“We’ll have no unnecessary floating aboard this ship!”
“Whatever we are… explorers or invaders of the Sacred Domain of God… this taking of planets is like an act or blasphemy!”
“There was no metal for forks and knives and spoons, where slivers of wood could suffice. So it was with the little people of Japan, little as I am now. Because for countless generations we have not been able to produce the food to make us bigger.”
“Feel like good soil. Given water, I bet you can grow anything here we grow on Earth. BIG THINGS, maybe, like in Jack the Beanstalk.”
George Pal’s last sci-fi film as producer was arguably as far as he could go in terms of crafting a contemporary chapter in space travel, simply because he had taken theories and flipped them into a docu-drama mold that had man travel to another planet – anything else, terms of alien encounters, planetary battles, or some fusion between God and the planets had either been done, or traversed into the realm of bug-eyed monsters.
(War of the Worlds had monsters, but it felt contemporary because the battle took place in 1953, involved the WWII-winning U.S. Army, and had scientists using current knowledge and gear to decipher the mysterious aliens and foil plans for a planetary conquest.)
In Destination Moon (1950), Pal dealt with man’s quest to land on our roving grey orb as a means for the U.S. to defend the world against rogue nations with malevolent designs of space conquest. In When Worlds Collide (1951), the theme was the ‘sky is falling down,’ and man’s natural move to find salvation and colonize a new planet in a big Technicolor Noah’s Ark parable. For War of the Worlds (1953), it was a Holy War between God-loving white folks, and God’s natural design that dealt the lethal blow to the Martian (‘red menace’) infidels.
Conquest was made in 1955, and it feels like a patchwork of several ideas and themes from the prior three films because the popularity and timeliness of another sci-fi epic seemed too irresistible, certainly for the potential financial rewards given the success of Pal’s space films.
The presumption now is that the Earth needs more natural resources to survive, and the giant space wheel in the planet’s orbit is set to train and send men to the moon. The station was built with American know-how, but it’s managed as an international protectorate, much like the continental Antarctica, and the men being trained in the Space Corps are a blend of Americans as well as representatives from those countries against which America fought in WWII. The image is of a unified world with a Japanese and Austrian (German) on board, but anything Soviet or Chinese is totally out of the picture.
(It’s also important to note that whereas the technology and staff in Destination largely came from corporate and private industry, the grand plan in Conquest is inferred to come from the U.S. Army – namely General Merritt - with the aid of some private factions to build the damned station and space ships.)
Much like Destination, the ordered plan was to do tests, trials, and then make the first step in space travel to the moon, but plans are cut short because of an urgency (in this case a desperate need for those natural resources!) to use what’s been tested and trained, skip the moon, and head for the big salami – Mars – where the real resources are to be found.
What’s surprising is that religion suddenly becomes a major component of the story, and how it’s presented as an element of differing influence. It clearly motivated Gen. Merritt (Walter Brooke) to design the wheel because it seemed like a glorious idea at the time, and a venue to put God out there in space. Once the general and his crew are on course for Mars, he begins to feel the whole idea is an affront to God, and subsequently goes bonkers during the landing and endangers the crew. Then he turns into a zealot and not only tries to strand the crew – of which son Barney (Queen of Outer Space’s Eric Fleming) is a member – but blow up the parked ship.
Son and father are pitted against each other, and when one loses, the story takes on a moral battle between the son and the general’s loyal sergeant who plans to drag Barney to a military court if and when they return to Earth.
In classic fifties morality, death, even if accidental, can’t go unpunished, and while the general was cuckoo, he also meant well, so the sergeant’s decision in the end to lie to the world and say Barney’s dad died during the expedition solves the filmmakers’ moral dilemma by retaining the character’s original moral ideals, and focuses on what he spiritually envisioned, rather than the combustible kaboom he tried to engineer in his last minutes alive. Like Destination, Conquest film ends with the surviving men en route to Earth, although with what benefits, that’s all muddy.
END OF FLAGRANT SPOILERS
The Japanese geologist brings back rocks and soil samples, and while he did manage to grow a seedling, he, like the crew, also forget that Mars is filled with craters that can suddenly open up and swallow things whole, making any settlement plan impossible. One has to presume the reason for the voyage was to a) prove plants grow in the soil, and b) the planet’s natural resources can be mined and brought back to Earth.
A mining mission is a big step a way from the theme of colonizing and inhabiting a foreign planet, an idea central to Pal’s prior films, but Conquest is meant to show the first steps in retrieving samples for the purpose of a future and grander Mars exploitation project. The reason this idea isn’t completely goofy is because it was central to a relatively recent film like Alien (1979), where a few crewmen travel across space on a mining vessel owned and operated by private industry. If one accepts the logic of corporate space exploitation, then one can see Conquest as showing man’s baby steps towards interstellar mineral mining, and if films like Alien or Outland (1981) can be regarded as the end result, once governments have laid out the scientific, moral, judicial and social framework, it’s industry that maintains the actual operations.
