Film Club: First Men in the Moon

Nifty faux-Victorian pop art credits! And Laurie (The Avengers) Johnson’s superb theme tune. I think Johnson was on friendly terms with Bernard Herrmann (he later arranged BH’s IT’S ALIVE! score for the sequel) and was maybe recommended for this gig by the great American, who had scored several Harryhausen movies…

Arriving in 1964, midway between JFK’s announcement of his nation’s intention to “go to the moon and do the other things” — a strangely ill-written phrase, that — and the successful implementation of that scheme by Apollo 11 (what’s Neil Armstrong doing about his carbon footprint?) — FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was so perfectly timely that no remake could ever touch it. And so no remake has happened. (NB — I am wrong: there’s a 1997 cartoon with Shatner and Nimoy doing voices, and a forthcoming BBC version scripted by Mark Gatiss of the League of Gentlemen. But I am going to act as if I’m right.)

This is largely thanks to Nigel Kneale’s key contribution, the framing device which puts HG Wells’ historic story into a modern context, with the cheeky image of astronauts being confronted by a Union Flag jammed in the lunar dirt. Pipped at the post, by 65 years! This device seems to have been borrowed from Karel Zeman’s 1961 film BARON MUNCHAUSEN (AKA BARON PRASIL), in which the immortal baron is discovered resident upon the moonscape by flabbergasted space mariners of the modern age, but I think Kneale and his collaborators make even better use of it. Interestingly, this space mission is a multi-national venture, including American, British and Russian ‘nauts, so any hint of Brit triumphalism is defused somewhat.

I wondered if Edward Judd’s elderly protag was Ray Harryhausen’s age, but I guess he’s probably older. That’s the other reason this film was made at the perfect time: a Victorian space explorer could just conceivably be alive still in ’64. Judd’s old age performance is very nice, as is his crinkly makeup, and we also get nice cameos here from character thesps Miles Malleson (altogether now: “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”) and Gladys Henson. Cue the flashback —

A miniature house photographed upside-down, the debris falling up out of shot…

Martha Hyer’s role was apparently boosted at the insistence of the studio, in defiance of the source novel and the title, and the writers only had one draft to integrate her fully into the story. This means she’s slightly awkwardly situated between Judd’s Bedford and Lionel Jeffries’ Professor Cavor — her attitude to the latter is sometimes inconsistent and sometimes vague. But on the plus side, she’s not annoying or pathetic, as women in sci-fi adventures often were (think Weena in THE TIME MACHINE).

Jeffries is the real star of the show, a peerless comic player who leaves no furniture un-gnawed, but who has a surprising ability to underplay when required. He goes from a bellow to a whisper and back, never at random, but according to a secret formula of his own that always makes sense when you se it played out before you, but which can never be predicted.

Judd is interesting because he’s initially a rather dislikable crook, then an even more dislikable brute, and only really appealing as an old crock. A sort of Kenneth More bloke actor, he seems to relish the chance to do something more interesting than a straight leading man role. It looks like Kneale’s hand at work, turning the two-fisted action hero into a thug, and the nutty professor into a humanist hero. You can see this schism in the split between military and scientific characters in his QUATERMASS series, and in Hammer’s THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. What with the pacifist Doctor of Dr Who also on the go in the ’60s, this was a good period for intellectual, non-violent heroes in British fantasy.

Peter Finch! Uncredited cameo, performed without the aid of disguise, just lots of face-pulling.

I actually like the way the film manages to sustain interest as Cavorite is introduced and explained and developed, and Judd is seduced into joining Cavor’s lunatic quest to the mountains of the moon. Most movies would aim to get the spacecraft launched by end of act one, but here the halfway point is reached before countdown commences. As a kid, I may have feared that we were in for another FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, where launch-day seems to take forever to come, but here the characters are actually interesting and Nathan Juran’s use of the widescreen frame is elegant enough to keep things moving.

Cavor, like Zarkov in FLASH GORDON, keeps his spacecraft in the greenhouse, but Cavor actually has a reason, heat being a big part of the Cavorite synthesizing process. I really like the idea of a substance which cuts off gravity the way lead cuts off X-rays, although I suspect this would make the bathysphere-with-bumpers weightless rather than propelling it upwards at speed. This is my favourite space propulsion system outside of Scottish author David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus, which depends on the use of “back rays”, light beams with a homing instinct, compelled to return back to their star of origin, and which drag with them the space explorers in their crystal ship…

The moon! A brief but great POV shot swooping through the lunar alps, then the lovely slomo roll-and-crash landing. Harryhausen has confessed that he wasn’t so sure railway bumpers would save the astronauts lives in such a scenario, but the craft looks sturdy and beautiful in a Victorian way, a worthy and more solid companion to George Pal’s art nouveau TIME MACHINE. Diving suits for space exploration is the sort of thing that seems sort of credible, although I kind of wish Bedford and Cavor were wearing gloves… Expose any skin and I think you’d suffer both frostbite AND explosive decompression. You’d basically becomes red snow.

