Friday, 16 March 2018

The Lost Missile (1958)

An over-ambitious very low-budget film with a Cold War-era message and an over-reliance on Air Force and Civil Defense stock footage

Directed by Lester Wm. Berke
Produced by William A. Berke, Lee Gordon
Screenplay by John McPartland, Jerome Bixby
Story by Lester Wm. Berke
Music by Gerald Fried
Cinematography: Kenneth Peach
Edited by Everett Sutherland
Production company: William Berke Productions, Inc.
Distributed by United Artists
Running time: 70 minutes


Robert Loggia as Dr. David Loring
Ellen Parker as Joan Woods
Phillip Pine as Dr. Joe Freed
Larry Kerr as General Barr
Marilee Earle as Ella Freed
Kitty Kelly as Mama
Lawrence Dobkin as Narrator (voice)

I would recommend that you watch The Lost Missile and follow it up with two classic films with similar themes, Dr. Strangelove [1964] and Fail-Safe [1964]. However, before you begin watching The Lost Missile I would suggest by way of introduction that you check out the following chilling information concerning “Project Pluto.”

Reality Catches Up With Fiction

Project Pluto was a US government program to develop nuclear powered ramjet engines for use in cruise missiles. Two experimental engines were tested at the United States Department of Energy Nevada Test Site in 1961 and 1964. Project Pluto seemed to operate much like "The Lost Missile": a cruise missile (supersonic low altitude missile) that would fly at Mach 3 at 1000 feet, dropping multiple nuclear weapons and destroying everything it passed over by means of a sonic boom and the radiation from its atomic ramjet.

Project Pluto (SLAM)

The lost Missile Trailer

Read on to find out more.......

Spoilers follow below....

The Lost Missile is yet another example of how the Power Elite in society views the bulk of the citizenry as being little more than a collection of easily manipulated slack-jawed schmucks who exist just to accept whatever world-view or version of reality happens to be laid out for them to consume.

The first warning red light in this piddling piece of propaganda comes when the film begins with an acknowledgement of assistance from the Departments of Defence and the Army, Navy and Air Force, which suggests that the film received official blessing and sanction. In much the same way as the power elite in regimes around the world clamour for credibility via the presence of generals and military top brass in photo ops, this Cold War cheapie flick slaps on a layer of “official” respectability and validation.

At least in other Cold War sci-fi films like Invasion USA (1952), there was a clearly identifiable enemy whereas in The Lost Missile, no-one seems to want to even name the potential enemy. All we know is that an unknown missile suddenly appears in space causing an unnamed nation (obviously Soviet / Iron Curtain) to fire a rocket at it when it enters the atmosphere over Russia. The rocket intercepts the unknown intruder and explodes causing it to shift into an orbit around the earth.

The missile now races around the Earth at fives miles above the surface causing widespread devastation below it due to some kind of a heat field that can melt anything it comes into contact with.

The intruder is on a course heading southeast over Alaska, on a line that will take it through Ottawa and New York City and then out to sea. It's traveling at an incredible speed of over 4,000mph!

This first contact gone wrong scenario involving a technological artefact from a supposedly alien civilisation just serves as a reminder to the audience to keep watching the skies as our enemies (you know who) could bring death crashing on to our heads at any moment.

Are you paying attention America? Keep watching the skies for Vladimir’s new (animated) invincible hyper-sonic missiles. And if those proposed talks don’t eventuate or go well between Donald and his little North Korean Rocket-man buddy…..Well……

Meanwhile, at the Havenbrook Atomic Laboratory (standing for the actual Brookhaven National Laboratory) on Long Island, NYC, Dr. David Loring and his assistant Joan Woods are preparing for their wedding later that day. David is a scientist committed to working on the nuclear warhead for the "Jove rocket", the fastest and most powerful solid-fuel intercontinental rocket ever constructed. His devotion to his work has interfered with previous wedding plans. This occasion might prove to be no different as while they go ring shopping, David shows his frustration over how much time is being spent on this task. This causes Joan to accuse David of prioritizing his work over their relationship. Voilà! The marriage is consequently called off.

