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.