Going back in time to 1899, Arnold Bedford and his fiancée, Kate Callendar, learn that their neighbor, Joseph Cavor, has developed a substance he calls \"cavorite,\" which counters gravity. They travel to the moon in a spherical vessel he has built, parts of which are coated with \"cavorite.\"
Edward Judd ... Arnold Bedford
Martha Hyer ... Katherine \'Kate\' Callender
Lionel Jeffries ... Joseph Cavor
Miles Malleson ... Dymchurch Registrar
Norman Bird ... Stuart, Moon Landing Crew
Gladys Henson ... Nursing Home Matron
Hugh McDermott ... Richard Challis, UN Space Agency
Betty McDowall ... Margaret Hoy, UN Space Agency
Someone who had read H. G. Wells\' \"First Men in the Moon\" and then sat down to watch this adaptation may well be aghast at the opening sequences, which deal with a \"modern-day\" mission to the moon, as opposed to the 1899 setting of the novel. But stay with it, and you\'ll find that the contemporary setting is just a framework to introduce us to the story basically as Wells wrote it: a fantasy about a trip to the moon in the Victorian era.
So why did the filmmakers choose to frame the story in this flashback format? Simple. At the time Wells wrote his novel, the very idea of a trip to the moon was fantastical; heavier-than-air flight hadn\'t even been invented yet, let alone space travel. But by the time the movie was made in the \'60s, we were on our way to the moon, JFK having stated it as an objective. While still a gripping, exciting idea, a trip to the moon was no longer a fantasy, but a hardware-based reality. (In fact, the modern spacecraft depicted are very much like what ultimately made the trip in 1969: an orbiting command module and a spidery-legged landing unit, not the old saucer-craft or delta-winged ships of the \'50s. So while \"dated,\" these opening scenes aren\'t foolish. And the international crew on board--since it\'s a mission of the UN, not just the USA--reflect today\'s reality of the International Space Station; reality has finally caught up with this fiction.)
So, how to make what was becoming a here-and-now reality (in 1964, the Gemini missions were beginning, paving the way for the Apollo program) back into a magical fantasy? By having the modern explorers discover evidence that their \"first\" lunar landing had been predated by a trip in 1899! One of the voyagers, Bedford (Edward Judd) is found to be still alive and very old at the time of the contemporary mission, and his tale is told in flashback, a structure much like that of \"Little Big Man\" or \"Titanic.\"
Some other changes are made as well. The long trip to the moon reads well in the book, but if filmed as described (the two men float in darkness and silence inside the sphere, as the unsecured baggage gradually gravitates to the center of the \"room\"), it would have made incredibly boring viewing, so the scripter adds a few vignettes to lighten the journey. The riot of plant life that erupts across the lunar surface at sunrise would have elicited hoots from a modern audience, and so is eliminated on screen; yet the just as unscientific touch of having the men cavort around the surface in diving suits (which would have swelled up like balloons in the vacuum of space, to say nothing of the men\'s exposed hands) clearly signal that this is, after all, a fantasy, and not \"true\" science fiction. And Cavor\'s audiences with the Grand Lunar, which take place in the book after Bedford has returned to earth, are reduced in the movie to a single hearing which happens while Bedford and his girl (keep reading) are still on the moon: rather than just hear it described, we see it happen, which is, of course, a much more cinematic handling.
While Bedford and Cavor make a stag trip in the novel, the movie adds a woman, Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), Bedford\'s fiancee. Her inclusion isn\'t gratuitous; by being in places on the moon where Bedford and Cavor aren\'t, she helps the story cover more ground in less time than otherwise would have been the case. Besides, she\'s the sort of woman whom Wells, a feminist and self-described \"free thinker,\" would have liked: she\'s tough, smart, brave, and doesn\'t put up with much. She\'s the epitome of the \"new woman\" of that turn-of-the-century era, the sort of restless woman who was learning such manly things as how to operate a newfangled typewriting machine so she could get a job in an office. As an American in Britain, she\'s a bit of a traveler herself; she symbolizes Britain\'s exploratory, empire-building, \"new world\"-seeking, colonizing impulses (indeed, upon arrival, Cavor claims the moon for Her Majesty); and she\'s the only person involved in the mission who has enough sense to bring a gun.