So, audience, the lesson to be learned is that national preparedness often needs to take precedence over matters personal. There are those who find that personal sacrifices sometimes have to be made when the security needs of the nation are at stake. As for you ladies, it’s no use crying and carrying on emotionally, especially if you are “also a scientist.” Just suck it up and play your subordinate part. After all, you’re damn lucky to even be a scientist and besides your contribution to the nation will come when you inevitably wind up getting married and become a mother!

“Thank God there was a Keyhole Advanced!" 

A radar station on the DEW Line in Alaska detects the missile’s approach toward the North American continent. A patrol jet is then diverted to intercept the missile and confirm its course and speed. The pilot manages to capture a picture of it which is then transmitted to "Conad", Continental Air Defense Command. The patrol jet is destroyed by the intense heat of the missile’s drive when it approaches too closely but the pilot manages to capture a picture of it that is then transmitted to "Conad".

An alert from Conad mobilizes jets from the Royal Canadian Air Force to intercept the missile. A potpourri of Hawker Hunters and F-86 Sabre Jets, and CF-100s meet the intruder and open fire but are unable to shoot it down. The missile simply slices past them, “burning them out of the sky.”

At this stage a message is being given to potential enemies (you know who) that the USA is quite capable of detecting threats coming from you know where and that defensive measures can quickly be put into place to deal with these threats – short of an invincible alien super missile.

A message is also being given to domestic audiences to be rest assured that the authorities have the matter of external threats to the country well in hand. Don’t worry folks, the political and military institutions of the Power Elite will deal with it!

Manufacture one or two potential threats to national security, convey the need and ability to deal with such threats and you wind up having a very happy military and industrial sector. Great for business!

Meanwhile back at Havenbrook, alarms are going off and scientists are running around helter-skelter. Not to worry, let’s have a meeting to sort things out! No hurry, we’ve got over an hour before New York is char-grilled.

At the staff meeting the attendees are informed of the total lack of information as to the missile’s origins and purpose. Known unknowns? Unknown knowns? Known Knowns? What is known is that the missile is travelling at 4,078mph at 24,200 feet high and is producing a heat field at over a million degrees as a result of its "hydrogen drive." It is also presumed that "a high-order magnetic field can be projected from this missile without any damage to itself." It is then decided that the staff will have to be evacuated as they cannot afford to be lost.

We at last we feel fully vindicated as to why such a large proportion of the national budget is devoted to military expenditure when we see our tax dollars at work with a procession of B-52s and B-47s trundling down runways and lumbering high into the air to the accompaniment of military style music. Real American steel and aluuuminum / aluminium when America was GREAT! 

"They are soldiers and officers of Civil Defense. Theirs is the most important job of any right now." 

Lest we become complacent with this orgy of chest-swelling pride, we are reminded of the urgency and need to be vigilant and alert for danger. With the East Coast on high alert and Ottowa and New York in the firing line, the comforting voice of the narrator reminds us to heed the instructions of our Civil Defense Wardens in times of crisis. Such civilian warriors are just like any of us citizens who quickly take on their assigned roles to help their fellow citizens survive. Not a smashed window or looted store in sight!

"The people of the city know what to do." 

Take note potential adversaries: We’ve been busily ducking and covering for ages so we’re ready for whatever you throw at us.

With the missile steadfastly on course and with a full mobilization and civil defense procedures being implemented, Havenbrook continues with its evacuation. Suddenly, David hits on the idea that he can use the Jove rocket to penetrate the missile's intense heat to destroy it as it is the "only missile that can get through that heat fast enough." This would involve the use of the fission bomb "trigger" from an incomplete hydrogen warhead. As David doesn't have sufficient time to construct a full-size atomic warhead, he could in 20 minutes "assemble a baby warhead" using only the atomic trigger fuse, and in another 20 minutes he could get it to the Jove launch site and install it in the rocket. Easy-peasy.

Now this is how life and death matters get dealt with US style. Just get in there, whip together something or other using spit and duck-tape, righty-tighty a few nuts, blow something up and in a few minutes…..problem solved! Works every time… the movies… international relations…..war….you name it!

Next, it’s the turn of the US Air Force to scramble its own menagerie of flying machines to take on the ever-approaching missile of death. Enemies take note and citizens feel comforted at the sight of Sabres, Thunderchiefs and any other jet you can name zipping off to engage the “missile from Hell.”

It’s not long before an air battle ensues with a maelstrom of rocket and cannon fire but all to no avail. The invincible missile almost mockingly and contemptuously continues on its course toward Ottawa where the city is put on Red Alert. As the plucky citizenry fill the subways and shelters they can at least take comfort in the knowledge that Canada is exempt from US tariffs on their steel and aluuuminum / ALUMINIUM!

As Ottawa is reduced to the consistency of grilled cheese, it has been determined that should the missile maintain its current speed and course, it will circle the planet and incinerate populated areas.

With New York in the missile’s sights, the city’s Governor appears on TV where he declares martial law and "Situation Red." Time for reassuring platitudes from the authorities with an appeal not to panic, to proceed to a bomb shelter and that "as long as you have faith you will be alive and well." So, just how exactly are people going to behave when faced with total annihilation in less than an hour? And during such a catastrophe, where will those in authority (the Power Elite) be? Certainly not with the rest of us schmucks!

How should people behave? Well, here’s the answer: at an electricity generation plant the stalwart employees decide to remain at their posts to continue providing the city with electricity despite the imminent danger. So audience, be self-sacrificing like them – true patriots and real Americans who stand their ground in the face of adversity!

Oh, by the way just in passing, it’s been decided to include black Americans in this lesson in patriotism and correct moral fibre and just to prove it we are given a brief shot of a black couple listening to jazz music. If you blink you might just miss it. 

Remember David? The one who’d rather be married to his work than to his fiancé? Well, he’s at Havenbrook fiddling around with robotic manipulator arms hoping to construct his mini-bomb which he claims will generate an explosion equal to "100,000 tons of TNT."

Just in case we’re beginning to forget that this is supposed to be a science fiction film, David encounters his co-worker buddy Joe in the hallway. Joe has learned that David is planning on destroying the missile and wants him to stop. Joe believes that the missile is not an errant or lost intercontinental terrestrial missile but is in fact a lost interplanetary missile originating from outer space! If so, it might therefore have aliens in it. Shut up! Joe tries to convey the wonder of this possibility but David in true unimaginative orthodox conservative mind-think refuses to entertain such a possibility. It’s gotta be the damn Ruskies!

As for the kinds of personal sacrifices being made by the brave boys charged with upholding the nation’s security, we’ve already learned that impending marriages don’t rate as an excuse to opt out. Now, what about the impending birth of a baby? Could we make an exception in Joe’s case whose wife Ella is about to drop her bundle any second, but he can’t be with her due to the lab’s lock-down? Surely, the authorities are not all that heartless? Anyway, poor old Joe is probably just overwrought due to worry over his wife and is just jabbering nonsense about aliens. So, don’t worry audience, those in charge only deal with “reality” so you’re in safe hands by golly!

Now the only thing that’s missing from this propaganda piece is an internal threat involving an identifiable group that can be stigmatized, stereotyped and blamed for much of the moral degradation and turpitude of society. In the fifties, next to the threat posed by commies, that often meant playing on people’s fears of youth and juvenile delinquents.

So, we now have David and Joan transporting the nuke trigger from the lab to the rocket base in a Jeep. As they speed through the deserted streets of Long Island, Joan expresses the wish that they hadn't told anyone about the lost missile in the belief that it would be better that they died quickly and had been spared the panic. Ah yes, so much better to supress the truth and strip people of the right to know!

Suddenly, not far from the Jove rocket base, the pair are waylaid by a group of leather jacket-wearing juvenile delinquents who steal their jeep to replace their broken-down hotrod. Just to reinforce any prejudices the audience may have; the young hoods beat the shizenhowzer out of David as one of the punks attempts to have a go at sticking his tongue down Joan’s throat. What is wrong with the youth of today? Ah yes….no moral fibre….no sense of civic and patriotic duty……and so on….and so on…….for sixty more years.

After hitching a ride with a fortuitously passing driver, David and Joan soon come across the Jeep along with the dead bodies of the young hoods. It appears that they died from plutonium radiation soon after opening the box in the back of the Jeep.

In a supreme act of self-sacrifice, David acts quickly to get hold of the trigger in order to get it to the rocket and hopefully save the world. This self-sacrificial act of David’s causes his earlier marriage planning sacrifice to pale in significance and highlights the selfish un-American nature of the actions of the juvenile delinquents. David, while protecting his eyes, grabs the trigger and places it back in the box. He knows full well that he is a dead man walking and so does Joan who screams in futile anguish while standing alone in the road as David drives off towards his final destination.