Apparently, when NASA were developing spacesuits, there was some confusion as to what such a suit needed to be. In fact, if it keeps you in an airtight space and stops you bursting, it’s doing a good job. One proposed design was basically a full body condom, skintight and far less bulky than the costumes they finally went with. But nobody could feel really confident in a spacesuit that was only skin thin. A case of psychology winning out over practicality, perhaps.

We’re disappointed, aren’t we, that the little selenites are played by actors rather than stop motion puppets, yes? I think I prefer the selenites in the Melies version (which grafts Verne onto Welles without paying copyright royalties to either — at that point in cinema history, it probably hadn’t been established in law that you NEEDED to pay for film rights — but the first big moon-man scene is great and moving, distressing even, for Lionel Jeffries’ reactions to Judd turning into a xenocidal maniac, hurling the little insectoids into the void with brutish abandon. What makes the tonal shift shocking is LJ’s capacity for sudden, heartbreaking emotion, and he’s not only bringing unexpected depth to the feeling, but to the film’s ideas — traditional sci-fi machismo is being questioned.

Martha Hyers’ big nude scene.

I saw Jeffries interviewed once at home. He was a pretty good painter, and he’d done a moody self-portrait. He described his tiny grandchild’s reaction to the painting: “That’s granddad. He’s a broken man.” Long pause. Then Jeffries says, “Children can be very astute, you know.”

Harryhausen talks about the technical difficulties of shooting in widescreen, which meant that several big animation scenes were dropped. I love the mooncalf design, but it’s not one of his most expressive monsters, and the selenites, when they do appear animated, aren’t the zestiest personalities either. But the lack of creatures is actually compensated for by the narrative’s strength, and it helps the movie that it’s not a series of creature set-pieces.

As to the selenites’ purpose, their evil plan, they don’t really have one. At one point, Kneale planned on having them force the humans to breed or something, but that doesn’t seem too scary. I guess the threat is mainly to our explorers and not to the people of Earth at all, and I guess that ought to be enough. I would love to know, both for this post and for my vague VOX Project, who does the whispery voice of the Grand Lunar. Maybe it’s the narrator of TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER?

As for the GL’s look — that big head thing is such a classic alien idea, from THIS ISLAND EARTH to INVADERS FROM MARS to the Mars Attacks! playing cards, to the Mekon in the Dan Dare comic strip in the UK… and the lead Goblin in The Hobbit is described as having a huge cranium too… I guess in the low gravity of the moon, such a design would be just about practical, too.

The Cavorite space capsule is the third animated character in the movie, and its blast-off is a fine climax, as far as I’m concerned — I love the bottomless shafts and skylights of the moon-folk, as well as their oxygen plant and solar-powered perpetual motion machine — they’re not only less warlike than mankind, but more eco-friendly (if the moon can be said to have an ecology, and I guess it does in this movie: two species = an ecosystem, right?).

Back to the present. One of the Space Administration people here is Hugh McDermott, Edinburgh-born star of DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, who does a good American accent (like me, he seems  to have mislaid his Scots accent). And the cold virus climax is a neat swipe from Wells’ War of the Worlds. I think the idea actually works better here — not a deus ex machina (there are very few diseases humans can catch from dogs, which makes human-Martian or human-lunar cross-contamination a little unlikely) but an ironic wrinkle. Jeffries should probably have done more with the cold earlier though. But Judd throws away that last line with remarkable aplomb.

Forty-one years ago today, Neil Armstrong and those other fellows blasted off for our nearest celestial neighbour…

39 Responses to “Film Club: First Men in the Moon”

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  3. I recently saw 2001 on the big screen for the second time, the first was in 1969. Only five years (if that many) separated this film from Kubrick’s. Two very different films needless to say, I mention it because of the parallels in depicting visits to the moon, one to examine an excavated monolith, the other discovering a race of Selenites beneath its surface. I have yet to watch FMITM in its entirety, but will do so in the next few hours. The design of the modern-day suits and crafts are fairly impressive, in that they have a look consistent with the era.
    I have to think twice at times, Selenites or Cenobites?