While all the performances are equal to the task (especially Lionel Jeffries\' comically high-strung Cavor, plus a one-scene appearance by the impish Miles Malleson as a city clerk), this isn\'t an actors\' picture, but an effects picture. And Ray Harryhausen delivers, as he always does. The Grand Lunar in particular is a haunting, whispery presence, curiously but coolly regarding these human intruders and weighing their fates. Even the music works: Laurie Johnson\'s score, evocative of an awed sense of wonder married to a towering adventure, is worthy of Bernard Hermann.
You may have guessed this is an old favorite of mine. I saw it as a child, when it was new. It hasn\'t aged a day.
Of all of the animation genius Ray Harryhausen\'s films, this is my favourite, partly because I am a huge H G Wells fan, and also because I think the characterisation and acting are better than pretty well any of his other movies. Don\'t get me wrong, Harryhausen is a God... of model animation and sfx. But all too often his films, their amazing effects notwithstanding, are slightly pedestrian in feel (Jason and the Argonauts excepted). Anyway, back to First Men in the Moon...
As ever with an adaptation, liberties have been taken with the source material. In Wells\'s case this is understandable, as, in common with many of his novels, the narrative structure is slightly odd, and not best suited to the cinema. In the case of First Men in the Moon, in the novel, after Bedford leaves the moon by himself, having become separated from Cavor, we only learn about Cavor\'s own adventures through a fragmentary series of long wireless telegraph transmissions he makes from the lunar realm, intercepted by a (fictitious) Dutch radio pioneer, Julius Wendigee. Clearly, this rather passive device would be difficult to adapt, lacking, as it does, the necessary human engagement. An equally radical departure is the incorporation of a completely new character, Kate, Bedford\'s Bostonian fiancée. Obviously this was to sell the film in the US. However, she is a satisfyingly sparky presence, and does not detract from the action.
The modern framing device is superbly conceived and executed. One expects nothing less from the scriptwriter, the brilliant Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame, and a great Wells fan). The twist in the tale ending is a wonderful inversion of Wells\'s own conclusion to The War of the Worlds, and ends the film on a dark (some might say sour) note, surprising for a Harryhausen production.
There are some wonderful performances. Lionel Jeffries might be accused of going way over the top, but given the thin-line-between-madness-and-genius brilliance of his character, Cavor, such eccentricity is entirely plausible. And it certainly makes for an enjoyable performance. Cavor\'s pride when he unveils the Sphere to Bedford (Edward Judd) is a joy, and a lovely counterpoint to his usual near-hysteria in the earlier scenes (forgivable, one is tempted to say, as the character clearly becomes more stressed as the time for departure nears). Edward Judd is a muscular contrast to Cavor, an unthinking, instinctive man of action to Cavor\'s dithering intellectual. He also exhibits an unpleasant xenophobia on the moon. Nevertheless, in the novel Bedford can be quite violent, too, so one can blame Wells for the character\'s shortcomings, not Kneale. In fact, to digress, an interesting point is that in his novels Wells does not romanticize his first-person narrators. Bedford can be a brute, just as the unnamed narrator of The War of the Worlds is, by turns, cowardly and does not shrink from murder (or, at best, manslaughter) to protect himself. In short, his characters, for all their sketchiness, often act realistically. Judd\'s Bedford is also amusingly spivvish, a charming rogue, really more an anti-hero than anything else. His fevered dreams of commercial empire are just as they are in the book. Martha Hyer\'s Kate has been mentioned, and there are some amusing cameos. Miles Malleson is Miles Mallesonish as the registrar, as dithery and absent-minded as his bishop was in Hammer\'s Hound of the Baskervilles. Cavor\'s workmen, with their proletarian slackness and petty demarcation of responsibilities, owe more to conservative 1960s fears of the growing power of the trades unions than to Wells, but provide amusing comic relief. Watch out, too, for a brief appearance by Peter Finch, then a huge star, as the bailiff who serves papers on Bedford, stepping in as a favour to the director to replace a bit-part player who failed to turn up at the last minute.
