Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950) [RePoPo]

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Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950)

Technical Information
Type..................: Movie
Container file........: AVI
Video Format..........: H.264
Total Bitrate.........: 2148 Kbps
Audio format..........: AC3 192 Kbps (Untouched)
Audio Languages.......: English 1.0
Subtitles ripped......: Spanish
Resolution............: 704x512
Aspect Ratio..........: 1.37:1
Original Aspect Ratio.: 1.37:1
Color.................: Color
FPS...................: 25.000 fps
Source................: PAL DVD (interlaced)
Duration..............: 01:31:02
Genre.................: Sci-fi
IMDb Rating...........: 6.2
Movie Information.....:

Release Notes
Plot Synopsis by Mark Deming

Producer George Pal assembled an impressive roster of behind-the-camera talent
-- including noted science fiction author Robert Heinlein and artist Chelsey
Bonestell -- for this pioneering sci-fi adventure. Scientist Dr. Charles
Cargraves (Warner Anderson), former Air Force General Thayer (Tom Powers), and
industrial tycoon Jim Barnes (John Archer) believe that it's time that the U.S.
blazed new trails and found new adventures. Convinced that exploration of space
is the wave of the future (and that America's dominance in space is vitally
important if they are to continue to dominate the Earth), the three men begin
planning and constructing a spaceship called "Luna" in the Mojave Desert that
will take the men to the moon and back. However, anti-American forces begin
flooding the press with propaganda against the moon mission, and finally the men
make their way to moon without the aid of the federal government. While the men
are thrilled to succeed in their mission, it turns out that they miscalculated
the amount of fuel needed to return -- and that the rocket needs to drop a lot
of weight if it is to return to Earth. Destination Moon won an Academy Award for
Best Special Effects of 1950; the film also features a brief appearance by
cartoon favorite Woody Woodpecker, who helps explain how rockets work.
Warner Anderson - Dr. Charles Cargraves
John Archer - Jim Barnes
Tom Powers - General Thayer
Dick Wesson - Joe Sweeney
Ted Warde - Brown
Michael Miller
Erin O'Brien-Moore - Emily Cargraves
Irving Pichel - Director
George Pal - Producer
Robert A. Heinlein - Screenwriter / Book Author
James O'Hanlon - Screenwriter
Rip Van Ronkel - Screenwriter
Lionel Lindon - Cinematographer
Leith Stevens - Composer (Music Score)
Duke Goldstone - Editor
Ernst Fegte - Production Designer
George Sawley - Set Designer
William Lynch - Sound/Sound Designer
Lee Zavitz - Special Effects
Walter Lantz - Animator
Bosley Crowthers, June 28th 1950

Considering the fact that the scientists have not yet reached the moon—unless,
perhaps, the Russians have pulled a fast one on us—we're afraid that the
motion-picture audience will have to accept on faith the possibility of the
excursion that is accomplished in "Destination Moon." For the sole demonstration
in this picture which George Pal has produced in rich, luscious Technicolor and
which opened at the Mayfair yesterday is how four American scientists, in a
rocket ship fired into space, ride out to the moon, look it over and then ride
back again.

This, as we say, is a project which, for want of accomplishment as yet, still
smacks of the ventures of Buck Rogers or the earlier imaginings of Jules Verne.
And even though Mr. Pal assures us that everything which happens in this film
has been checked with the highest authorities for what you might technically
expect, this corner withholds its opinion of the voyage's plausibility.

However, we've got to say this for Mr. Pal and his film: they make a lunar
expedition a most intriguing and picturesque event. Even the solemn preparations
for this unique exploratory trip, though the lesser phase of the adventure, are
profoundly impressive to observe. For instance, it is arresting to hear an
eloquent scientist proclaim that the first nation which can use the moon for
launching missiles will control the earth. It is thrilling to be told, in
deepest confidence, that this is the greatest miltary fact of our age. And it is
awesome to watch the mechanics constructing that giant rocket ship.

But, most of all, it is exciting to climb aboard the ship with those four men
(two jumps ahead of the sheriff with a stop-order on the whole trip), to wiggle
and squirm with them in agony as their silver tube roars into space and to join
in their general amazement at the various phenomena which occur. It is even a
little amusing to watch the inevitable comic character float about in
non-gravitational freedom when he becomes a "free orbit," whatever that means.
And the emergency necessity for the scientists to go outside their ship
(i???ntheir inter-space suits) to do repair work while the ship is in flight
cues quite a scene.

