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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Lost Missile

In some ways, The Lost Missile (LM) is a stereotypic Cold War sci-fi B-movie. It is stuffed to the gills with Department of Defense stock footage. Jets taking off, radar operators, control rooms, etc. all consume many long minutes of LM's run time. Much of the movie comes across as reassurance propaganda to a nuke-wary populace. There are many similarities between LM and The Giant Claw ('57), in that some outside danger menaces the United States. America's full defense capabilities are showcased dealing with that threat. American technical superiority manages to save the world. Written, produced and directed by the same man, William Berke, LM actually fares better than most one-man-show movies do.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A mysterious missile approaches the earth from outside the solar system. As it nears, Soviet defense officers order their anti-missile missiles fired at it. They explode near it. This fails to stop the mysterious missile, but does settle it into a low earth orbit of only 5 miles up. The lost missile radiates a million degrees of heat, therefore leaving a five-mile wide swath of burned out destruction behind it as it orbits the earth. It starts its scorched trail in northern Canada Jets are scrambled, but cannot stop it. Any munition explodes from the heat before getting close enough. New York City will be destroyed in a little over an hour. A few human interest threads are woven into the tale. David, the chief scientist on a new super-nuke missile named Job (The biblical name, not an occupation). He was planning to marry his assistant Joan the day the missile arrived. David's associate Joe's wife was due to deliver their first baby, etc. etc. The children of NYC are being evacuated, but everyone else huddles in shelters. David convinces the commanding General to fire Job at the lost missile. It, alone, has the speed to pierce the heat barrier and detonate on target. Meanwhile, Ottawa is incinerated. While driving the warhead's nuclear material to the launch site, hoodlums hijack David's jeep. They die of radiation when they open the box. David catches up to the jeep. In closing the box, he's exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. In his last minutes, he drives the box to the base and loads it into the warhead. He expires. Job is launched. The warhead penetrates the heat and explodes. The lost missile is destroyed. People emerge from their shelters. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Fans of stock Defense Department footage will love this film. The acting is varied (some almost over the top), so fascinating to watch. LM is such a pure example of Cold War sci-fi, that it's like finding a four-leafed clover.

Cold War Angle
The opening credit thanks the Department of Defense for its cooperation. The whole movie is like a dress rehearsal for what everyone thought a nuclear attack would be like. The lost missile is a surrogate for the expected communist attack. This role is underscored by how the origin of the missile (while clearly extraterrestrial) is never addressed. The lost missile is treated as purely an Earth problem. LM is a blatantly Cold War angst 50s sci-fi movie.

DoD Saviors -- Much about LM paints the Department of Defense as America's saviors. Of the brave men of an arctic radar station named Keyhole Advanced, who heroically stay at their posts, announcing the deadly missile's approach, a general says, "Thank God there was a Keyhole Advanced." Audiences were expected to share this reverence. Most of the stock footage is from the D.o.D.: radar stations, control centers, intelligence offices, jets, jets and still more jets. Clearly, even though nothing could stop the lost missile, it had to have left a pretty big impression on the viewing public to see all the weaponry in place to defend them. What chance would a mere Russian bomber have?

Civil Defense Heros -- Near the denouement, we get several views of Civil Defense in action. Average citizens and workers drop everything and don their white helmets and take charge. The narrator says, "They are soldiers and officers of Civil Defense. Theirs is the most important job of any right now." Radio announcers repeatedly tell people to obey their civil defense officers. The average citizen is also praised for having practiced what to do in the event of an attack, "The people of the city know what to do." Where the Civil Defense system is mocked in The Blob as the ineffectual haunt of old men, in LM, it is held up as the noble grassroots protection organization. There is even some clips of the old "duck and cover" footage.

Claw 2 -- Much about LM matches the story structure of The Giant Claw ('57), but without the bizarre bird as the menacing power. Both films boil down to promotional pieces for how wonderful America's defense systems are. Both movies tout the virtues of the early radar warning systems. Both films showcase the awesome military might America could bring to bear on any invader. Both also conclude by American technical genius supplying the special weapon that can stop the unstoppable. LM manages to do all this without the burden of the ludicrous bird puppet, so it is actually much more effective.

