Although considerable effort was made to make this colour CinemaScope film a hybrid of cerebral sci-fi, classic pulp fiction, and a dramatic vehicle to proselytize a staunch anti-nuclear arms race message to unsuspecting audiences expecting a thriller about a deadly projectile with much big fire, Satellite in the Sky ends up being a time capsule of the naïveté that existed prior to the launch of Sputnik in 1957.
In place of the Catholic zeal with which George Pal marinated space exploration epics like Destination Moon (1951) and Conquest of Space (1955), Satellite is heavy on the ethics of science when noble goals are usurped by the need for superpowers to test their fancy-schmancy war toys.
The night before the launch, Cmdr. Haydon (Kieron Moore) and Larry Noble (Jimmy Hanley) are informed their rocketship will have two roles: examine what the heck lies above the Earth’s atmosphere, and launch the world’s most powerful bomb (filled with tritonium) in space where its wake will create enough of a shockwave that every rogue nation with nuclear ambitions will realize War Is Bad, and peace will reign on the Earth for all eternity.
Call it an extrapolation of the American’s use of two atomic bombs on Japan during WWII; that kaboom convinced a nation to cede an end to war-mongering (which worked) and inferred to the rest of the world that should anyone think it a grand idea to play World Domination, the U.S. had the capabilities to launch another payload. This time the Brits are the ones who’ve channeled their international skills of peace keeping, civil defense, and conflict management into a global demonstration that should convince all nations to lay down the sword and love one another.
What’s intriguing here is that no conflict – past, ongoing, or potential – is ever detailed by the filmmakers. The plot of a rocketship launch simply changes to a different gear, and the filmmakers apparently assumed audiences familiar with the Korean War, the conflicts in Palestine, and colonial friction present in the daily print, radio, and TV news reports would fill in their own current paranoia of global chaos.
The ship is launched into orbit via an angled mountain railway (a la Pal’s When Worlds Collide), and when the bomb is quickly armed and ejected from the rocketship’s hull, everyone watches as the tritonium orb’s propellant system pushes it away… only to sputter out, causing ‘Fat Man II’ to glide back to the ship, where it seemingly glues itself near the rocket boosters.
Resident egghead Prof. Merrity (scene-chewing Donald Wolfit) is baffled, and bugs Haydon to solve the problem, because the bomb will detonate in 9 hours. Haydon reluctantly explains the issue is one he suspected might happen: without gravity or an atmosphere, the magnetic attraction between metal is increased, hence the failure of the propellant.
Not to discredit Haydon’s official status as team leader, but shouldn’t egghead Merrity have known this might happen, too? Or maybe planned for this by adding a redundancy propellant?
This being a pre-NASA era, of course not. More serious is the crew’s realization that the bomb is designed to explode if it enters Earth’s atmosphere, so that scraps Merrity’s hasty idea of ditching the ship in the Sahara and, er, running away fast.
The choice is made by Britain’s space program to stay put and let the bomb explode, since the lives of a few are worth less than the contamination and destruction of millions of earthlings.
What’s fascinating is how the crew’s acceptance of their sacrifice for the greater good is handled: they’re not necessarily stoic, but they maintain a cheery British reserve, which must have seemed insane to American audiences expecting some inclination to fight for survival.
(Indeed, there’s one scene where an attending U.S. bigwig informs the highest ranking Brit at the launching base that America will send out their own new, never-tested rocketship to rescue the men. Here the Americans are plainly shown as pro-active, and believing any human life is worth saving. The scene offers up a contrast in philosophy, although the brief scene may also exist purely to show American audiences that the U.S. wasn’t just sitting around dawdling; the Brits just happened to beat every other League of Nations to the space race deadline. That reasoning makes the film easier to digest back in North America, and satisfies American-owned distributor Warner Bros. that their latest picture isn’t tailored to a limited market)
Egghead Merrity has a rare moment of desperation, running for the ship’s engine lever, undoubtedly thinking about Skeptical-Plan-Sahara, but he soon calms down and drinks coffee with the others. Co-crewman Larry is fine with dying because his wife left him the night before, fed up with his running off to the base whenever military superiors beckoned. And then there’s little Jimmy Wheeler (played by little Bryan Forbes), engaged to a model, but cheery at being near death’s door not because of karma or having at least shagged his fiancée a few times before proposing on the eve of the flight to oblivion, but because he’s British, and freaking out like Merrity is unproductive and improper.
