Back in June I reviewed George Pal’s first Science Fiction film, “Destination Moon” (Here:
http://www.republibot.com/content/classic-sf-movie-review-%E2%80%9Cdesti... ) a movie with some fairly profound pacing problems and spotty acting, but a heart as big as all outdoors. Ridley Scott once said that he wanted to be “The John Ford of Science Fiction Cinema,” though really Pal had already filled that role. Pal’s career went onward and upward from “moon,” cranking out a new eye-popping Science Fiction film every year, each one more successful than the rest. I had hoped to review all of his movies in the order they were released so we could sort of chart his progression as a film maker, but I guess that isn’t gonna’ happen, so let’s just jump right to the bitter end of his surprising run of successful films with “Conquest of Space.”
I absolutely adored this movie as a kid. I can still vividly remember the first time I saw it. I was already familiar with the “Von Braun” plan for space exploration, as depicted in Colliers and then written up in one form or another in a zillion different books, but seeing the movie - actually *seeing* the things Von Braun and Willie Ley were talking about - wow! I adored the movie, I watched it a zillion times on TV. I eventually videotaped it and watched it a zillion more times. I loved, loved, loved this film, and spent most of eight grade painstakingly drawing up schematics for the Mars ship and the space station, and ultimately combining the two in my own plan for a Mars mission.
Yeah, I got beat up a lot as a kid. Probably I deserved it.
Anyway, it was with great eagerness and excitement that I anticipated re-viewing and reviewing this film for our site. Alas…
PLAY BY PLAY
In the not-too-distant future (As seen from the mid-1950s), there’s a big donut-shaped space station in orbit 1000 miles above earth, and a large flying-wing spaceship floating next to it. A supply rocket pulls up next to it while the Space Station commander, Colonel Merritt and his son, Captain Barney Merritt argue about the amount of time they’ve spent in space, and Barney’s desire to be transferred back to earth. He’s been in space for a year now, and was just married four months before he was deployed. The Colonel, meanwhile, has been up here for three years, which, Barney said, has been quite a strain on mother.
Meanwhile, over at the big winged space ship, we see a team of international goons doing construction in amazingly awkward-looking space suits, and cracking wise. There’s a Swede, A Japanese guy, a German, an Italian, and two Americans: a generic Midwestern type named “Roy” and a stereotypical wisecracking Jewish guy from Brooklyn named “Jackie Siegle,” who’ll provide our not-terribly-funny comedy relief for the picture. Roy - the most disposable of the characters - is suddenly paralyzed, so they haul him back to the station by “Space Taxi.”
Once back at the station, Roy is inexplicably fine, so Sgt. Mahoney - a 50-something Irish master sergeant type - hauls him off to the station’s German doctor/psychiatrist. After the checkup, the doctor informs the colonel that Roy is beyond the limits of his psychological endurance, and will continue to have hysterical paralysis and other problems, and recommends sending him back to earth. The German construction guy we saw earlier - Artemis Gordon from “The Wild Wild West” - is also the doctor’s orderly (Why not? They’re both German) argues that Roy should be allowed to go, but there’s no choice. The doctor details the symptoms of a mental breakdown.
Immediately thereafter, we see the colonel going into his quarters, and having a minor symptom of such a breakdown. The construction goons live and work together as a separate command inside the space station. They take a lot of ribbing over this from the regular station crew, which runs fifty to a hundred people. Honestly, the place seems as crowded as a Nuclear Missile Sub, though roomier. They’re on a special diet, too, eating food pills. Sgt. Mahoney explains that he’s known the Colonel for thirty years, since the Korean War (Which puts this movie somewhere around 1981-1983), and we find out that he doesn’t like Barney, the Colonel’s son, whom he considers an ingrate. “The night the colonel got word he was born…he looked up at the moon and said ‘that’s his birthday present, now I just have to go and get it for him.’ Ha! A balloon on a string would mean as much to him!”
An waiter shows up with a tray of real food for Roy - a kind of dickish move to let the guy know he’s washed out. The others, after a year of eating food pills - stare lasciviously at the food. Roy can’t bring himself to eat it, and storms out of the mess hall, and Artie follows him. Suddenly the station is hit by a meteor and everyone goes flying around banging into walls and falling over tables while the damage crews take care of the situation.