After the highly perilous landing of the rocket ship on the moon, accomplished
by turning its nose up and backing in against the pressure of its propelling
jet, the subsequent explorations on the moon are a trifle tame. Nothing to see
but old, dead mountains and craters with cracked and scaling sides. There isn't
a single beautiful female nor even a Russian scientist anywhere, although we're
led to be on the lookout for the latter—just in case. Indeed, there is no
apparent reason for anyone wanting to settle on the moon, and the picture's
departure there-from is no particular cause for regret.

As a matter of fact, the return trip is downhill all the way, despite the
evident efforts of the scriptwriters to make it hum. For, in tossing away much
equipment in order to lighten the ship for its take-off from the moon, the
gentlemen apparently jettisoned what they had left of a script. And the pointed
suspension of the adventure in midair is a weak and dull way out.

However, that may be reasoned. Apparently Mr. Pal did not want to be
scientifically liable for returning any voyagers from the moon. Everything else
he can argue—the departure, the adventures in space, the look of the moon, even
the broadcast that is beamed to the earth from there. And in the performance of
these adventures, we can just as well assume that the male cast employed for
this picture acts as moon voyagers would. Actually, their human reactions are
nothing to their gadgeted ship, their miraculous observations—and those are all
we advise you go to see.

More sci than fi, this fairly serious 1950’s vision of what a moon landing might
like be one day has no astronauts being confronted by alien monsters on the moon
or anything of the sort.

Scientifically accurate (for its day) to the 9nth degree, Destination Moon
instead boasts astronauts who use too much rocket fuel in landing on the moon
and then have to get rid of excess weight so as to be able to escape the moon’s
gravitational pull again. You can see German rocket expert Hermann Oberth served
as technical advisor on the film, but it’s not particularly exciting watching a
bunch of guys in spacesuits dump some oxygen tanks on the surface of the moon to
be honest.

Maybe the movie should have stuck more closely to the plot of Rocketship
Galileo, the juvenile 1947 Robert Heinlein novel on which it is based. In
Heinlein’s original novel three boys and their uncle build a spaceship in their
backyard which they use to travel to the moon where they discover Nazis, all of
which is ridiculous of course but sounds much more exciting than dullard
astronauts sawing rungs off ladders. (Heinlein also contributed to the
screenplay along with John O’Hanlon and Rip van Ronkel, which unbelievable as it
sounds is not a complete nom de plume. The author’s real name was Alford van

"Heinlein's original novel had Nazis on the moon!"

According to this more serious-minded movie the first mission to the moon was to
be sponsored by American big businesses because government can’t get its act
together. Unknown enemies (commies obviously, but never mentioned by name) would
conspire to stop the mission from ever happening, trying to sway American public
opinion against it. The trip itself would be made in an atomic-powered V2
rocket. The surface of the moon would have tall mountains and a surface like
that of a dry lake bed. As predictive science fiction Destination Moon of course
gets a lot wrong, and therein most of its interest lies: it is representative of
what people in the 1950s thought a rocket trip to the moon would be like one

Big business falls in line by the way, because the American military tells them
that “the race is on — and we'd better win it, because there is absolutely no
way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon
for the launching of missiles... will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the
most important military fact of this century.”

In fairness the movie gets a lot right though. There is quite some “for
beginners” focus on space travel issues such as weightlessness in space, the
properties of vacuum, and the like — all of which makes it about more
scientifically accurate than 90% of most science fiction movies today. Besides,
it was produced by George Pal of War of the Worlds and Time Machine fame back
then for $586, 000 — a tidy sum back then. Also, its idea of the surface of the
moon isn’t that far off. The special effects are quite good for its time (it
deservedly won an Academy award). One can easily imagine Stanley Kubrick having
watched it whilst “researching” 2001: A Space Odyssey and saying, “I can do this

The movie’s biggest problem though is its plodding pace and nondescript
characters. Only one of the characters is notable from the others, namely the
one played by Dick Wesson, and that is only for his heavy Brooklyn accent and
annoying folkish demeanour. One almost pictures Vin Diesel having based his
grinning buffoon performance in Find Me Guilty on him. Incidentally, in
Destination Moon the first words to be spoken by the first man on the moon are:
“By the grace of God, and the name of the United States of America, I take
possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind.” We
kinda like Neil Armstrong’s better . . .
And you call yourself a scientist, (

