Sci-Fi Saturdays kicks off in earnest with the first major science fiction film of the 1950s.
Rocketship X-M was not the first sci-fi film of the 50s, nor was it the best. But, along with Destination Moon, it helped usher in the space-race to the general public, while also providing some of the first social commentary in the sci-fi film.
“The Future Is Here,” proclaims the trailer! It also wants to make sure that the audience knows that this is the “Screen’s First Story of Man’s Conquest of Space!” It would be unfair to compare trailers from the 1950s to those of today. Films were sold differently at the time, and the final films were often much simpler. The trailer stresses the fact that “Four men and a girl” [emphasis mine] will take off on a runaway rocket, encountering things like meteor storms and potential accidents with jettisoned rocket parts. At the time of this release, no film had attempted to portray a realistic flight to outer space. This was to be the first such film, but only by 3 weeks!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Rocketship X-M is not extraordinary in and of itself. But it does have a prominent place in the history of sci-fi film as the harbinger of the Golden Age of Science Fiction film.
The film opens with the crew of Rocketship X-M (eXpedition-Moon) undergoing health checks to ensure they are all fit to fly. Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery), Maj. William Corrigan (Noah Beery, Jr.), Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges), Harry Chamberlain (Hugh O’Brian) & Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen) head to a press conference to reveal the flight plan of their trip to the moon.
Strapping themselves into their rocket, they blast off, achieving orbit for escape velocity to the moon. When they jettison their retro-rocket stage, it nearly crashes into the ship. Only Graham’s quick thinking saves them. They encounter a meteor shower which causes engine problems, so Dr. Eckstrom recalculates the necessary changes to their fuel mixture. Unfortunately a miscalculation causes the rockets to misfire, sending them careening. A sudden drop in oxygen causes them to black out.
The crew awakens later realizing that somehow they have traveled 50 million miles and are just outside Mars. They decide to land and explore that planet. On the surface they find evidence of an advanced civilization that is now dead, and high radiation levels from an ancient Atomic War. While the crew continues to explore they find a female humanoid native that is blind, with milky cataracts who has injured herself. She screams, unsure what aliens are upon her, and two of her burned and scarred tribesmen begin attacking the astronauts.
Dr. Eckstrom is killed and Chamberlain is injured as the crew tries to rush back to their ship. They take off and head home, but realize that they only have enough fuel to get them back to Earth, and not enough to land. They contact Earth by radio to inform mission control of what they witnessed. As RX-M rapidly descends, Graham and Dr. Van Horn share a brief embrace before the ship explodes over Nova Scotia. The project director, Dr. Ralph Fleming (Morris Ankrum), informs the press that the ship was lost, but also of the lessons they have learned. He tells them that he intends to start building RX-M-2 the next day.
“The RX-M is what is known as a multi-stage or step rocket. Upon reaching escape velocity, the tail section; which has housed the fuel to attain this speed, will be jettisoned. The nose section; which is a complete rocket containing enough fuel for the entire trip, and also containing our cabin, overcomes the gravitational pull of the Earth and heads in the direction of the moon.” – Dr. Karl Eckstrom
History in the Making
By the time Rocketship X-M was released, the science fiction film was almost half a century old, but there were only a scant more than 40 films released in this genre by 1950. The majority of these films that can be considered science fiction, are probably better contextualized today as horror films. Films such as Frankenstein, numerous versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Invisible Man (and its sequels) are all tangentially sci-fi films, having to do with the speculation of science gone wrong. However, they hold more elements in the Horror genre, including the use of mad scientists or pseudo-science gone awry.
Based on the definitions of the sci-fi genre above, only a handful of films prior to Rocketship X-M would qualify as sci-fi films. Among these include the serials of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and King of the Rocket Men. Of course A Trip to the Moon and Metropolis are examples of the earliest films in this genre (as discussed in the introductory article in this series). The only other film before Rocketship X-M that can be considered sci-fi would be The Flying Saucer which was released in January 1950. So in saying that this film is the “Screen’s First Story of Man’s Conquest of Space” is quite accurate.
According to trivia on the IMDb page and Wikipedia’s entry, Rocketship X-M was greenlit after the announcement and advertisement of the bigger budget Destination Moon. Shot in just 18 weeks, this film was able to be released to theaters just 25 days before Destination Moon, thereby securing its place as the “Screen’s First Story of Man’s Conquest of Space!” It provides an entirely different look at the first manned ship into outer space. And while some aspects of the film are lower budget and hokey, there are some interesting social commentary provided by the film (however heavy-handed) that sets it apart from Destination Moon.
Being that this is the first article in this series it’s important to get some explanations out of the way. What is a genre? What makes science fiction films, science fiction films?
Most people are familiar with the fact that books, television and films are divided into something called Genres. A Genre is a categorization used to delineate one type or style of story from another. That’s why Western films look and behave differently from a Detective film or, in this case, a Science Fiction film. Each genre has some basic rules that it adheres to in order to fulfill the categorization, which may seem self-evident to modern viewers who have grown up with these sorts of classifications.
