Wednesday, 11 August 2010

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

Jules Verne’s novels are among my few happy childhood memories and I admit I’ll watch just about any movie adaptation of those books. As it happens the 1958 film version of From the Earth to the Moon is particularly interesting.

The American Civil War has recently added, much to the disappointment of the members of a club of armaments manufacturers. Peace is not good for their profits. It’s especially disheartening for Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotten) since he’s just invented a super-weapon, an explosive of unprecedented power. He calls it Power X. Now he has to convince the governments of the world to buy armaments utilising this explosive. He needs a publicity stunt so he comes up with the idea of a super-cannon that will shoot a projectile all the way to the surface of the Moon.

Barbicane has a rival in both the scientific and business spheres - Stuyvesant Nicholl (George Sanders). Nicholl has invented a super-armour that he hopes can with stand Power X, but his hopes are in vain. It seem that nothing can stop Barbicane, until he receives a visit from the President of the United States. Facing ruin, Barbicane finally realises he has one option - rather than firing high explosive at the Moon, he will fire a manned projectile. And he’ll be one of the crew members inside it. But he finds he needs the assistance of his old rival Nicholl.

What’s most interesting about this movie is that it says so much about the 1950s. The movie clearly links Power X with atomic power, and Barbicane’s plan to ensure that every government in the world will have Power X, thus making war impossible, is an obvious reference to the nuclear Balance of Terror. Barbicane and Nicholl represent opposing views on nuclear weapons and the Cold War. The movie also neatly encapsulates the characteristic 1950s mixed emotions about technology in general.

The ambiguous ending was rather bold for a 1950s American science fiction movie. Verne’s novel had an ambiguous ending as well but that’s because Verne intended a sequel (and in fact he published the sequel in 1870).

It’s fun seeing Joseph Cotten getting to play a character who is almost an action hero. On naturally expects George Sanders to be the villain but he isn’t, not really. He has what seem to him to be perfectly valid moral reasons for opposing Barbicane every step of the way. The movie does make an attempt to give both sides of the argument a hearing although we are presumably intended to favour the views of the hero Barbicane. Sanders might have been more fun as a stock villain but he does a reasonably job of making Nicholl an interesting character.

And of course any adaptation of a Verne novel is going to have a steampunk feel, even if that term was not to be coined until decades after this particular movie was made. And in fact this movie has a delightful steampunk vibe to it. I especially like the fact that the crew of the spacecraft don’t have to worry about weightlessness because they have a gyroscope. And they have what appears to be a primitive nuclear reactor, even though it was built in a laboratory lighted by candles and oil lamps. It’s a wonderful blend of Victorian and 1950s technology, all quite fanciful and all the more fun for that very reason.

All in all this is one of the more interesting 1950s Hollywood science fiction movies, and it’s in Technicolor and looks rather nifty.

This production also has historical interest as marking more or less the end of the road for RKO Radio Pictures.

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