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Destination Moon (1950) - One Giant Leap
“We’re on the Moon, Jim!”
Destination Moon was co-scripted by SF author Robert Heinlein and based on his novel Rocketship Galileo (1947). It was one of the first SF movies to attempt to inject some realism into its portrayal of space flight and lunar exploration.
Produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel, the film describes in great detail mankind’s first mission to the Moon. A rocket blasts off to the moon with four American astronauts on board, they land and pose for a few pictures, they than discover to their horror that they haven’t saved enough fuel for the return journey! And so they look for a way in which they can jettison some excess weight so they can take off for home.
The narrative is structured in a documentary style which, at the time, was almost revolutionary, George Pal called the film “a documentary of the near future”. Destination Moon showed that SF could be serious as well as fun, and gave the genre an entirely new lease of life, its commercial success initiated the science fiction film boom of the 1950s after a decade that had contained almost no SF cinema at all. Prior to Destination Moon the only real attempt at intelligent science fiction was Alexander Korda’s visionary Things to Come (1936).
The film is prescient and near accurate in the way it portrays the journey of the astronauts and their landing on the Moons surface. Indeed, the filmmakers enlisted the aid of top scientists to make sure that what they finally committed to film was as authentic as possible.
There was also an urgent message to the American people – launch a man into space now before anyone else does! It's almost as if the writers were predicting the space race that would later take place between Russia and America. The film's big predictive error was political, not scientific: it predicted that the first Moon mission (described as "the greatest challenge ever hurled at American industry") would be a capitalist affair conducted by private enterprise.
The film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects which now seem rather plain and unexciting but which thrilled audiences 60 years ago, the film was also nominated for Best Art Direction. Astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell provided the elaborate backgrounds for the scenes on the Moon.
One difficulty in the story was how to explain the principles of rocketry to 1950 movie audiences who were at that time unfamiliar with the science of spaceflight. Says Pal “We wanted to demonstrate rocketry in an amusing way and the idea of a cartoon came up, but we couldn’t afford Disney.” Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker was a pal of Pal's and he was hired to produce a short animated sequence featuring Woody Woodpecker, which became one of the more memorable scenes in the film.
There was a massive publicity campaign for the movie while it was still in production, which attracted the attention of movie producer Robert Lippert, he rushed into production a low-budget sci-fi film – Rocketship X-M which beat Destination Moon into theatres. Legal action forced Lippert to add the disclaimer “This is not Destination Moon” on all it’s publicity material.
From conception to final print Destination Moon took two years to complete at a cost of $586,000. It was one of the years biggest hits and for producer George Pal it was only the beginning, he followed Moon with three more SF movies for Paramount studios - When Worlds Collide (1951) , War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955) before moving to MGM and The Time Machine (1960).
The Critics Wrote –
"Impressive gadgetry encased in a tedious and totally unsurprising script." (Halliwell)
"Thin on plot and characterisation, high on patriotism, and impressive in its colour photography and special effects; a true precursor to Star Wars in fact." (Geoff Andrew, Time Out)
"Heavy-handed, unimaginative and very badly acted." (MFB)
“Destination Moon is a highly technical space travel subject… in it’s favor are the advantages of novelty in what can be a new interplanetary film cycle and a Technicolor dress that heightens the space effects” (Variety)
"Considering the fact that the scientists have not yet reached the moon - unless, perhaps, the Russians have pulled a fast one on us - we're afraid that the motion-picture audience will have to accept on faith the possibility of the excursion that is accomplished in "Destination Moon". However, we've got to say this for Mr. Pal and his film: they make a lunar expedition a most intriguing and picturesque event." (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)