Of all the science fiction films of the 1950s that are today acknowledged as
"classics", Destination Moon is the least known and most under-appreciated,
probably because it offers so little to the casual viewer. Ironically enough, it
is the very qualities that make this film so important that doom it as
entertainment: its technical accuracy; its deliberately low-key, almost
documentary approach; and above all its deadly earnestness – there are no cheap
thrills here. Sadly, this means that although Destination Moon is a landmark in
the development of the science fiction film, and a pioneering work in the true
sense of the word, it can really only be correctly estimated by the viewer who
approaches it with some knowledge of its historical importance, and an active
sense of good will. You will find no aliens, no monsters, no ray-guns, no
strange women in leotards – and no "love interest" – in Destination Moon; just a
painstakingly factual account of how mankind might go about building a rocket
that would take him to the moon. Despite this (or perhaps because of it: this
was, after all, an era when the expression "Popular Science" was not an
oxymoron!), at the time of its first release the film was enormously successful,
grossing about ten times its outlay. Those us of living in a time when space
shuttle flights are so commonplace as to barely rate a mention on the news any
more might find it hard to understand what the fuss was all about. To appreciate
– indeed, to enjoy Destination Moon as it deserves, we must put ourselves in the
place of the audiences of the 1950s, first confronted with a concept so radical,
so outrageous, as a rocket to the moon – and then told that it could really
happen. (The film is rightly listed in NASA’s official timeline of the history
of space travel.) Destination Moon was made at a time when humanity stood on the
brink of an amazing step forward, and by people who were among the first to
grasp that such a thing was possible. While the onscreen action is,
unfortunately but undeniably, rather stodgy, the production as a whole is
nevertheless infused with a sense of wonder, of optimism, of simple faith in man
and what he could achieve. Destination Moon is remarkable – and, looked at from
the correct perspective, thrilling – for being the only space flight film made
in the heyday of the science fiction film to be truly about space flight. This
is not a story about being on the moon, but of getting there; the adventure is
all in the doing.

Destination Moon was the brainchild of writer Robert A. Heinlein and producer
George Pal, the latter of whom managed to sell a studio on the idea of making a
serious film about travelling to the moon after the concept was initially
dismissed as "too fantastic". (Film studios weren’t the only ones who thought
so: in 1948, The American Journal Of Physics published a paper in which the
authors explained exactly why a human being could never travel to the moon;
their chief error was assuming that the 4:1 fuel:rocket launch mass ratio of the
V-2 rocket could not be bettered.) From the start, the project was undertaken
with the utmost seriousness. Experts were brought in to ensure its authenticity,
most notably Hermann Orbeth, an authority on rockets who had previously worked
with Fritz Lang on 1929’s Die Frau Im Mond (the only other "realistic" space
flight film made to that time), and Chesley Bonestell, the astronomical artist
whose glorious paintings and illustrations did so much to bring "outer space"
into the collective American consciousness during the late forties and early
fifties. Together with Pal and Heinlein, these men managed to infuse their other
collaborators with their own belief in the realities of space flight, and to
have Destination Moon produced under a policy of accuracy above all. The results
of this mindset are evident throughout the film, which not only illustrates what
was known at the time of its production, but is also startlingly prescient about
the things that would happen when man finally ventured into space. When the film
opens, Charles Cargraves and Tom Thayer are intent, not upon the moon, but
merely upon putting a satellite into orbit. The failure of the enterprise is a
crushing blow to both men – to Thayer in particular, who has destroyed his
career, "campaigned himself right out of the service", in pursuit of the
conquest of space – but they show themselves to be made of the right stuff,
squaring their shoulders and going back to the drawing-board. Two years later,
things have changed. When Thayer visits Jim Barnes, he is no longer intent
merely upon launching a satellite, but upon being the first to reach the moon
itself. Barnes is understandably sceptical, but is swayed by the news of
Cargraves’ "atomic engine", and still more by Thayer’s argument that the mission
is one of national defence; that whoever reaches the moon first will be able to
build missile bases there. This call to his patriotism, combined with his love
of scientific pioneering, is enough to convince Jim Barnes, who succeeds in
recruiting his fellow industrialists to the cause, arguing that they, and only
they, have the resources that the program requires, and that they can get the
job done in the time it would take the government to finishing debating the
point. The moneymen are intrigued but hesitant; and again, it takes Thayer’s
exhortations about missile bases on the moon – "There is absolutely no way to
stop an attack from outer space!" – to seal the deal. (Although it erred in
putting the construction of the rocket into the hands of private industry – a
distinctly Heinleinian notion – one of most interesting things about Destination
Moon is its anticipation of the fact that the main impetus for the space race
would ultimately be military, not merely scientific.)

