After directing, producing and photographing numerous Puppetoon shorts during the thirties and forties, George Pal moved onto features and collaborated in 1950 with director Irving Pichel on the family film The Great Rupert, and the space exploration epic Destination Moon, the latter widely regarded as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of its time.
What’s surprising (and most impressionable) about Destination isn’t the story nor Oscar-winning special effects, but the politics that on one hand capture the relationship between private industry and the U.S. Government, and the philosophy that a little bit of recklessness is what sometimes makes great moments in Man’s History.
The film’s first reel is remarkably un-stilted because it dramatizes a postwar America with Big Industry and Big Science trying to lock into the next big project, now that the war machine has wound down and the nuclear family is setting roots in Levittown suburban developments. The space race is the next phase, and while Soviet Russia is never mentioned in the film, the U.S. Government’s goal is to be the first in space and become the planet’s peacetime protector against malicious powers who could attack the U.S. from space.
It’s a timely hook because it presages the inevitable race that had Russia and America hurrying to get things in orbit and ultimately on the moon, but it also firms up private industry’s permanent role in developing the technology the government needs for its political goals. To get to the finish line, there has to be a deadline, but to get there safely, there also has to be safety checks, and that’s where the film’s first act gets interesting, and goofy.
The military ultimately unleashes a furious independence streak in contracted aeronautical industrialist Jim Barnes (John Archer), a man not only willing to launch the craft based on test models, but do it himself when a court order wants the project reigned in.
Using a team of four men – including project egghead Dr. Cargraves (Warner Anderson), General Thayer (Tom Powers), and blue collar radioman Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) – the ship heads for the moon using an atomic reactor and big heavy water tanks, and upon landing, the crew engage in vague pseudo-science activities involve a Geiger counter, some tourist pictures, and a big ray gun that’s never turned on.
Barnes’ fearless attitude is so wrong on every level, but it’s amusing to watch when science is clearly the lesser justification for landing on the moon. It’s all political, as evidenced by Barnes enticing Cargraves to claim the cheese orb with America as it’s legally binding protector, but it’s also kind laughable when it’s obvious his words aren’t being broadcast to Earth, nor preserved on film. Even more befuddling is the fact no one has a movie camera; they brought along a tourist Brownie, but no16mm combat camera (what, no captured Arris?) to visually and aurally capture proof of the landing as well as ensure legal precedent of America really being the first on the moon (something they fixed when a live audio feed and TV cameras were used by NASA in 1969).
Another potent example of Barnes’ bullheadedness is the pitch meeting he gives to fellow industrialists using a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the craft’s method of propulsion as well as the basics of space travel. Prior to the screening, the room is filled with wary, if not sceptical industrialists, but post-film and post-speech, Barnes manages to convince the group that investing in the construction of a V2 spacecraft is the best proactive approach in ensuring the country’s safety and global dominance, and we the audience know it’s clinched when a southern man switches from doubter to ally; he’s a heartland figure, and if he’s in on the race, then it’s got to be the right thing to do.
The executive meeting is also the film’s clincher in showing the free enterprise spirit in its most idyllic function – the betterment of humanity – as well as encapsulating the foresight and determination to win – an American trait and theme heavily larded in WWII propaganda films and wartime escapist fodder.
What’s extremely odd about the film’s stance is how that independence streak is handled in the middle act. In prior cinematic celebrations – Young Thomas Edison (1940), for example – it was the indie mind fighting against narrow-mindedness that yielded great scientific boons for humanity, whereas in Destination, what begins as a push for greatness becomes a selfish act, except it isn’t portrayed as such.
Barnes and his trio (including General Thayer, an old guard man) give the finger to the government that hired them, and do their reckless launch, but the repercussions are tempered by the film’s switch to the quartet successfully blasting into space and landing on the moon - by doing it successfully, the ends justify a bit of arrogance – but then they can’t takeoff until 110 pounds are stripped from an already eviscerated ship.
Their punishment is to choose who gets to stay on the moon so the others can leave, but the filmmakers’ resolution is for the survivors to do some public service once they get back home: they’ll not only tell of the wonders they’ve seen (wonders actually given quite a bit of short-shrift by the spacemen and screenwriters) but how they kinda shouldn’t have jumped the gun in the first place.
