Monday, 28 January 2013

Rocketship X-M (1950)

My Rating: Average

1950: A Taste Of The Times

  • Families in the US begin moving out to the suburbs.
  • 8 million homes in the US own Televisions, many of which were 12 inch black and white TV sets.
  • Median family income in the US was $3,300 p/a.
  • Credit Cards and the Transistor have made their appearance.
  • Communist China provides additional military forces to Communist North Korea. North Korea invades South Korea capturing Seoul. US leads UN in the Korean War.
  • The US “witch-hunt” begins when the persecution of Communists is initiated by Senator Joe McCarthy.
  • China invades Tibet.
  • Formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the defence of the United States and Europe. Warsaw Pact formed in response to NATO.
  • Albert Einstein warns that nuclear war could lead to mutual destruction. 

Rocketship X-M (1950)
  • Director: Kurt Neumann 
  • Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum 
  • Screenplay: Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton (uncredited) and Dalton Trumbo (uncredited) 
  • Budget: $94,000 (Compare to Destination Moon!)
  • Rocketship X-M became the first post-WWII sci-fi outer space film only due to the delayed release of George Pal's Destination Moon. 
  • Unlike Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M was a black-and-white feature from Lippert Pictures shot in just 18 days. 
  • Rocketship X-M was rushed into movie theatres 25 days before Destination Moon thereby taking full advantage of the high-profile national publicity of Pal’s film. 

In R X-M we have the first use of the theremin in a sci-fi movie. Also known as the etherphone, this early electronic musical instrument could be controlled without the player actually making physical contact with it. The sound adds an eerie, haunting and spine-chilling atmoshpere to a film. For instance, consider the effect in a film like, The Day The Earth Stood Still.


  • The film revolves around the first manned spaceflight, "Rocketship eXpedition Moon". It’s crew consists of space scientist, Dr. Karl Eckstrom (who with Dr. Ralph Fleming conceived the idea of this space flight), Eckstrom’s brilliant protegé Dr. Lisa Van Horn, astronomer Harry Chamberlain, engineer Major William Corrigan and pilot, Captain Floyd Graham. 
  • The launch is successful. However, things go wrong and the crew hurtle across space beyond the moon due to a rocket malfunction. 
  • The RX-M's engines have shut down but the problem is finally resolved after a nifty bit of recalculating. However when the engines are reignited, the RX-M goes out-of-control and heads into deep space. During the acceleration, the crew becomes unconscious due to a drop in oxygen pressure. 
  • Instead of landing on the moon, they wind up landing on the planet Mars. 
  • While exploring Mars, they find the remains of a human-like civilization that had been destroyed by nuclear warfare. 
  • The crew soon find themselves being attacked by a group of primitive, savage human-like creatures who have been mutated by nuclear radiation. As a result, both Corrigan and Eckstrom lose their lives. 
  • Will the three survivors escape back into space and return to Earth with their lives and their precious information? Or will they try and establish some kind of communication with the inhabitants of Mars? Perhaps they too will perish on Mars …
  • Find out by watching the full movie here:

Points Of Interest

Space Travel:

  • The mission of Rocketship X-M is seen to be as a “first step to practical interplanetary travel” as well as the establishment of a base to “maintain peace.” We have in recent times heard the notion of the moon being one day used as a stepping off point to other planets in our solar system. Space itself has often been seen as a possible platform to maintain world peace. 
  • The explanation to the press prior to lift-off shows that the principle of the multistage rocket and using a planet’s gravity to assist a rocket’s acceleration seems to have been known quite some time before it was put into practice by NASA. 
  • Space being a vacuum and the concept of weightlessness in space were known and referred to. Unfortunately, the weightless environment depicted in the film was rather delayed and selective (The men’s ties and Van Horn’s hair stayed stubbornly put whereas the harmonica took off!). To show it realistically in films took time, knowledge, technology and money to solve. 
  • Space as being a dangerous place was not a foreign concept. In fact, it was a vital ingredient in sci-fi film-making. In R X-M we had the first meteor (o.k. not “meteorites”) shower on film and yes, it was noisy despite the vacuum of space. Would you rather an accurate silent brush with death? Very entertaining that would be! To this day, satellites and manned spacecraft face the constant threat of being struck by micro meteors. 


  • It’s important not to forget that at the time of filming R X-M there was a belief in many people’s minds that there were little green from Mars and that Martians had constructed canals to carry water from the Martian Polar Regions. In fact, in the film, the annoying Texan engineer’s concept of Martians is that they would have “pale faces,” “pin heads and “fishy eyes.” 
  • The impression the audience has of Mars from the film is that it is barren, rocky and sandy with occasional storms and rain! Well, according to discoveries made on the planet’s surface it apparently doesn’t rain on Mars but evidence for the presence of water has been detected. It was also the seemingly very barren and desolate nature of the planet that almost discouraged early investigation of the planet. 
  • Due to the high levels of radiation (no, not from nuclear bombs!), freezing temperatures and extremely thin atmosphere, one would need much more than oxygen masks and army surplus attire to get around on the Martian surface, as was the case in the film. Perhaps with a bit of terra-forming……? 
  • In the absence of colour, it was probably a good idea to switch to sepia to depict the Martian scenes. At least it provided an ‘other worldly’ feel, but not a very realistic one.