Plane Crazy -- For fans of Air Force stock footage and the old planes they preserve, LM is a treasure trove. There are too many to list here, but range from the usual P-80s and F-86s, including many types of fighters and bombers, up to the B-52 and the strange-looking B-36. Of special interest is the footage of the F-89 Scorpions with missile pods on the wing tips. There is some great footage (some in slow motion) of the folding-fin missiles being fired from the tip pods. Each pod carried 52 of the unguided "Mighty Mouse" missiles. A marvelous bit of rare D.o.D. footage.

Bottom line? LM has a passable, if not original, plot. It has some eclectic acting but minimal special effects. It relies on copious amounts of Defense Department stock footage, but some of it actually interesting from an historical perspective. Watch LM to see what The Giant Claw could have been.


Mike Scott said...

Berke was a very prolific writer/producer/director of "B" movies (mostly westerns). He died several months before LM was released. Jerome Bixby (It! The Terror from Beyond Space) also worked on the LM script.

I was familiar with the LM posters, but had never seen the movie till it showed up on the internet. (It's going to be shown on TCM on Mar. 31)

I think LM and THIS IS NOT A TEST would make a good dbl feature. They're both so oddly different from the usual sci-fi fare.

Nightowl said...

Yes, LM is kinda fun to watch. It's like Cold War Sci-fi Concentrate. The fact that the rogue missile is never really explained -- just accepted as fatal fact -- is curious. No monologues about hostile invaders, or dying suns or anything. It just is. LM at least keeps some dignity about itself. No bird puppet to spoil the mood. :-)

You're right, "This Is Not A Test" is an off-beat member of the apocalyptic genre. I have a collection of those too. Even though not really scifi, (there are some crossbreeds), it is a fascinating genre.

Mike Scott said...

Quote: No monologues about hostile invaders, or dying suns or anything.

Yeh, suck it up, aliens! It's not our problem and no, you can't have our women!

Nightowl said...

Hehe, yes, LM was one of the few sci-fi stories in which the aliens show no interest in our women. Unlike the movie just before this one, in which getting our women was their primary goal.

In fact, going against the traditional Hollywood grain, the romance element in LM is cast in the tragic hero mode. It's girl-loses-boy instead of boy-gets-girl, or the ever popular love triangle that clutters up a plot.

This time, it was just plain ol' life-n-death. :-)

Bill M said...

I've been trying to find out the name of movie I saw as a kid in the 60s. There are 2 things I remember: something flying over and destroying everything, like in the Lost Missle, and time standing still. Maybe I am wrong that both elements were in the same movie. The thing I remember about the time stands still (but will start again) part is that a scene is frozen in which a large truck is heading straight towards a child on a bike. The hero (not frozen in time) of the movie devises a way to use the truck wheel attached to a rope which, once moving again, pulls the emergency brake. Does any of this ring a bell for anyone?

Mike Scott said...

Bill wrote: " . . a scene is frozen in which a large truck is heading straight towards a child on a bike."

This is an episode of the ('60s) Outer Limits called "The Premonition".

Nightowl said...

You beat me to it. I was going to say the Outer Limits episode. That one happens to be one of my faves. It was in the 2nd season, I think. '63? That "negative man" really gave me the creeps as a kid.

Mike Scott said...

Quote: It was in the 2nd season, I think. '63?

Jan. '65, according to the OL Companion. Second to last episode.

And yeh, the neg dude was creepy, until you find out what his situation is.

Bill M said...

Ok, great! Thanks for clearing that up. I must have watched The Lost Missle sometime around then and matched the OL show and movie together in my memory.

thingmaker said...

Most of the Gerald Fried score surfaced and I was reminded of the need to rip a copy from my DVD-R, so I just watched it again. Some doubt exists as to the actual length of the original film. The version I and another fellow have is a TV copy with cuts for commercials which often cut off dialog in mid sentence and these versions run about 70 minutes and 20 seconds, with what appears to be a complete beginning and ending. So we are not sure if anything significant is missing due to those commercial edits.
One thing which I did not recall from a version I saw on TV a long time ago but which appears in the DVD-R is a sequence where the secondary scientist tries to stop the destruction of the "lost missile" because he has determined that it is extraterrestrial and may, therefore, be piloted by an alien crew. This plays a bit like the naive scientists in "The Thing", willing to give their lives to preserve the alien who must be wiser than they... But it is a lot more easily dismissed in view of the relentlessly destructive effects of the missile.
Anyway, as it appears in the 70 minute cut, this is a tight and scary little film that stands out as one of the best evocations of the fear of nuclear destruction from any period film.