It’s that wonky morality that really stands out in terms of character motivations and the filmmakers’ attitudes, but one also wonders if Robert Heinlein’s original novel, Rocketship Galileo, was more critical and punishing of the group. This is the same author of Starship Troopers, but certainly from the director and writer of the 1997 film, we know the novel was transformed into an allegory of Hitler Youth graduating to full-fledged warmongers under a CNN media canopy.
The character template, though, is standard sci-fi: there’s the bull-headed leader, the resident egghead, the military/combat expect, and the comedy relief element, as dramatized in the ‘average Joe’ role of Joe Sweeney. He’s a guy from the inner city, a straight talker who likes baseball and girls, and likes to make wise-cracks when the tone among the rest is too dour or dry. Joe also plays the harmonica, and provides local charm as the group enjoy their coffee and fresh produce on the ship’s maiden voyage.
Destination is dated, but it’s equally fascinating to see what aspects the filmmakers and consultants got right, what speculations were way off the bat – like the proposed ‘gliding’ through Earth’s atmosphere using parachutes for re-entry – and what hypothetical procedures were dramatized, of which space flight and space weightlessness are the most intriguing.
The base of the ship’s three-pronged wings are capped with convex rubber stumps to absorb a landing shock, and the propulsion system consist of rapid atomic explosions rather than rocket fuel. The use of an atomic reactor is dramatized in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon (custom-animated for the film by Walter Lantz’ studio), and the propulsion system isn’t that different from the nuclear payload the U.S. army was drafting on paper for their own space exploration scheme, Project Orion, but it’s incredible to think one could (can?) design a ship whose hull and bulkheads would protect a reactor from exterior pressure, heat and cold, and shield the crew from radiation.
Those are some thoughts on the film’s political and social aspects, but the reason Destination still functions as escapist fodder is its core theme of space exploration, and while the effects aren’t jaw-dropping anymore, there’s no denying the theme of adventure, and the visual and aural artistry are what grabs the viewer.
Leith’s Stevens’ score was not only top-notch, but eschewed overt themes of heroism or treating space exploration like sea exploration with sea-themed and folk-styled material. The score is dreamy, exciting, and extremely innovative in the way it drapes the film like a smooth velvet cloth, and evokes weightless and a fear of space’s dark unknown when we’re stuck with dialogue scenes and minimal visual references, like seeing the Earth through the ship’s porthole while the craft rests on the moon’s surface.
Even the sound effect were treated with care, and besides the requisite engine thrusts, there are some subtle effects that lend a sense of weirdness – chiefly the metal clangs played forward-reverse, with sound sucked backwards as the men walk in the weightless ship using magnetic boots.
The visual compositions and Technicolor photography is quite nice, although the source print for Image’s DVD is mediocre. The details are sharp and the colour registration isn’t as hazy as other period films on DVD (Belles on Their Toes, for example, or King Solomon’s Mines), but there are splices, jumps, scratches, and low volume sound that mar the experience of seeing this cinema and sci-fi milestone.
Efforts should really be made not only for a definitive restoration, but a decent special edition loaded with publicity ephemera, a dense commentary track, isolated music score (so little of Stevens’ music exists on disc), and a featurette and gallery on the spectacular matte paintings by Cheseley Bonestall.
Much like Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953), the painted backgrounds are hypnotic in their evocation of a barren lonely moon, and a mystical star-speckled sky. The paintings are also in the moon backdrops that maintain the illusion of a vast moonscape when the spacesuit visors are reflecting the studio carbon lamps a few feet from the actors.
Sci-fi fans will also get a kick out of seeing the ship and suit designs that became props in lesser films, as well as iconic gear necessary for space travel in fifties films. The inaugural launch is also notable for a lengthy sequence showing the effects of G-force on the astronauts’ faces, which are exaggerated here with clever makeup, and were wanly imitated in two scenes in the B-grade Queen of Outer Space (1958).
Following the success of Destination Moon, Pal followed up with several more space flicks, including When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and Conquest of Space (1955).
Other tales by Robert Heinlein spun into films include Project Moon Base (1953), and Starship Troopers (1997).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan