Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

From the Earth to the Moon (1958) * * ½

Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, munitions producer Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotten) announces that he has invented Power X, a new explosive which he claims is much more powerful than any other explosive. Metallurgist Stuyvesant Nicholl (George Sanders) scoffs at Barbicane's claims and offers a wager of $100,000 that it cannot destroy his invention, an ultra-tough steel that is the hardest metal in existence. Barbicane stages a demonstration using a puny cannon and demolishes Nicholl's material and an area of the countryside.

With the backing of manufacturers, Barbicane plans to continue his experiments. He is denounced by Nicholl, and President Ulysses S. Grant (Morris Ankrum) requests that Barbicane cease development of his invention, as other countries warn that continuing work on Power X could be considered an act of war. Barbicane agrees, vilified by his backers and the public, but then comes up with a new scheme--to build a cannon that will fire a manned projectile to orbit The Moon. When he discovers that pieces of Nicholl's metal retrieved from the demonstration have somehow been converted into an extremely strong yet lightweight ceramic, he cannot resist the chance to construct a spaceship to travel to the Moon. He recruits Nicholl to help build the ship. Meanwhile, Nicholl's daughter Virginia (Debra Paget) and Barbicane's assistant Ben Sharpe (Don Dobbins) are attracted to each other.

When completed, Barbicane, Nicholl and Sharpe board the spaceship and blast off with much fanfare. Once in outer space, the strongly religious Nicholl reveals that he has sabotaged the vessel, believing that Barbicane has flouted God's laws. Nicholl does everything he can to ruin the expedition. However, when it is discovered that Virginia has stowed away, Nicholl cooperates with Barbicane in a desperate attempt to save her. Sharpe is knocked out, and he and Virginia are placed in the safest compartment of the ship. Barbicane and Nicholl then fire rockets that send the young couple on their way back to Earth, while the two scientists land on the Moon in another section, with no way off. However, they are able to signal to the young couple that they have managed to reach the Moon safely.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958) is a science fiction and fantasy film adaptation of the 1865 Jules Verne novel of the same title. The resurgence of interest in Jules Verne following the release of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) led to a brief fad of Verne-based films. There were the big-budget pictures: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962). Then there were the low-budget films: FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), VALEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961) and MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961). Also produced were THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JUES VERNE (1958), FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962) and JULES VERNE'S ROCKET TO THE MOON/THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS (1967). These films tend to fall into silly buffoonery, but FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON is notably one of the few serious ones.

Produced in Mexico by Benedict Bogeaus, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON stars Joseph Cotten as an eccentric scientist, and his bitter enemy George Sanders, who feels that the laws of God and nature are being violated. The romantic interest is handled by Debra Paget and Don Dubbins. Wandering in and out of the story is a mysterious bearded character known only as J.V. (Carl Esmond). The cast is probably the main reason to take a look at FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. Cotten and Sanders are always worth watching, but also present are popular character actors Carl Esmond and Henry Daniell, both of whom excelled as suave, sinister villains in their careers. This film is one of the few ever produced with a positive view of war profiteers.

The film began as an RKO Pictures movie, but when RKO went into bankruptcy the film was released by Warner Brothers. This led to the film's budget being greatly slashed during production. The effects department suffered the greatest loss, and scenes on the moon were eliminated from the script. What remains once the rocket blasts off is a disappointingly verbose drama aboard the rocket with little in the way of special effects. It doesn't deliver the effects that its ad campaign implicitly promised, but the actors are convincing and the story is logically presented. Plus, the interior of the spaceship rocket comes with beautifully plush interiors in the retro-Victorian style that is de rigeur for Jules Verne films, as well as a series of Steampunk mechanical engine devices that one believes could almost work. The movie definitely has an antiquated feel to it and the technology shown is amusing.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON is almost a good film, but lacks the nerve of most 1950s science-fiction films. It builds up well through the fights and conciliations of the two rivals, played with fine charisma by Joseph Cotten and George Sanders. The rocket lifts off, but nothing happens. Just when we get into space and come to what promises to be the most interesting part of the story, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON slows down and becomes a stage bound drama between the two rivals fighting one another. The dramatics are occasionally pumped up by a meteor shower and the emergency repair of an arcing engine gyro, but the sense of wonder that the film could have achieved is missing. Outer space scenes are quite unremarkable. There is almost nothing in the way of special effects--the rocket launch is limited to a series of exteriors of the capsule where the crane cable and arm holding it are clearly visible. Even the climactic Moon landing takes place off screen. This movie reuses some of Louis and Bebe Barron's electronic score and sound effects from MGM's FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).

