Now the fun starts. Having dutifully watched the precursors of science fiction films in the mostly horror films of the 1930s and ‘40s (with just two SF films from before 1950, Metropolis from 1927 and Things to Come from 1936), I’m now beginning rewatches, or perhaps in a few cases first watches, of the principle science fiction films of the 1950s. There were half a dozen a more a year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_fiction_films_of_the_1950s), more than a dozen in some years. (I don’t plan to watch them all; perhaps the best 2 or 3 from each year. Planned list here.) What triggered this eruption? No doubt studies have been done; offhand I’d speculate that the film industry took a few years to recover after the end of World War II, and with the use of rockets (the German V-2s) in that war, and speculation about using rockets to launch into space, ideas for Hollywood films emerged. Also, print science fiction anticipated these themes by decades, but at the end of the 1940s, and early ‘50s, stories and novels about building moon rockets became more plausible, and were more realistically depicted. (e.g. Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon”; Clarke’s Prelude to Space, reviewed here, https://www.blackgate.com/2020/06/18/we-have-launch-arthur-c-clarkes-prelude-to-space/ )
But Hollywood has never been full of scientists or engineers who strive to depict space flight realistically; it is full of entertainers who seek audiences, and so who depict things in ways that are intended to be dramatic, that appeal to audience’s sense of adventure and danger, but that are scientifically illiterate, even nonsensical. (This is a consequence of most people being stuck at the first stage of my hierarchy of awareness, projecting intuitive, even infantile, notions of how the world works, into environments and on to scales where those notions don’t apply.)
And this is the reason I’m watching all these old movies—really, my primary motive. I’m fascinated to see exactly what ideas Hollywood producers, and unschooled scriptwriters, had about how spaceflight would work, or, if there’s a way to tell, what shortcuts and cheats they took, despite knowing better, to appeal to audience biases. (A typical one: how spaceship make swooshing or roaring sounds as they pass. I’m sure many people still don’t understand why this is nonsense, but anyone writing any kind of science fiction should.)
So here we are. My plan is to watch these 30 or so principle SF films from the 1950s in chronological order. There were just two in 1950. The big budget one was Destination: Moon, with a script by Robert A. Heinlein (based somewhat on the story mentioned above), but a lower-budget one was finished and released first, by a month. This was Rocketship X-M, released in May 1950.
The film was written, produced, and directed by one Kurt Neumann; it starred Lloyd Bridges and several others including Hugh O’Brien; it had a musical score by Ferde Grofe. Neumann did the 1958 film The Fly (the first version, with Vincent Price and David Hedison), but otherwise has had no enduring reputation. Ferde Grofe is still known as the composer of the “Grand Canyon Suite,” a piece I grew up listening to (and still hear occasionally on my local classical music FM station), but which today strikes me as 3rd rate Beethoven’s Pastoral. I found his music in this film simply noisy, or sappy; but standards and styles of music change, as I noted about the music in Things to Come. Of the actors, Lloyd Bridges was popular in the ‘60s in a TV series called Sea Hunt, and later featured in the 1980 parody film Airplane! – he was the one in the control room who, increasingly stressed, kept saying things like, “I sure picked the wrong time to give up smoking!” or “to give up crack cocaine!.” And so on.
To the film. In this case it might be easier to summarize the plot relatively briefly, and then make comments.
The first manned rocketship launches, with four men and one woman, on a mission to the Moon. A rocket malfunction sends them far off course, and they reach Mars instead. There they find evidence of a ruined civilization, radiation suggesting nuclear war, and savage natives who kill three of the five. The other two return to Earth but run out of fuel and crash. Despite this, the mission director is confidant a second spaceship will be built.
The film has modest special effects and decent acting, but is marred by typical Hollywood fantasy physics, a dated sexist theme about the woman scientist, and a cliche romantic subplot. The lesson on Mars about the danger of species self-destruction is a bit heavy-handed, but apt for its time.
- The film is about the first manned spaceship—and not just that, but the first to attempt to reach the moon. It’s a rocket crewed by four men and one woman. The rocket launches on schedule, and heads for the moon. The name means Rocketship Expedition Moon.
- Along the way there is a thump that indicates the engines have stopped; and then a streak of meteorites goes by. An error in calculation, to restart the rocket, leads them to keep accelerating, with everyone falling on the floor…
- When they wake up, they realize they are way off course, but, as it happens, are approaching Mars! (The captain justifies this coincidence by supposing that “something infinitely greater has taken control” of their mission.)
- And so they land on Mars. There’s atmosphere here, so no need of pressure suits, just gas masks. They emerge and walk outside, in a land obviously filmed in Death Valley—and here the film, otherwise in black & white, is sepia toned—as they walk over sandy, rocky hills.
- They come to sand dunes, and see a ruined structure, circular and with a tower in the middle, evidence of a past civilization. They detect radiation. They conclude that the civilization here exhibits the tendency of advanced culture to self-destruct. [Remember this was 1950, just after nuclear bombs ended World War II, and the threat of complete nuclear destruction hung in the air.]
