Thursday, 1 May 2014

Conquest of Space (1955)

Ambitious, serious action-packed sci-fi adventure

Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pal
Screenplay by James O'Hanlon
Music by Nathan Van Cleave
Editing by Everett Douglas
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time: 81 min.
Box office: $1 million (US)


Walter Brooke: Gen. Samuel T. Merritt
Eric Fleming: Capt. Barney Merritt
Mickey Shaughnessy: Sgt. Mahoney
Phil Foster: Jackie Siegle
William Redfield: Roy Cooper
William Hopper: Dr. George Fenton
Benson Fong: Imoto
Ross Martin: Andre Fodor
Vito Scotti: Sanella
John Dennis: Donkersgoed
Michael Fox: Elsbach
Joan Shawlee: Rosie McCann
Iphigenie Castiglioni: Mrs. Heinz Fodor


(This post contains spoilers)

The film, Conquest of Space we are told is a “story of tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.” It opens with a dramatic narration and a music score where we are shown a view of a space station and a space craft under construction. We are told that the station is used both as an observation post and as a place where space ships can be constructed for future missions.

“This is a story of tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, when men have built a station in space, constructed in the form of a great wheel, and set a thousand miles out from the Earth, fixed by gravity, and turning about the world every two hours, serving a double purpose: an observation post in the heavens, and a place where a spaceship can be assembled, and then launched to explore other planets, and the vast universe itself, in the last and greatest adventure of mankind, the plunge toward the...

The film’s opening sentiments reflect the kind of attitude that has pervaded much of human history. It is an attitude based on the belief that everything on the earth and in the cosmos exists for the sole purpose of being tamed and conquered by human beings. Instead of being viewed as a realm ripe for “conquest,” space should be seen as being a new frontier which will allow us conquer our petty divisions and all of the constraints that bind us to our speck of rock in a collective spirit of human exploration and a desire to better understand our place in the universe. More than ever we need such a collective human endeavour to drag our eyes away from our on-line lives to gaze upward, outward and onward into a realm where there are more things that have or will ever be dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy!

The Wheel

“The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the colour of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them…..” [Ezekiel 1]

On board the space station, Captain Barney Merritt complains to his father, Colonel (soon to be General) Merritt that he has been married for 3 ½ months but that he has also been on board the station (the Wheel) for a year without any leave. For him, he feels more like a “ghost” instead of a soldier. His request to return to Earth on the next transport is denied after his father says to him, “you belong here, Barney: space is your heritage.”

Human exploration of space will require extended periods away from family and loved ones which will be one of the many complicating factors that will need to be dealt with. Considering Colonel / General Merritt’s later breakdown and his views about humanity’s presence in space, it is ironic that he tells his son that he belongs in space as a part of his heritage.

On the rocket being constructed, Roy Cooper confides that he is afraid of going to the moon but he is also “afraid of being left behind.” Sgt Jackie Siegle asks, “Who’s gonna guarantee we’ll ever get back?” Suddenly an accident occurs when Roy Cooper becomes paralysed while working with high tension cabling. After he is taken back to “The Wheel” and checked out by the doctor, it is determined that he is suffering from “somatic dysphasia” or “space fatigue,” and needs to be returned to Earth. The doctor points out that “man has never before lived in space” while Roy tells his crewmates, “you fellas know how tough it’s (crew selection process) been.” 

Living and working in space and exploring space is, has always been and will always be a dangerous endeavour. A thin barrier of technology is all that separates existence from oblivion. People will continue to die in space despite all of the precautions we take. What effect would such an unnatural and alien manner of existence have on the human psyche as days stretch into weeks and then into months and potentially into years? How tough and rigorous must the training be to prepare people to deal with such stresses?

The six crewmen who made it through the selection process go to the mess hall. Immediately their unique status is apparent as everyone else stands to attention until Sgt Mahoney and his “six little lambs” take their places at their own table. Their meal consists of a special diet of various flavoured tablets and water: “all the nourishment you need, no waste.”

The provision of sufficient food and water for long duration space flights and planetary missions may prove to be a logistical nightmare until recycling and methods of achieving self-sufficiency have been perfected. At least obtaining nourishment for astronauts has come a long way from notions of diets consisting solely of pills or bland slop sucked from tubes!

The dangerous environment of space is suddenly and shockingly made apparent when the wheel is struck by meteors with the concussive force of Thor’s hammer. In an unnerving scene, the men in the mess hall are hurled and sprawled all over tables and end up wearing the contents of their dinners. Under Col / Gen Merritt’s direction the wheel is eventually stabilized and damage control crews manage to seal the hull leaks.

Micro-meteorites and man-made space junk pose a real and dangerous threat to modern space craft and the International Space Station.

