I’ve screwed up my sleep schedule royally of later, this time staying up so I could record the 1955 movie Conquest of Space from the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s the fourth and last of George Pal’s cycle of science-fiction movies in the early 1950’s (following Destination Moon in 1950, When Worlds Collide in 1951 and The War of the Worlds in 1953) — and also by far the least of them in terms of quality. Based on a book by “astronomical artist” Chesley Bonestell and expatriate German rocket scientist Willy Ley (who had been one of the technical advisers on the very first major feature on space travel, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon), Conquest of Space is gorgeous to look at — Paramount was still using three-strip Technicolor while other studios were abandoning it for cheaper but far inferior in-house processes, and Bonestell’s vivid matte paintings and designs (an art director is credited but it’s clear Bonestell was primarily responsible for the look of this film) give it a beautiful sheen even though there are some bizarre boners in his work (for example, it never occurred to him that a view from the Earth from outer space would show it mostly covered by clouds — which made the first actual photos of Earth from space highly disappointing to me when I saw them because they didn’t look like Bonestell’s paintings!). Alas, it’s really a terrible movie; without the work of a major novelist to draw on (as they’d had with Heinlein in Destination Moon, Wylie in When Worlds Collide and Wells in The War of the Worlds), Pal and his writers fell back on every tired old cliché from World War II movies, from the arrogant commanding officer who dragoons his son into his special operation to the ethnically mixed (all white but from different Euro-American nationalities) crew, to animate this space opus. Add to that a no-name cast (the only actor whose name I recognized was Eric Fleming, who starred in the TV series Rawhide — his sidekick was the then-unknown Clint Eastwood) and what you ended up with was a movie that was technically impeccable and visually beautiful, but dramatically deserved to be on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. — 9/18/97
Last night’s Mars movie screening at Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) featured a short about three astronauts who are sent on the first [hu]manned spaceflight to Mars but who crash-land and die from lack of oxygen; an episode of My Favorite Martian that was probably the funniest I’ve seen (it’s called “Rx for Martin” and deals with the Martian, played by Ray Walston, falling down stairs, spraining his ankle, ending up in the hospital and confounding the doctors since a Martian’s vital signs are so different from an Earthling’s); a rerun of a film shown on the proprietor’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” program two years earlier called World Without End which he wanted to re-screen because he’d previously shown it from an old VHS tape with washed-out color and no attempt to letterbox or pan-and-scan the image (instead the people doing the tape just put up what was in the middle of the screen, which led to a lot of half-people on either side) and now there’s a letterboxed DVD with a beautiful transfer that does justice to the rich, vibrant color scheme of the film (for my previous comments on World Without End see https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2015/09/world-without-end-allied-artists-1956.html); and the co-feature, a film from George Pal’s sci-fi unit at Paramount called Conquest of Space. The Conquest of Space (the book uses the definite article; the film title does not) began life as a series of spectacular paintings of astronomical vistas by artist Chesley Bonestell, who in the 1940’s and 1950’s became known as the mainstream media’s go-to guy for what the rest of the solar system was likely to look like. My stepfather had a copy and I recall it as a large-format “coffee-table” book dominated by Bonestell’s glorious paintings with brief bits of explanatory non-fiction text by Willy Ley, who’d been one of the German rocket scientists under the Weimar Republic and later under the Nazis; he was an uncredited technical advisor on Fritz Lang’s 1928 film Woman on the Moon and, like credited technical advisor Dr. Hermann Oberth, was recruited by the U.S. after the war to work on our rocket program.
George Pal was a Hungarian-born puppeteer who drifted into filmmaking after his original choice for a career, architecture, dried up during the Depression. In the early 1930’s he’d risen to be the head of the cartoon department at Berlin’s UFA Studios until the Nazi takeover forced him to flee, first to Prague and then to Eindhoven, The Netherlands, where he and his wife developed a series of stop-motion films using animated puppets. Paramount signed Pal to a producer’s contract and gave him a unit and the necessary equipment to produce what they called “Puppetoons,” one-reel shorts with animated puppets — the only one I’ve seen was The Perfume Suite from 1947, which featured Duke Ellington in live action interacting with a bunch of animated perfume bottles as Ellington and his orchestra played the first three movements of the suite that gave the film its title. In 1950 Pal wanted to branch out into features, so he bought the rights to several stories Robert A. Heinlein had written about humans’ first trip to the moon (which Heinlein, a Right-wing Libertarian politically, had envisioned being financed by private entrepreneurs because the government wouldn’t have the vision to fund it publicly) and developed them into a script, with Heinlein as one of the credited screenwriters as well, called Destination Moon. Paramount’s executives turned the project down because they didn’t think a film about travel to the moon would have an audience, so Pal took it to the independent Eagle-Lion company (formerly PRC) and made it there. It was an enormous hit, and by chance the theatre Eagle-Lion booked it into in New York was two blocks up from Paramount’s office building, so all the “suits” at Paramount got to watch the long lines of people waiting to pay to see the film they had turned down.
