So what was happening in 1950?
Let's see... Sunset Boulevard, Rashomon and All About Eve were at the theaters, Ray Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles, Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Bernard Shaw died, Sen. Joseph "Commies! Get 'Em Off Me!" McCarthy was starting his own little power trip, Communist China invaded Tibet, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea...
Whoa... that's a whole lot of Commies.
Small wonder then that the Red Menace is such a driving force in Destination Moon. Ballyhooed as "Two Years in the Making!", this 1950 film was long revered as a model of scientific accuracy; though it gets a few of the practical details wrong, it is certainly prescient about the Space Race, made as it was a full seven years before the real thing was kicked off by the U.S.S.R. and its Sputnik.
We begin with two men in a bunker, anxiously awaiting the launch of a rocket: they are Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), the brains behind the missile and its satellite payload, and General Thayer (Tom Powers), the military man who got the appropriations pushed through after months of struggle. The rocket, unfortunately, barely takes off and draws a picture of the human small intestine in the sky before plummeting to earth and exploding. Cargraves, knowing his design was tested and perfect, feels the failure was due to sabotage (those filthy Commies!). Thayer agrees, but also realizes this means the end of the rocket program and his military career. Cargraves squares his shoulders and vows to return to his lab work, as both men watch their dream burn on the desert floor.
Two years later, Thayer visits Jim Barnes (John Archer), a Howard Hughes-type who runs a massive plant that builds the planes he designs. It's not just a social call, Thayer reveals - he wants to rev the rocket program back up, but this time in the private sector. He feels that American Industry can design and build a rocketship in the time it would take a government program to even think about starting one. Cargraves, he tells the industrialist, has spent the last two years perfecting an atomic engine that will not only allow them to escape Earth's gravity, but journey to the Moon. Why the rush, Barnes asks the general. "We're not the only ones trying," Thayer announces ominously. Those filthy, Godless Commies!*
That's all Barnes needs to hear, and he hosts a get-together of the various luminaries of the Industrial world. To prove to them that the trip is indeed feasible, he shows them a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. No, I'm not kidding. Woody is used to demonstrate the basic principles of physics and space travel to the ignorant industrialists (and anybody in the audience that didn't read science fiction pulps or Popular Science). But even more than the testimonial of everybody's favorite psychotic woodpecker, it is the announcement by Thayer that whoever gets to the Moon first (and sets up missiles there) will rule the world (those filthy, Godless, murdering Commies!), that works the attending millionaires into a patriotic frenzy, and the project begins.
It isn't long before the rocketship is built, and it's one of those elongated-teardrop-with-fins beauties - a design that I am still more than a little bitter that NASA did not employ (though I am sure they had their reasons - like, say, practicality). There are unforeseen problems, however - for one thing, they are denied permission to test their atomic engine, unless they move the entire ship to a South Pacific island where atomic testing has already occurred. The project almost out of funding, Barnes decides to launch without an engine test in 17 hours, just before the launch window closes. He, Thayer and Cargraves will be the crew, along with the guy who designed and installed the radio and radar systems.
Oops! That guy has appendicitis, and his assistant Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) is pressed into duty. Ah, a wise-cracking Brooklyn guy! And here I was wondering where the Odious Comic Relief was! Joe agrees to go simply because he does not believe the ship will get off the ground.
Well, it does get off the ground (just seconds ahead of a court order forbidding the launch), giving everyone a chance to contort their faces to show the effects of many G's pressing down on them. This begins the first of many instances where the Eggheads must explain to Joe what is happening and why, as Joe is also our Ignorant Audience Surrogate. Thus physics and the mechanics of zero gravity must be explained all over again (though why they just didn't show Joe the Woody Woodpecker cartoon is beyond me). This is where some of the technical accuracy does come in - when the astronauts eat, they take the trouble make an effort while swallowing, and use shoes with magnetic soles to walk about - some clever camera tricks are employed here.
The inevitable problem does crop up, though to my surprise, it did not involve the meteor shower I had thought mandatory in all space flicks. It seems that Joe, stupid prole that he is, greased the radar antenna before they left, and now the grease has frozen in the cold of space and the aerial will not extend. It's time for an EVA, and for Joe to get more lecturing when he fears he will fall out of the airlock into space. Still, it's Cargraves who intentionally slips his safety line to inspect the engines and winds up adrift in space (take that, eggheads!), and must be rescued by Barnes, who uses a spare oxygen tank as an improvised jet pack. I really love the soundtrack in this scene - a trumpet fanfare whenever Barnes lets loose another smoky white blast of oxygen.
