Destination Moon (1950)
” TWO YEARS IN THE MAKING!”
Director: Irving Pichel
Cast: John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers
Synopsis: One of the first science fiction films to attempt a high level of accurate technical detail tells the story of the first trip to the moon.
Although Destination Moon, George Pal’s speculative SF drama about the first manned mission to the moon, is acclaimed as one of the earliest SF movies to attempt a technically accurate account of space flight, it still manages to look pretty quaint at times today. Astronauts flick only one or two switches to initiate lift off, and walk around the exterior of their space rocket in magnetised boots. They also conduct radio interviews from the lunar surface (‘There’s terrific excitement on Oith!’ enthuses the excitable interviewer). But in other ways Destination Moon is quite prescient, thanks perhaps to the contribution of renowned SF author Robert A. Heinlein, upon whose novel the movie is based.
Destination Moon follows the first manned moon mission from conception to completion with a clear objective of adhering to authentic scientific theory, which could have made it something of a dry exercise in overblown conjecture; but Heinlein and co-writer Rip Van Ronkel obviously knew that it was important to hold the attention of the average viewer as the movie explained how a rocket could make it to the moon. To achieve this, they hit upon the genius idea of using popular cartoon character Woody Woodpecker to couch the scientific detail in animated comedy in a short film that is played for the benefit of potential investors (and, of course, members of the audience).
The men behind the plan to fly to the moon are Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), who has been unsuccessfully attempting to launch a rocket into space for four years, retired army officer General Thayer (Tom Powers — The Blue Dahlia, The Well), and successful businessman Jim Barnes (John Archer — Bowery at Midnight, White Heat). Their reasons for embarking on such a project without government funding are two-fold: Barnes wants to do it because it’s never been done before, while, without coming right out and mentioning the Communist threat, Thayer argues that they’re not the only ones who know the moon is now within reach, and that whoever owns the moon will ultimately control the earth. The government doesn’t have ready access to the fine minds necessary for the successful development of the project, they argue, only American industry does. Needless to say, it’s Thayer’s argument that wins over the leaders of US industry.
Construction of the rocket begins immediately, but isn’t without its pitfalls. Funds quickly run low, and permission to test the rocket is refused. So what do Barnes and his buddies do? They decide that they’ll just take off to the moon tomorrow. Who needs tests or training, eh? It’s only the moon! What could go wrong? There’s a race against time for our three heroes and the obligatory comic relief (Dick Wesson, playing Joe Sweeney, a simple radio operator from the Bronx) to climb aboard the rocket and get going before the police arrive with a court order denying them permission, but it’s not long before our four heroes are safely strapped into their cots and twiddling their dials to make rocket go. Their training is so non-existent that Thayer squeals like a girl when the g-forces start drawing his lips back from his mouth, and Sweeney professes amazement that, not only did they actually part from the earth, but he’s floating in the air.
A space exploration like Destination Moon wouldn’t be worthy of the genre if its heroes weren’t placed in peril, and the bulk of the rest of the movie is taken up with two hazardous situations, both of which are handled with an impressive degree of suspense. Firstly, Cargraves is accidentally set adrift from the rocket and begins floating off into space, necessitating the improvisation of an ingenious method of rescue by Barnes. Then, thanks to a botched landing by Barnes (Training? Who needs training?), our intrepid explorers are left without the reserves of fuel necessary to launch them back towards the Earth, even after they jettison everything within the rocket that isn’t bolted down — and even a fair few things that are. It’s typical, really — no sooner do we land on the moon than we start filling it with our junk.
One of the first of the SF movies of the 1950s, Destination Moon benefits from a noticeable absence of the more sensationalistic tendencies that blighted the genre and condemned it to Drive-In B-movie status. There are no monsters on the moon waiting to devour the astronauts, no space virus waiting to transform them into monsters or shrink them to the size of a gnat; each obstacle encountered in Destination Moon is a perfectly plausible one, even if the solutions to these obstacles aren’t quite so believable. It’s filmed in colour, which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere during the scenes on the moon (if you’ll pardon the pun), and while the acting is variable, it’s never bad enough to spoil our enjoyment of the movie.
(Reviewed 19th March 2014)