Sunday, 20 January 2013

Destination Moon (1950)

Above Average

  • Film Title: Destination Moon
  • Release date: June 27, 1950
  • Producer: George Pal
  • Director: Irving Pichel
  • Running time: 92 minutes
  • Screenplay: Robert A. Heinlein, James O'Hanlon, Rip Van Ronkel
  • Budget: $500.000 approx.
  • Winner of an Academy Award for Visual Effects.


1950: A Taste Of The Times

  • President of the United States:  Harry Truman.
  • Truman approves production of the hydrogen bomb and sends US air force and navy to Korea in June.
  • The end of World War II only five years previous to making of Destination Moon.
  • Thousands of young servicemen have returned to America to start new families and lives.
  • American industry expands to meet the new peacetime needs with Americans buying newly available goods.
  • Industrial expansion and jobs growth a result of all this activity. 
  • The baby boom had begun. 
  • Oh yes, the Cold War between the countries of the “Iron Curtain” and democratic “Free World” was up and running. Fear and paranoia was soon to be the order of the day.

Synopsis (Spoiler Alert)

Dr. Charles Cargraves and retired General Thayer approach Jim Barnes who heads his own aviation construction firm (Barnes Aircraft Corporation) to help them build a rocket that will launch them to the moon. They, together with various industrialists, agree to support the enterprise of having the United States be the first nation to put a man on the moon. After all, it is felt that they would have a “disunited world” if the US is not in space first. The rocket is constructed and successfully lands on the moon. However, there has been a miscalculation over their fuel consumption! After stripping down the ship, they discover that they are still 100 lbs overweight. One of them, therefore, will have to stay behind……..

Significant Points

Since the days of NASA we have seen moves being made to rely less on governments and their organisations and greater emphasis being placed on having private enterprise assume a more prominent role in space exploration. In the film it is actually “combined American industry” that initiates the moon landing venture by manufacturing the space craft and financing its successful launching to and very first landing on the Moon. Take note of the following comments from the film;
“Government always turns to private industry when it’s in a jam.”
“Only American industry can do this job…Just like we did in the last war.”

Of course, there’s profit to be made in that it is expected that the U.S. government will purchase or lease this new technology in order to keep ahead of the Soviet Union. In the film, the question is asked, “What’s the payoff?” The answer is that they have to build the rocket to “stay in business.”

Both industry and the US have to stay in business, as even a decade before President Kennedy’s vow to have America be the first land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth, it was declared in the film;
“The race is on and we better win it…Whoever controls the moon…..”

Twenty years before the first actual moon landing, the film draws the audience’s attention to the dangers involved with manned space exploration, as well as with the technical difficulties with travelling to, landing on and safely returning from literally another world. First, there are initial disasters and failures as seen with the destruction of the V2 style rocket (a result possibly of sabotage.) Then there’s the dangers faced by astronauts such as finding themselves cut adrift in space. Of course technical problems can occur as was the case with the radar malfunctioning due to (what else?) human error. Similar aspects of space flight have had to be faced by both the former Soviet Union and the US.

Although with 63 years hindsight we can pick apart the technical aspects of the film and its degree of accuracy, there are many things it got fairly well (uncannily?) right. For instance;
  • The understanding of the basic principles of space flight as shown in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

  • The depiction of the take-off, weightlessness, the moon landing (compare with films of Apollo 11 moon landing) and some of the moon walk

  • The almost panoramic view of the moon: its starkness and its “barren desolation,” “silence,” and “velvet black sky.”
  • The view and impression of the earth as being “vulnerable and exposed.”
  • The use of jet packs being foreshadowed, with the oxygen tank being adapted for this purpose in order to retrieve their crewmate.
Notice how the astronauts in the film had to struggle to find a suitable landing site with a critical fuel situation to contend with. Very similar to what Armstrong and Aldrin had to face in Apollo11 in 1969!

With both the film and Apollo 11, each crew came to the moon representing the US. In Armstrong’s case it was “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
For the crew in the film, they came to the moon for the “Benefit of all mankind.”

Notice also how the crew in the film had to make crucial fuel consumption calculations in order to return to Earth. I couldn’t help but think of what the crew of Apollo 13 had to face with only a radio link to earth to help them.

Attitudes & impressions:

  • Manned moon landing as being “Too fantastic!”  Well, clearly not….
  • Atomic power as being a viable and unlimited source of power. However, there is a need to contend with negative public opinion which is dismissed in the film and put down to being a result of manipulation.
  • Government as being an impediment to getting things done with all of its red tape. I guess various sections of American politics would be nodding their heads very vigorously at this….even over 60 years later!    
  • Women….where were they? No role for them? Only a few years earlier they were performing crucial roles in industry and elsewhere while the man were at war. So when the war ended, were they expected to go back to being wives, mothers and homemakers? I guess according to this film, they were expected to. The changing role of women will be featured in further sci-fi films of the era I’ll be posting about.

So, for now…..”This is the end of the beginning!”

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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