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Friday, April 11, 2008

Conquest of Space

Producer George Pal gave us the sci-fi landmark Destination Moon in 1950. He then gave us the timeless classic War of the Worlds in '53. This, his third epic, was a grand effort, but fell shy of his earlier triumphs. On paper, it should have been another mega-classic. The team members from the earlier hits were reassembled. Pal as producer, Haskin directing, Lydon on screenplay, O'Hanlon writing. Conquest was also based on a popular book. Yet, despite all this pedigree, something fell short. Conquest would not go on to be remembered as one of the 50s mega-classics. Some of this obscurity may be due to Conquest being in the "serious" science fiction sub-genre, like Destination Moon and Riders to the Stars which tried to depict a plausible space-traveling future. Audiences were becoming much more entranced with saucers and weird aliens.

In some ways,Conquest is a remake of the basic story line from Destination Moon -- a crew are the first to land on a celestial body. They struggle to survive and yet courageously return. This time, instead of the moon, it's Mars. As a remake goes, however, it's worthy. The Technicolor is rich and the sets well done. This is an A-level production which at its release was the 2001: A Space Odyssey of its day. All the melodrama, however, starts to get in the way of the techno-gee-whiz.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Based aboard a rotating wheel space station, workmen prepare a big flying wing of a rocket ship. A group of potential crewmen train for what they think will be a moon landing mission. As the work nears completion, they find out that the real mission will be a landing on Mars instead. While aboard "The Wheel", we're introduced to the phenomenon of "space sickness" -- a mental breakdown due to workload and confinement for long periods. One of the crew candidates is scrubbed because of one such breakdown. Nonetheless, the multinational crew are chosen and embark for the long journey to Mars. After departure, it's found that General Merritt's old friend, Sergeant Mahoney, stowed away. On the way to Mars, a communications antenna is damaged and must be fixed via spacewalking crewmen. Just as the repairs are completed, the customary meteor arrives, threatening to hit the ship. General Merritt manages to fly the ship out of the way, but one of the crewmen on EVA is hit with micrometeoroids (like bullets) and killed. The General is also starting to show odd behavior, doubting whether their mission is proper or is an affront to God. Their evasive action puts them behind schedule, but they arrive at Mars. While attempting to land on Mars, the General has another bout of delusion and tries to abort the landing. His son, Captain Merritt, manages to take control and brings in the flying-wing lander to a rough but successful landing. The others go out to explore, but the General, now fully delusional, is venting rocket fuel in an attempt to blow up the ship. His son discovers this and the two struggle. The General's pistol discharges, killing him. Mahoney comes on the scene just then and accuses Captain Merritt of murdering the General. The rest explore a bit more, but pronounce Mars a dead planet. Despite this, Imoto discovers that his earth flower seed sprouted in martian soil. Earthquakes cause the escape rocket to shift off of perpendicular. They get it righted and blast off. On the way home, Mahoney and Captain Merritt make up and declare that the dead General was a hero, the man who conquered space. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The color, the sets, models and background paintings are very visually rich. The whole image is a great snapshot of the future as people in the mid-50s imagined it would be. More tidbits in the Notes section below.

Cold War Angle
There is actually a subtle anti-war tone to the movie. No overt talk of nuclear dangers or menacing enemies. It is notable, however, that among the conspicuously international crew candidates, there is no Russian. Americans would "conquer" space with a few other nationals along for the ride, but NO Russians. There is also a poorly explained urgency to the mission. What's the hurry? Back in the Cold War, it was pretty common that WE had to get something before THEY did.

Based on the Book -- In 1949, Willy Ley wrote the book "The Conquest of Space," which speculated about how mankind might travel to other planets. This book was illustrated by space artist Chesley Bonestell. This book would become the inspiration for the movie.

From News Stand to Silver Screen --
From 1952 to 1954, Collier's magazine ran a series of stories about mankind conquering space. These were repeats by Ley and Bonestell of their 1949 book, but this time Collier's added material from "rocket scientist" Werner von Braun. Bonestell's new illustrations were clearly the prototype for the look of Conquest. People felt that mankind was on the verge of taking to the stars. The Collier's series expressed that giddy optimism.

Mired in Melodrama -- The screenplay for Conquest added weak human interest sub-plots which almost negate the gee-whiz optimism that the visuals convey. The screenwriters were all experienced in their craft, so it's puzzling why such amateurish characterizations are so prominent. The comic relief moments are almost cartoonish. The whole leader-gone-mad sub-plot seems out of place.