Conquest also contains an odd piece of technology for cinephiles: on board the space wheel, men in the mess hall watch a clip from a musical (a ‘soundie’ made expressly for the film with Rosemary Clooney in an unbilled cameo) on a big widescreen TV, which is unusual because it presumes either the filmmakers or the studio felt widescreen film exhibition would naturally lead towards widescreen TVs in the future – which they did, and just as big and flat, too.
Most of the characters are horrible clichés, and some are downright bizarre. The general’s religious degeneration may have been set up as a means to theologically argue the validity of virtual space conquest under the eyes of God before it becomes a key plot element, but it’s awfully hokey – right down to the subtle makeup changes that seem to grey the character a little, enhancing his transformation not as the zealot we see today, but as a well-intentioned soul who feels that perhaps a combo of sacrifice and punishment are necessary.
There’s also the Japanese character Imoto, played by Benson Fong (Flower Drum Song), who gives an impassioned, beautifully performed speech of utter nonsense as scribbled by a bunch of WASP writers trying to rationalize the reason for Japan’s entry into WWII for American audiences. Imoto explains his country’s lack of resources, which led to his country’s “little people” living in rice houses and eating with sticks because metals were scarce (see quote at top of review).
By going to Mars, Imoto will raise Japan’s stature to something a bit ‘bigger’ and perhaps motivate his country into moving towards a more Western (and Godly) society.
It’s a great dramatic moment, but the whole repetitive usage of “little” feels like the filmmakers trying to justify the inclusion of a leading Japanese character to American movie audiences: it’s an apology for WWII without saying sorry, so that the sight of an Asian character as an integral member of a core exploration team is justified, and acceptable to touchy audiences. If this sounds overheated, one only need see the parade finale in A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), a wartime propaganda film that has Tyrone Power walking past cheering crowds, including an Asian man holding up a sign that reads "Me Chinese" to ensure wartime audience sympathies recognized 'the right' Asian ally.
A lesser caricature is Mickey Shaughnessy as Sergeant Mahoney (Jailhouse Rock), a loyal Irish figure (“thirty years me and the colonel have been banging around” he says) who becomes the moral magistrate when Barney accidentally kills his dad on Mars; Ross Martin (TV’s The Wild Wild West) in his screen debut as the Austrian crewman who loves his Ma and looks after the corps’ central European colleague experiencing ‘space fatigue’; and Phil Foster (Frank DeFazio in TV’s Laverne & Shirley) playing Jackie Siegle, the film’s obligatory blue collar comedy relief, and a fuzzy Italo-Jewish goofball who likes corned beef, carries a picture of Brooklyn sweetheart Rosie in his pocket, and doles out irreverent statements towards his amazingly tolerant superiors – common in many war films, but certainly integral to the elite-and-colourful marines in James Cameron’s anti-corporate space opus Aliens (1986).
Six writers are credited for the script and source material, which include George Worthington Yates (Them! and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), Barré Lyndon (War of the Worlds and The Greatest Show on Earth), and prolific hack Philip Yordan (El Cid). The film is apparently based on a book by German Rocket Society member Willy Ley, and artist Cheseley Bonestell who collaborated with Pal on prior space films as matte artist.
Even if the space ship effects are dated and the dialogue quotably bad (see top of review again), the matte paintings, backdrops, and effects involving rotating planets and a fiery meteor are fantastic. Bonestell’s paintings were the kind of works that inspired one to gaze at the details, the beautiful compositions, and incredible desolation of lifeless planets. They may seem fanciful at times, but they’re hypnotic works of art that still make Pal’s movies mandatory for sci-fi enthusiasts.
Unlike Pal’s other personally supervised films (going right back to The Great Rupert), Leith Stevens didn’t score the film, and the next choice, Nathan Van Cleave, managed to provide some dramatic thrust in his decent but less invigorating music score.
Paramount’s DVD does provide an anamorphic letterboxed transfer, but the print has some colour registration issues in the second half – a common problem with Technicolor films that haven’t survived the years too well and are in need of restoration. As was done for their War of the Worlds DVD, the studio should really go back and engage in a full George Pal restoration project, so the producer’s legacy and important imprint on the sci-fi genre doesn’t fade.
Conquest of Space is a lesser effort in Pal’s canon, but the film deserves (and needs) some supplemental material that place it in historical context, both for its forward thinking, and of the clichés that were part and parcel for the era.
Byron Haskin’s subsequent sci-fi films include the fanciful From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and The Power (1968), the last being his final film with George Pal.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan