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Saturday, March 7, 2009

From Earth to the Moon

Later in the 50s, the major studios had shied away from producing big budget sci-fi movies. Movies of classics were safer. Warner Brothers distributed From Earth to the Moon (FEtoM), based on Jules Verne's novel, is one of these. Usually, being shot in color was the hallmark of an A movie. B movies were typically black and white. FEtoM resists this handy formula. It's shot in Technicolor, but shares more in common with the B family. It has spotty acting, weak special effects, stock footage and gaping plot holes. FEtoM also carries a strong Cold War theme, another trait 50s sci-fi B movies are famous for. Director Bryon Haskins (of War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space) did a nice enough job, but could not make a silk purse of it. As one of the last gasps from the nearly defunct RKO studios, there wasn't the budget for greatness.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Victor Barbicane, a wealthy arms maker, addresses a group of other arms industrialists. They grew rich during the Civil War, but the peace is rough on them. Victor proposes a new scheme to restore their wealth. He has a new explosive he calls "Power X," that can propel an artillery shell thousands of miles. Every nation will have to have it just to keep up. To test such a massively destructive force, and to demonstrate it to the world, Victor proposes a giant cannon and an exploding shot on the moon. All the industrialists are in. A southern rival, Mr. Nicholl challenges Victor to a contest. Victor's Power X explosive versus Nicholl's special armor plate. Power X wins. Everyone is sold on Power X and construction begins. President Grant secretly tells Victor that existence of Power X threatens world peace. For his country, Victor must cancel the project. He does, to much ridicule. He decides to do his moon shot anyhow, as a manned mission by Victor, NIcholl and Ben. Nicholl's daughter Virginia stows away. En route to the moon, it is discovered that Nicholl sabotaged the rockets as a final revenge. With much work, the three men jerry-rig some repairs. The aft section lands Victor and Nicholl on the moon. The forward section contains Ben and Virginia. It is implied that no one returns. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
FEtoM is one of the early examples of "steampunk". Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ('54) was an earlier (and better) example, but FEtoM has some steampunk charm too. Morris Ankrum as President Grant is a fun nugget.

Cold War Angle
Verne's story was seriously rewritten to add "Power X" -- a blatant stand-in for nuclear power. Grant says, "You look upon it as a new source of energy. Others look upon it as a new source of destruction." An arms race and dangerous cold war will result. Much of the story is a recast of the nuclear dilemma in Victorian times.

Notes
Based (loosely) On The Book -- Verne's novel endured some pretty major changes for the screenplay. The inevitable Hollywood romance thread was worked in. Nicholl is given a beautiful 20-something daughter. Victor Barbicane is given a hunky young assistant. A huge difference from the novel is that Barbicane's moon ship returns safely. FEtoM borrows Rocketship X-M's dour ending, more in step with atomic age angst.

Bad FX -- Perhaps too much of FEtoM's budget went to the TechniColor processing. The special effects suffered. Note particularly, the model shots of the capsule "in flight." Positioned upright, the flames from the aft curl and smoke upward, killing any suggestion of a projectile in motion. Watch for the angled shot of the model. The power and gas supply boom supporting the model is blatantly visible.

Columbiad -- Virginia christens the moon capsule "Columbiad". By the 1950s, audiences were accustomed to space ships having names. But, the shell has no name in the book. Actually, in the book, Verne refers to the giant gun itself as a columbiad. This is a type of cannon used from the early 1800s to the late 1800s. In the mid 1800s, it was the state-of-the-art weapon -- the ultimate in muzzle loading, smooth bore artillery. Yet, like most technologies, it had its heyday but became obsolete.

Bottom line? FEtoM is a Hollywoodized remix of one of Verne's lesser sci-fi novels. It aspired to be an A movie, but amounts to a Technicolor B. Fans of steampunk can enjoy the sets and gizmos. Fans of saucers and aliens will probably find FEtoM slow and somewhat underwhelming. The actual moon trip comes too near the end to satisfy the average rocket fan.

4 comments:

Luis Bueno said...

I wonder how "Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon" (1967) compares to this version.

Regardless, I must rectify the viewing omission soon. Thanks for the heads-up and review!

--Lou

Mike Scott said...

I thought maybe you wouldn't be reviewing this one, since you didn't review 20K Leagues (no Victorian sci-fi, or something?). It is a shame that this isn't a better movie, like some of the other Verne adaptions. Even the low budget "Master of the World" is lots more fun to watch.

To Luis: "Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon" (aka Blast Off, aka Those Fantastic Flying Fools) is a comedy in the same vain as "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines" and other similar movies made around that time. Very little to do with Verne, other than the basic moon ship fired from a cannon plot.

Nightowl said...

Mike, No, not avoiding 'Victorian Sci-fi'. My copy of 20,000 Leagues didn't show up in time. It's on my to-review list now. I enjoyed it as a boy, but need to watch it again (more carefully) for a review.

Mike Scott said...

Quote: No, not avoiding 'Victorian Sci-fi'.

Cool! The Verne and Wells movies (most of them, anyways) are some of my faves of the '50s-'60s. I do tend to put them in their own sub-genre, myself (except for WOTW), so I thought you might have been avoiding them for that reason.

Get the 2 disc SE of 20K Leagues. Lots of great bonus material!