The next day another supply rocket arrives at the station carrying Paul Drake from the Perry Mason show. Paul is a scientist with new orders for the colonel. The Colonel has had another episode, but manages to cover it up - evidently he’s been having a lot of these. Up to this point, they were under the impression that the ship they were building was for the first mission to the moon, which the Colonel was all for. Paul informs him that their actual mission is to go to Mars. The Colonel responds badly to this, oddly, and Paul points out that the moon was never anything more than “A test hop” to check out the equipment and come back before they launched an expedition to Mars. He points out that the Colonel has been in on this from day one, and seems rather confused by the Colonel’s confusion on the subject. He gives the colonel his new orders, and a promotion to General. He also gives Barney transfer orders back to earth, but seeing as his daddy will be leading the mission to Mars, Barney decides to volunteer for that mission instead.
The newly-promoted General asks for volunteers from his construction goons and simultaneously badmouths the mission, again to the confusion of Paul Drake. Artemis Gordon, the Japanese dude, and Jackie Siegel end up going, the Italian guy and the Swede are happy to be off the hook and heading back to earth. During this scene, the Japanese guy makes a very impassioned speech which is worth repeating here in its entirety:
“Some years ago, my country chose to fight a terrible war. It was bad, I do not defend it, but there were reasons. Somehow those reasons are never spoken of. To the Western world at that time, Japan was a fairybook nation: little people living in a strange land of rice-paper houses... people who had almost no furniture, who sat on the floor and ate with chopsticks. The quaint houses of rice paper, sir: they were made of paper because there was no other material available. And the winters in Japan are as cold as they are in Boston. And the chopsticks: there was no metal for forks and knives and spoons, but slivers of wood could suffice. So it was with the little people of Japan, little as I am now, because for countless generations we have not been able to produce the food to make us bigger. Japan's yesterday will be the world's tomorrow: too many people and too little land. That is why I say, sir, there is urgent reason for us to reach Mars: to provide the resources the human race will need if they are to survive. That is also why I am most grateful to be found acceptable, sir. I volunteer.”
Genuinely moving, isn’t it? As goofy as these movies are, they really do have their heart in the real place. Anyway, after this we’re treated to an entirely inappropriate and sloppy song and dance routine by Rosemarie Clooney - really! - and a bevy of out-of-step dancing girls, and then the Mars Crew say goodbye to their family and loved ones. This is moving and understated when Artemis Gordon does it, low comedy when Siegel does it.
The Spaceship to Mars fires its engines leaving earth - and all the interesting stuff from the first act - behind. The movie starts to drag. The space ship is reasonably designed, but visually it’s about as interesting as a grain silo. Sgt. Mahoney - who was twenty years too old for the mission - stowed away onboard, much to the General’s annoyance. (“What possible reason could you have for this?” “You forgot your toothbrush, sir.”) The General spends a lot of time reading his bible, and getting more and more withdrawn. We’re treated to this conversation:
The General: According to the Bible, Man was created on the Earth. Nothing is ever mentioned of his going to other planets. Not one blessed word.
Barney: Well, at the time the Bible was written, it wouldn't have made much sense, would it?
The General: Does it now? The Biblical limitations of Man's wanderings are set down as being the four corners of the Earth. Not Mars, or Jupiter, or infinity. The question is, Barney, what are we -- explorers or invaders?
Barney: Invaders? Of what, sir?
The General: The sacred domain of God. His heavens. To Man, God gave the Earth, nothing else. This taking of... of other planets... it's almost like an act of blasphemy.
Barney: But why? They belong to no one else.
The General: We don't know that.
Barney: But look, sir, it couldn't be just an accident that at the very time when Man's resources on Earth are reaching an end, Man develops the ability to leave his own world and seek replenishment on other planets. The timing is what fascinates me: it's too perfect to be accidental.
The General: Those other planets might already be tenanted.
Barney: Oh, I don't think so... the universe was put here for Man to conquer.
They have a near-collision with an asteroid while Siegel and Artemis Gordon are outside the ship, and are forced to change course. This saves the ship, but meteor fragments following the asteroid kill Artie. We’re treated to a couple uncomfortable but well done scenes in the aftermath of this, when Artie’s body - still tethered to the ship - is visible outside the window, and Jackie going increasingly frantic keeps yelling “Just get lost, will ya?” at the corpse outside until Mahoney calms him down in an unexpectedly paternal way. The General takes his bible outside and buries Artie in space in a moving fashion.
