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Friday, September 9, 2011

Rocket Attack U.S.A.

It would be easy to dismiss Rocket Attack U.S.A. (RA) as one of those worst-movie-ever films, but that would be too hasty. RA is part of the same Doom genre as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, and a product of its time. It was produced, directed and probably written by Barry Mahon. One-man-show productions usually suffer for lack of review, and RA is no exception. Mahon may have aspired to be a Roger Corman, an Ed Wood Jr. or perhaps a Larry Buchanan. He wasn't up to even that level, but it wasn't for lack of trying. With RA, he was certainly topical, and actually beat the more famous members to the screen.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A narrator tells how Sputnik changed modern warfare with musing over what valuable data it was collecting for the Russians. The head of American spy operations in West Berlin assigns John Marston, his "best man" to find out if the Russians are gathering data from Sputnik. He will meet a girl in Moscow who will help. John is flown across the boarder in a small plane, then makes his way to Moscow on foot. There, he meets up with Tannah (Tanya?) in the night club she works in. Later, he comes to her apartment. She explains that as mistress to the Minister of Defense. "When the pig is drunk, he talks." She knows the Russians already have all the data they need and are completing their missile. John persuades her to let him stay in her apartment. In the Kremlin, generals and leaders debate whether to attack soon or not. Back in the Pentagon, general Watkins hears that American missile plans are lagging. The rocket scientist bemoans lack of funding. Back in Moscow, Tannah tells John that Joseph (the pig) is taking her to the missile base. While she's away, a British agent named Morris Steel comes by to give John explosives to blow up the Russian missile. In the Kremlin, the hawks prevail and the launch is set for tonight. At the missile base, John meets up with Tannah. Guards arrest Morris. Another guard follows John and Tannah's footprints. He shoots Tannah, but she pulls out a pistol and shoots him too. John sneaks inside the fence and places the bomb. He sneaks out, but is shot by yet other guards. Soldiers take his bomb off the missile. Meanwhile, in New York, people go about their routine lives. A radio announcer pooh-pooh's his wife's worries and goes to work. A brooklyn warehouse worker tells his wife he'll wear a tie on the next date. A financier lands by small seaplane to manage his wealth. Bill Deale, the announcer, tells how America has launched some satellites too and how there is an important meeting at the Kremlin. Meanwhile, back at the Russian missile base, the order to fire comes through. With much beeping, the missile is finally launched. General Watkins laments that America has no anti-missile defenses. Sirens blare, but drill-weary New Yorkers aren't taking it serious. Cue Bikini Atoll test blast footage. Shots of burning rubble represent New York. A burning necktie hangs from T-shirt man's battered truck door. The narrator talks of how selfish interests lead to all this. Text on screen says: "We cannot let this be -- The End." (but it is).

Armageddon Arrives
As in the more famous films, like Fail Safe, RA plays out the Cold War nightmare of a nuclear attack on America. We get to see the first missile fall on New York, with the same sort of literary device of showing us some "average" lives both rich and poor, before they're snuffed out. The story thread of wife Pat reluctantly sending husband Bill to work in NYC (from Hazlet, NJ) is reminiscent of the 1954 television drama, Atomic Attack. The stock footage of B-52s taking off in response to the incoming missile lets the viewer know that Russia was about to feel a similar fate. Burning rubble (of NYC) is then the fate of millions.

Cold War Spotlight
Unlike the others in the Atomic Doom genre, this nuclear attack was not the result of a mechanical glitch (Fail Safe, The Last War) or a single deranged mind (Dr. Strangelove), although in the latter, the "safeguards" which would have prevented a single man from starting the war were a procedural glitch. In RA, it is plain and simple aggression. The Russians want to attack America quickly any first before America catches up in the "missile gap." This was the nightmare lurking beneath most issues of the day. Will X or Y put us at a disadvantage?

Lobby By Fiction -- Some reviewers of RA chafe at its blatant socio-political agenda, as if such a thing were rare and out-of-bounds. Lobbying via fiction goes way back. In 1871, a Captain Chesney in the British Army was concerned about British military unpreparedness (compared to the Prussian army which just defeated France). So, to make his case for more military spending -- via fiction -- he wrote his famous novella, "The Battle of Dorking." This kicked off a whole genre of invasion fiction, which would be one of the roots of Golden Era sci-fi. Later, Erskine Childers would write his famous "Riddle in the Sands" (1903) as a wake-up call to British naval unpreparedness. There were many others, some with less subtle delivery of their lobbying payload. "If only Britain had not divided her fleet," or "If only Britain had voted for more warships…" It wasn't only rightist military agendas that got fiction-lobbying. Even modern environmentalism gets it's lobbying films in which the lead character laments aloud, "if only we hadn't cut down all the trees…" or "If only we had been more careful with the environment…" (as in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.) Same method, different agenda. RA is hardly unique in lobbying. It was just a bit too obvious for some people.

Slow Project -- Barry Mahon produced several low-budget films in the late 50s, very early 60s, before taking the easy route and producing soft porn titles like Bunny Yeager's Nude Camera, and The Adventures of Busty Brown. Before that slide, Mahon was on a more topical and Corman-esque trajectory. Rocket Attack used actors John MacKay (John) and Monica Davis (Tanya) which Mahon would also use in his Rebel Cuban Girls ('59) and The Dead One ('60). Judging from the cars, such as Pat Deale's gorgeous black 1956 Buick Special Estate Wagon, Mahon may have been shooting shortly after Sputnik set off the whole space scare in October 1957. The newest car seen, is a glimpse of a '58 Chevy Biscayne. In some ways, it seems like Mahon started out with one story about an attack on New York, then later inserted the spies in Russia segments. The isolated character groups (who don't interact) suggest Mahon shot this project over an extended period (not Corman's 10 days). Imdb lists the release date as 1961. Perhaps it took Mahon awhile to get RA marketed.

Missing Matte -- One spot in the film which suggests a certain low-budget air comes when the soviet officers go out to admire their missile. There's nothing there -- not even a shadow. He already had the aft-section mockup (what John puts the bomb on). Mahon may have intended to insert a shot of a more complete model or some matte art via post-production for the missile they're supposed to be admiring, but he didn't get to it. Perhaps he thought the scene was good enough as it was, so why waste the money. Indeed, in several shots, the actors somewhat stumble over their words, or have pauses while they recall their next line. For Mahon, pretty-good was good enough -- and more economical!

MST3K -- Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooned RA in the fifth episode of their second season. It may be the only way for average folk to view RA. It is passable, but Joel and the bots do too much bantering and riffing to hear some of the softer lines. While not one of their best episodes, it is amusing at times. RA is a pretty low-quality film, so ripe for riffing.

Plane Crazy -- A bit of a stock footage treat are shots of the Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star, a forerunner of the more famous Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS of the later Cold War. Also note the Piper Tri-Pacer, three-wheeled variant on Piper's Pacer model -- which was a big brother to Piper's famous Cub model -- as the little plane that smuggled John into Russia.

Bottom line? RA is a good compare-and-contrast film for great productions like Fail Safe. Watch the two as a New York Gets Nuked double feature. They're like siblings. One struck it rich while the other picked cabbages. If you cannot abide poorly made films, avoid RA. It's only a couple pegs above amateur. If you're looking for more insight into the Cold War mood, RA as a lobbying tool, is a perfect (if very cheap) example.

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