Every bit of space junk orbiting the Earth!

A cargo rocket arrives and transfers Dr George Fenton who has some critical news for Col / Gen Merritt and adds a complicating factor to the story. Juxtaposed to this is the apparent emotional and mental unravelling of Merritt. In an ironic response to Dr George Fenton’s query, he states that he is as “fit as a fiddle.” We have already had lingering shots of Merritt in his quarters undergoing some kind of inner turmoil; almost losing his balance on his way to his quarters; displaying almost Captain Queeg-like utterances when severely reprimanding members of his crew: “One second can be the difference between life and death!” and chastising those who talk about food when there are those on board who can’t share their diet. We know that Merritt is not a well man.

Merritt questions the construction and purpose of the space craft being assembled. It has been brought into space and assembled piece by piece as part of an international combined effort. He is under the impression that the ship is destined to go to the Moon, but can’t understand why it has wings.

Fenton soon informs Merritt via a letter from the Supreme International Space Authority that the true destination of the ship is in fact Mars. The newly promoted general Merritt almost blows a gasket over this new development as he has all along been preparing to go to the Moon as a test run of the ship’s systems. “No word, no warning; just take off and leave!” Although he considers the mission to be “stupid and callous” he accepts the command and his son also requests his transfer be stopped as he too wants to go on the mission to Mars with his father. Along with Merritt and his son, the crew after the calling for volunteers will consist of Siegle, Imoto and Andre Fodor, each possessing a necessary speciality.

Unlike film fiction where destinations in space can be changed on a whim, real-life missions take years of meticulous planning. We have, however moved a long way from selecting crews based solely on fly boys and test pilots possessing the right stuff. From the days of Gemini and Apollo, emphasis has been placed on crew members being mission specialists, (geologists, physicists, etc.,) We have also witnessed many examples of international cooperation in space since the 1970s culminating in the construction of the ISS and various joint missions to it. The space station itself was brought into space and assembled module by module over time.

In agreeing to go on the mission to Mars, Imoto gives an impassioned speech about the Earth’s need to find more resources. He uses his native Japan’s experience as an example of a country embarking on a “terrible war” having no other resources apart from paper for constructing houses and wood for chop sticks. Without such a mission as the one he has volunteered for, “Japan’s yesterday will be the world’s tomorrow.”

Although criticism has been made about such sentiments being little more than a apologetic justification for Japan’s aggression during the Second World War, there is an important element of truth in the character Imoto’s words.

Human conflict and warfare can never be seen in simple superficial black and white, good vs bad or right and wrong terms. The reasons for and causes of conflict are often complex and multifaceted. The actions of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and a host of military acts of aggression since cannot be condoned or justified. However, a combination of political, social and economic elements can come together to impel a nation’s people to adopt a violent course of action in order to seek redress and find a solution to perceived problems and threats to its survival.

Could a similar planet-wide catastrophe threatening the very survival of the human species be extrapolated from such a scenario? Imoto thinks so and for him missions like the one he has volunteered to take part in offers the best chance of guaranteeing humanity’s long-term survival.

Merritt’s long time friend Sgt Mahoney volunteers to go on the mission but he is rejected on the grounds of being too old. Helping an old friend or the usual case of ageism? Later on in a recreation lounge, the crew watch a tv broadcast from Trans World Communication on Earth when suddenly a special bulletin interrupts the crew’s entertainment to announce the official launch of the ship to Mars. This is then followed by a heart-rending private message from Fodor’s mother and an amusing one from Sgt Seigle’s “two-timin’ tomata’” of a girlfriend, Rosie

Spaceship 1: Mission To Mars

The ship with the ‘highly original’ name! “Spaceship 1” launches on its long voyage to Mars. Imagine being stuck that long in a tin can with such an annoying character like Seigle. That would be enough to push anyone over the edge, never mind having to grapple with the moral and religious implications of one’s presence in God’s domain!

You would think that Mahoney’s stowing away aboard the ship just might call into question mission security procedures, not to mention throwing the presumed pre-calculated weight to fuel ratios necessary for the mission’s success completely out of whack!

During the course of the voyage, Gen Merritt is in evident anguish over his doubts about man’s role and presence in space. For him man’s every move is recorded in the bible, “except for this one.” He questions whether we are “explorers or invaders” and concludes that they are committing “an act of blasphemy” by their very presence in “the sacred domain of God.” By comparison, even a certain Captain Queeg from Caine Mutiny fame would come across as being sane and rational!

Merritt’s son in his discussion with his father suggests that with the Earth’s diminishing resources, the timing was too perfect to be accidental and that the “universe was put here for man to conquer.” And this argument is supposed to help placate someone who is emotionally, spiritually and mentally unbalanced!

