In conjunction with last week’s article on Rocketship X-M, Destination Moon helped pave the way for sci-fi films as popular entertainment.
Only the second feature film produced by George Pal, Destination Moon was a big budget showcase creating an exciting story of man’s first trip to the moon. The film predicted many elements of space travel that would come to pass without straying too far into speculative fiction.
The trailer I found on YouTube (below) is sort of a hodgepodge of shots from the film and self-promotion. It does try to build some tension showing a wife saying goodbye to her husband, the countdown to launch and a harrowing space walk. But it then switches gears, reminding the viewer that this film has been endlessly promoted in over half a dozen magazines.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Destination Moon presents a big budget film detailing a plausible scenario for mankind visiting the moon. It stands as an important film at the dawn on Sci-Fi film; one whose influence will be felt for years to come.
During an experimental rocket launch something goes wrong and the ship explodes. Fearing sabotage, Dr Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson ) and General Thayer (Tom Powers) decide to take some time off. Two years later General Thayer tries to sell airline manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) on building a rocket to go to the moon. Thayer suggests that private industry is the only way to do it in time, since the government cannot move as fast. He thinks they could achieve a trip to the moon within a year.
Barnes hosts a meeting of other industrialist, selling them on the idea of contributing to this mission. He offers no firm payoff, but the change to do research and learn more about the moon. He feels it’s the greatest challenge to both America and American Industry. To help explain how they will get to the moon, Barnes shows the assembled philanthropists a Woody Woodpecker (Woody Woodpecker) cartoon that explains it all. General Thayer then pitches the national security angle stating that the first country to use the Moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth!
Cargraves, Barnes and Thayer all mobilize their businesses and manage to develop all aspects of their rocket in time for launch. Unfortunately a smear campaign in the local papers drums up concerns of radiation leakage with the public. Foregoing that, they decide to launch immediately. Unfortunately their initial radar operator and fourth crew member becomes ill, so they substitute Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) at the last moment. The launch of rocketship Luna goes off without a hitch, but a stuck antenna necessitates a spacewalk to repair. Cargraves slips off the hull of the ship and begins floating away. Barnes is able to rescue him with an improvised jet pack made from an O2 tank.
The crew lands on the moon, and gets to work exploring, gathering samples and taking photographs. While working on calculations for the return trip, they realize that they will not have enough power to take off, having used up too much fuel in the landing. They set to work removing all unnecessary equipment, but find that the ship is still too heavy. Sweeney volunteers to stay behind, but Barnes, as Captain, will not hear of leaving a crew member behind. They finally figure out a way to remove enough weight, and are able to take off safely for home. The film ends with the title card proclaiming “This is The End of the Beginning.”
“By the grace of God, and the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind.” – Dr Cargraves
History in the Making
After coming off as a successful producer of short subject films, George Pal began taking on feature films, starting early in 1950 with The Great Rupert. Destination Moon was only his second feature film that he produced, but it inevitable bears his signature elements of humanity, wonder, and hope. He would go on to produce some of the best sci-fi films of the decade including When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960).
At a time when movie goers were used seeing rocket ships on alien planets with sparklers coming out of their tail pipes, Destination Moon provided a much more realistic picture of space travel. Knowing what we know about manned space flight, Destination Moon had more foresight than Rocketship X-M in terms of being true to what real space travel would be like. It also did so in Technicolor, which raised the bar for science fiction films.
Destination Moon, much like Rocketship X-M, is thoroughly rooted in the science fiction genre. There are no meter storms, or quick trips to Mars, or aliens on the Moon, but it does make use of standard elements in the genre, like rockets, space exploration and traveling to the moon. While elements of the film seem like a documentary, such as showing the manufacturing process, and the characters working out all the math, this film is definitely fictional. The number of problems presented to the crew might only occur together in a film like Apollo 13. The filmmakers also take care to change the orientation of the camera, showing that there is no “down” in outer space. Characters walk on walls, or upside down, accurately selling what the weightlessness of space would seem like. George Pal and director Irving Pichel seemed much more concerned with representing science accurately, and in a fun way, than creating goofy predictions about the future.
Other aspects of the film echo in more recent sci-fi films. While these examples were probably not directly influenced by Destination Moon, they all probably drew on the same library of science fiction tropes from varied media. The scenes of the crew pulling as much weight out of Luna is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s plight in The Martian (2015), while the EVA to fix a stuck antenna seems to be straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The use of colored crew uniforms also seems to presage the coloration of space suits and uniforms in the aforementioned 2001, as well as Star Trek and Space: 1999.
The use of social commentary is present in Destination Moon, but it’s not as “in your face” as it appears in Rocketship X-M. During the pitch meeting to gather investors, General Thayer stresses the importance of getting to the moon first, as the first country there would be able to setup missile platforms for defense, which seems like a truly terrifying thought. But, go team USA! Obviously the fears of renewed World Wars was strong on the minds of the writers. Later Sweeney wryly observes that, hooray, they can now blow the moon up too! A little gallows humor considering the situation the crew was facing.
A secondary concern was brought up briefly when the ship was being prepped to launch. So “smear campaign” was spreading word that atomic radiation from a malfunction could affect local towns, so they were ordered not to launch. Dr. Cargraves knew this to be false and prepped the launch anyway, but many laypersons of the era must have been concerned with the potential for issues like this given the imagery of rocket tests, and their sometimes failure.
The Science in The Fiction
As mentioned previously the film takes its science accuracy pretty seriously. Some of the best and most entertaining elements include:
- Having Woody Woodpecker, a major star at the time, explain how rockets launch and travel in space.
- Use magnetic shoes to walk on all surfaces of the ship in zero-G.
- Using the oxygen tank as a makeshift thruster. This was shown in a more realistic way in The Martian.
Many calculations and numbers were discussed which are all mostly, if not wholly, accurate representations of the types of equations that would be needed to make a trip to the moon. There was some artistic license taken, but for a sci-fi film, and especially one from 1950, the filmmakers tried to present things as accurately as possible.
The Final Frontier
Some final thoughts on other elements of the film, that don’t necessarily fit into some of the other categories are all little things that make this film stand out more than its predecessors. Dick Wesson makes his film debut in this film as the wise cracking Joe Sweeney. His New York accent (“nobody teaches me how the ship woiks.”) and blue-collar/everyman persona provides the right amount of humor to balance the tension and suspense of the trip. It’s also funny that both this film and Rocketship X-M both incorporate jokes about Texas. X-M feature an astronaut from Texas, while Moon has an investor from Texas. Both are super proud of their state being the largest. Too bad that would only last until Jan 1959 when Alaska was admitted to the union.
Finally in an almost unheard of tie-in at the time, Destination Moon was adapted into comic book form in the premier issue of Strange Adventures from DC Comics to help promote a film that, as shown in the trailer above, was being promoted everywhere!
Welcome to the end of the beginning. The best of the science fiction film is yet to come!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.