Destination Moon: It’s Rocket Science.

Destination Moon Italian Poster

[This is a revised extract from my book, Performing Illusions, mixed with fragments and notes not included in the book. The broader context of this section, which looks at Destination Moon, is a discussion of science fiction cinema in the 1950s, drawing a distinction between the subversive excesses of low-budget exploitation, which treated the military-industrial agenda of “big science” with some disdain, and the big budget tales of space exploration that aligned science with spectacular imagery and limitless potential for human gain in the form of national pride and military advantage.]

While tales of alien invasion were finding their place as a staple of the science fiction B-movie circuit, a few major productions were entertaining the possibility of a future lunar mission, and in the process espousing the value of the technologies denigrated by their low-budget imitators. In the 1950s, inspired by genuine rocket research and concerted efforts to reach and explore outer space, a few films offered predictions of what the space race might achieve, sometimes smuggling in militaristic propaganda. This visualisation of capital-intensive science stands in sharp contrast to the half-hearted attempts at astronautical engineering shown in the B-movies of the time, and show up even more starkly the divisions between the high and low budget cinema of the time, the one aggrandising the military and scientific establishment with meticulously constructed effects held up for spectatorial contemplation, and the other besmirching the worth of multi-billion dollar space program with depictions of the cosmos as a site of plastic toys wobbling through a worthless void.

Underpinning both discussions of the future of space exploration was the knowledge that, as rocket science progressed, one consequence would be the parallel development of missile systems, so that space exploration was tied technologically and iconographically to military power. Crucial to creditable renderings of spacecraft are the miniature models used to represent them, and the compositing techniques used to create the impression of flight. The skills required for such effects would have been honed at studio facilities with particular interest in war films during the 1940s, such as Ships with Wings (Sergei Nolbandov, 1941), Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942), Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Mervyn LeRoy, 1944), all of which rely on miniature models to represent ships and aircraft. In this way, depictions of spacecraft can be seen as connotatively linked to depictions of military machines, and the appropriate attention to detail in respecting the integrity of such vehicles can be read as either subversion or sustenance of their iconic power as a physical threat and a patriotic symbol.

Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950) was based loosely on Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Rocketship Galileo (1947), and Heinlein, along with Transylvanian rocket expert Hermann Oberth, acted as technical adviser on the film. Oberth (1894-1989) had, along with Willy Ley (1906-1969), acted in a similar capacity on Fritz Lang’s Die Frau im Mond/The Woman in the Moon (1929, released in the U.S. in 1931 as By Rocket to the Moon). Lang wanted the film to have a kind of documentary realism to support the story of an industrially-sponsored lunar mission. The film was famously withdrawn from distribution by the Nazis, who feared that it might reveal secrets about the ongoing development of the V1 and V2 rockets. The spaceship model used in the film was also destroyed by the Gestapo.

Willy Ley had been a friend of Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and was the respected author of Möglichkeit der Weltraumfahrt/The Possibility of Space Travel (1928) and founding member of the Society for Space Travel in Germany. Ley introduced Lang to Oberth, who had been a designer of rocket artillery for the Austrian army in WWI and was author of the highly influential Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen/By Rocket to Interplanetary Space (1923).  He would later perform scientific research for the Nazis, while Willy Ley fled to the U.S.A. One of the film’s many accurate predictions was the countdown as part of launch protocol, something which is communicated by title cards (the film was silent), and which Lang invented for dramatic effect in the film. Mechanical effects were provided by Lee Zavitz (who won an Academy Award for his contribution) with background scenery and sets created by Chesley Bonestell (credited as ‘technical adviser of astronomical art’: see some of his work here, and a superb picture series from Coronet magazine in 1950 here) and Ernst Fegté. Another film, Rocketship XM (Kurt Neumann, 1950) was actually the first Hollywood movie centred on a lunar expedition to be released theatrically, rushed into production to capitalise on the pre-publicity for Destination Moon. While Destination Moon cost $586,000, Rocketship XM was budgeted at just $94,000.  As such, it lacks the benefit of extended scientific research, and is more closely associated with space opera stories such as Flash Gordon. In Neumann’s film, the moon rocket is diverted from its course and eventually lands on Mars (the change in atmosphere signalled by Neumann’s decision to tint the film red for all sequences set on the surface of Mars, which were actually shot in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada), where the crew discover a race of beings who have survived an atomic holocaust which once decimated the planet’s super-intelligent inhabitants.

Destination Moon is intended as an educational rallying cry for the importance of lunar missions, at a time when they might have seemed a distant fantasy, and barely a constructive geo-political strategy in the aftermath of WWII. In seeking to assert the plausibility, as well as the military advantage, of space travel, the film aims at a realistic approach. It does this via appeals to scientific realism which are encoded in its diligent approach to design and special effects; the esteemed scientists named in the credits offer validation of its accuracy. Aside from a few inserts visible on a monitor inside the rocket, we never see the ship launched from Earth in Destination Moon – instead the camera focuses on the contorted faces of the astronauts, who become nauseous and disorientated by the first sensations of weightlessness. An attempt is being made at heightened realism by showing the unpleasant realities to be expected in the future of space flight – I don’t recall Flash Gordon ever suffering the after-effects of G-force or motion sickness. The illusion of weightlessness is created by suspending the actors from wires or positioning them on moving platforms with their feet out of shot. The design of the control room of the rocketship ‘Luna’ is a compromise between the requirements of authenticity and the necessity of photographic and aesthetic conditions; the panels in the consoles could be removed to allow the insertion of a camera or lighting rig (Heinlein quoted in Johnson 1972: 52-65).