The sci-fi film, in its formative years, developed some elements that define the genre, including space travel, aliens, spaceships, and advanced uses of science and technological tools. Hence, the “science” in science fiction. When making the determination if a work fits into the sci-fi genre, I always check on its use of “science” versus the use of “magic.” Films that have elements that can be considered magical, fit more succinctly into the Fantasy genre. As sci-fi films evolved, other themes and elements entered into the genre, such as time travel, dystopian society, cyber culture, and alternate realities. According to John Clute in SF: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (DK, 1995), science fiction is the “only genre of fiction that directly addresses the true nature of the times we live in, and describes the power we wield.” That is, sci-fi also serves as a mirror to the society’s hopes and fears in a very powerful and immediate way. It handles these concepts in ways that Horror, Drama or Fantasy (as a few examples) cannot.
Rocketship X-M, being a very early entry into the genre deals with very few genre conventions. These include space travel, faster than light travel, and the concept of life on other planets. The genre themes used by a film do not take into account the possibility of any of the scientific accuracy of the claims. For example: the lack of spacesuits used by the crew while exploring the surface of Mars, we know now, is just plain wrong. That does not change the fact that at the time the film was created, this was considered plausible – or perhaps was done for budgetary reasons. Reality is often a secondary consideration in sci-fi, which leads viewers to criticize the work as “less serious” or as “popcorn entertainment” rather than serious science fiction.
Another element of science fiction (not just films, but television and literature) is the use of the genre to provide commentary on current social issues or problems. Sometimes the metaphor or the allegory is heavy-handed or too “on the nose,” as it is with Rocketship X-M. But other times, it can be subtle and artful.
This film comes only 5 years after the end of World War II and the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the threat of “atomic” war was very fresh on everyone’s mind. Additionally the United States would test at least six atomic devices between 1945 and August, 1949, keeping the visual imagery of that destruction firmly in the public’s consciousness. And with the DPKR crossing the 38th parallel a few months earlier, the world was obviously concerned that things might escalate into war.
Rocketship X-M is not subtle in their handling of a warning to the people of Earth. When Dr. Eckstrom realizes that Atomic War devastated the advanced civilization of Mars, he opines, “From Atomic Age to Stone Age.” The warning is transmitted to Earth and relayed to the press to act as a hopeful warning to the nations of the planet. The film also deals with patriotism and the American “can-do” spirit, especially with the closing line that the new version of RX-M will be created and the crews sacrifice will not be in vain.
One other interesting note regarding the Mars sequences: they were ghost-written by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. He was suppressed by the McCarthy investigation into UnAmerican Activities (nee Communism) during the 50s, but kept writing scripts, including Spartacus (1960) while being blacklisted. I highly recommend the film Trumbo (2015), starring Bryan Cranston as the eponymous author.
Some additional, although probably unintended, social commentary comes from the treatment and portrayal of the lone female character, Dr. Van Horn. While probably not evident in 1950, the dialogue and treatment of this character belittles the accomplishments that set her up as a brilliant chemist and doctor.
The treatment is evidenced with lines such as “I suppose you think that women should only cook and sew and bear children” being posed by Dr. Van Horn, answered by Graham with “Isn’t that enough?” Or Dr. Eckstrom chastising her for getting a different answer than himself (even though in the end, his answer was the wrong one), and forcing her to concede to his answer, she apologizes, to which he replies “For what? For momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable, Miss Van Horn.” These social norms for 1950, stand out today, as very antiquated and sexist.
The Science in The Fiction
Rocketship X-M presents manned travel to the moon 11 years before Russia would put the first man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin; Vostok I, 1961) and 19 years before the United States would land on the moon itself (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, & Michael Collins; Apollo 11, 1969). It predicted several things correctly about the science of space travel.
- Use of a multi-stage rocket
- Distance to moon, length of trip, speed of rocket
- Use of chemical and liquid propellant
There are also many elements of the film that exist solely in the realm of science fiction. These include:
- Turning rocket 90º dramatically to enter Earth-orbit
- Lack of space suits on alien planets (at least they used some sort of breathing apparatus)
- Speed of travel to Mars, indicating faster-than-light travel. Normal Mars trip would take 150-300 days
- And of course, humanoids on Mars
The film also presents an ominous ending with the remainder of the crew dying in a rocket crash. While not common, several accidents have occurred on re-entry including most notably Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz I (1967) & the crew of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
The Final Frontier
Rocketship X-M is a fun and quirky film imagining what a rocket trip to the moon might be like. The film has some good ideas, and even manages to present some interesting warnings about the fate of mankind, should they continue at the present rate. But it suffers from a rushed filming schedule, lack of funding, and a hokey script. However, sometimes that’s what makes B-movies enjoyable to watch.
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.