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Friday, September 4, 2009

12 to the Moon

Ten years after Destination Moon, and man is still mounting his first mission to the moon. Released by Columbia as the B film with Battle In Outer Space as the A, 12 to the Moon (12ttM) was solidly in the 50s tradition of a low-budget B feature. 12ttM is sometimes nominated for the dishonor of 'worst film ever.' It lacks a budget for any impressive effects or sets. The pace is slow, and the acting varies between flat and over-the-top. Yet, in this tale of man's first mission to the moon, there lurks within an attempt at several social statements. The writers were at least trying to say something. The international and culturally diverse crew predate Gene Roddenberry's more famous Enterprise crew by five years.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The International Space Order sends a multi-national crew of 12 scientists to the moon to claim it for all and prevent nationalist squabbling. Predictably, about half way to the moon, they encounter a meteorite swarm. They land on the moon and begin exploration. The Swede and Turk find a cave with air inside. They take off their helmets, kiss and go deeper in the cave. A shimmering shape floats in and creates a wall of ice behind them. The other 10 astronauts go looking for them. One is lost in quicksand. The 9 return to the ship. The moon beings communicate with them via symbols on one of the ship's displays. Handily, the Japanese woman is able to "read" them. The moonies tell the earthlings to leave, they're not welcome. They will keep the Swede and Turk to study this 'love' emotion. The earthlings are to leave behind their two cats, and depart. They do. En route, they encounter another meteorite swarm. As they approach earth, they see that a new ice age is quickly settling in. The moonies are bombing earth with freeze bombs. The rocket is starting to freeze too. Their only hope is to drop an atomic bomb into a volcano to break the freeze. They assemble a bomb, but the Frenchman tries to sabotage it to not blow up. The Russian catches him. They fight. Frenchy loses. The Polish Jew and son-of-a-Nazi draw short sticks to fly the bomb in. They succeed, but die in the attempt. The bomb was not enough and everything freezes down. At the last minute, the moonies relent and thaw everything. The Swede/Turk love and the Jew/German self-sacrifice prove that earthlings aren't all bad. The earth is saved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The trope of man's first trip to the moon was already long in the tooth in late '59, so it was interesting to see what the writers would do with it. The culturally diverse drew provide ample social commentary. There are ample odd bits to ponder.

Cold War Angle
There is a strong attempt at internationalism as the cure for Cold War us-vs-them thinking. The crew is full of pairs of "former" foes working together for the international cause. A subplot involves the Frenchman (as closet communist) figuring to leave north america frozen so the Soviets could prevail.

Former Foes, Two-by-Two -- The huge crew size was necessary fom a story telling point of view. Several pairs of former foes, sources of earth factionalism and strife, are shown overcoming their differences. There is the most obvious Cold War ideological pair with American Anderson and Russian Orloff. There is the Polish Jew, Ruskin and the son of a Nazi, Heinrich. Less blatant are men vs women via the two female crew members. Black vs white via the Nigerian. More subtle is the Christian vs Muslim with the Turk, Hamid. We also have age vs. youth with Heinrich (the old man of the 12) and young prodigy, Roddy.

Catharsis -- A dominant subplot revolves around Dr. Heinrich. He is actually the son of a Nazi deathcamp doctor Bernauer. He was so ashamed of his father's sins that he changed his name. This makes a parallel to post-war Germany trying to break with its Nazi past. In tandem, is the polish Jew, Ruskin who learns to put his hatred of the Nazi's behind him and accept Heinrich as a friend. The writers' hope for peace is quite evident.

Race Repair -- A significant addition is the Nigerian navigator, Markonen. Race relations in the US was getting hot in the late 50s. Emmett Till had been murdered 5 years prior. Rosa Parks sparked the bus boycotts 4 years prior. The Little Rock Nine crisis was just two years prior to production. Between production and release, the Greensboro Sit-Ins grabbed headlines. Worse was yet to come. Casting a black crewman, equal to the other 11, was pretty bold.

Angry Moon -- Echoing the sentiment of Angry Red Planet released a few months earlier, the moon-beings want nothing to do with earthlings. Here is their diatribe: "I speak for the great coordinator of the moon. We advise and warn you. Return to earth at once. You have done enough damage. You have been bombarding us for years incessantly. Leave us in peace. ... We are not enslaved by your earthly emotions: Greed, Lust, Passions of Conquest. We cannot allow you to stay here. You would only contaminate our perfect form of harmony."
For all their self-righteousness, however, the moon-beings are content enough to kill (on a large scale) on incomplete information. They complained of the earth people damaging their moon, yet were content to freeze large portions of the earth.

They're After Our...Cats! -- A curious non-sequetur comes amid the moonies' demands that the earthlings leave the moon. Before they left, they were to bring the moonies the two cats they brought along. "Cats have an unusual feel for us, but unfortunately, we have none here on the moon. They interest us almost as much as the two human beings who joined us." This is an odd story bit to ponder.

Low Budget Fun -- When the crew are about to disembark, note the first glimpse of the sound stage moonscape. You'll see a darkly dressed stage hand walk back behind the big boulder. When the crew step out onto the moon, note the frames for studio lights above stars. Perhaps these were cropped out in the widescreen version, but not in the TCM copy. Enjoy Roger Til's outrageous french accent. Admire the techno-babble Ruskin uses to explain why their space helmets have no glass visors. There is so much low budget fun.

Bottom line? 12ttM suffers many of the usual low-budget woes. It's slow paced and talky. It may be a movie that only fans of 50s B sci-fi can enjoy. Beneath all the cliches, however, are some attempts at serious statements. This gives the film some redeeming merit.



Mike Scott said...

I kinda like 12TTM. I don't know why it so often gets lumped in with the "worst of the worst"?

Nightowl said...

Hi Mike,
I agree. 12ttM is no gem from the production value side, but it tried to have depth. That's more than many a popular drive-in monster movie could say. I sorta think the "worst" tag is based on production value. It's a bit like judging a play by its costumes, but people do that.
I actually thought the ethereal shimmering moon-being and the wall of ice, was kinda neat. The city of moonies beneath the surface was a common trope, but in this case, a bit more intriguing (than say, a city of cat women)
:-) 12ttM ain't so bad.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering who the author of this article was? So that it may be properly accredited.

Nightowl said...

Post your email as a comment. Comments are moderated, so don't post automatically. I'll reply with the info and not post the comment.

Randall Landers said...

Clearly not a bad film. A nice Pre-Trek adventure. The juxtaposition between the character pairs makes for a good little story.

As far as the moonies liking the cats, I really have always thought it was an allusion to Cat Women on the Moon.