misappropriation of defence funds, and prove to himself that he has not sacrificed all this time and money, for most of it has been his, to the greatest white elephant ever –

I can tell you that I designed every nut and bolt that went into this airplane!

I worked anywhere from eighteen to twenty hours a day on this project ...!

I have my reputation rolled up in it, and I have stated that if it was a failure I probably will leave this country and never come back, and I mean it ...!

– and all the while continue to administer and develop the furthest reaches of his colossal business empire ...

He can’t have needed much sleep, says the executive.

He would show up at the Long Beach hangar at two in the morning, says the Director, and run the eight engines all night.

Didn’t he get very thin later on? remembers the executive suddenly. Wasn’t he a bedful of bones by the time he died? And to have built such a great fat plane ...

Drank lots of milk then, says the Director. Drank milk all the time. Even had a carton beside him in the cockpit on the maiden flight.

She flew! cries the executive, Of course she flew! She stormed across the bay – she filled the bay! – and the water scrambled in a white panic around the hull, and as the engine speed climbed the crescendo of its own roar the shining silver behemoth was instantly as light as a Cessna: she drifted into the air like a languid leaf and carried herself on, and up, and on, and we watched her high and bellowing above us, circling slowly and meditatively under the sun, and then she thundered away over the open sea and the horizon, and you wanted to strain your voice out after her until your own roar matched and joined hers ...

One minute, says the Director. Flew for one minute. Lifted abruptly off the sea, when no one was expecting, rose to eighty feet, hung there just above the waves as it crossed a mile of the bay. Then suddenly it yaws alarmingly to starboard, and Howard drops it down smartly on the water. Back in the harbour Howard gets out, and says he likes to make surprises. For the next thirty years he never tries again. Kept saying he would; they kept getting it ready; kept saying he would.

He liked to make surprises, confirms the executive.

But do we make it? asks the Director.

What kind of scale were you thinking of? says the executive.

Did they make The Battle of Britain with Airfix kits? says the Director.

No, the Director says to his producer. No models. No holograms. We have to build our own.

Work begins. The designers and engineers report that it will require a completely new method of construction. How to bond wafer-thin skins of birch wood into a lamination as strong as steel? How, even, to erect the chasmic hangar they need to build it in? The Director re-runs over and again the newsreel footage of that solitary flight. We have got to get it to fly like that, he says. It must be exactly like that.

The executive wonders one day, scrutinising the burgeoning budget, if it is not a huge risk ... if it crashes ... should they not have a spare-should they not be building two ...?

Two years, a payroll of hundreds, and the project is still at the design stage. It is communicated to the Director that, as the initiator of a plan to construct the biggest wooden airplane in the world, he has no training in engineering or aeronautics. The studio is leafing through the cheque stubs. Economies have to be made.

The Director has to abandon his plan for a second hangar – the set where he was to shoot the scurrying-men and infinite-attic sequences. Instead he is forced to film the scene of the actual construction. The project falls further behind as the workforce have to stop and retire for days on end to allow hundreds of extras in to swarm and stride over the emerging torso of the craft.

Four years, and the studio has discovered that the Director is spending most of his time on other projects, cannot be contacted, is unavailable for crucial decisions. The hangar is still filled with people; the meter is still running.

Before a convocation of the film company’s full board the Director’s eyes falter and dodge, and then settle on the executive in a stare that knows its own defiance. You can have no idea! he says. Our undertaking is pro tean! Pharaonic! I assertively assure you we will conclusively finish. Don’t fret about it I’m not gonna to deliver ya five and a half hours like Cimino!

He returns them to the ending: to that final minute – it is all he can think about. This is what it is all for, he says. This is what it is leading up to. An interior shot: the cockpit full of scrabbling journalists, yammering at Howard against the deafening clamour of the engines. You gonna fly it, Mr Hughes? You gonna fly it today? Cut in long shots of the great beast furrowing into the foam. Back to the moiling cockpit – half the journalists have clattered down into their boat after the second taxi-run, so certain are they he won’t fly it! – and the quizzical brows of the co-pilot as only he sees Howard set the flaps for fifteen degrees ... A redoubled radial roar, and in the swelling, brimming surge that takes hold of the airframe and the breath in their chests it must be the sea itself that is streaming back past them, so fast that it will soon, sooner, leave them ...!

And the next instant we are looking from way out to sea, so far that the crowds packing the quay and shading their eyes from the sun have become the braided band of the horizon and in a placid thrum of engines, on her narrow skirts of sky, as the credits float up, she is nosing our way ...

Cancel, and lose that? says the Director quietly.

Cancel, and lose all our money? says the executive quietly.

The cockpit is jammed with film crew – for the moment when the sun-glinted sheet of the water veers vertiginously out of the windscreen. The massed crowds and the armada of small boats the Director has been dissuaded from hiring have turned up anyway. From the bridge of his ship out in the bay the Director regards the TV cameras mounted on the boat alongside. He cannot fly the Goose, and film the Goose – and he has dreamed of both!

As the eight propellers twitch and dissolve into flickering disks the Director is consumed with apprehension. Is the sea calm enough for a horizon-steady minute-long distance shot? Is the sun so bright that it will smother the plane silver as a giant flying cigar tube? At this distance, will the sound mikes pick up from the churning engines merely the putter of a lawnmower? Over everything, the knowledge that there is but this one chance – for while the plane is not yet ready, the company’s lawyers are. It has to fly now.

The final shot goes perfectly, first time. A minute after it has begun – the craft already back on the water and heading for the dock – it finishes.

A year later the studio has not seen a first cut.

Still cutting, says the Director.

Another six months, and the executive and the Director sit in a screening room. The screen fills with blue – light for the sky, darker for the sea. The Spruce Goose picks up speed, rises in the water, lifts, flies low over the sea, and touches down. The screen goes black.

In itself, it is quite a boring sequence, says the Director after a while.

What about the rest, says the executive.

I don’t know, says the Director. There is the story.

We have a 1947 newsreel of this, says the executive, and new TV footage of this, and now this. You have been making this for five years; you have spent forty million bucks; you have spent my leather swivel chair, my Cadillac, my blotter, my cup of instant coffee and the vending machine that made it, YOU HAVE SPENT THE STUDIO ON THE GREATEST EPIC EVER MADE AND IT IS ONE MINUTE? Why – just – one – single – minute?

Truthfully I do not know, sir, says the Director. I don’t know that he did. He could have flown it further – just not landed it then; he could have flown it again. But this is where it seems to start, and where it seems to end. Note that there were no lifejackets on board – no emergency procedures at all: none of the frenzied journalists were even in their seats If he had flown it on, out over the sea ... or wheeled it round and inland, over the town ...? That sudden slewing to starboard – did euphoria just stomp too heavily on the pedals, or was the whole thing simply unstable? Did it only fly to eighty feet because that was as high as its underpowered frame could heave itself to? By making it fly for just one minute, did he not know what he had done?

Don’t even know, says the Director, if he meant to fly it at all. Why did he set the flaps if he didn’t? But why did he say he was only going to taxi it if he did? And why did he make an extra, third, taxi-run if he didn’t? And why did he bring it down again so suddenly if he did? Are we looking at a man flying a huge plane, or a huge plane flying a man? Do you see how it doesn’t end with this, but only starts?

This is a tiny matter, says the executive. Damn-all else happened.

No, immense as the aircraft, says the Director. Just isn’t there.

We’re left with a very large aircraft, says the executive. Fly it again.

Way too big, says the Director. Way too big. Do you realise how big that thing is? I cannot imagine ... All we know is that he never flew it again.

Well, did anyone ever ask him? says the executive.

I told you all he said, says the Director.

They run the film again. A mammoth sea plane: it is flying – just. Black. Again: a mammoth sea plane: it is flying – just. Black. Again: a mammoth sea plane: it is flying – just. Black.

They are beautiful, colossal caves, the Marabar, and those you build yourself – feel every last inch of rock at your fingertips! – are dynamite. Now you can only accompany Adela to the entrance, and wait there, and watch her come out. Faking it is no good.