Destination Moon

cast: John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, Dick Wesson, and Erin O’Brien-Moore

director: Irving Pichel

91 minutes (U) 1950
MPIC DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Destination Moon film poster

Destination Moon video box
Destination Moon

Not much happens in Destination Moon. A commercial conglomerate get together to design and assemble a manned rocket-ship. It launches with its four-man crew, and it lands on the Moon. There’s a weight-to-fuel crisis in which it appears one of the crewmen may have to remain on the arid lunar surface. Crisis averted, they return home. That’s about it.

To those who watched Neil Armstrong, in 1969, or to those born during the decades since, to whom it’s all history… so what? No aliens, no bug-eyed monsters, no 2001 style monoliths, no particularly startling special effects; just a near-documentary telling of a fairly straightforward story. To fully appreciate just how gosh-wow wonderful an event-movie Destination Moon was, you had to have been there at its New York gala premiere, held in the Hayden Planetarium on 27th June 1950, or rewind to its American nationwide release that same August, or after a suitable trans-Atlantic time-lag, gawping at it from the stalls of some UK flea-pit.

What you were seeing back then was all the sense-of-wonder awe and excitement of bleeding-edge tomorrow’s technology. To geeks, or that decade’s geek-equivalent, used to having their quirky and unrealistic fantasies of interplanetary travel ridiculed, this was their wildest most extravagant dreams made celluloid. The film opens with receding Star Wars style titles. No coincidence, surely. Cut to a long-range shot of a rocket, being observed through the slit-widow of a bunker by Dr Charles Cargraves and General Thayer, as the countdown reads out.

Then, on lift-off, the white teardrop-shaped projectile with its black-and-white fins, scrawls a zigzag contrail across the sky before nose-diving into the desert. The scientists grimly speculate that this “most expensive pile of junk in history,” will complicate further funding. The action jumps ahead two years. With the failure of the military trials, General Thayer (played by Tom Powers) proposes that “American industry can do this job,” and that the private sector should undertake the project. A strategy eerily predicting President Obama’s 2010 NASA initiative…

He approaches Jim Barnes (John Archer) with the proposition. Barnes is an ambitious entrepreneur, the power behind the private enterprise ‘Barnes Aircraft’ company. Thayer outlines the case for a Moon-landing mission, while – incidentally, clearly articulating the rationale for the coming ‘space race’ itself – “the race is on, and we’d better win it.” His argument is the now-discredited but then widely-held idea that whichever ‘great power’ reaches the Moon first, would exercise a military advantage over the Earth. Hence there’s a strategic imperative for democracy, and ‘the American way’ to triumph. You can see evidence of this attitude in the shocked and fearful reactions of American newsreel interviews following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik 1, seven years after the movie, on the 4th October 1957.

Meanwhile, Dr Cargraves insists there was no problem with the satellite-rocket that exploded, its failure was due to sabotage by a sinister foreign power. Anyway, he’s designed a new atomic-powered booster capable of achieving escape velocity, so “do we go to lunch, or do we go to the moon?” There’s a Woody Woodpecker cartoon sequence – created by Walter Lantz, to explain awkward concepts that would be unfamiliar to mass audiences, in a humorously digestible form. Woody explains how jet-propulsion is a kind of shotgun recoil effect. Rockets are merely ‘progressive forms of transportation’ according to one prospective industrial magnate as Barnes attempts to assemble a coalition of the willing, and ‘what’s the Moon?’ just another North Pole, new territory ripe for exploration and exploitation.

The Lockheed aircraft factory in southern California stands in for Barnes’ construction plant. From where there’s a neat fade from the table-top mock-up model, to the real ‘spaceship Luna’, surrounded by red scaffolding at the New Mexico ‘Dry Wells’ Mojave desert launch-site. A last-minute appendix operation disqualifies a potential crewmember named Brown from making the trip, so he’s replaced by sceptical Bronx joker Joe Sweeney, who just happens to be there. His goofy grin will provide the mission humour as he protests “I ain’t going to the Moon, that’s just to look at.” He asks the stupid questions that allow the experts to talk-through technical explanations about why “you can’t fall” in space.

But first, there’s another pre-launch hitch when a court order whipped up by ‘The Star Dispatch’ forbids take-off due to radiation fears. “You can’t buck public opinion, I’ve tried.” But they can, and decide to go without tests, before the ban can be implemented. The long countdown sequence, tedious today, was obviously designed to build excited anticipation for its audience. There’s no real exterior launch-footage.

Take-off is illustrated by the four crewmen sinking deep into their contour-couches, their faces distorted by g-forces. Dials spin. Then the curve of Earth becomes visible through the porthole, “is that Los Angeles? San Francisco?” In freefall they stand at screen right-angles, and demonstrate magnetic boots. Joe plays harmonica, tapping it to shake out saliva, then complains he feels sick, the way he “felt when I had my first smoke.”

“You’re not seasick, you’re space-sick,” he’s told, to which he responds “I’m sick of that too.” He comically attempts to swallow a floating white pill that hovers in front of his face. For an EVA-sequence to free a frozen radar antennae they wear colour-coded spacesuits for ease of recognition. Though, of course, it wasn’t called EVA back then. “It’s more beautiful than I ever dreamed,” says Barnes (orange spacesuit), upside-down outside the ship, gazing back at Earth. “Wow, the geography books are right,” adds Joe (green suit), less poetically. General Thayer wears a yellow suit. All the while, the tiny ship crawls across a background of stars, with no dramatic use of perspective.