The moon landing turns out to be much rougher than anticipated (shades of the last-minute maneuvering on the Apollo 11 landing!), but the ship and crew, at least, are intact. Barnes and Cargraves waste no time stepping out on the lunar surface and claiming it in the name of the United States (take that, you filthy, Godless, murdering, treacherous Commies!). Oh yeah, for the Good Of All Mankind. At least until we get the missiles up there.
The various scientific sidetrips are taken as Barnes gets some bad news from home: he used up too much fuel on that landing, and they have to lighten their load or they'll never make it home. So much for all of Thayer's mineral samples and the astronomical plates Cargraves has been taking. Even after offloading practically everything, sawing all the ladders in half, and ditching all but the bare minimum of oxygen and rations - they still have to ditch 110 pounds or they'll never leave the Moon's orbit. With the ship stripped to the walls, this only means one thing... somebody has to stay behind.
While the eggheads are arguing over who is the most noble and will therefore stay behind, Joe - wearing the last spacesuit (the rest were jettisoned) steps outside and announces that he is staying behind (take that, eggheads!). Barnes, however, comes up with a MacGyver-esque plan that will get everybody home, because we're smart and, dammit, American! Though I note they also threw out the cushions on the accelerator couches, and are lying on cold, naked metal for the liftoff. Ouch. The end.
Back in my review for Space Monster, I complained that this is the type of movie no one makes anymore* - the Space Exploration movie - mainly because they would be compared, unfairly or not, with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are parallels that can be drawn between Destination and 2001 (colorful space suits, for instance); but while both remain compelling in their own ways, the Kubrick film has a distancing effect, as an important part of its story arc is that mankind is at a dead end, and the next stage of evolution has become necessary; this imparts a certain sort of leadeness, a deadness on the characters and proceedings. This is absent from DM - there is an intellectual liveliness to the tale's unfolding, as the characters rise to meet challenges both before and after the launch. No need for evolution here, Mr. Monolith : life seems full of possibilities, just waiting for strong, willful men to reach out, grab them, and shake them for all they're worth.
There is also a terrible earnestness about the story, though, that seems to keep it from rising to the level of fun that could be reached. Here there are no rock men, no cat women, no giant spiders. Just some fairly hard science and the magnificent paintings of Chesley Bonestell, who for many years was THE MAN as far as space art was concerned. Sadly, this aversion to sensationalism seems to date the picture worse than any technical errors would have - and there truly aren't many errors on display.
Sure, we know now that this is not the way to go to the moon, but it was in 1950 - and kudos must be made to the filmmakers for still being able to wring tension from the modern viewer during the adrift-in-space and who-stays-behind segments. Destination Moon was very successful upon its release; of course, when a movie is "two years in the making!", the Cormanoids cannot be far behind... Robert Lippert managed to get his Rocketship X-M into the theaters a full month before DM. Ah, knock-offs....the surest sign of success. An even surer sign of success is the fact that practically every space-faring movie for the next fifteen years featured a ship that was some variation of DM's Luna.
The movie is probably the best adaptation of Heinlein (the source novel was Rocketship Galileo) that I've yet seen - Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers both glommed onto the most superficial aspects of his writings and ran with them, losing the novel's headier aspects totally. Here, though, the concept of Captains of American Industry as Brave Pioneers Doing What Has To Be Done in the name of Enlightened Self-Interest is pure Heinlein. As are the main characters, all Competent Individuals doing what is Right in the face of the small-minded - taking off in defiance of the court order, even laughingly calling to the sputtering lawyer, "Sorry, can't hear you," over the noise of the gantry elevator, is a particularly Heinleinian moment.
You know, I wouldn't half mind living in Robert A. Heinlein's universe- your companions would all be Competent Individuals, and all a person had to do to succeed was hold on to their innate sense of right and wrong. Courage and confidence would be plentiful commodities. And in the case of this movie, a corporate presence would not be immediately suspect.
Quite a difference half a century makes, eh?
Quaint. But still the template for many more.
- July 20, 2000