Would humanity’s presence in space and colonisation of planets constitute an act of exploration or invasion? In Merritts’ mangled mental and spiritually suffering condition there can only be one answer. However, life is never that black and white. It depends from whose or what point of view you’re seeing things. Our very presence in space and on other planets, along with our interactions with such alien environments would cause them to be affected and altered even in the minutest sense, no matter what our intentions may be.

What if we come across some form of life whether it be deemed by us to be intelligent or not? If “intelligent,” they may have a definite point of view about our presence in their domain. Also the sheer immensity of space itself makes the idea of the universe being entirely at humanity’s disposal laughable. We are after all located on a pimple on the end of the bum at the arse-end of the universe!

As if there is in fact a deity intent on expressing its displeasure at puny humanity’s efforts to trespass on its realm, an external camera suddenly malfunctions resulting in Siegle and Fodor having to go perform an EVA and make repairs.

While they are making repairs on the camera, a huge asteroid hurtles toward the ship. After Merritt performs an emergency manoeuvre to save the ship, it seems as if the danger is over.

As Seigle and Fodor continue their work, a swarm of micro meteors strafes the ship and Fodor is struck by one. He is dead and attached to the ship by a tether: an unnerving drifting admonishment and reminder to the rest of the crew of their own mortality, something no-one wants to reminded of least of all Seigle who cries out at the sight of Fodor’s drifting body, “Get lost, will ya’!”

General Merritt eventually decides to go outside the ship and conduct a space burial for Fodor. The passage he has selected seems to be from Psalm 38;

“{A Psalm of David, to bring to remembrance.} O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure. For thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart …………..For I am ready to halt, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare mine iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin………..Forsake me not, O LORD: O my God, be not far from me. Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation.”

Merritt in his anguished mental state has hit upon a passage from the bible that for him seems to reflect the kind of grief he feels and how he believes that his own sins are the cause of what he is going through and which has provoked God to act against him and his crew for daring to do what they have done. He has now confessed his sins against God and asks for His help to save him.

As the voyage progresses General Merritt’s mental and emotional state further unravels. As he watches the planet Mars loom closer, he declares it to be both “the planet and the blasphemy.” During a routine report to Earth he rants about their mission being either to “Mars or hell.” He even declares that he would blow the ship up rather than complete the mission.

It is a wonder how at this stage the General’s condition can be reported as being the product of suffering very bad headaches and lack of sleep. Worse still, he is left in command of the mission! To make matters worse, Mahoney makes the ominous observation that as they near Mars the planet appears to be “all red-faced and pouting, like she’s angry with us.”


As the ship begins its decent, we have a quite realistic view of the jettisoning of its booster rockets which brings to mind the Space Shuttle’s own jettisoning of its rockets after take-off from Earth.

In one of numerous dramatic scenes that punctuate and drive the film’s plot, the General as he is piloting the ship suddenly has a vision and attempts to crash the spaceship being convinced that their mission violates the laws of God. His son, however is able to overpower him and completes the landing.

After the crew explores their surroundings on the surface of the planet, Imoto grabs a handful of soil and declares it to be good for growing things. He intends to plant some flower seeds in the Martian soil. Suddenly they hear and see a gushing stream of water pouring down from the rocket.

The leak is the result of sabotage caused by General Merritt, who in his deranged state shoots at his son with a .45 automatic. As father and son struggle the pistol discharges, killing General Merritt. Sgt Mahoney, witnesses only the tail-end of the struggle and thinks Capt Merritt shot his father intentionally. He wants to have Barney brought to trial or court martialled and sentenced to death hoping, “it will be slow so I can watch you kick.” Until that can happen back on Earth, Barney is still the ranking officer and therefore now in command of the mission.

Facing an inhospitable Martian environment and having to ration their limited water supply, the crew will need to be able to survive for a year until the Earth reaches the exact orbital position needed for their return trip.

In the face of such a bleak prospect and during the act of burying General Merritt, Imoto plants a single seed in the Martian soil. This symbolic act highlights the prospect that out of the ashes of despair and death, hope and life can find a way to grow and flourish. 

After months slowly pass by the crew celebrates Christmas on Mars. However, their morale is very low due to a lack of water and no contact with Earth, besides having to put up with Siegle’s annoying presence for so long! Mahoney now begins to believe the General was right all along and that they are all cursed. Just as Siegle declares that “only God can make a tree” and asks, “Where’s the water?” a snowstorm suddenly blows-up thereby solving the water supply problem.

When July arrives, it is time for the crew to make preparations for their departure. With the approach of their launch window, the seed Imoto had earlier planted sprouts into a tiny flower proving that life is possible and that Mars can be agriculturally productive.

Humanity’s ability to colonize other planets will be determined by our ability to transform those worlds by terraforming them, as well as to utilize the resources of those worlds to produce water and oxygen. Even our own seemingly sterile moon has the essential elements for producing fuel, oxygen and water for future lunar colonies and missions to other planets. The prospect also of mineral exploitation of other planets, our moon and asteroids by nations and private corporations also appears to be looming ever closer and may prove to be a critical option as our own planet’s finite resources become depleted.

A Marsquake suddenly rocks the landing site, throwing their launch plans into jeopardy. The ship which is now tilted at the wrong angle, needs to be straightened. Barney comes up with a plan to fire the engines in order to shift the sand from under the ship and have it oriented correctly. At the last minute before take off the plan succeeds and the ship gradually rises from the Martian surface.

Homeward Bound

Once in space, Mahoney who is impressed with Barney's heroic actions and leadership skills decides not to press charges against him upon their return to Earth. Rather than tarnish General Merrit’s impeccable reputation and career through court-martial proceedings, it is decided that “for the man who conquered space” it would be better that it was made known that he died in the performance of his duty and had sacrificed himself to save his crew.

Points Of Interest

Production & Background

Director, Byron Haskin was involved with other sci fi film classics that have been and will be featured in this blog. He worked with George Pal on The War of the Worlds (1953) and there was his work on From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

The film Conquest of Space is based on a 1949 non-fiction book of the same title illustrated by Chesley Bonestell and written by German Rocket Society member Willy Ley. Bonestell known for his photo-realistic paintings of outer space vistas, worked on the space matte paintings used in the film. Material from Wernher von Braun's 1952 book The Mars Project was also incorporated in the making of the film.

Originally George Pal had the idea of making a movie involving a trilogy of stories featuring a giant revolving space station in orbit around the Earth from which missions to the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter would be launched. Paramount studios wasn’t keen on the idea of a lengthy space epic, which was deemed to be too expensive. What we were eventually left with was a scaled-down version involving only the one mission to Mars, together with a complicated father-son relationship and the mission commander suffering a mental and emotional breakdown as well as religious / spiritual delusions and jeopardizing the mission with acts of sabotage.

Special Effects & Music

The special effects and the visuals (many taken from Chesley Bonestell’s paintings) together with the impressive sets and props by art directors Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson still make an impact on us today as we witness beautiful star fields, rockets approaching from earth as viewed from the space wheel, the looming fiery meteor / asteroid, meteor fragments bombarding the space ship and striking Fodor through to the ship landing on Mars. All of this and without the benefit of CGI!

Van Cleave who was responsible for the music in Conquest of Space also made music for other sci fi films that will feature in this blog,`The Space Children' & `The Colossus of New York.'

Realistic Portrayal

Conquest of Space at least within the context of the mid 1950s made a worthy attempt at a realistic portrayal of space exploration. Take for instance the “Space Wheel" which is almost a precursor to the current International Space Station. The Wheel like our own ISS has an international cooperative basis behind its construction and function. In the case of the Wheel in the film the crew consists of US and former WWII enemies in the form of Japanese and Austrian / German representatives. However, there don’t seem to be any 1950s Cold War characters from the former Soviet Union or Communist China!

Consider also the the movement of the astronauts through the vacuum of space and the scenes of weightlessness inside the space ship. Such depictions appear to be far more impressive than many other similar film portrayals at the time and later.

Detracting Features

There are certain unbelievable and unrealistic elements of the film that detract from its overall impact as quality film sc-fi. For instance, how is it that General Merritt, the commander of the space station could be responsible for assembling a spacecraft to be used on the Moon / Mars mission and then raise questions about its design and purpose only after it has been completed? Then suddenly the mission’s destination is changed and Merritt and his crew are to leave for Mars and not the moon the very next day!

Apart from his function as comic relief, the character Jackie Siegle adds to his annoying presence by constantly asking dumb questions and making stupid statements about basic principles of space flight that one might presume any astronaut with the most basic of training would be familiar with. Of course this device serves as a means of informing the audience about the unusual aspects of space flight. Still, we can only hope and pray that the laws of physics would change long enough so that if Siegle went outside the ship moving at 20,000 mph he'd be swept off and be left behind! Astronaut Siegle apparently can’t even get his head around the fact that they wont be able to take off from Mars for a year which will be the next time the earth aligns with Mars. And yes, cointainly, they are stuck with him for a whole year! Forget about it!


When all things are considered, what you are left with is a very ambitious and action-packed film that still stands the test of time as being a piece of wonderful sci-fi film adventure that seriously deals with aspects religion and human emotion.

©Chris Christopoulos 2014

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