Earth-bound Man? -- A possible "message" to Conquest is that man is a fragile creature who may not be ready for the rigors of space travel. Certainly, people wondered about this, and other movies touched on the theme too, such as Riders to the Stars ('54). Our not being mentally ready yet was cited by the aliens in It Came From Outer Space ('53). General Merritt's dementia was foreshadowed in the breakdown of Roy early in the movie.

Navy In Space -- One thing that strikes the viewer is how much life aboard the space station is presumed to duplicate life aboard a navy ship. It's not overtly stated that the military should (or will) be the agency which "conquers" space, but from the ranks and uniforms and the navy-life scenes, that message comes through. Space ships will be like earthly ships.

Religious Fanatic? -- On the surface, it seems like Conquest is blasting Christians as dangerous religious fanatics. This notion, that anyone who believes in God simply MUST be wacko, would be much more popular in later decades, but it was uncommon in the 50s. For that reason, the General's dementia deserves a closer look.
Actually, General Merritt was not the stereotypic religious fanatic. His son comments that he had never seen him carrying around and reading the Bible before. Instead of headaches or paralysis, the General's "space sickness" took a paranoid turn. He had rational misgivings about the Mars mission from the start, pre-dementia. His repressed misgivings are expressed in Bible verses dealing with sinners being punished by God. He once quotes from Psalm 38, then later from Psalm 62.
Throughout all this, God is not mocked. Indeed, only the "religious" man had the courage to go outside and give the dead Fodor a proper burial. The other non-relgious crewmen were at a loss for what to do.
The notion of impudent mankind trying to meddle in God's domain, is treated as a credible issue. In this, the pattern of the Tower of Babel is drawn. Prideful mankind thinks they can build their way into God's realm. God foils that plan. General Merritt's dementia seems motivated by a fear that this divine retribution could be coming again.

Enemies Become Friends -- The writers of Conquest imagine a multinationalism in space. Most notable are two former enemy nations: Imoto is from Japan and Fodor is a German-accented Austrian, (as a stand-in for Germany). Imoto gets to make a little speech about why Japan went to war (lack of resources). Fodor gets to be seen as the cherished son of a classic "mama". By 1955, it was starting to become okay to look beyond World War 2.

Picture in Picture -- At one point, the crew of The Wheel are watching a movie with many scantily clad dancing girls (much like sailors aboard a ship). The movie is a lavish musical number with many gold bikini clad pseudo-harem girls dancing while Rosemary Clooney sings about love "...in the desert sand." This clip is total non-sequetor to the high-tech space environment. What's interesting, is that it's NOT stock footage recycled. Clooney had not done any such movie. This dance number must have been staged and shot just for this scene in Conquest. Random act of musical. Gotta love 'em.

Bottom line? Conquest is an almost-epic. It's definitely an A-grade sci-fi movie, so it's well worth watching. The human story part gets in the way sometimes, but the visuals more than make up for it.


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Anonymous said...

The harem film scene on the space station in Conquest of Space was NOT shot specifically for the film but was stock footage. It was taken from the 1953 film, "Here Come the Girls."

Nightowl said...

Thanks Annon. I was looking for what movie it might have come from, but came up dry. Thanks for the tip.

Alan Barclay said...

I wonder if the writer wasn't the source of the corny melodrama and the incongruous musical number. Will Patterson's biography of Robert Heinlein reports that one script writer who worked on Destination Moon tried to glam up the plot with a romantic subplot and other humorous hi-jinks that fortunately did not make it onto the screen. He could have returned to his old tricks for Conquest--trying to make it more "Hollywood."

thingmaker said...

In a way this might have been the "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" of its day... I remember being compelled to support STTMP despite its many grave flaws for its wonderful effects and creation of a massive wide-screen version of what I loved. In its day, I certainly would have felt the same about this film. Despite a few blue fringes, the scenes of "space taxis", wheel space station etc. are still pretty spectacular.
It's interesting that the literal Navy in space idea was still with us for "Robinson Crusoe on Mars"...
A novel I like a lot is "Not in Solitude" (1959) by Kenneth F. Gantz and it's an example of similar thinking to that found in "Conquest of Space". The story is about a first Mars mission and the ship is large, military, crewed with dozens of men and was not preceded by any sort of preliminary unmanned missions. All of this probably has to do with a failure to predict more compact equipment and more sophisticated automated systems. Hence; no robot probes and also spacecraft needing lots of onboard technicians and engineers to do everything this side of stoke the boilers.