Luna expands ahead of them. Unlike the Apollo missions, there’s no orbital pass. The ship simply turns, and descends fins-first into a lunar landscape that’s pretty impressively envisioned, for its time. “Holy Smoke, you can’t land in that, we’ll be splattered!” protests Joe, as they settle into the Harpalus crater. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” muses Barnes. “All my life,” confirms Doc (blue suit). The drama may lack shock white-knuckle content, but the film yielded serious attention, not only through Hungarian-born George Pal’s near pseudo-documentary approach, but because of its claim to scientific accuracy.

Robert A. Heinlein worked up the original screenplay with Alford Van Ronkel, and although it was loosely based on his Rocket Ship Galileo – intended as an instructional juvenile novel, the movie wisely omits Heinlein’s ‘Nazis-on-the-Moon’ element. Pal got James O’Hanlon in to polish and fine-tune the script, with Heinlein himself kept on set as technical adviser. German rocket authority Hermann Oberth, and Amazing Stories’ science-fact columnist Willy Ley were also on speed-dial, or its 1950s equivalent. Heinlein later re-jigged the screenplay into a novella for Short Stories Magazine (September 1950), while there was also a DC lead-adaptation for the launch issue of their Strange Adventures SF comic-book (August 1950), and a full 10-cent Fawcett Publications frame-by-frame edition that “blazes a trail into the depths of outer space,” maybe arcing the tale back to its juvenile fiction origins?

There might be a lot of inaccuracy – the ship powered by a nuclear-thermal propulsion unit, a technology not available to the Apollo programme, but for its time, this was as close as you could get to a glimpse of the future. They communicate by bulky walkie-talkie units. Barnes rides an oxygen-bottle to rescue Doc Cargraves as he drifts away from the ship into space. Such comparatively convincing space-hardware effects, handled by Lee Zavitz, merited the year’s Academy award for best visual effects.

Influential space-artist Chesley Bonestell provided the matte and scene-painting background for the Moon-walk sequences, working in conjunction with art director Ernst Fegte. As they open the hatch and look out, there’s a slow pan across the craters and rock formations of Bonestell’s realistically stark lunar terrain. Doc descends first, for the small step. He swings ungainly from the lowest rung… and drops. Claiming the new world “on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind” (phrases not too far removed from Neil Armstrong’s!), he pauses to look back at the ship standing on the lunar surface.

There are no TV images, for the radio-link back to what Joe calls ‘Oith’, Doc transmits his impressions of “utter barrenness, and desolation… the sky is black, velvet-black, and pierced by the most intensely brilliant stars anyone ever dreamed of. Hanging over the mountains in the distance I can see our own planet Earth, many times larger than the harvest moon.” Predictably, Joe is less impressed, there’s “no beer, no babes, no baseball” on the Moon. He’s content to pose for a comic-perspective photo as if holding up the sphere of Earth, like a ‘modern Atlas’.

But there’s a problem. Following a poor landing, fuel is critically tight for the return trip. Must they leave one man behind to achieve the required weight? Heinlein prepared the way for the film by writing a tie-in article for Astounding SF (July 1950), while in the UK it even received an enthusiastic overview from A.V. Cleaver in the notoriously critical Journal Of The British Interplanetary Society (volume 9, #5 – September 1950). Sure, the action may seem dated and slow-moving now, with flat characters and stilted dialogue, but to his SF contemporary Frederik Pohl, “Heinlein’s greatest strength is his human plausibility. When he says this is how it might be, one sees at once that indeed it might,” before pointing out the film’s lack of a human element, adding “there isn’t a person in it.”

But this is the film that ignited the boosters of the SF movie-boom of the 1950s. To John Carnell, in New Worlds #46, “the fact that the semi-documentary Destination Moon grossed a million dollars at the box-office prompted them (the movie moguls) to believe there might be something in this thing called science fiction.” In fact – although production of Destination Moon commenced first, a cheaper faster turn-around meant that the ripped-off rival Rocketship X-M reached the cinemas first.

With its Moon-ship diverted to Mars where the crew encounter hostile locals, it played more to the teen audience. And the worst excesses of the peculiar creature-feature fad that came in its wake shouldn’t be held against Destination Moon. George Pal went on to create a 10-year arc of respected genre movies, the next advancing his ambitions to The Conquest Of Space (1955), based on Willy Ley’s book.

Back on the Moon, the four-man crew strip the ship of all non-essential weight. They ditch rung ladders and couches, radar panels, three spacesuits, and even Joe’s harmonica! The three argue about who should make the supreme sacrifice, while Joe goes out onto the surface and prepares to stay. At last, by a complicated array of rope and weights they manage to dump the last spacesuit, and the radio. Finally, all four take-off from the dark lunar plain – destination Earth.

Superimposed over the final shot, as the ship heads back towards the expanding blue-green world, is the lettering that spells out ‘this is th end’ then, after a pause, ‘of the beginning’… A promise to the space-nuts in the audience, of things to come… Oddly, despite everything, that promise was fulfilled, that future came to be. If Destination Moon is “not a great deal of fun to watch any more,” as Pohl concedes, the reason “is largely because it looks so much like the actual Apollo films that it has become routine… and that, when you think of it, is not a bad triumph for the movie-maker’s art.” So, a historically important genre film, despite everything.