When a Woody Woodpecker cartoon is shown to potential investors to persuade them of the viability of space travel, it fills the screen, addressing you, the viewer, as well as the bankers, thus nearly drawing a comparison between the two audiences who need to be educated and primed for a future space mission. It also handily explains how a rocket mission works so that the film’s later spectacular sequences can be measured against the scientific facts. It’s not all that rare to have these didactic set-ups in a spectacular cinema: see for example the explanatory film that plays early in a Jurassic Park, with some cartoon DNA telling you how it all works, or the rudimentary CG simulation that pre-visualises the ship sinking near the start of Titanic (1997). Le Voyage dans la Lune (I was trying to get through a whole blog post without mentioning it) begins with a scene of the planning of a moon mission, sketching a diagram on a blackboard – come to think of it, Destination Moon follows Georges Melies’ film quite closely, going through the same stages of planning, building, launching, exploration, danger, escape and return to Earth. Science fiction films are not averse to having a boffin step in and give a quick presentation to point how the physics works, and thus manage expectations and build anticipation. I like to call it the “flowchart” scene. Maybe you, dear reader, can think of some other examples. (Rocketship XM’s equivalent expository scene can only muster some chalkboard sketches) The Woody Woodpecker scene doubles as a promotional short for one of the studio’s other entertainment franchises while making a sharp comment on the need to popularise scientific innovation to maintain uncritical public support and comprehension. When one private investor questions why the mission is necessary, General Feyer delivers the following speech:

We are not the only ones who know the moon can be reached. We are not the only ones who are planning to go there. 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.

Thus is forged a bond between big business and big (military) science, resulting in the reactionary, paranoid representation of technology that has traditionally been attributed to the alien invasion film, and all of it mediated by a chuckling cartoon bird. There’s another point of access for spectators who might be baffled by the science, in the form of Joe Sweeney, a blue-collar techie played by mini-Bogart Dick Wesson. Ignorant of how stuff works, and disbelieving of the possibilities, he provides an excuse for the scientists to explain what’s happening as they go along.

The space exploration film shows technology as a way of claiming territories outside the Earth in order to present a display of might to other nations, and by inviting the contemplation of expertly rendered sequences of space travel, it tacitly accepts the value of militarily-enforced scientific research. While planning to test a nuclear engine for the rocket, the mission team receive a letter from their governing body, declining the proposal to test on American soil, since: ‘While it is admitted that no real danger of atomic explosion exists, belief in such danger does exist in the public mind.’ This is probably the film’s most insidious act – to blame public scepticism about the value and safety of rocket research for hindering its unchecked development. Such stubborn faith in the nuclear project stands in stark contradistinction to the torrent of irradiated mutant mayhem that was to be unleashed in low-budget exploitation films such as Bride of the Atom (Ed Wood, 1955), The Amazing Colossal Man (Burt I. Gordon, 1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (Roger Corman, 1957), The Creature With the Atom Brain (Edward L. Cahn, 1955), and The Cyclops (Burt I. Gordon, 1957).

Conquest of Space (Byron Haskin, 1954), inspired by the speculatively scientific 1949 book of the same name written by German émigré rocket scientist Willy Ley and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, is a self-professed ‘story of tomorrow’, and a pseudo-sequel to Destination Moon, set in a future where space travel is more commonplace and straightforward. Rather than being a story of heroic pioneers, more drama is gleaned from details of the emotional effects of such excursions on the temperaments of the men who do so (there are still no women in space at this point). A planned Moon mission is revealed to be an expedition to Mars in search of natural resources to solve Earth’s energy needs. An attempt to sabotage the mission is made by its leader, General Merritt (Walter Brooke, an amazingly hard-working film and TV actor, perhaps best remembered as the family friend who only has one word, “Plastics” for Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate), ranting that exploring worlds beyond those provided by God must be a blasphemous transgression of some Edenic pact. In other words, the film’s only stated objections to the destructive, colonialist thrust of the military industrial complex are put into the mouth of an unhinged fanatic, safeguarding the patriotic ideals of the expedition as admirable goals.

More than any other film of the period about space exploration, Destination Moon is encoded with a sub-narrative about the connections between a lunar mission, national pride, commerce and the military-industrial complex. Less interested in the romance of space and more busily focused on its pragmatics, it even plays down human heroics in order to emphasise the spectacle of engineering. It’s too earnest in its intention to incorporate proper rocket science to be real thrill ride, but it’s a real timepiece, and some beautiful moments where the diligent design and adventurous spirit come together to produce a beautiful shot. It may just be me, but I love the bits where actors are substituted with little stop-motion puppets by George Pal. Nothing emphasises the vulnerability of the astronauts like their reduction to miniature models, a visual index of their subordination to the adventures of engineering and the loitering interest of military giants.

[See more of my frame grabs from Destination Moon in the slideshow below, or visit my Flickr page to view them full size and download them:]

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