The film-makers’ commitment to accuracy was laudable, but it presented them with
a substantial difficulty: how to communicate in a comprehendible fashion the
concepts on which their story was based, to an audience that (it was assumed)
possessed little if any knowledge of them – without turning their entertainment
into a lecture on astrophysics. To their credit, the writers avoided one common
pitfall: they do not have Cargraves, Barnes and Thayer telling each other things
that they most assuredly already know, in order to convey that information to
the audience. However, in avoiding one trap, the writers unfortunately fell into
another – one that makes Destination Moon extremely difficult for a modern
audience to swallow: scared of talking above their audience, they talked down to
it instead. The first manifestation of this comes while Barnes and Thayer are
pitching their case to the industrialists. Barnes himself, being in aeronautics,
has a grasp of the theories of rockets and space travel; his peers,
understandably, do not. This leads to the most unexpected part of Destination
Moon: a "training film" starring none other than – Woody Woodpecker! The
recalcitrant bird – and the audience, of course – is given a swift lesson in the
practicalities of rockets and moon landings; and by the end of it, Woody himself
is thoroughly convinced, although the industrialists – who, somewhat
unbelievably, chuckle goodnaturedly all the way through the cartoon – do require
more flag-waving from Thayer before they commit to the project. (In what is
clearly a step taken to spike the critics’ guns, Woody initially dismisses the
notion of a rocket to the moon as "comic-book stuff". "LIFE Magazine doesn’t
think so!" retorts the narrator, showing him an issue that just happens to carry
a cover story on – the production of Destination Moon! [April 1950, for those
interested.]) Now, all of this is amusing, in a kitschy sort of way; but what
happens next is not. Having successfully launched their pioneers in their
rocket, the makers of Destination Moon then felt the need to explain all the
mysteries of space travel itself – and it is here that the film not only becomes
difficult to take in its own right, but bestows upon the science fiction films
that followed it, apparently in perpetuity, a terrible legacy: the Odious Comic
Relief©. Enter Joe Sweeney, who reluctantly becomes part of the crew when his
senior is struck down by appendicitis on the very eve of the mission. Joe (to
the surprise of no-one who has suffered torments courtesy of his hideous progeny
over the ensuing decades) is a blue-collar working joe (get it?), perpetually
wisecracking, and hailing from, yes, Brooklyn. (He doesn’t like space because,
as he so eloquently puts it, there’s "no beer, no babes, no baseball!") Joe’s
layperson status means that he is ignorant of all aspects of space flight, and
therefore must – conveniently enough – have everything explained to him.
Unfortunately, Pal & Co. thoroughly overreached themselves here: so eager were
they to ensure that the audience missed nothing, that Joe’s ignorance proves to
be of a truly startling magnitude. (At one point, he must even be reminded that,
"There’s no air in outer space!" "There’s room for it!" he replies,
unconvinced.) It is impossible now to gauge how people reacted to Joe Sweeney in
1950 – whether they appreciated his presence, or whether they found his
character a piece of unforgivable condescension, as viewers today are certain to
do. In any case, it is difficult to believe that anyone ever found Joe other
than unbearably irritating and unfunny – although whether this would have been
the case had an actor other than Dick Wesson been chosen for the part, it’s hard
to say. I’ve never seen Wesson in any other film, so I don’t know whether his
role here reflected his actual persona, or whether he was "acting". Let’s hope
the latter. Either way, he is astonishingly annoying; heck, even his teeth are
annoying! The supreme irony of Destination Moon, of course, is that while its
painstaking accuracy had no influence whatsoever upon the film-makers that
copied it, its single biggest mistake – viz., Joe Sweeney – would be unfailingly
reproduced in almost every science fiction film made during the years that