It takes them several weeks to get back on course, during which time they’re out of contact with earth. When they finally make radio contact with Paul Drake back on the station, the General starts rambling about sacrilege and how - if the laws of physics weren’t preventing him from doing it - he’d take the ship back to earth, then blow it up along with all the plans for building it to prevent such a sin from happening again. Siegel hears this and informs Mahoney and the Japanese Dude that their commander is off his nut “And not just that Bible stuff he’s always spouting, he’s talking about blowing up the ship.” Mahoney gives him a dressing down, (“If you were one tenth the man the General is, you’d be twice the man you are!”) and then - in another surprisingly sensitive scene - he tries to rein in their C.O. “Sam? How about coming down to the parlor and sharing a nice cup of tea with an old friend” The General’s reaction to this - really just a forlorn ‘thank you’ bit of face acting is really the best scene in the movie: He manages to convey crazy, gratitude, and fear over what he’s becoming.
In the third act they get to Mars, but the General tries to crash the spaceship into the surface, killing them all. Barney manages to wrest control from him, and they land, then go outside. The General dumps most of their water supply, and Barney rushes back inside assuming it’s a broken pipe or something, only to find his dad down on the engineering deck, attempting to dump some chemical or other that’ll have a hypergolic reaction with the water that’ll blow them all to kingdom come. The two of them fight, and a gunshot is heard outside, so Mahoney rushes in just in time to see The General die. In fact, he shot himself in the struggle, but Mahoney already hates Barney, so of course he takes it the wrong way and ignores the fact that Barney’s got a bullet in his shoulder from the fight, shot by his own dad. There’s an entirely-fake scene in which Mahoney tells Barney that he’ll have a date with the gallows when they get back home. It’s not either actor’s fault, it’s just badly written.
Things grind to a halt from here on. They bury the General on Mars, beneath a cross that looks like wood, but obviously can’t be. The prowl around on the surface doing research stuff. The Japanese Dude plants some flower seeds he brought from earth near the General’s grave, using the mud from the water the General spilled to keep ‘em moist. It’s dull. They keep getting thirstier and thirstier, but they can’t go home because the planets aren’t in the right position yet. They’re stuck on Mars for a year. Finally, on Christmas, Siegel delivers a fairly aggressively atheistic speech about how all that religion stuff is fine and all, but it stops once you leave earth orbit. “Only God can make a tree, right? Ok, so where is it? Where are the trees? Where’s the water? Where’s the water?” he screams, and at that exact moment, it starts to snow.
Their water problems solved, we go back to being bored, watching boring people do boring things on a boring planet in a boring way. Honestly, I was falling asleep by the time the Japanese dude‘s flower blooms. There’s an entirely artificial conflict to add some tension - the ship gets slightly out of position for their return to earth - but this is resolved in silly fashion, and en rout home, Mahoney declares that “It was a fine and noble way the General met his fate, bravely sacrificing his life so his crew could make a safe landing on a hostile new world. That’s the way I’ll tell it, anyway.”
“A fitting tribute to the man who conquered space,” Barney says.
This movie is gorgeous. I mean, just check this crap out:
The first act of this movie is genuinely interesting, with a fair deal of energy and neat stuff happening all over the place. Unfortunately, once they leave the station the boredom sets in, and once they hit Mars the movie grinds to a halt. It’s so dull that even a gunfight can’t liven it up. I really was falling asleep the other day when I re-watched this movie, and it was mid-afternoon. I wasn’t tired at all when I sat down.
