Posted by gregferrara on April 21, 2013
With the release of Oblivion, and its plot point of the moon’s destruction, I was reminded of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a DVD company about George Pal and one of the things I mentioned was a statement by Ray Bradbury about Destination Moon. What Bradbury said was that it was the first science fiction movie he knew of that really was all about the science. From the earliest moon movies, such as A Trip to the Moon (1902) or Frau im Mond (1929), to the present day, Moon (2009), movies about the moon, when they’re not documentaries or docudramas, center around stories that have little to do with the science of getting there. But when George Pal took a crack at it, getting there was the most exciting thing about it.
By the fifties, getting to the moon was becoming a possibility in the minds of the scientific community and the science fiction community as well. In 1952, Collier’s Magazine began a series that would run for two years that illustrated how humans would get to the moon (and Mars and beyond) and do so sooner than anyone expected. In an age where atomic weapons had been unleashed upon the world, and rockets deployed in war, nothing seemed impossible. But those scientific uses were horrifying and science enthusiasts wanted more information about the good uses of the atom and rocket power. Of course, that meant heavy doses of feel-good propaganda as well, where nuclear power and rockets were benign inventions, completely in the power and control of humanity. That propaganda found its way into even the most science centered stories about space travel, including the biggest one of all, Destination Moon, written by Robert Heinlein, produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel.
Destination Moon tells the story of a group of entrepreneurs intent on getting the United States to the moon before the Soviets. Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) teams up with General Thayer (Tom Powers) and Jim Barnes (John Archer as kind of a Howard Hughes type) to design and build the rocket that will do the job. Of course, doing that kind of thing means money and lots of it. To raise the necessary funds they have a pitch meeting (Kickstarter, old school) with a bunch of rich, paranoid American industrialists. Paranoid because the ringer to the sales pitch is that if they (the Americans) don’t get to the moon first, the Soviets will get there and use it as a launch platform to drop nuclear bombs on the United States (please take a moment to laugh hysterically and come back when you’re done).
Of course, this fear is about as unfounded as it is humanly possible for a fear to be. First of all, you have to get the bombs to the moon. Second, you have to have a remote hookup to launch them at will. Third, you have to hope no one notices the bombs are on their way in the… wait for it… three days it takes for them to arrive! Yes, in this scenario, the Soviets would launch their bombs from the moon, some American generals would have a good laugh and then send a squadron of bombers to vaporize the Soviet Union in about fifteen minutes. Then track the exact trajectory of the incoming rockets from the moon (after a day or so, no need to rush it) and blast them once they’re in range. It’s as if they thought the moon was actually about a thousand times smaller and hovering above the USA, just beyond the clouds. Either Heinlein was one of the dumbest men who ever lived or just one of the most paranoid (hint, it’s the latter). Nonetheless, this remarkable fear does the job and the sale is made. The rocket gets financed. But rockets; how do they work?!
One of the most enduring and influential aspects of Destination Moon is in the method of its explanation of the science behind the effort. Rather than awkwardly work it into dialogue, give it to a narrator to solemnly intone or crawl it up the screen on an expository title card, they simply show the movie-going audience the exact same movie the paranoid industrialists get to the see in the movie: An animated movie presented by Woody Woodpecker that gives the viewers everything they need to know about space travel in five minutes. And I gotta tell you, it’s brilliant. Back in 1993, when I sat down in the theater to watch Jurassic Park, and the characters in the film sit down to watch an animated movie explaining the park to them, I had a wonderful sense of deja vu. Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp, or at least one of them, had clearly seen Destination Moon and thought the same thing I had: What a great way to get the pesky but necessary scientific exposition out of the way!
But the most notable thing about Destination Moon, as stated at the top of this piece (and in the title) is that aside from the momentary “Fear of a Soviet Moon” propaganda, the movie is all about getting to the moon. There is no subplot that develops about the Russians sabotaging our efforts, no bizarre encounters once they get to the moon and find moon men who explode when hit with umbrellas or leather-clad women interested in enslaving them. No, it’s just about getting to the moon and, once there, getting back. That’s it. And it works.
Viewed through the lens of history, it’s easy to spot the mistakes. The rocket is single-stage (which requires far too much fuel to get there and back, best to go multi-stage so by the time you get to the moon, you’re in a small landing pod and only need a small burst of energy to get off the moon and head back to earth), they use magnetic boots to slowly, very slowly, walk around inside the ship in the weightlessness of space (when floating around is much easier and efficient, although for the long term, where magnetic boots, forcing gravity on the legs, would actually help in keeping the bones strong) and the mountains are far too jagged. Also, the lift off is greatly exaggerated. If astronauts underwent that much gravitational stress when leaving the planet, they’d never survive the trip. But in 1950, none of that was known and considering this was done before Collier’s even got into the act (with the eyebrow raising assistance of former Nazi rocket designer, Wernher von Braun*), it’s pretty amazing how much they got right, or at least pretty close.
Destination Moon isn’t a great movie. The effects are good but, despite an Oscar, not great and, no, I don’t mean compared to today, I mean that even for 1950, they were good but not great. The acting is also decent but nothing special (except for Dick Wesson, playing mechanic Joe Sweeney, who gives that kind of overly-eager, “I’m just a simply guy from Brooklyn,” type of performance that livens up the movie every time he’s onscreen) and yet, it’s a movie that has an importance in the annals of science fiction because it did something few other science fiction movies ever do: It made the science more important than the fiction.
*In The Right Stuff, a favorite of mine, there’s a moment that plays perfectly off of the highly dubious practice of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in using former Nazis to advance their own space goals. When the thinly veiled Wernher von Braun character is asked about the quality of the Soviet’s rocket scientists, he answers, “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”
Another von Braun joke is the famous pseudo-subtitle (“but sometimes I hit London”) to the name of von Braun’s biopic, I Aim at the Stars, but little known to most, it actually came from the movie itself.
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