In the end, however, you have to forgive the makers of Destination Moon both Joe
and Woody, in simple recognition of how much they managed to get right – and to
predict. The model rocket that Barnes demonstrates to the industrialists is more
than three-quarters "reaction mass"; today’s rockets are over 90% fuel. The
Woody Woodpecker cartoon explains concepts such as overcoming gravity, travel in
a vacuum, reverse thrust, and parachute-assisted landings; while the crew must
deal with problems including the effects of G-force (real, but overestimated),
weightlessness (overcome by magnetic boots), space-sickness, and the difficulty
of swallowing in zero gravity. Whole scenes envision what would happen when
mankind did ultimately travel into space. The rocket crew marvels at its view of
the Earth, anticipating the staggering images that would be broadcast for the
first time in 1968 by Apollo 8. (The views of the Earth shown are also an
accurate representation of what anyone travelling in a ship following the same
flight path as the Luna really would see.) A problem with the ship’s aerial
forces Barnes, Cargraves and Sweeney to don their pressure suits and do an EVA,
something which both the Soviets and the Americans would achieve in 1965. There
is a problem as the Luna is about to land on the moon, and Barnes must make an
abrupt readjustment; the Apollo 11 crew would experience a similar difficulty.
Once on the moon, Barnes and Cargraves are contacted by radio from the Earth –
although due to the particular framework of the movie, it is the media that
contacts them, not the government. Most memorable of all, however, is the moment
when the moon is first "claimed", an honour that Barnes graciously concedes to
Cargraves. The acting in Destination Moon is rarely better than competent, but
it reaches its pinnacle here, as Warner Anderson’s Cargraves must speak around a
distinct lump in his throat in order, "By the grace of God, and in the name of
the United States of America", to claim the moon "for the benefit of all
mankind". (Excluding, we assume, that portion of mankind at whom American
missiles would soon be aimed.) The plaque that today rests upon the moon’s
surface reads, "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July
1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind". You can only wonder how far life
imitated art.

Of course, it is only natural that Destination Moon wouldn’t get everything
right, and there are a few flubs here and there. The Luna is a single stage
rocket, and a far cry in its design from the three-stage system that would
finally get the job done. (Another instance of "copy the mistake": almost every
space film for the following decade or so would reproduce the sleek, silvery
lines of the Luna for its own rocket.) It also lands on the moon itself, rather
than the ship orbiting, and the crew descending to the moon’s surface in a
landing module, as would ultimately be the case. These errors are excusable.
More problematic is the simplicity, not to say naivety, with which space travel
itself is undertaken. When forces on Earth begin to move against the Luna
project, attempting to prevent lift-off, Jim Barnes comes up with a startling
idea: rather than wait a month, as planned, they will exploit the next possible
launch window – which is only seventeen hours away. "But we haven’t had time to
train a crew!" objects Cargraves. "Then we’ll go ourselves," counters Barnes,
and they do, just like that – dragging the wholly uninformed and unprepared
Sweeney along with them. And despite all the expert input, there are a few
design flaws in Destination Moon. The worst is the painfully unconvincing "star
fields" with which the Luna is surrounded at all times. These were actually
realised using car headlights – and unfortunately, it looks like it. The
"stars", almost identical in colour and intensity, and closer together than real
stars ever were, are a major distraction throughout the otherwise well-executed
EVA sequence. Another mistake, a more surprising one, is Chesley Bonestell’s
design for the surface of the moon, which looks like a huge dried lakebed, all
dramatic cracks and geometric patterns. Bonestell himself afterwards lamented
his error, claiming, not that he could have known what the moon looked like, of
course, but that he could have deduced it. Be this as it may, Bonestell’s
paintings are one of the true highlights of Destination Moon, and even if his
moonscapes are wrong, they’re such a pleasure to look at that we have no trouble
overlooking the fact.

(Oh, and by the way: I’m perfectly well aware that after my strictures against
Outland for ignoring facts in order to "look cool", this sails perilously close
to hypocrisy. If Outland had gotten as much right as Destination Moon, I would
have cut it a little slack, too.)