This movie gives a credit as “Based on the book Conquest of Space by Willie Ley.” This is odd because Ley’s 1949 book isn’t fiction, it’s science, outlining his plans for exploring the solar system. “Based on” in this case, I guess, means using Ley’s scientific concepts and grafting a story on top of ‘em. Even so, all of the stuff we see here might have originated with Willie’s book, but it’s clearly been gussied up by the 1950 space exploration articles from Colliers magazine (
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_Will_Conquer_Space_Soon! ), which, of course, Ley collaborated on. Our Australian friend David Sander has spent the better part of the last decade making a movie that's based on this same source material (Details here: http://www.republibot.com/content/interview-david-sander-talks-about-man... ) and I can't say I blame him in the least. There is a really giddy thrill in seeing reasonably accurate depictions of what the actual space engineers themselves thought space would be like. The generically named space station (“The Wheel”) for instance, is exactly like the donut-shaped station from the Colliers articles, first proposed in somewhat sloppier fashion by Werner von Braun in 1946. The massively overengineered Mars ship (Generically named “Space Ship One”) is straight out of those same concepts. The “Rockets” are all obviously a variation on this right here http://astronautix.com/lvs/vonn1956.htm . I can’t tell you how cool it is to see a movie that doesn’t use the word “Space Shuttle” at all, and that distinguishes between rockets to orbit and actual spaceships traveling between worlds. Yes, we've gone to space, yes we've been to the moon (Which they evidently hadn't in this film), yes we've had a few space station, but this, this, this my friends is space with style!
The movie makes it very clear that the main spaceport on earth is located on Hawaii - all the visuals confirm this - and that’s a pretty reasonable assumption: It’s closer to the equator than Florida, it’s on the shipping routs, but far enough away from populated places not to worry about dropping spent stages on them, it’s frankly a good choice. Curiously, however, dialog in the movie says that the main spaceport is in Muroc, California. This could be a change in script between the time the movie was filmed and the time the effects were done, or it could be a miscommunication between the director and the effects team, or it could be that there’s more than one spaceport.
Another curious and strangely-affirming thing in this movie is that they make it very clear there will be enlisted men in space. Why affirming? Because Space is entirely white-collar in our world, only college boys need apply. I find it all kinds of optimistic to suggest that there’d be room for grunts and jarheads and third-class bolt turners and whatnot. Very egalitarian, very American, alas, very much not the thing that ended up happening.
The international flavor of this movie was probably somewhat surprising and even offputting at the time. We’ve got Italians, Germans, Japanese, Swedes, Irish. The movie makes it very clear that Americans are all calling the shots, but dialog makes it clear that though Space Exploration was initially an American Military venture, it has been “Internationalized” at some point in the not-too-recent past. (“It was bad enough having to answer to one government, now we’ve got lots of them calling the shots” - I paraphrase slightly, owing to a bad memory. Sorry) Even the Americans in the film might have been a bit offputting to audiences at the time: there’s a couple black people in the crew on the station (Check the Mess Hall scene), there’s a loudmouthed Jewish guy who’s clearly dabbling with Atheism, and of the three white American dudes who figure at all in the story, two of ‘em go crazy, one of them murderously so. Even so, hats off to George Pal for showing us a reasonably racially integrated future, even when it was unpopular to do so. Thanks also to Pal for showing us a future in which Germans and Japanese had been re-integrated into world society, and which felt comfortable enough to be a little ambiguous about the economic reasons behind war.
The movie gives us a few clues about what the history of this world was like, diverging from the Korean War. After that - coincidentally - was the Indochina War, and then China itself, the implication that the PRC had been pacified. There are no Russians in the film, no indication of whether or not the cold war continues, though dialog mentions the Space Corps is run by “Every nation on earth,” it’s unclear if this is literally the case, or just a generalized catch phrase. In any event, the Station has been in orbit about three years, (Probably starting construction in 1979 or 1980), and the Space Ship has been under construction for a year. Furthermore, the events of the movie itself take place over the course of about two and a half to three years, though this isn’t telegraphed very well.
I totally dig the insignia they use in this movie - the “Device” on their officer’s caps and shoulder patches is obviously a stylized one of these
http://astronautix.com/lvs/vonn1948.htm or possibly one of these http://astronautix.com/lvs/vonn1952.htm minus the canards in the front. The enlisted rank on the sleeves of the international construction goons is also one of these, but with their stripes coming out of the device as additional trailing wings. Cool! Since neither of the rockets I cited above are the same as the one that’s resupplying the station, this could imply there have already been several generations of shuttle-rockets that have come and gone, but I think that’s probably more insight than the makers of this film actually put into it. More likely the costume designer simply wasn’t talking to the FX guys.
You’ve got to hand it to the guys who made this film. They didn’t manage to make a good movie, but the *did* try to be as scientifically accurate as possible, given the knowledge of the day. In light of the fact that we know vastly more about space in 2009 than they did in 1955, however, there were several unavoidable blunders made. The most obvious of these is that we’re repeatedly told the station orbits 1000 miles above the ground. They had a positive nut about this idea back in the day, I’m not sure why, perhaps they just liked round numbers. I can’t see any advantage to putting one that far up when one half or a quarter that distance works just as well. But that’s just pointless ambition, the real snag here is that this movie was made before the Van Allen belt was discovered http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_allen_belt , which is essentially a magnetic torus around the earth that captures charged particles from the sun. It’s a zone of dangerously high radiation that protects earth itself from about 50% of the cosmic rays it would take otherwise. The deadliest part of this belt is, coincidentally, 1000 miles up. Any station up there would be cooking its crew pretty darn quick. Of course the people who made this film couldn’t have known that at the time.
There’s some talk about “Cosmic Rays” in the film, but it’s mostly played down as an insignificant risk. In the days before the Van Allen Belt was discovered, we didn’t realize we had a big shield up there screening out all that radiation, we just naturally assumed there was way less radiation in space then there actually was. As such the Space Ship *clearly* has no radiation shielding of any kind, despite being on a three-year mission.
Mars itself is fairly wonky in hindsight. When this film was made, it was assumed that Mars had an atmospheric pressure of about 333 milibars, or about 5 pounds PSI, hence the huge wings for landing. Alas, we’ve since learned that the atmosphere is generally 10 Milibars or less, or about a quarter ounce PSI. That’s just enough to be annoying, not enough to do anything useful with. The wings basically wouldn’t work.
This oversight extends to the Mars Suits themselves: Rather than the big goofy hardshelled rigs we see them wearing in space, on the red planet they’re wearing essentially a backpack, a heavy jacket, gloves, and a soft cowl with a facemask. They knew the atmosphere was mostly Carbon Dioxide, but having overestimated its density they clearly thought the planet would be warmer than it was, and that all they needed to do was provide breathable air for the crew, and everything else would take care of itself.
Mars is depicted as a very fake red color with a blue sky, not the salmon color above and below that we’ve come to know and love thanks to the various robotic missions. There’s no attempt made to depict the low Martian gravity accurately, which was obviously outside the scope of the their technical abilities and budget. Obviously, given how saline and cold, utterly sterile, and blasted by radiation the Martian surface is, it’s extremely unlikely the Japanese dude’s flower would have bloomed. It is a nice dramatic promise for the future, however.
A few words on the religious aspect of this movie: As tedious as it may seem in our own day, there was a debate back in the 1950s as to whether or not it was moral for us to go into space. Contrary to popular belief, schools back then were just as crappy as they are today (Though admittedly stricter, and with fewer guns), and as a result - I’m not making this up - a lot of people couldn’t understand the difference between “Heaven” and poetic references to “The Heavens.” This was a huge deal with lots of very religious people - we’d call ‘em “Social Conservatives” today - being very upset at the idea that we were seriously talking about invading God’s domain, as though you can get to Heaven on a rocket.
You still find people like these, though they’re rarer now. I’ve got at least one in my own family. On another occasion, a buddy of mine told me that the Bible foretells that we will not colonize space. I asked how exactly that was the case. He said “Because it says in Revelation that all the nations are gathered together at one point, and it wouldn’t be possible for everyone from other planets to come here, hence it isn’t gonna’ happen.” I pointed out that under that logic, America itself couldn’t be there either.
My point in mentioning all this isn’t to make fun of religious folks - I’m a church-going Christian myself - but simply to explain this debate between the people who wanted to learn more about God’s creation and the ludites who didn’t. This debate is played out in the movie as a debate between the increasingly fanatical General and his more rational son, both of whom are obviously believers. “The timing is too perfect to be coincidental,” Barney says. George Pal was himself a very strong Christian who went on to make the famous “Davey and Goliath” shorts. The true meaning of this film - its real story - is not actually about a mission to Mars, but as a means of playing out a debate between religious emotionalism and a more rational religious outlook, as a means of showing the audience a different way to think and all the cool stuff that comes with it. He was trying to teach Religious people of a reactionary bent not to be frightened.
Alas, the movie is already deadly dull by that point, so much of the debate falls on deaf ears. Curiously, the debate continues today, but now it’s between environmentalists and hippies who don’t want to ‘mess up other planets’ and normal people like you and me.
As with all George Pal films, the acting is all over the place, and fairly hambone at times. There’s an interesting indication of the General’s insanity that I’d missed until this viewing: When Paul Drake is explaining the mission to him, he’s telling the General stuff he should already know, and is confused by the General’s seeming obliviousness to this. I think we’re supposed to read this as the General already being fairly far gone, but if this is the intention, the acting entirely fails to convey the scene.
As the General, Walter Brooke has some intermittently good face acting, but is otherwise pretty stiff, and doesn’t really capture his character’s tragic slide into insanity. Brooke went on to do three episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, and an episode of Gemini Man, but has no other genre credits.
As Barney, Eric Flemming is just sorta’ there, generic, making no solid impression. He went on to do “Queen of Outer Space” a few years later.
Mickey Shaughnessy plays the Irish Sergeant. He has no other genre credits, but he’s probably the best actor among the lead roles in the film, alternating between bluster and camaraderie and outright compassion. The scene where he’s talking about getting drunk with the General thirty years earlier when they’d heard Barney was born is fun to watch, if rather stage-theatery. The “Cup of Tea” scene later on in the film is flat-out moving.
Phil Foster plays Jackie Siegel. He’s not really a very good actor, but his part is far, far better written than the comedy relief characters in Pal’s previous films, and the part even calls for a bit of range - with his freakout when Artemis Gordon dies, and his atheistic screed on Mars - he never quite pulls it off, but they’re trying a lot harder to make him something other than just the token Bumbling Stooge. There’s one unintentionally hilarious scene in which Barney asks him how hold he is, and he replies “I just turned 29.” If that’s the case, Sergeant Siegel has led a very hard life: The actor was forty-one when they made this movie, and he looks like he’s pushing fifty. There’s also an in joke in the film: Foster was best known for a series of eleven comedies in which he played a guy named “Brooklyn.” The Japanese dude refers to him jokingly as “Sergeant Brooklyn” once or twice in the movie.
The great Ross Martin is given next to nothing to do in this movie aside from be very caring and die in a horrible fashion. Ross Martin, of course, went on to play Artie in “The Wild Wild West.” Still, how freakin’ cool is it to have not one but two Germans in a science fiction movie? Once upon a time it was just assumed German scientists would do all the heavy lifting in space - and they kind of did in NASA’s glory days - but time and tide have washed that notion away.
William Hopper played Paul Drake in The Perry Mason series, and here he delivers a very Paul Drake-like performance, distinguished, likeable, smart, but not entirely memorable.
A very young Vito Scotti plays the Italian construction goon.
No one else in the movie is worth talking about, excepting Benson Fong as the Japanese dude (“Imoto”), who obviously gets a one-in-a-million role for an Asian guy in American movies at the time. He gets to be articulate, intelligent, and noble, he gets to apologize for the actions of Japan in World War II and simultaneously and logically point out that “Japan’s past is the world’s future.” Best of all, he gets to play an equal and no one in the film ever makes any mention of his race. He’s got no other genre credits, though he played one of Charlie Chan’s kids in one movie in the ‘40s, and he had a recurring part as “Mr. Wong” on My Three Sons.
And that’s about that. To wrap it all up, the first third of this movie is gorgeous and fun, the rest of it is a philosophically interesting snoozer with bland stiff actors in the lead roles. It is gorgeous to look at, however, even if it never manages to retain the excitement of its first act. I do think the movie sends an important message about aspiring for a future that isn’t just intended for the brightest and best, but one that can include the regular joes, regardless of race, religion, or lack thereof.
George Pal had a surprisingly successful Science Fiction career starting with Destination Moon, then going on to When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, each more successful than the last. This was his fourth movie and his first bomb, and afterwards no one would trust him to helm another effects-heavy flick. His next intended film was “After Worlds Collide,” a sequel, but alas it was never to be.
And that, my friends, is that.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?
Probably conservatives from 1950 won’t, and presumably some modern Social Conservatives will take issue with a crazy man quoting the bible and trying to kill people, but, yes, modern Conservatives should like this film, assuming they can stay awake.