Destination Moon

Year: 1950

Production: A George Pal Production / Eagle-Lion

Director: George Pal

Starring: Warner Anderson, John Archer, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson, Erin O'Brien Moore, Ted Warde

Screenwriter: Rip Van Ronkel, James O'Hanlon

Based on Rocketship Galileo (1947) by Robert A. Heinlein

91 minutes; Color

Destination Moon, the first of George Pal's many sf productions, has great historical importance: its commercial success initiated the sf film boom of the 1950s after a decade that had contained almost no sf cinema at all. It has interest in hindsight, too, in the partial accuracy with which it anticipated the actual Moon landing of 1969. To this day, Destination Moon stands as a film obviously made by people who knew about science: along with the German rocket expert Hermann Oberth (1894-1989), Heinlein himself acted as technical advisor. The special effects are relatively convincing: astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell provided the backgrounds for the scenes on the Moon, working with art director Ernst Fegte. The film's biggest predictive error was political, not scientific: it predicted that the first Moon landing, described as "the greatest challenge ever hurled at American industry", would be a truly capitalist affair conducted by private enterprise. Destination Moon is an austere film, semi-documentary in nature and, aside from a sequence about fuel shortage near the end, rather placid and unexciting. But, despite its colorless script and its low-key performances (except for some ill judged comic relief from the blue-collar radio operator, played by Wesson), Destination Moon is a film with considerable dignity and, in a quiet way, a genuine sense of wonder. Its final message - THIS IS THE END OF BEGINNING in big block letters - can be seen, in retrospect, as an entirely justified claim.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

It's fitting that the first sf film of the 50s should have been Destination Moon, the critical success of which was to revive a stultifying genre. Henceforth, though the genre would remain, in America and Britain at least, trapped in the province of Poverty Row, sf would be an important strand in the history of the cinema. The reasons for this were complex the advent of the Cold War (present in Destination Moon in the America general's comment to the effect that the Moon is a strategic military location and if America doesn't get there first someone else will), the growing interest in technology (which could be seen as either a "good" or "bad" thing); and the UFO phenomenon which continued unabated into the 50s despite government agencies attempts to explain the sightings, which began in earnest in 1947. The net effect, however "unscientific" many of the films were. was that in the first half of the decade sf became the medium in which the various responses to the facts of the first atomic age were played out in the cinema. In short, sf briefly supplanted horror as the genre that dealt in fear and paranoia.

Turning from the genre to the film, what is most noticeable is how sf's taking the place of horror was literalized in Destination Moon, even though the movie hardly touches any of what were to become the main themes of the genre in the 50s. In place of the shadowy, expressionistic lighting of the horror genre, director Pichel and producer Pal attempted a steadfast documentary approach. Their immediate concern was to distance their film from the space-opera concept of the genre that was the legacy of Flash Gordon (1936), the effects of their stylistic revolution were far more far reaching. Accordingly, when Pal was approached by Heinlein (on whose decidediy juvenile novel Rocketship Galileo his and Ronkel's original screenplay was based) his concern was to further documentize the screenplay. He consulted physicists and astronomers, as well as technicians, before shooting began and employed astronomical painter Chesley Bonestell (whose illustrations for Willy Ley's imagined history of space flight, Conquest of Space, won him international recognition) and designer Ernest Fegte to create a realistic cratered Moon surface. It took 100 men two months to build the moonscape Bonestell had designed into a 2-foot-high, 20-foot-long lunar panorama. Scientific information was supplied by German rocket expert Hermann Oberth, who had earlier, with Ley, performed the same function for Fritz Lang on his Die Frau im Mond (1929) and makeup artist Webster Phillips fitted each actor with a device that would stretch his features to simulate an increase in velocity.

The film itself details the first Moon landings and, although the flight is hazardous, the script is colorless and wooden. the dominant concern of those involved was to make the journey to the Moon realistic rather than dramatic, and for the most part its predictions were remarkably accurate. Indeed, in retrospect, the one concession to popular tastes of the times - Wesson's joky electronics' technician - is painfully forced. Eventually the rocket lands on the Moon, but so much fuel has been consumed in landing that the crew (led by Archer) have no chance of leaving. They jettison everything that is inessential and find they are still overweight until Archer quick-wittedly discovers a means by which Wesson - who has gloriously decided to sacrifice himself that the others might survive - can re-enter the ship without his 100-pound plus pressure suit. The ship then successfully takes off back to Earth.

Shooting was marred by script quarrels with backers who were terrified the film would flop in the same way that The Great Rupert (1949), Pal's first essay in production (which was also directed by Pichel), had, but Pal fought against the script changes and won. If, in retrospect, the end result is a curiously flat film, at the time its sobriety marked an important step in the genre's evolution.

The film won the 1950 Oscar for special effects.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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