By now you might be asking, with all this "science stuff" in Destination Moon,
is there any story? Well, yes, some – but not all that much, and what there is,
is at all times subservient to the film-makers’ commitment to the practical and
the possible. The machinations of the rocket project’s enemies on Earth allows
for a race against the clock to complete the building of the Luna, and then
another race to take off before a threatened court order can be invoked. Once
the crew is in space, it is discovered that Sweeney mistakenly greased the
ship’s aerial (time for a lecture, Joe!), which has naturally frozen in place,
and must be cleaned before it will extend. This leads to the EVA, and to the
first of the film’s two "suspense" sequences. As Barnes and Sweeney are dealing
with the aerial, Cargraves moves down the rocket to inspect the engines – and,
when he finds it is not long enough, slips his safety line. (In dramatic terms,
that Cargraves would do such a thing is easily the least believable part of the
story.) Engrossed in his work, Cargraves does not notice that his magnetic boots
have lost contact with the surface of the rocket. The next instant he is
floating in space, and it takes some very quick thinking on the part of Barnes
to resolve the situation. The other dramatic set-piece comes at the climax of
the film, when it is discovered that Barnes’ emergency manoeuvring during
landing used up too much fuel. Even when everything that can be unloaded from
the ship has been, it is still too heavy – meaning that one of the crew must
stay behind if the others are to make it back to Earth…. (Problems involving a
lack of necessary fuel became a popular plot point in many of the films that
followed Destination Moon. Here, while the method of calculation is accurate,
the notion that rocket fuel is – or can be – calculated down to the single pound
is less so.) What is interesting about these two sequences is the degree of
tension that director Irving Pichel managed to generate, given that we know in
our hearts that nothing bad is going to happen to anyone. Other films may have
been willing to dispose of their space explorers – or at best, to allow them to
sacrifice themselves – but Destination Moon isn’t like that: it’s far too
optimistic a work, too certain of man’s ability to rise to any challenge. And
yet suspense is created. While we know that everything will turn out all right,
we don’t know how: that is where the interest lies. In its details, as well as
in its conception, Destination Moon is an intellectually enjoyable movie.

Science fiction films may claim to be, intend to be, about "the future", but
they very often say a great deal more about the time in which they were
produced; and Destination Moon is no exception. The film is not only a
fascinating snapshot of the political climate of America in 1950, but is often
so in wholly unexpected ways. For one thing, the screenplay is amazingly
critical of the government – so much so, that had the film been made by people
of rather more leftish leanings, it is likely that they would have found
themselves summoned for a chat with Senator McCarthy and his colleagues. But
there is, of course, a profound philosophical difference between criticising a
government for being too hawkish, and criticising it for not being hawkish
enough; and it is the latter of which Destination Moon is guilty. The opening
section of the film constantly bemoans Washington’s "peacetime" attitude,
berating it for cutting appropriations, for not seeing the military necessity of
continuing the rocket program. Furthermore, the screenplay implies, there is a
specific reason for this attitude….one that Tailgunner Joe himself would have
heartily applauded. Destination Moon is a Cold War film par excellence, and
never more so than in its claim that both the government and the media are
deeply infiltrated by enemy agents working to undermine the American Way Of Life
in general, and the rocket program in particular. Some of the assumptions that
are made, and the way in which they are made, are nothing short of staggering.
For instance, in the opening scene, Cargraves’ first rocket has barely lifted
off before it crashes back to earth. Not for a moment does it occur to Cargraves
that something could have been wrong in his design or execution; this must be
sabotage, he claims, and Thayer instantly agrees. (Later we are told that the
Secret Service "knows" that this was the case.) Having recruited industry to
their cause, Barnes, Cargraves and Thayer get their rocket built, but learn that
taking off will be another matter. Cargraves produces a newspaper headlined by a
story about mass protests against the launch. "That’s not public opinion!" says
Thayer angrily. "It’s a job of propaganda!" "Manufactured and organised!" agrees
Barnes. "Somebody’s out to get us!" At no time do they give any indication of
why they think this; it is so, it must be so, and that’s all there is to it.
Similarly, when Cargraves must report that their request to test their atomic
engine has been denied, Barnes is furious, seeing it as one more orchestrated
barrier – the inference being, apparently, that no-one could really be concerned
about something as trivial as the dispersal of radioactive material. (Given that
the time of Destination Moon’s production was also that during which the U.S.
government commenced its program of secret experiments, in which uninformed
individuals, both military and civilian, were deliberately exposed to radiation,
these scenes are rather chilling. Nor does "the Commission"’s suggestion that
the crew shift the atomic engine test to "the South Pacific" make things much
better, given the radiation exposure suffered both by the indigenous population
and by U.S. servicemen during the atomic testing in the Marshall Islands.) It is
then that Barnes comes up with his radical suggestion that they lift off as soon
as possible. "There’s no law against taking off in a spaceship, because no-one’s
ever done it!" he points out, further arguing that if the three of them ask
permission, "they" will find another way of stopping them. Sure enough, at the
last minute a court order is served, forbidding the take-off (and inferring that
"they" have infiltrated the court system, as well). The crew-members respond as
any good Americans would: by evading the order and making a dash for their
rocket, laughing and jeering at the server from the safety of the elevator.
(I’ve long been fascinated by the ability of Americans to hail their country as
the greatest in the world because of its laws and institutions, while
simultaneously thumbing their noses at those very laws and institutions,
apparently without any sense of contradiction.) What is most intriguing about
these scenes is that "they" are never identified: the word "Communist" is never
uttered at any point in the film. Then again, in 1950, it was scarcely necessary
to utter it. (The closest we get is Barnes complaining about "red tape", which I
don’t actually think was intended euphemistically.) It is also remarkable, given
the overall tenor of the film, that the technological abilities of this unnamed
enemy are freely conceded: "they" are not just planning on going to the moon,
but capable of getting there; this, a full seven years before the launch of
Sputnik shook the United States out of its sense of complacency, and kicked off
the space race in earnest.