Haydon, in turn, is perhaps naturally stoic because his duty is to serve the populace, and at least he gets to die with the snarky, tree-hugging reporter, Kim Hamilton (a quite fetching, pre-Bond Lois Maxwell), who snuck on board the craft and stowed away to get the scoop of the century.
The night before, when Haydon gave Kim a tour of the underground launching depot, he casually explained there’s little security by the ship because most of the anti-space race nutters will attempt to breach the perimeter, and putting all the muscle at the fence makes more sense.
Kim sees opportunity in this short-sighted, massively stupid, immensely illogical use of Her Majesty’s Army, and is able to enter by the main tunnel and sneak into the ship with no one ever being around to guard anything.
Although she’s staunchly against the mission for its waste of funds, being on death’s door near Earth’s orbit, she eventually sways over to the pro-tritonium camp, and explains to Haydon of stowing away as a means to find some reason for her brother’s death - a young test pilot apparently involved in the development of the rocketship. (In fact, her dad developed the formula for rocket fuel, so being a stowaway is justified.)
Heck, and since she’s doomed like Haydon, Kim admits to always knowing she was in love within him, and 24 hours after berating him upon their first meeting, she subsequently punctuates that emotional smash cut with a long, head-cocked kiss before returning to her unofficial duties as coffee and sandwich server for the boys.
It’s only when Merrity and “Lefty” Blake (Barry Keegan) give their mortal dilemma second thought that the pair decide to sacrifice themselves while attempting to separate the bomb from the ship so that a) the Stardust can return safely to Earth, and b) the bomb will still go off in its intended hotspot, and not disappoint the masses of media waiting for Britain’s big anti-war statement.
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That, in fact, is the end, and while (overall) an intriguing plot, it’s handled quite blandly by the filmmakers. Scenes are largely talky (blame that on the script’s three first-time writers), the crew’s stoicism is bizarre, the ending is abrupt, the effects are merely adequate (it’s easy to spot the bomb’s fish wires that help it ‘fly’ through space), and the first act is a mélange of character intros and filler material.
As beautiful as the test footage is of Haydon flying two gorgeous Cold War planes, neither the aircraft nor the scenes during the first half hour serve any purpose towards the rocket mission except it makes unequivocal that Haydon is indeed a pilot, and the second test run assembles reporters at the base, which ultimately introduces Kim to Haydon. It just seems that on the eve of the flight carrying a bomb, that maybe the commanding officer should be grounded to ensure he doesn’t die in a freak accident, and endanger the mission.
SPOILER ALERT AGAIN!
There’s also some sloppy scene direction wherein the Stardust crew have split up and watch from opposing bay windows (!) in the rocketship as Merrity and Lefty free the bomb from the hull; both groups can see the salvage operation in spite of Merrity and Lefty being on the ship’s right side, making dual observations via the windows impossible.
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Albert Elms’ score works best when there’s a sense of peril, but for other scenes the filmmakers opted for a heavy re-use of his stately, elliptical main theme – a move that often goes against a scene’s grain, over-emphasizing Duty, Honor, and British Reserve when it’s just not necessary.
Satellite in the Sky is an impressive production, but it’s hardly a lost sci-fi gem nor misplaced classic of cinema fromage. Nevertheless, the DVD transfer is taken from a clean print that has visible but acceptable marks and blemishes around the reel changes. The pastel colours are quite vibrant, and in spite of the film being shot with early CinemaScope lenses, faces don’t suffer too much from the dreaded CinemaScope mumps. The audio mix is a bit soft in volume, but balanced.
Director Paul Dickson returned back to his home turf in TV, and directed one more feature – The Depraved (1957) before disappearing from filmmaking for 9 years. Actor Kieron Moore returned to the sci-fi genre when he was snagged for reshoots in the troubled production of The Day of the Triffids (1962)
Effects man Wally Veevers later worked on The Guns of Navarone (1961), and more interestingly, Stanley Kubrick’s own anti-war film, Dr. Strangelove (1964); and co-cinematographer Georges Perinal filmed the tense aeronautical drama No Highway in the Sky (1951).
This title was original paired with World Without End (1956), but is also available in TCM’s Classic Films Collection: Sci-Fi Adventures, featuring Satellite in the Sky, Them! (1954), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and World Without End.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan