Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Destination Moon (1950)

Directed by:
Irving Pichel

When producer George Pal announced his upcoming Technicolor extravaganza Destination Moon to the general public in 1948, little did he or anyone else realize what would follow. The extensive print and radio publicity campaign for Pal's half-a-million-budgeted film was in effect from before the film even actually began filming. The announcement and media coverage not only brought out a vulture or two - see: Robert L. Lippert's Rocketship X-M (1950) - but also awakened a huge interest in all things science fiction; something that would also dominate the horror genre for the rest of the decade (hence why the film also has a home here on The Bloody Pit of Horror). At the time this was made, space travel was nothing more than a farfetched fantasy. A hope, a dream, a possibility. 1950 was, after all, still seven long years away from Sputnik I and the official beginning of the Space Age, and nearly two whole decades away from man's first step on the moon. Pal hired screen veteran (and blacklisting victim) Irving Pichel, who, as a character actor had a memorable role in Dracula's Daughter (1936) and as a filmmaker had co-directed the classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932), to helm the project. He commissioned writers Rip (Alford) Van Rankel and James O'Hanlon to pen the script, but pioneering sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein perhaps had the most substantial role of all; also having a big hand in the finished script, allowing for use of ideas carried over from his novels "Rocket Ship Galileo" (1947) and "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (1949) and signing on as the film's technical adviser.

The plot is a very simple: a small group of men decide to build a rocket ship and go to the moon. And yes, that's pretty much it. They do not discover aliens or monsters or a lost civilization or man-eating plants or even love-starved cat women while they're there because, in 1950, just going to the moon was fantastic enough all by itself. Scientist / rocket designer Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and veteran military man General Thayer (Tom Powers) are both involved in a government sanctioned project that backfires when the rocket explodes and becomes "the most expensive pile of junk in history." Four years pass and the plucky General wants to get the team together again and take another crack at it. The only problem is that the government now wants no part in backing another project. But that's OK: millionaire industrialists have a lot of money to throw around, right? Thayer decides to go the private financing route and enlists the aid of wealthy aircraft manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) - who also had a hand in constructing the first rocket - to help secure the money.

To butter potential investors up, they show them an amusing cartoon starring "one of Hollywood's best-known actors;" Woody Woodpecker (yes, Woody Woodpecker), who gives them an easy-to-digest lesson in Space Shuttle 101. To seal the deal, they utilize the same tried-and-true tactic governments and religious institutions have used effectively for years in order to get their way: fear-mongering. As the General explains, if we don't get to the moon first, "they" will and then we may be in trouble. There's a lot of mention of "they" or "them" in the first half, which is thinly-disguised code for "the Russians." "They" may have sent undercover agents to the U.S. to sabotage the original rocket program and "they" may also want to beat us to the moon so "they" can set up missiles and aim them in our direction. It's enough of a scare to get all of the money-bags to fork over the dough out of sheer obligation to this great country of ours and humankind in general. Now with the project financed and back on track, another rocket called the "Luna' is constructed and multi-colored spacesuits and magnet boots are designed. The government shows up to try to shut them down so our heroes - somewhat ill-prepared - decide to hastily load up their supplies and blast off.

Accompanying the General, Dr. Cargraves and Jim on the trip is a fourth man, Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson); a last minute replacement for the original radio operator after he's rushed to the hospital to have his appendix removed. Joe is there to represent us: the "common man" aka "the unscientific man." He's also a stereotypical Brooklynite who pronounces "Earth" like "Oith" and is used both to break up the tension with his annoying comic relief and work as an inquisitive plot device to ensure that things are explained to us. The four men manage to break through our atmosphere in their rocket and begin heading toward the moon. While out of the ship to check for potential damage caused by the takeoff, one floats off into space and must be rescued using an oxygen tank for propulsion and direction. After landing, they explore the moon's surface and finally come to the conclusion they've burnt up so much fuel that they'll never be able to get back unless they're able to lose a lot of excess weight. With time running out, the ship stripped down and still more weight left to go, will one of the men have to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the others can make a safe return trip home?

A critically and financially successful venture in its day, Destination Moon has been widely criticized here in recent years. As a firm believer that films should be evaluated in context to when they were made, I can't really get down with a lot of that. Sure, there's some bad science in here (just like any other older sci-fi film), but there's also a surprising amount of accurate science. In fact, I'd venture to say that this is about as grounded and scientifically accurate as it could possibly be for its day using a mixture of known scientific principles and educated speculation. Not only that, but it has proven to be downright prophetic in many regards to how later space missions would play out. 

Another point of frequent criticism is the ending, which has been criticized because we never get to see the ship or our heroes return to Earth. Seeing how the whole point of the film was for these men to overcome various obstacles and uncertainties to get to the moon, I can't say that an absence of postscript bothered me. There is indeed a lack of action in the film, leading some to describe it as "dull" or noting that "nothing happens" but there's enough dramatic tension to compensate. There's also something quite nice about experiencing the fantasies, wonders and aspirations of another era with characters who possess a quiet determination, optimism and nobility on a solemn and mysterious landscape. I found the "dated" aspects only enhanced my enjoyment of this as a document of man's hopes and dreams before those hopes and dreams actually came to fruition.

Destination Moon ended up snagging two Oscar nominations; one for its Lee Zavitz-supervised Special Effects (which it won) and another for Ernst Fegté and George Sawley's color art direction / set decoration (which it did not win). Notable painter, astronomical artist and science fiction book and magazine illustrator Chesley Bonestell provided wonderful matte artwork used for the moon landscape and cracked surface, Leith Stevens composed the thunderous score (and would also score other later 50s sci-fi films like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE [1951], also for Pal, and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS [1953]) and there's even brief use of stop motion animation. To further promote the film, Heinlein contributed a story treatment of the script - also titled "Destination Moon" - to Short Stories Magazine in 1950. There was also a 10-page movie comic published by Fawcett (which went for a dime back then but now goes for several thousand dimes on ebay), a soundtrack album and special issues of Astounding Science Fiction, Popular Mechanics and Strange Adventures magazines devoted specifically to the film.

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