History of Sci-Fi Cinema 8: “Destination Moon”

08-DM-titlesDestination Moon (1950)
Written by James O’Hanlon, Robert Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel (based on short story by Robert Heinlein)
Directed by Irving Pichel
Starring John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson
George Pal Productions

A lightweight film about a group of private industry leaders building a rocket to the moon. And then getting off the moon. And, in terms of plot, that’s pretty much all it’s about. But what’s at the center of this narrative is the dangers of such undertakings. Apollo 13 it ain’t, but for its day it caused quite a stir, winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and nominated for Best Art Direction. In 2001 is was awarded a Retro Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation 1951. It was involved in its very own space race to get to the box office first. And Woody Woodpecker shows up along the way, because who better to persuade millionaires to give you money than Woody?

To be perfectly honest, very little happens in this film in terms of action. It can be very roughly divided up into three acts: Preparing for the trip to the moon, the trip itself and the moon landing, and then getting off the moon back to Earth. Very little time is spent actually on the Moon surface, surprising since such a gorgeous moon surface with to-scale mock up of the rocket was built on sound stage. In terms of screen time, it seems like as soon as they disembark the rocket and start looking around, they’re packing up their stuff to leave. But much like many of Jules Verne’s works, this isn’t about the Moon, it’s about the human experience of discovery and exploration, and the pitfalls and dangers of such endeavors, although 08-DM-astronautsdrawn here from very real and probably dangers rather than the fanciful threats one may find, for example, when one journeys to the center of the Earth.

Released in 1950, this is well before any actual moon landing had taken place, and well before the space race between the Russians and the US had heated up. But that’s still very much the premise here (even though the opposing side is never named). What’s interesting is that it isn’t the US government, or any government agency, that is the driving force here – it’s private industry. In fact, it’s even asked in the picture why the government isn’t spearheading this operation, and the answer is that government can’t do it – the government doesn’t have the specific knowledge, experience or expertise to do the job. What’s even more interesting is that the real motivating factor for the private industry leaders isn’t profit or even prestige – it’s the thrill of exploration in addition to the rather patriotic desire to keep the US first in the space race and to protect ourselves from anyone else using the moon as a military base against us. “The race is on, and we’d better win it. Because … there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles … will control the Earth.” There’s also a little bit of Manifest Destiny involved, as there always is in such things (“But why go [to the moon]?” “We’ll know when we get there and we’ll tell you when we get back!”). Out into the Mojave Desert they go, to build a rocket and launch it to the moon. It’s a rather quaint notion that such a project could actually be privately funded and accomplished in such a simple fashion.

The film depicts fairly accurately and realistically what could feasibly go into designing, building, manning a rocket and what a flight away from Earth’s atmosphere and onto the Moon’s surface would entail. It really is a pretty simple film, with extremely little in the way of plot, character or conflict. The drama stems from the situations that the unwitting astronauts find themselves in – having to accomplish a space walk, having to rescue a crewmate who falls away from the rocket untethered, having to accomplish 08-DM-moonsurfacea landing, and having to lighten the load of the rocket significantly in order to take off after the trip there uses too much fuel. It’s about the choices that have to be made – after everything possible has been stripped from the ship, and estimates still show it being 110 pounds too heavy to make the return trip, does one of the men stay behind so that the other three can get home? If so, which one? Can some other solution be found so that all four men can make the return journey? As a depiction of a moral dilemma it’s rather engaging. But it does this at the expense of any real action. Again, drawing comparison to Apollo 13, this is about drawing the audience in to the situation, getting viewers to put themselves in the astronauts’ place, to be pulled into the fear and the loneliness of being true pioneers. On the day of the release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, this seems quite appropriate.

During production, this film was involved in – and lost – its own version of a space race. With a much bigger budget and far more substantial press coverage, Destination Moon was the clear leader in the race. But production delays allowed the smaller production – Rocketship X-M – to beat it to the box office. RXM was shot in just 18 days and had a budget about 1/4 that of DM. Riding the coattails of DM‘s prestige, RXM not only got released to theatres nearly a month early (25 days before DM), it also went 08-DM-woodyfarther: Mars (but we’ll talk about all that in the next blog post).

The moon sets, along with the amazing matte paintings by famed astronomer and artist Chesley Bonestell, and the outer space sequences are truly stunning and one of the highlights of the film, giving a pretty accurate and realistic atmosphere to the whole piece. Destination Moon may seem slow and uneventful to modern audiences, and some of the dialogue and accents cartoonish, but it depicts manned space travel in a pretty accurate way nearly two decades before the reality, and succeeds in transporting its audience to the lunar surface right along with its lead characters. And, come on, it’s got Woody Woodpecker in it. You can’t beat that!

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