1964 was a better year for sci-fi and Columbia's First Men in the Moon (FMM) was the year's big-budget treat. HG Wells' 1899 novel was adapted to a more modern retelling by Nigel Kneal (of Quatermass fame), but is still fairly faithful to the original. Two men (and a woman) travel to the moon in 1899 and encounter a civilization of insect-like beings. FMM also features the animation of Ray Harryhausen. He gives the usual monster (moon cows), but brings the selenites to life.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A modern (1960s) UN moon mission lands, only to discover a little British flag and a paper claiming the moon for Queen Victoria. On earth, they trace the names to an old Arnold Bedford in a nursing home. He tells his story as flashback. He rented a cottage next door to an eccentric inventor. Cavor created Cavorite, a substance which blocks gravity. Bedford sees the money-making potential, so attaches himself to the work. Cavor, however, wants to explore the moon. To that end, he built a sphere. Bedford agrees to go with him, thinking of gold on the moon. Bedford's fiancee, Kate, is pulled aboard at the last minute. Amid some mild antics en route, they arrive on the moon. Cavor and Bedford explore, finding a labyrinth of tunnels and little insect people. They return to the surface, but the sphere (with Kate inside) has been taken by the selenites. They re-enter the tunnels in search, but become separated when a giant "moon cow" caterpillar beast attacks them. The selenite scientists study Cavor and Kate, eventually learning english. The selenites are disassembling the sphere for study. Cavor is given an audience with the Grand Lunar. He tells the Grand Lunar about earth and men. Cavor's description of war alarms the Grand Lunar, who decrees that Cavor must remain on the moon to prevent more defective earthmen make the trip. Meanwhile, Bedford and Kate have reassembled the sphere, but need Cavor to get the shutters to work. Bedford interrupts the Grand Lunar audience, causing a fight. Cavor and Bedford flee to the sphere. Cavor fixes it, but refuses to return to earth. Bedford and Kate return. End flashback. Old Bedford sums up his tale. TV reports that the astronauts on the moon find abandoned underground cities. Quick conjecture is that some virus wiped out the inhabitants. Bedford quips that Cavor did have a bad cold. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
There is much to like in FMM. Lionel Jeffries almost steals the show with his highly colorful portrayal of Cavor. The matt art, scenery, sets and models are well done. Harryhausen's work doesn't dominate, but enhances the alien-world feel.
Cold War Angle
There is more of Wells' original anti-imperialism message than anything of the Cold War. The portrayed fact that the first moon landing was an international effort shows a bit of optimism.
Based on the Book -- Nigel Kneal's screenplay tries to maintain much of Wells' original story, but a few concessions had to be made to make a good movie for mid-60s audiences. Rather than modernize the tale, Kneal framed the Victorian story as a flashback within modern bookends. Kneal omitted the frozen atmosphere and fungal plant life, (as modern audiences would not buy that). He kept a simplified version of the selenite civilization, and the moon cows. He also kept Bedford returning and Cavor remaining.
Dipping From Other Wells -- Kneal's script pulls in elements from a couple of Wells' other stories. He repeats the trope of the aliens taking the protagonist's machine underground, which Wells had in The Time Machine. Kneal borrows from Wells' War of the Worlds to have the aliens all killed off by a simple earth germ. In Wells' novel, the selenites are not wiped out. Modern folk knew the moon was lifeless, so a handy plague was needed.
Labor Pains -- Embedded in Wells' novel, and echoed somewhat in Kneal's screenplay, was stratified, dehumanizing industrial society. A cute counterfoil to that and commentary on unionized culture, was the scene at Cavor's house where the three workers argue about whose job it was to stoke the furnace. The metal worker complained that since he wasn't a stoker (by profession), it therefore wasn't his job. The gardener agreed that he wasn't a stoker either. The butler also agreed that he was a butler, not a stoker, so none of them stoked, but all went out for a pint.
Imperialist Flip-side -- In Wells' War of the Words, imperialist humans get a taste of their own medicine from the über-imperialist Martians. In FFM, imperialist humans go to someone else's planet. In both the novel and the screenplay, the two protagonists embody classic British imperialism. Cavor is the benevolent explorer, missionary and claimer of places. Bedford is the exploiter capitalist, who puts little value on the lives of the "brownies". This condensed duo of earth-ish imperialism plops down amid a greater power. Cavor and Bedford play out the traditional arguments (benevolence vs. conquest) but Bedford's view prevails and he goes about smashing their cities. In Kneal's script, imperialist man manages to completely ruins things -- even if only by accident (Cavor's cold germs). This has several earth history parallels too.
Intrusive Women -- It was fairly common in 19th century sci-fi (e.g. Wells and Verne) to have only men as the protagonists. Post-WWII Hollywood was unable to resist inserting a woman into the character mix. They usually served as simple cheesecake, or love-triangle fodder, or the damel to be rescued. In FFM, Kate is a bit less flagrantly the intruded woman. She is useful to keep up dialogue while Cavor and Bedford are separated. She is a occasionally the damsel, but not obnoxiously so. (Heck, she blasts some selenites with a shotgun). We can be thankful the producers resisted including a cute animal in Disney fashion.
Bottom line? FMM is a classic that no one should miss -- even viewers who don't normally go in for sci-fi. The story is thoughtful, the acting good, and the production very good.