  4. Too bad Jeffries’ directing career didn’t sustain itself. Wombling Free was probably a mistake. But The Amezing Mr Blunden fascinates, and The Railway Children is a triumph — and I’m a big E Nesbitt fan. I particularly recommend her ghost stories!

    Kubrick’s film clearly cost way more that Harryhausen’s, and was made closer to the real moon landing in time, which makes it all the more impressive that the moon landing here is so convincing. He beats out George Pal for authenticity easily.

  5. jason hyde Says:

    Great piece on one of my favorite films. Jeffries’ performance really is brilliant in this. He’s genuinely funny in the early nutty professor scenes, and genuinely moving as Cavor becomes the true hero of the story. And the way Judd’s more traditional ‘hero’ goes from somewhat likable cad to outright contemptible bastard is terrific and pure Nigel Kneale.

    Apparently the new BBC version is using a version of Kneale’s ingenious framing device, which is hardly surprising considering that Gatiss is behind it. I’ll probably check it out, but I doubt I’ll love it the way I do the Harryhausen film.

    Voyage to Arcturus. I really wish I liked that book more than I do. It’s a proto-psychedelic mystical science fiction novel from the 20s, so I should love it, but I had a hard time getting into it. I was on board completely with the opening seance and the actual voyage and still pretty intrigued for the initial scenes on Arcturus, but my interest waned shortly after that and never really recovered.

  6. Very very interested to see this now, as it’s only with the last airing on the telly of “Wrong Arm of the Law” that I realised just how brilliant an actor Jeffries is. Up until then I simpl;ythought of him as a man who said “‘Ere! What the…?!” a lot. Also the film’s fidelity to the moral iffy-ness of the book’s narrator is a definite draw.

  7. Randy Byers Says:

    I can’t really contribute to a discussion of the movie, but I do want to recommend the H.G. Wells novel, which I read a year or two ago. It’s a pretty amazing satire of colonialism and imperialism, and it includes a scene in which the two human eat lunar fungus and start tripping. I was convinced that Wells must have tried hallucinogens at some point himself, because his description of the feelings and perceptions was dead on. The novel ends in a very modernistic, ambiguous way, as well. Heady stuff.

  8. Gatiss was involved in that deplorable remake of Quatermass Experiment, where among other fairly blatant inanities, they failed to make a decision as to whether the story was contemporary, period, alternate history, or what. Dreadful. But he clearly respects NK’s work and wants to repopularize it, quite sincerely, and he’s very talented in his other work, so maybe he’ll do better this time.

    I kind of agree about Arcturus: the opening stuff is blazened upon my brain, but then it does get kind of ponderous. My favourite thing about it is the filing error that causes my brain to lump it next to Chuck Jones’ The Phantom Tollbooth.

    Jeffries’ turn in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of my favourite things about that particular guilty pleasure — he’s so full-on music hall it actually staggers the mind.

  9. I ought to re-read the book, RB. Enjoyed it very much as a kid, but I would hope to experience it differently today. Am also starting to wonder what other corners of the Wells oeuvre would lend themselves to a sci-fi movie adaptation — there are one or two like When the Sleeper Awakes that would seem to have potential.

    Harryhausen contemplated filming Food of the Gods, which could have been very nice. In the end it fell — a long way down — to Bert I Gordon.

  10. jason hyde Says:

    Never saw the Quatermass Experiment remake, and I’m not in any hurry to get around to it. Everything about it looked wrong, particularly the cast, all of whom are just too young for it. And Gatiss can be a hit-or-miss writer, although his enthusiasm certainly can’t be faulted. I wonder if he’ll keep the mushroom bit from Wells’ book.

    Speaking of the Quatermass Experiment, I just remembered that Lionel Jeffries is in the Hammer version, although he isn’t given nearly enough to do in it.

  11. John Seal Says:

    I’ve been a huge Lionel Jeffries fan for as long as I can remember…probably since I first saw this very film when I was 10 or 11. He always struck me as being incredibly old, and I was very surprised to learn years later that he was born in 1926 and actually a month younger than my mother! Already bald in his early 30s, and impossibly stuffy in a very Victorian way that made him, no doubt, seem much older than he actually was. He was a wonderful, wonderful actor, and his death earlier this year genuinely saddened me. But at least we still have Herbert Lom (fingers crossed).

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Nice review, David. I saw the film when it first came out and have many fond memories of it. One comment. Didn’t Scottish Hugh McDermott make a career of playing Americans from NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, JOHNNY ON THE SPOT to one of his final roles in CAPTAIN APACHE? I remember seeing him in one episode of DIXON OF DOCK GREEN playing a green grocer and he still had his American accent!

  13. McDermott seems to have played lots of yanks, yes. Not sure WHAT he’s supposed to be in Devil Girl from Mars. The Michael Winner western Chato’s Land is stuffed with Scotsmen so it’s possible he’s meant to be a recent immigrant in that.

    I’m always happier to see Jeffries in nice guy roles because there’s something appealing about him that makes a comic villain a little disappointing. But he played a bunch of them, and to the hilt.

    Good story in Roger Lewis’s Peter Sellers bio: Sellers had misbehaved rather badly on set, and that evening he called up Jeffries and asked, “Was I very bad today?” Jeffries, expecting an apology, said, “Yes, as a matter of fact you were.” A pause, and then satanic laughter from the other end of the line…

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    But is there ever a film you’ve seen where McDermott ever speaks in a Scottish accent. In DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS is he not the heroic Yak (otherwise personified by Rod Cameron and Forrest Tucker) who end up marrying the innkeeper’s daughter often played by Rona Anderson at the climax (no pun intended!).

    Rona has recently written an introduction to the Chibnall and McFarlane book on British B Movies so perhaps we should have a Rona celebration in future? After all, she always played a Scottish girl never a gum chewing WAC!

  15. HM is in an episode of the 50s Robin Hood series, playing “Duncan of Stonybrook” which doesn’t sound like a “Yak”, heroic or otherwise. But he certainly is in a lot of faux-US movies, including Chaplin’s A King in New York.

    Rona should certainly be celebrated, I’ll dig into her CV and see what joys await. But I think that barmaid is Adrienne Corri, another Edinburgher whose name should be shouted from the rooftops. Kubrick, Renoir, Preminger… that’s quite a career!

  16. Tony Williams Says:

    You have to remember, of course, that many blacklisted American writers worked on ROBIN HOOD as the 1989 FELLOW TRAVELLER directed by Philip Saville shows. Producer Hannah Weinstein was also a fugitive from HUAC.

    So perhaps he is playing a blacklisted refugee joining Robin’s band to fight wicked Sir Joseph McCarthy and “robbing from the rich to give to the poor” as the final credits song went. Many of these refugees were “stony broke” when they arrived.

    Yes, I remember Adrienne Corri well especially in the Edmund Purdom Renaissance Italy 50s ITV series SWORD OF FREEDOM in which Purdom played artist Marco del Monte who seemed to use his sword more than a paintbrush in every episode.

  17. Randy Cook Says:

    Beautiful and insightful review.

    Probably Ray’s best-made picture. I felt the lack of critters when I saw it in the cinema as a kid, but I remember enjoying &appreciating it as a story.

    Ray’s dislike of the widescreen was, I suspect, partially a result of the format’s incompatibility with his rear screen projection process: re-photography of the rear projected image resulted in an unacceptable hotspot. Ray was obliged to use traveling matte work, which impaired his ability to have the rubber puppets make convincing contact with the meat puppets.

    As a result, the film relied more upon traditional movie values; the story and actors had to carry it and did they ever.

    Ray’s puppets took a bit of a back seat, but his visual ideas came to the fore. As David says, it was doubtless a low budget affair, but Ray’s imagination & ingenuity allowed his art direction set pieces to shine (shot after shot of actors walking around in artificial, usually miniature, environments presaged the green screen extravaganzas we endure today, I suspect).

    Anyway, the various elements which make this such a delightful entertainment have already been ticked-off by David and the Shadowplayers (didn’t I see them in concert, in the 60’s?). Very glad to read such an articulate appreciation of this old favorite, and I only hope it finds its way to blu ray one of these days —seeing the stunning blu ray restoration of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS makes me believe that FIRST MEN will be spectacular when it shows up on that format.

  18. Thanks for bringing up No Orchids For Miss Blandish, Mr. Williams. Adore the novel but I’ve never seen the British-made first screen adaptation. Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang is close but no cigar.

    A whole box of cigars goes to Patrice Chereau for his film version of Chase’s sequel, Flesh of the Orchid with Charlotte Rampling, Hughes Quester, Bruno Cremer, Alida Valli, Simone Signoret, Edwige Feulliere and Eve Francis.