Space Exploration:

  • It appears from the film that Mars contains vast deposits of resources such as manganese just waiting there to be exploited. Apart from purely scientific research, there have been many proposals to explore the feasibility of exploiting the resources of such places as the moon or the asteroids. 
  • The film R X-M clearly shows that things can go wrong in space. When they do, we shouldn’t see them in terms of “failure” and just give up because it’s too risky. Ultimately, space exploration could prove to be the “salvation of our world.” R X-M 2 was being completed and readied for launch while the crew of R X-M 1 were going through trials and tribulations in space. As we know, there were a lot more Apollo’s after the tragic fire that killed Gus Grissom and his fellow crew mates. Nor did the Shuttle program suddenly come to a complete end with the deaths of some of the shuttle’s brave astronauts. 

Humanity’s Position in the Universe:

  • Whether a person believes in a concept of a God or not, one cannot help but consider whether there is something more to our existence when confronted with the immensity of the universe. Our lives and our planet are given a new perspective once we have left the safe haven of our own little world. 
  • For the crew of R X-M, it is as if the meteor swarm was like “heavenly flak” indicating that something was trying to stop them going to where were intending to go. Their change of course to Mars “couldn’t be mere chance’ and that it was a case where “something infinitely greater assumes control.” 
  • “The Wind that blows between the Worlds, it cut him like a knife,” With this quote from Kipling’s Tomlinson, Captain Floyd Graham highlights their own dilemma and perhaps the kind of predicament faced by humanity: Suspended in the void, not being able to enter heaven or hell… 
  • Notice how some of the astronauts from our own modern era of space exploration underwent deep personal spiritual changes as a result of their experiences. 

Life on other worlds:

  • Statistically it would be hard to argue against the possibility of life, even ‘intelligent’ life elsewhere in the universe. Think of the billions of suns contained in one galaxy and add to that the billions of galaxies in our universe and the odds would be in favour of our eventually finding an artefact (or signal) that would demonstrate the existence of a complex and organised society. In R X-M they found such evidence of intelligence on Mars. We may only find evidence of microbial life on the red planet though. 

Humanity’s Fate:

  • Just before Dr. Eckstrom dies, he says to the others, “Tell them what we found. Maybe this will…….” He never finished his sentence, but we can be sure he was referring to humanity learning (“lesson for our world”) from the mistakes of the Martian civilisation and averting a similar fate for ourselves. 
  • The film R X-M poses the question for its audience: Are we, too, destined to divert our intellect to pursuits that will ultimately lead to our self-destruction? If so, then we will suffer a similar fate to that of the Martian civilisation that blew itself from the “Atomic Age to the Stone Age.” That was the “terrible truth” that had to be passed on to our planet. 

Gender Roles:

  • Now we come to the one feature of this film that receives a great deal of finger wagging and tsk-tsking: The role of and attitude toward women. A lot of the observations that have been made about this have been influenced by decades of change that has seen women striving for and obtaining far greater levels equality and respect than was the case in 1950. Yet, in the 21st. century we still have the existence of glass ceilings for women in the workforce, unequal rates of pay, misogynistic attitudes and so on. 
  • I feel that R X-M showed the beginnings of a glimmer of change in attitudes towards women in a time that was probably not ready for such a change. To our sensibilities such attitudes and comments that were expressed in the film tend to make us cringe; 
1. Van Horn objecting to Eckstrom’s arbitrary decision to proceed using his numbers, but submitting, and being forgiven for "momentarily being a woman." However, the “woman” was proved to have been correct!

2. Floyd’s comment to Van Horn, “How does a girl like you get mixed up in a thing like this?” Well she has by virtue of her intellect and is the sole female crew member-something unheard of at the time as exemplified in Pal’s Destination Moon which didn’t feature one significant female.

3. Floyd’s retort, “Isn’t that enough?” to Van Horn’s challenge, “I suppose you think women should only cook, and sew, and bear children?” It clearly is not enough as she has broken through this stereotype by obtaining a doctorate in advanced organic chemistry, inventing a synthetic fuel that makes such a mission as theirs possible, being a part for the space program and becoming a crew member of the first ‘manned’ mission to the moon!

4. Lisa’s objections to Eckstrom being dismissed as being a product of “Woman’s intuition?” Certainly she quells her protests and Eckstrom as the authority figure gets his way with the RXM being fuelled according to his calculations. Still, events prove her to have been correct. There have been many films where the junior colleague (male or female) has tried to voice what they believe to be is correct, only to be talked down to and overruled by their senior respected ‘superior.’ It happens in real life to this very day! At least in R X-M we see the first stirrings of a challenge to established authority which in many aspects of life the post-war 1950’s ushered in and which the 1960’s ran with.

5. Floyd’s “weaker sex,” comment is rendered foolish when we see that Lisa is the only crew member whose blood pressure is normal prior to take-off. Notice too that she is the first to recover consciousness when they are later rendered unconscious as they race headlong toward Mars.

6. Lisa does at first present aspects of the conventional cold, almost emotionless façade that successful women of science were expected to display. She does suggest that her drive to be where she is now has had an impact on her ability to enjoy the pleasures of growing into adulthood. Far from being a one dimensional character though, she does display many interesting aspects to her character. Notice how the seemingly professional scientist draws the crew’s attention to an appreciation of the view from the ship’s viewing port. By the end of the film Lisa actually has this Floyd character with his ‘potent moonlight’ lines actually admitting to her, “Maybe I changed.” 

And so, dear reader, maybe we have all changed in our collective and individual journeys onward and outward while wondering all the time….What if?…….

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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