The Final Countdown (film)

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The Final Countdown
File:Final countdown 1980.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Don Taylor
Produced by Peter Vincent Douglas
Written by
Music by John Scott
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Edited by Robert K. Lambert
Optical House Inc.
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • August 1, 1980 (1980-08-01)
Running time
103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $12 million
Box office $16,647,800

The Final Countdown is a 1980 alternate history science fiction film about a modern aircraft carrier that travels through time to a day before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Produced by Peter Vincent Douglas and directed by Don Taylor, the film stars Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, James Farentino, Katharine Ross and Charles Durning. This was Taylor's final film.

Produced with the full cooperation of the United States Navy, set and filmed on board the real-life USS Nimitz supercarrier, The Final Countdown was a moderate success at the box office. In the years that followed, the film has developed a cult following among science fiction and military aviation fans.[1]


In 1980, the USS Nimitz takes on a civilian observer, systems analyst Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), on the orders of his reclusive and mysterious employer, Mr. Tideman (who, in the fictional storyline, had helped design much of the ship), just before it departs Pearl Harbor for a training mission in the Pacific Ocean. Out in the Pacific, the ship encounters a strange storm-like vortex which disappears after the ship passes through it. Initially unsure of what has happened, and having lost radio contact with Pacific Fleet Command, Captain Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas) orders General Quarters and the launch of reconnaissance aircraft which discover the intact U.S. Pacific battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor.[Note 1]

File:1941 and 1980 meeting.jpg
A key scene in The Final Countdown involves Japanese Zero fighters in the vanguard of an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, destroying a yacht when 1980s-era fighters come to the rescue of the yacht's survivors.

When a surface contact is spotted on the radar, Captain Yelland launches the ready alert, two Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jets, to intercept the contact. The contact, a 1940s civilian yacht, with a crew of five people, among them the fictional U.S. Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning), are surprised when the fighter jets pass by as they have never seen any aircraft of this kind before, and are awed by their speed. The patrol eventually witness the civilian yacht being attacked and destroyed by two Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, killing three of the crew members. The F-14 fighter aircraft are ordered to "draw them off". The Zeros shoot at the F-14s, but due to their incredible speed, the Zeros miss and inadvertently head toward the Nimitz, forcing the captain to order them shot down. The Nimitz rescues the yacht's remaining survivors: Chapman, his secretary Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross) and her dog, Charlie, as well as one of the Zero pilots. The Nimitz's CAG (Commander, Air Group), Commander Owens (James Farentino), an amateur historian, recognizes Samuel Chapman as a prominent United States senator who could have been Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate (and his potential successor) during his final re-election bid except for the fact that he disappeared shortly before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

After a Grumman E-2 Hawkeye discovers the Japanese fleet poised to attack Pearl Harbor, they eventually realize that they have been transported back in time to December 6, one day before the infamous attack. Captain Yelland has to decide whether to destroy the Japanese fleet and alter the course of history, or to stand by and allow history to proceed as "normal". After some intense debates on board, the Captain settles the dispute by "going by the book"; to defend America "past, present, and future" if attacked, and otherwise, to obey the orders of the then-current commander-in-chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The civilians and the Zero pilot are kept isolated, but while being questioned, the Japanese pilot grabs a weapon, kills his guards and holds the other survivors, the CAG, and Lasky as hostages, threatening to kill them unless he is given access to a radio so he can warn his commanding officers about the Nimitz which is far more powerful than anything in the Japanese fleet. When Captain Yelland and the crew "agree" with the Zero pilot's demand, he gets suspicious and when he orders the hostages to walk from the interrogation room to Yelland's import cabin, he suddenly grabs Laurel at gunpoint, threatening to kill her first if they attempt to trick him. The crisis is defused only after the CAG reveals enough of what he knows of history to distract the pilot long enough for Marines to kill him, but this also reveals the truth to the yacht survivors. The senator demands and is granted access to a radio to warn Pearl Harbor about the imminent attack, but when he identifies himself as aboard the USS Nimitz, the radio operator assumes it is a hoax, as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was then still on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Meanwhile, Laurel and Commander Owens become attracted to each other.

The senator demands for them to be taken to Pearl Harbor, but Captain Yelland sends the civilians with sufficient supplies via helicopter to an isolated Hawaiian island. The CAG goes with them. Once there, however, the senator tries to hijack the helicopter with a flare gun, but ends up destroying the helicopter and losing his life, while stranding the CAG and Laurel on the island.

The Nimitz launches a massive strike force against the incoming Japanese forces, but before they can reach the enemy armada, the time storm returns. After a futile attempt to outrun the storm, Yelland recalls the strike force, and the ship and the aircraft return to 1980 safely. Upon the Nimitz's return to Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet commander boards the ship to investigate. Meanwhile, Lasky and Laurel's dog Charlie, upon leaving the ship, finally encounter "Mr. Tideman" face-to-face, who is revealed to be a much older Commander Owens, along with his wife, Laurel. The final encounter ends with Owens inviting Lasky for a ride in his limousine with the words: "We have a lot to talk about."