Of course, another dramatic change was to abandon Wells\'s breathable lunar surface. In the novel, during the lunar night the very air freezes to become slush on a barren surface. Come the day, and the frozen air melts, turns into an atmosphere, and giant mushrooms and other weird vegetation flourish briefly. Cinema audiences would laugh heartily. But Wells\'s sublunar civilization is preserved, so the change is not great. In the novel, much is made of the structure of the Selenite society. In fact, this was the main point of the book, Wells being interested in constructing an alien, rather ant-like, civilization - his anti-gravity paint Cavorite was merely a device, a pseudo-scientific deus ex machina, to get his narrators there without the bother of some massive engineering project, such as Verne\'s space cannon. The novel\'s bewildering multipicity of Selenite castes is jettisoned in the movie for simplicity, there being just workers and managers in the film, ruled over (as in the book) by the big-brained Grand Lunar. Although necessitated by the tight budget, this is rather a shame, as although it would be difficult to convey all the nuances of Wells\'s Selenite society, certain images would be marvelous on the screen: the small but large-lunged heralds with their trumpet-like mouths who precede the Grand Lunar on his procession; the immobile Selenite intellectuals whose vast jelly-like brains necessitate their transportation in sedan-chairs; the swift, spider-like messengers; the list goes on. The central point, though, that of adaptation to one\'s work, a kind of grotesque reductio ad absurdum of the Victorian class system, is not completely lost in the film, being echoed in the workers placed in suspended animation while they are not needed. Cavor\'s audience before the Grand Lunar, while condensing much of his speech in the book, nevertheless adheres to the spirit of it, especially in terms of his reckless honesty about the warlike tendencies of mankind.
In visual terms, the film is a delight. The Victorian flavour is evoked beautifully, the Sphere itself appearing to be a plausibly converted bathysphere. The modern moon landing is effective, lwjoslin of Houston pointing out on this site, quite rightly, the attempt to realize contemporary NASA design philosophy. The Selenite civilization is superbly presented, especially considering the low budget, with awesome caverns, spectacular lens pits, stark palaces carved from the lunar rock. And sparing as Ray\'s trademark Dynamation creations are, being restricted to a caterpillar-like mooncalf of leviathan proportions, a few Selenite intellectuals, and the shadowy Grand Lunar himself, they are no less accomplished for that. The mass of Selenite workers are played, somewhat obviously, by children in suits, but given when the film was made, one can hardly complain. And Laurie Johnson\'s music is magnificent, especially the swelling orchestration as Cavor slowly mounts the immense staircase on his way to his audience with the Grand Lunar.
Finally, I must praise the DVD release. Presented in widescreen, with a restored picture and stereo sound, it really does the film justice, and paralyses the poor VHS recording. Also, the one hour documentary extra \'The Harryhausen Chronicles\' is a must-have, containing wonderful interviews with Ray, and extensive footage of his early 16mm experiments. There is also, for die-hard Wells fans, the clip of his 1949 trial film, in 16mm, of a tentacled Martian emerging from its smoking cylinder that Ray did to sell his abortive War of the Worlds project.
A fascinating if \"primitive\" film well worth seeing, this is one of Britain\'s few entries in the pre=\"2001\" science fiction wave generated by \"The Time Machine\" (1960). It changes the Wells novel to conform as much as possible to science as it was then known, so adds a modern day framing device and puts the Selenites (i.e. moon creatures) entirely underground. But the joy of the movie is that it sets the main action at the end of the 19th century, when the book was written. Along with a host of other quaint visual pleasures, this makes for a sphere (the show\'s \"space ship\") that\'s a wild delight of Victorian railroad buffers, ship portholes, ornate brass work, and overstuffed satin: a real triumph of design, equal to anything done in film today.
Harryhausen\'s effects work is also arguably the most creative of his career. Instead of the usual prehistoric monsters or revamped mythic icons, he is challenged to come up with something entirely new and proves equal to the task (lacking the moon cow as a large caterpillar, the only disappointment). His Selenite interiors, especially, reveal a design originality so eye-catching we can only regret Harryhausen was never again to venture into such unknown territory.
Not surprisingly, the film\'s human element trades Wells\' hot-house buddy story for a triangle, thus intrudes the obligatory female (Martha Hyer, lovely but a third wheel). The unexpected happy result is the scientist Cavor becomes the triangle\'s outsider, giving Lionel Jeffries what may be the greatest acting opportunity of his career which he makes the most of, his effervescence running entirely away with the film\'s acting honors. \"Gibbs! Giiiiiibbs!\"
In its frowzy way, this is a kind of sleeper mini-classic.
# This is the only one of Ray Harryhausen\'s films to be shot in Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1) due to the difficulty of compositing images in his Dynamation Process. Many of the models had to be sculpted in the \"squeezed\" dimensions so that when the were photographed with an anamorphic lens, they would appear in their normal shape.
# Last film of Paul Carpenter.
# Peter Finch appears briefly as a messenger. He was reputedly only visiting the set when the original actor assigned to play the part failed to show up.