Furthermore, Verne’s story has also been changed by a need to add a topical theme about the nuclear arms race. In Verne's original 1865 novel, the Baltimore Gun Club set themselves the challenge of building a rocket to go to the Moon. Here club president Barbicane is a munitions industrialist and his scheme is that of firing a rocket to the Moon in order to demonstrate his powerful new explosive. It's a scheme that doesn't make much sense, and the film's desire to comment on the arms debate leaves us uncertain whether this is something that the film supports or condemns. In Verne's version, Barbicane and Nicholls are friendly academic rivals who spend most of their trip politely arguing over engineering issues. In the movie, this rivalry is beefed up to catastrophic proportions simply to add drama to the narrative. Of course a romance is included as well. Making matters worse, the science is both sloppily handled and inconsistent. For example, a centrifugal spinner is used during take-off to "counterbalance gravity", yet stowaway Debra Paget emerges perfectly fine from the space suit she hid out in.

The cast also includes: Patric Knowles (Josef Cartier), Carl Esmond (Jules Verne), Henry Daniell (Morgana), Melville Cooper (Bancroft), Ludwig Stössel (Von Metz), Robert Clarke (Narrator), and Les Tremayne (Countdown Announcer). Louis Forbes composed the incidental music. Some of Louis and Bebe Barron's "electronic tonalities" are used. Robert Blees and James Leicester wrote the screenplay derived from Jules Verne's novels "De la Terre à la Lune" and "Autour de la Lune". Byron Haskin directed.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON had been made into movies prior to 1958 and it would be again. A famous Georges Méliès short loosely based on the book appeared in 1902, and further screen versions appeared in 1914, 1967, and 1986 (French TV movie). The title was also used for a 1998 HBO mini-series hosted by Tom Hanks, documenting the Apollo space program. Twelve episodes were produced. Largely based on Andrew Chaikin's book "A Man on the Moon", the series is known for its accurate telling of the story of Apollo and its outstanding special effects. The last episode of the series begins with a look at the making of Georges Méliès' film based on Jules Verne's book.

Originally broadcast in April and May of 1998, the epic miniseries FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON was HBO's most expensive production to date, with a budget of $68 million. The miniseries tackles the daunting challenge of chronicling the entire history of NASA's Apollo space program from 1961 to 1972. It explores the ups and downs of space travel, beginning with President Kennedy's famous speech before Congress on May 25, 1961, and chronicling the journey to putting the first man on the moon. NASA's complete participation in the production lends to its total authenticity, right down to the use of NASA equipment, launch locations, and even spacecraft. The re-creation of the lunar landscape is almost as impressive as the real thing.

This highly acclaimed, Emmy-nominated, 12-episode series is available as a four-disc DVD set. The original series was shot in 1.33 aspect ratio, intended to be viewed on standard television sets. With the proliferation of widescreen flat-panel TV sets the series was remastered in 1.78 aspect ratio and rereleased in 2005 as a 5-disc DVD box set. New framing causes loss of top and bottom parts of the frames from the original movie. This is not always noticeable because of a careful transfer process, but in some scenes important details are lost. Some captions have also been compromised. Features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, a special effects featurette, President John F. Kennedy's historic speech, a tour outside our solar system, and 6 original promotional trailers as seen on HBO.

Blog Archive