Kirk Douglas as Capt. Matthew Yelland (4th from left).

As appearing in The Final Countdown (main roles and screen credits identified):[3]

  • Kirk Douglas as Captain Matthew Yelland, Commanding Officer, USS Nimitz
  • Martin Sheen as Warren Lasky
  • Katharine Ross as Laurel Scott
  • James Farentino as Commander Richard T. "Dick" Owens / Richard Tideman, Commander, Carrier Air Wing 8
  • Ron O'Neal as Cmdr. Dan Thurman, Executive Officer, USS Nimitz
  • Charles Durning as Senator Samuel Chapman
  • Victor Mohica as Black Cloud, USS Nimitz weather officer
  • James Coleman (credited as James C. Lawrence) as Lt. Perry
  • Soon-Tek Oh (credited as Soon-Teck Oh) as Simura
  • Joe Lowry as Cmdr. Damon
  • Alvin Ing as Lt. Kajima
  • Mark Thomas as Marine Cpl. Kullman
  • Harold Bergman as Bellman
  • Dan Fitzgerald as Navy doctor
  • Lloyd Kaufman as Lt. Cmdr. Kaufman


Filming on the flight deck of the Nimitz.

Kirk Douglas's son, Peter, as producer, was the driving force behind The Final Countdown.[4] With a limited budget but with a promising script, he was able to attract interest from the U.S. Navy. After seeing a script, officials from the Department of Defense offered full cooperation, but insisted that for safety and to maintain operational readiness, the film schedules would be dependent on the "on location" naval consultant, William Micklos.[5] Principal photography took place at Naval Air Station Key West, Naval Station Norfolk and off the Florida Keys, over a set of two five-week periods in 1979. Scenes at Pearl Harbor consisted of mainly stock footage with most of The Final Countdown exteriors shot on the Nimitz while at sea, and at drydock for interiors. During operations, an emergency landing took place with the production crew allowed to film the recovery of the aircraft on the Nimitz; the sequence appeared in the final film.[6]

Many of the Nimitz crew members were used as extras, a few with speaking parts; a total of 48 of the Nimitz crew appear as "actors" in the final credits.[7] The difficulties in filming a modern jet fighter were soon apparent when the first setup to record a F-14 takeoff at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, resulted in both camera and operator being pitched down a runway.[8][Note 2]

Dissension in the production crew led to major changes during location shooting, leading to a number of the crew being fired and replaced.[Note 3] Taylor's direction was considered workmanlike as he had a reputation for bringing projects in on time and on budget, but suggestions from the U.S. naval aviators were ultimately incorporated into the shooting schedules with the "B" crew placed in charge of all the aerial sequences that became the primary focus of the film.[6]

In order to film the aerial sequences, Panavision cameras were mounted on naval aircraft while camera-equipped aircraft and helicopters were also employed by the studio, including a Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, Learjet 35 and a B-25 bomber converted into a camera platform, and leased from Tallmantz Aviation. Three Mitsubishi A6M Zero replicas, originally built for the film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were flown by pilots from the Confederate Air Force, now called the Commemorative Air Force.[10] Two of the replicas were featured in a dogfight with F-14 Tomcats; a dissimilar engagement that was the first time that "the match-up of fighters with totally different speeds, totally different environments and weaponry had ever been done in film".[11]

In one scene where an F-14 "thumps" a Zero by flying under and streaking upward in front of the slower aircraft, the resultant "jet blast" of turbulent air was so intense that the control columns of both of the Zeros in the scene were violently wrenched out of the pilots' hands and caused both aircraft to momentarily tumble out of control.[Note 4] The lead pilot's headset, along with his watch were ripped off and out of the open canopy of his Zero, resulting in a few anxious moments as the F-14 pilots were unable to establish contact.[11] During the engagement when a Zero fires on a F-14, in order to get on the "six" of the low and slow Zero, the jet fighter did a low pullup that ended just 100 ft above the ocean in a screaming recovery.[11][Note 5]

During the climactic attack on Pearl Harbor, scenes reproduced in monochrome from Tora! Tora! Tora!, featured Aichi D3A Val dive bombers, Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters and Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo bombers.[1][Note 6]

Aircraft appearing in the production

Tomcats from VF-84 with a T-6 converted to resemble a Zero.