Jove is on final countdown to launch and David needs to get the warhead to the Jove rocket launch site in time.

With just four minutes until the launch of Jove, David speeds through the front gate.

With just three minutes to spare, he gets to the launch site where makes use of a lift to ascend to the rocket’s nosecone.

With just two minutes remaining, David reaches the nosecone, opens the hatch and places the box containing the trigger inside. The plutonium core is extracted and placed on an upper level.

As David succumbs to the radiation poisoning on the lift, the Jove rocket launches and magically morphs into a V-2, then a Redstone rocket and then into something straight from science fiction!

Close to the interception point, the rocket’s warhead launches towards its target. The impact is indicated by the use of atomic test stock footage accompanied by the swelling stirring sounds of organ music.

A final clear message to would-be enemies: Watch out! We have technology that can match and exceed anything you care to throw at us. Hang on! It sounds a lot like the kind of impression the Russians were trying to convey with the recent announcement of a new hyper-sonic missile that is supposed to be able to evade detection and is a match for anything in the US arsenal. Power Elites from different eras and in different countries with similar world views and speaking the same language all vying to gain support of and influence over the majority of us schmucks.

The film ends as Joan screams in anguish and the question as to whether David's ultimate sacrifice was worth it is answered in neat ribbon bow fashion with people emerging from shelters and life able to continue 
as normal. 

Full Movie


Points of Interest

The Lost Missile was originally intended to be directed by William A. Berke, who was also executive producer of the film. When William Berke died of a sudden heart attack on the first day of shooting, his son Lester Wm. Berke (creator of the original story) took over the direction.

The Lost Missile is certainly a propaganda film with a patriotic theme highlighting to domestic and international audiences how the nation’s military protects the country’s borders and how its citizens are prepared to endure and sacrifice anything in the face of adversity. Even in more modern times. Political leaders will play on such sentiments for political advantage.

Such messages are certainly not confined to western democracies like the US. Political and military Power Elites around the world will espouse such sentiments and propaganda through various forms of media. The world view and perception of reality is similar whether it emanates from the Power Elite of democracies warped by powerful vested interest groups, corporations and paid for by wealth; from the Power Elite of sham democracies maintained by powerful oligarchs, criminals and brutality; from the Power Elite of one party dictatorships enforced by repression and fear and from the Power Elite who depend on the largess of self-appointed leaders for life for whom the word “democracy” is just another word to use to distract the ruled.

Of course, The Lost Missile ought to be viewed in the context of the Cold War, where such films served to influence and control domestic public opinion, as well as send a clear message to overseas adversaries. At the time there would have been concern over Soviet development of nuclear weapons and their advancements in space technology. The use of film as propaganda would have been an effective Cold War weapon to help counter some the fears being felt about being overtaken by the enemy.

The Lost Missile is at least relatively fast-paced, with all the action taking place in apparent real time – over the course of about one day in a 70-minute film. It is also delivered in a kind of effective pseudo-documentary style which provides a genuine sense of tension throughout the film as the minutes click by. Unfortunately, important aspects of character and dialogue are sacrificed in favour of an inundation of "stock footage” shots of bombers and jet fighters.

The film certainly has a blatant Cold War era propaganda message, but how many films and TV series these days could we name that seem to tow the official line, that one could swear have been given CIA & FBI support and approval and that strive to present an officially endorsed world-view featuring whatever view of reality is favoured by our political elite and often featuring whatever enemy flavour of the month happens to be in vogue?

Unlike what was portrayed in the film, far from fearing young hoodlums and despairing over the youth of today, we should take heart in the fact that more young people around the world are prepared to take direct action and take to the streets armed with new media to confront and change the kind of world view or version of reality they see being forced on them by an increasingly irrelevant Power Elite. We are all in danger of being caught and trapped within the demented psyche of the planet’s Power Elite…..

©Chris Christopoulos 2018


  1. Great breakdown on the movie...but I'll still confess that it scared the living snot out of me when I saw it in 1959.

    1. Yes, and in that respect the film succeeded! The man with the X-ray eyes had the same effect on me when I saw it in the '60's