Destination Moon is unique in the annals of the science fiction film for the
clarity and conviction of its vision, and for its refusal to take a single step
outside the boundaries of what its makers believed to be the truth. Even 2001,
that other great "space travel" film, is not so pure. Indeed, the only films
that come close to Destination Moon in this respect are two other George Pal
productions: Conquest Of Space, which is in every way an inferior creation, and
When Worlds Collide – perhaps. (Ah, but what’s that on the horizon in the final
scene…?) In one sense, Destination Moon was hugely influential – "space" films
flourished for over a decade, until reality began to supersede fantasy – and in
another, not influential at all. While other film-makers were quick to jump on
the bandwagon, they had little if any interest in imitating their model’s
integrity. Even the very first copycat film, Rocketship X-M (inspired by the
media coverage of Destination Moon’s production, the makers of this knock-off
managed to get their film written, shot and into the cinemas a month before
Destination Moon was released!), had its astronauts encountering a group of
Martians. It is not difficult to see why this would have been the case.
Destination Moon’s authenticity really left other film-makers with nowhere to go
– except into the realm of exploitation. You can just imagine the kind of
conversation that potential copyists – just for laughs, let’s call them "Roger",
"Jim" and "Sam" – might have held upon viewing the film:

Roger: That’s a pretty good film. I could make it cheaper, though – and it
wouldn’t take me two years! Hmm….needs something to spice it up – a better
title, for a start---

Jim: One that’d look good on a poster. Attack Of The---something-or-other. And
we need something to get the kids in – aliens, or monsters---

Sam: Sexy dames, and plenty of ‘em!

And indeed, this is exactly how the space film would evolve – or degenerate –
over the following years. Destination Moon, meanwhile, continued to be the sole
occupant of the tiny niche it had created for itself, until events in the real
world made it redundant. Looking at the film today, it is far easier to see its
faults than its virtues. The acting is low-key to the point of invisibility
(Dick Wesson’s excepted; if only he were invisible!), and the script so
determinedly matter-of-fact that it sails perilously close to being outright
dull. Plus, there’s no sex, and no violence; no aliens, and no monsters; just
pure science, of a kind that today we all take for granted…. The 1950s were
truly the golden era of the science fiction film, and the importance of
Destination Moon in that context cannot be overestimated. If these days it is a
struggle to appreciate the film as it deserves to be appreciated, that in itself
is a strange kind of compliment. Perhaps the very highest praise offered to
Destination Moon comes from those who dismiss it as too real to be entertaining.
This is a film that, on a certain day in 1969, effectively ceased to be science
fiction at all. And how its makers must have gloried in that!

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