The Final Countdown was promoted as a summer blockbuster and received mixed reviews from critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times considered it more of an interesting, behind-the-scenes tour of the Nimitz. "We see planes landing and taking off with beautiful precision and, just to let us know that things don't always run smoothly on the Nimitz, we also see one plane, which has lost its landing hook, landing safely anyway because of the ship's emergency gear."[14][Note 7] Roger Ebert classified it as a "logic doesn't matter in a Star Wars(-like) movie". He went on to clarify: "Unfortunately, the movie makes such a mess of it that the biggest element of interest is the aircraft carrier itself."[15] Later reviews concentrated on the intriguing aspect of the time travel story, again stressing the military hardware was the real star.[16][17] The U.S. Navy sponsored the film premiere and exploited the film as a recruiting tool to the extent that The Final Countdown poster appeared in U.S. Navy recruiting offices shortly after the film's release.[14] Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert selected the film as one of their "dogs of the year" in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews.[18]


  • Nominee Best Science Fiction Film of Year — Saturn Award (Peter Vincent Douglas)
  • Nominee Best Actor — Saturn Award (Kirk Douglas)
  • Winner Golden Screen Award (German box office award)


The Final Countdown was released to theaters in the United States on August 1, 1980.[19] A novelization by Martin Caidin, based on the screenplay was released in the same month.[20] Although preceded by a video release, on March 30, 2004, The Final Countdown was released by Blue Underground on a two-DVD set (both full screen DVD, a widescreen DVD) and a special two-disc limited edition set that comes with a hologram cover.[4] Each edition was accompanied by special featurettes including a "behind-the-scenes" documentary as well as accessing overlaid commentary by the producer and other studio principals.[21] On November 4, 2008, a high-definition Blu-ray 2-disc set was also released, but did not include some of the earlier extra background material.[22]

See also



  1. During December 1941, the U.S. Navy Pacific fleet was based in Pearl Harbor and consisted mainly of battleships moored at harbor, as two aircraft carriers normally at Pearl Harbor, were at sea.[2]
  2. The first attempt to film a takeoff on the USS Nimitz resulted in a repeat of the earlier incident as the camera and operator were pitched off the deck, caught in a restraining net below decks.[8]
  3. Kaufman as unit production manager was upset that unnecessary costs and unreasonable demands were hampering progress.[6] After problems experienced on The Final Countdown, Kaufman set out as independent producer, head of the Troma Entertainment film studio.[9]
  4. At the conclusion of the dogfight scene, by sheer chance, the two Zeros spun away from each other, avoiding a midair collision.[11]
  5. In the final edit, the sound of the F-14 was actually punctuated by the scream of the pilot's wife when she saw the daily rushes, interspersed by the sound editor into the high-pitched afterburner whine. This scene has now become part of the urban legend of the film, described as a pilot's "death plunge".[11]
  6. Several later films and TV series relating to World War II in the Pacific have used footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! due to the film's "almost perfect documentary accuracy". These productions include Midway, Pearl (TV mini-series 1978), From Here to Eternity (TV mini-series 1979), Magnum P. I. episode "Lest We Forget" aired February 12, 1981 and Australia (2008).[12][13]
  7. When the production crew learned that an emergency landing was imminent, they quickly set up for photography; the A-7 aircraft was safely recovered.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Muir, John Kenneth. "Cult movie review: The Final Countdown (1980)". John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film/TV, August 28, 2008. Retrieved: May 18, 2012.
  2. Toland 1991, p. 5.
  3. "Credits: 'The Final Countdown' (1980)". IMDb. Retrieved: May 7, 2012.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kjolseth, Pablo. "Home Video Reviews: The Final Countdown". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: September 7, 2012.
  5. Suid 2002, pp. 421–423.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Gregory, David. Interview with Lloyd Kaufman (documentary featurette that accompanies 'The Final Countdown' DVD). Blue Underground, 2004.
  7. "The Final Countdown DVD (End credits)". Blue Underground, 2004.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gregory, David. "The Final Countdown DVD (overlaid commentary)". Blue Underground, 2004.
  9. Kaufman et al. 2003, p. 62.
  10. Cooper, Gregory. "Zero Pilot Journal". CAF Dispatch, 1979.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Gregory, David. "Starring the Jolly Rogers" — Interviews with the Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron (documentary featurette that accompanies 'The Final Countdown' DVD). Blue Underground, 2004.
  12. Dolan 1985, p. 87.
  13. Frietas 2011, p. 333.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Canby, Vincent. " 'The Final Countdown' (1980) - Carrier Nimitz stars in 'Countdown'". The New York Times, August 1, 1980.
  15. Ebert, Roger. "The Final Countdown". Chicago Sun Times, August 5, 1980. Retrieved: May 7, 2012.
  16. "The Final Countdown (1980, USA)". Black Hole Reviews, April 2, 2009. Retrieved: May 7, 2012.
  17. Carrazzoa, Vince. "The Final Countdown (1980)". DVDnet. Retrieved: May 7, 2012.
  18. Sneak Previews: Worst of 1980
  19. The Final Countdown at the Internet Movie Database
  20. Caidin 1980, p. versa.
  21. The Final Countdown DVD. Blue Underground.
  22. The Final Countdown Blu-ray. Blue Underground. Retrieved: September 3, 2012.


External links