They got the message and re-signed Pal to make more science-fiction films for them, and for his next project they gave him the rights to Philip Wylie’s 1932 novel When Worlds Collide, which they’d bought for Cecil B. DeMille but then canceled because they didn’t think there’d be enough of an audience for a science-fiction subject. When Worlds Collide was a hit and Pal’s next science-fiction film, a 1953 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds (ironically another project Paramount had bought decades earlier for DeMille!), was an even bigger hit. So in 1954 Pal and Byron Haskin, his director on The War of the Worlds, re-teamed for a film ostensibly based on the Bonestell-Ley book The Conquest of Space but actually a screen original by a writing committee. The film credits three writers with “adaptation” — Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon and George Worthing Yates — and James O’Hanlon for the final script. What they did was basically shoehorn the multi-ethnic military unit that had been de rigueur in films made about and during World War II and stick them on a mission to space. The film begins on “The Wheel,” the giant space station designed and built by Col. Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke) as a jumping-off point for a trip to the moon. A peculiar-looking spaceship is being built in space next to “The Wheel” by construction crews based there — like Arthur C. Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gene Roddenberry on the original Star Trek, the authors of Conquest of Space had posited that the spaceship would actually be built in space so it could fly to wherever it was going without having to contend with passing through earth’s atmosphere or escaping its gravity. The initial conflict of the film is set up between Col. Merritt and his son, Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming, one of the great might-have-beens in cinema history; in the early 1960’s he did a TV series about cattle drives called Rawhide and got offered the lead in an early “spaghetti Western” called A Fistful of Dollars, only he turned it down and the producers instead went with the actor who’d played Fleming’s sidekick, “Pardner,” on Rawhide, a man named Clint Eastwood of whom you’ve no doubt heard since).
Though participation in the space service was supposed to be strictly voluntary, Col. Merritt signed his son up for him without asking him first, and Capt. Merritt has asked for a transfer to Muroc Air Force Base (itself a legendary name in the early space program, as anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff or seen the film based on it will know; it was out in the California desert and was later renamed Edwards, and it was where Frank Yeager first set off on the flight that would break the sound barrier and most of the other experimental X-plane flights took off from there as well) — only everything chances when the Merritts receive sealed orders that their spacecraft is not going to go to the moon after all, but to Mars. (There’s a neat bit of exposition before the “reveal” in which one of the Merritts asks why the ship has been equipped with wings, which wouldn’t be needed for flight over the airless moon but would be helpful if the ship went somewhere that has an atmosphere.) The Merritts assume command of a crew that includes Sgt. Imoto (Benson Fong — nearly a decade after World War II ended they were still casting Japanese characters with Chinese actors!), André Fodor (Ross Martin, in his first film) and Jackie “Brooklyn” Siegle (Phil Foster), along with Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy), a long-time friend and aide to General Merritt (his promotion from Colonel was contained in those sealed orders) whose relationship to him is depicted in surprisingly homoerotic terms for a 1954 movie. (That’s the copyright date, though imdb.com dates it as 1955.) The trip to Mars goes reasonably well until an antenna on the spacecraft jams, cutting them off from radio contract with mission control on “The Wheel,” and during the extra-vehicular activity needed to repair it Fodor is lost in space and dies. This sends General Merritt bonkers; from a hard-nosed but relatively rational scientist he suddenly turns into a religious lunatic, raving about the Bible and how nothing in it gives man permission to explore space, and ultimately trying to sabotage the project by blowing up the ship once it reaches Mars. (The fact that the villain is motivated by religious fanaticism makes this unusual for a 1950’s sci-fi films; usually the religious people were the good guys and the scientists the bad guys, as in The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and all those other movies in which the scientists give up their lives in a desperate, foredoomed attempt to reason with the monster. This reflects the same institutional religiosity of the period that defined our Cold War enemy as not just “Communism” but “Godless Communism,” and in which the words “under God” were stuck into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was put on our money.)
So Captain Merritt has to shoot and kill his own father to save the ship and the rest of the crew, and Sgt. Mahoney goes ballistic with anger and hurt, threatening to report the younger Merritt and get him court-martialed for killing the older one. But thanks to the older Merritt’s sabotage attempt, the crew has virtually no water to sustain them for the months they will have to remain on Mars until it and Earth are once again close enough in their orbits for the crew to return home — until they’re saved when an unexpected snowfall on Mars proves that the Red Planet has water after all. There are some weird bits in Conquest of Space — like the sudden cut from the science-fiction stuff to a big musical production number with an Arabian Nights theme, featuring Rosemary Clooney as a singing, dancing harem girl, that turns out to be a film screening on board the “Wheel” (the film is the 1953 Paramount production Here Comes the Girls) — but mostly it’s pretty straightforward 1950’s sci-fi. The character conflicts may be pretty simple, but just the fact that there are any makes this an unusual movie for the time. One odd and less positive aspect of Conquest of Space is that there are surprisingly few special-effects shots, and the ones there are don’t seem all that interesting: despite some quite illustrious names in the technical credits (the cinematographer is Lionel Lindon from the original King Kong and the head of the effects crew is John P. Fulton, the man who figured out how to make Claude Rains invisible), there are a few process shots with tell-tale black lines around the forward images, a sure sign of sloppy process work. Still, I was quite impressed by Conquest of Space: I’d seen it before on American Movie Classics back when that was still a movie channel, but this time around it came off considerably better, generally well produced and with a level of characterization in its people that, while not especially sophisticated, certainly set this above a lot of science-fiction films of its time. — 11/18/17