- They rest in a canyon, but then returning to their ship, they encounter primitive people, like cave men, on the ridges above them, tossing rocks and throwing spears. Only two of the five survive and make it back to their rocket, and take off.
- The two are the pilot (Lloyd Bridges) and the one woman, Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen). She realizes that they don’t have enough fuel to land successfully on Earth. She manages to contact Earth, to send them the message about what they found on Mars, and the two of them embrace as their rocket crashes into the Earth.
- The director on Earth faces the press, and insists the mission was not a failure—it proves that rocket travel is possible. And the message about what happened on Mars is information that could prove the salvation of the world. And that work on RX-M 2 will begin the next day.
- The launch is set at White Sands, in New Mexico, and the last medical check the five astronauts undergo is to have their blood pressure taken.
- With just 17 minutes before launch, the launch director, Dr. Fleming, holds a press conference with the astronauts sitting at a table in front of a roomful of reporters. Fleming invokes flying saucers and robot missiles to explain how a base on the moon would enable the control of world peace.
- He goes on to describe the ship’s flight path: it will launch straight up to a height of 300 miles, then turn 90 degrees to a direction parallel to the surface of the Earth -! He doesn’t use the word orbit. Indeed, this is how the launch plays out; when the rocket reaches a certain height, it pivots somehow, the astronauts holding on as if tilting. How is this done? We see bank and gyro indicates as in a plane. (And an altimeter, and an “air speed” dial.) No mention of, say, retro-rockets. This bizarre flight-path, with no explanation of how the rocket makes its 90 degree change in flight path, is the most bizarre anti-scientific conceit of the film.
- In the press conference at the beginning the issue of women’s roles immediately comes up. Does Dr. Horn have any comments, “from a woman’s angle?” She’s coolly professional, at first. As the film proceeds, this theme expands, with remarks by the male astronauts about the stress she must feel, and so on. There’s a scene in which the ship’s captain, and she, independently make elaborate calculations (with paper, pencil, and slide rules) for adjusting their course, and get different answers. The captain rejects her answer, and you think she’s about the break into tears. At the end, when she realizes they don’t have enough fuel to safely land on Earth, she does break into tears.
- And there’s romance! As the two survivors, pilot Floyd Graham and Dr. Horn, return to Earth, he waxes about walking at night along a Lake Locarno in Italy, and how until now he hadn’t thought of her as a woman… They embrace, and realizing they have only minutes to live, claim to sense the long life they might have had together. It’s sappy, even though the romance is doomed, and it’s gratuitous, like the weddings that ended so many early era space opera novels.
- The rocket is multistage, though the first stage is seen to be still firing when it drops behind the main ship. The main ship then lands on its tail (on Mars) and takes off again without that first stage. (That’s plausible; the trip had been planned for the Moon, with its lesser gravity, and Mars’ gravity is also less than that of Earth.)
- We see the usual misunderstanding of gravity and orbits; we’re told the rocket will accelerate until it reaches the “equilibrium” point between Earth and Moon, and then let the Moon’s gravity draw them onward. Later, as the ship returns to Earth, Dr. Horn advises that when they see an increase in speed (how are they measuring speed??) that will mean they’ve reached Earth’s gravity. (Argh.)
- The most egregious error is the central thesis of the story: that having lost control of their rocket on its course to the Moon, they revive themselves and find themselves approaching Mars. This betrays a mass misunderstanding of the enormous size and scale of the solar system, and ignores the infinitesimal chance that an error in their course would lead to anyplace interesting. (This is the same error Velikovksy, if anyone remembers him, made; cf. Sagan’s book Cosmos p91.) It is as if, having missed one’s freeway exit in LA, one found oneself in Paris. Alas, few SF TV shows or films are much better at this; to casual viewers of all these shows, all those stars and planets are just up there, out there somewhere, all more-or-less equally remote.
- The astronauts wear ordinary clothes at all times. On Mars they do wear oxygen masks, but no suits.
- The astronauts experience ordinary gravity aboard the ship, but in scenes when they are supposedly weightless, this is demonstrated by having objects abruptly float into the air (on visible strings), even having to be held down. This is not how weightlessness works. Lost in Space used the same gimmick.
- The Earth they see has no clouds, of course. There’s odd talk about how the sun still shines on them, until they reach *outer* space (which is entirely dark?) During the flight they look back at Earth, and ahead toward the Moon, and the phases don’t match as they should.
- The meteorites look like balls of tinfoil—actually like three balls of tinfoil clumped together–and they all look exactly the same. And of course they make roaring sounds as they go by.
- They do the same ridiculous 90-degree turn before descending to Mars.
- The 1960s TV series Lost in Space cribbed, or echoed, several things from this film: the floating objects in weightlessness; the stream of asteroids passing the ship; the idea of the ship going out of control and missing its target.