  19. Randy: thanks! BluRays of the rest of the Harryhausen oeuvre are only a matter of time, I’m sure.

    A good copy of Flesh of the Orchids is now within my grasp…

    Chase was an inveterate plagiarist, and No Orchids is pretty much a rip-off of Sanctuary. The 30s version of that with Miriam Hopkins is probably the best version of the story, but I’ve just sourced Tony Richardson’s adaptation… much-despised. adaptation, I should say. The 40s Brit version of No orchids is really about class rather than s&m, as Orwell observed, and its main pleasure is the weird transatlantic evocation of the US.

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    You’re welcome, Mr. Ehrenstein. NO ORCHIDS has now been released in the USA on DVD and you can find it at if not on amazon. As my students in the Gangster Movie class I ran some years ago recognized this film is really about the class system and contemporary British fears about a now powerful post-war America, fears raised in the beginning of Dmytryk’s interesting British film noir OBSESSION (1949) where Robert Newton and Phil Brown compete for the favors of Sally Gray.

  21. The anxiety/contempt aroused by British attempts at making American movies resurfaced again in Philip French’s review of Kick-Ass, which specifically cited No Orchids as an early example of this yearning for/loathing of American genre cinema, but then went on to exactly the same knee-jerk dismissal.

    Certain actors, like Hugh McDermott (Scottish) and Sid James (South African) were always wheeled out to evoke the USA. And Kick-Ass features a tiny appearance by UK-based Elizabeth McGovern, plus a lot of cockneys pretending to be Noo Yawk tough guys — probably a dream come true for the likes of Dexter Fletcher.

  22. The more I read about NO ORCHIDS the more I look forward to seeing it, everything I’ve read thus far makes it sound more than a little strange. Are we talking the Elizabeth McGovern, of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, RAGTIME and JOHNNY HANDSOME? There was a time when she was a very familiar face, God knows what happened to cause her to fall from the face of the (cinematic) earth.

    One thing I must mention is the one-hour documentary on Harryhausen found on the FIRST MEN IN THE MOON DVD. A fairly thorough overview of RH’s career, including footage of his early work, things not found in his films, and it touches on his nearly lifelong friendship with sci-fi author Ray Bradbury ( it just dawned on me, The Two Rays). Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, from 1997.

  23. What happened to McGovern is she married a Brit and moved to the UK, where we’ve generally failed to find much for her to do.

    Yes, that’s a very nice extra. These movies are particularly suited to the Extra Features approach, which is why I think they’ll do well on BluRay.

  24. Fiona W Says:

    That woman at the breakfast table in Kick Ass is NOT Elizabeth McGovern! I was disabused of this belief by someone on Twitter. If it’s absolutely necessary I can go and find out who it REALLY is.

  25. Looks like you’re right Fiona, I see no mention of Kick Ass in her IMDB filmography. Must be her botched clone.

  26. Unless she’s just doing an uncredited cameo? Did your Twitter acquaintance know who it actually was?

    (Fiona’s description of McGovern’s face, “like a beautiful balloon” always stuck in my mind.)

  27. Now I just checked the IMDb and there she is, 8th name down. What’s going on?

  28. And Kick Ass has the film listed in her filmography after all (third down). Experiencing a little Sunday morning addle-mindedness I guess (speaking for myself of course). Not that any of all this really matters.

  29. Seems more than possible that McGovern is practicing some form of invisiblism, which would account for her absence from our screens and her ability to disappear from cast lists. One way to become invisible is to appear in a surprising manner, so that the eye rejects what it sees — maybe by appearing so far up the cast list despite being in only about one shot, EMcG has achieved this.

  30. This gets weirder. Searched my tweets for the name of my informant, then went into his tweet history for his McGovern comment and it’s NOT THERE. Does McGovern perhaps have The Glamour (see Christopher Priest’s novel) and it also extends to written references to her. Spooky.

  31. Now you see her, now you don’t. Careerwise and otherwise.

  32. She moves in mysterious ways.

    Got you another Priest novel, Fee!

  33. jason hyde Says:

    Another fun piece on this film, complete with va-va-voom photo of Martha Hyer:

  34. Terrific! Ah, the days of confabulated publicity stills! I’d like to see the Undies on the Moon version.

  35. I was pleasantly surprised by the comic tone of the early part of the film. All I really knew about it was Harryhausen’s involvement, and I expected an earnest-to-the-point-of-camp space adventure, but what I got was much, much more British, and such fun!

  36. Good! I’m actually glad the myth movies take that tone, but the jaunty style here really works a treat. I wish there were more Wells adaptations that hit the highs of 1st Men, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine.

  37. Nice, my copy arrived from netflix today.

  38. Enjoy! Just watched The Three Worlds of Gulliver, which was fun but not half as good as 1stMen.

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