Deneb does First Men in the Moon

“First of Earth-men, welcome on the Moon.”

The Scoop: 1964 G, directed by Nathan Juran and starring Edward Judd, Martha Hyer and Lionel Jeffries.

Tagline: H.G Wells’ Astounding Adventure in Dynamation!

Summary Capsule: By Jove! Ants in the moon! I wonder whether Victoria will approve.

Deneb’s Rating: 3.4 chickens out of five.

Deneb’s Rating: There are those who say there is no such thing as coincidence. My response to this is generally something like ‘Oh yeah? Well, then explain [fill in the blank]!’

For a recent example, feast your gogglers on this little turn of events. While browsing the shelves of the local Bookmobile during its fortnightly visit to my area, I happened to come across a portly volume entitled Seven Science-Fiction Novels of H.G Wells. Since I am a fan of Mr. Wells, I naturally went ‘ooh!’ and checked it out.

The first one of the seven I decided to read was The First Men in the Moon, a book I had been meaning to read for some time. Upon completion of it, as is my habit, I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that it had had several film adaptations, the best known of which was an old ‘60’s flick featuring the Master of Models himself, Ray Harryhausen. I swore then and there that I would rent that puppy and review it, just as soon as I’d finished up what I was currently working on.

I do so. I go to Netflix and put the movie in question on my queue. Then I go to check my E-mail, and guess what has just been reviewed on MRFH?

I mean, I suppose it might not be coincidence, but consider this. I come across a randomly-selected book from the main library, which I read for the first time in my life, which winds up inspiring me to watch and review an obscure movie made decades ago that I’ve never even heard of until just then (or if I had, I’d forgotten about it). I go to do so, and someone else already has? If it’s not coincidence, then what the hell is it?

Oh well. Anyway, I decided not to let this stop me, so here we go. First Men in the Moon Review #2, ladies and gentlemen.

As the movie starts, the year is 1964, and a UN-backed group of international astronauts are landing on the moon. (This, I may remind you, was one year before the actual moon landing.) Naturally, this is a big big deal with lots of celebrating back home. Men on the moon for the first time ever! Wahoo!

Or so they think, anyway. Turns out the first thing they find is an old British flag and a decaying piece of paper claiming the moon in the name of Queen Victoria. “First”, huh?

To say this throws them for a loop is putting it mildly, and the UN is soon running about trying to discover the identity of these unknown space travelers. The only clue is the paper, which carries the signature of one Katherine Callender.

Well, they don’t find her – she’s dead – but they do manage to track down her husband, an old man named Arnold Bedford who’s been spending his golden years in a nursing home. Once he’s informed that his note has been found, he gets terribly excited. The astronauts must leave! They are in great danger!

Once he’s calmed down a bit, he endeavors to explain why, and this takes us into flashback mode. Back in 1899, Bedford (Edward Judd) is spending a bit of time in the countryside to write a play – or so he tells his fiancée, Kate (Martha Hyer). In reality, he’s mainly there because he’s got creditors breathing down his neck back in London, and the writing of a play is as good an excuse as any to get them off his back, or at least be out of town until he can figure out something else.

It’ll have to be something else, too, because it turns out he’s not much of a playwright. Fortune (kind of) smiles on him, however, for it just so happens that his cottage is located next to the residence of one Professor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), a highly eccentric character who has just perfected the invention of a lifetime – Cavorite.

Cavorite, you see, is… well, there’s a more elegant explanation in the book, but basically, it repels gravity. In this version, it’s more or less anti-gravity paint – you brush it on something and hey presto, up it goes. Cavor has been working on the stuff for years, and now that he’s finally gotten it right, he has great plans. What are they? To go to the Moon!

Initially, Bedford isn’t buying this, but once he sees the stuff in action, little dollars (or pounds, rather) start dancing before his eyes. Anti-gravity! Just imagine how much money you could make with it! He’s willing to do just about anything to get Cavor to declare him his business partner – he’ll even go to the moon with him, if that’ll seal the deal. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the moon is implied to be a sort of orbital El Dorado, with nuggets just lying around any old place. Purely a theory, mind you, but…)

Before you know it, the two are putting the finishing touches on the Victorian version of a spaceship (or “the Sphere”, as they call it), and blasting off into space – along (due to plot complications) with Kate. There are a few minor hitches along the way, but soon they find themselves at their destination. Yay, the Moon!

It becomes clear pretty quickly that exploring this place is not going to be an easy task. You see, it turns out that while the lunar surface is just as much of a barren, airless wasteland as you’d think, under the ground things get mighty different mighty quickly. There’s a huge cave system that riddles the whole Moon, which contains A: breathable air, and B: bugs!

OK, not exactly bugs. They’re moon-men, antlike humanoids termed “Selenites” by the Professor (after Selene, the Greek Goddess of the Moon). They’re not exactly hostile, per se, but… well, let’s just say that human/Selenite relations get off to a rocky start, and after that they’re not inclined to look kindly upon our intrepid explorers.

Of course, we’re not all that worried about them, since we know that the Sphere does eventually leave the Moon again. But how? At what cost? And why are the current astronauts in such danger…?

There is a term that is sometimes applied to the works of Wells and his contemporaries – “scientific romance”. In short, a sort of midway point between sci-fi and fantasy during a period where the former was just starting to break free of the latter – scientific notions that are more fanciful than not, but are thrown in anyway for the sake of a good story.

First Men in the Moon is a classic scientific romance, and one of the best its author ever wrote. It may not be as epic as, say, War of the Worlds, but it’s adventurous and imaginative enough to draw your attention and keep it, even while Wells goes off on the occasional speculative interlude. It’s the sort of ‘well, we haven’t any proof that it’s not like this, so why not?’ story that makes one wistful for the times when we really had little-to-no idea what the rest of the solar system was like, and the sky, quite literally, was the limit.

So is the movie version worthy of its source material? Well… yes and no.

Just to get it out of the way, let’s start with the ‘no’. To start with, I really wish they’d kept the lunar landscape the way Wells wrote it. Sure, it’s understandable that they didn’t, given that audiences had learned just a little bit more about the Moon in the sixty-three years since the book was published, but oh my word would it have been glorious to see it realized through gaudy ‘60’s special effects. I’ll say nothing more about it, but – read the book, and tell me that I’m wrong.

Speaking of special effects, let’s talk about them. Frankly, I wish there had been more. When most people bring up this film nowadays, it’s due to Harryhausen being involved with it. Well, he wasn’t involved with it very much, is all I can say. When his work does show up it’s good as ever, but it shows up pretty darn seldom – most of the effects work in this movie consist of (briefly) trying to replicate the effects of low (and in one case zero) gravity, and the launching and flight of the Sphere (which, to be fair, are quite nicely done). For a movie about bug-men on the Moon, that’s rather disappointing.

Oh yes – about those bug-men. Just who had the bright idea to portray the vast bulk of them through the use of children in costumes? Not even good costumes – really, really silly costumes, complete with ill-fitting tights and wings. Wings! Why do lunar ant-men need wings? They never use them, and it makes no sense that they’d have them in the first place, being, y’know, underground in low gravity. It’s a nitpick, sure, and I guess the costumes are good for a few chuckles, but the Selenites in the book were so cool that the purist in me can’t help but groan.

One more detail about the Selenites that bugs (ah-heh-heh) me – in the film, they are portrayed as making their own oxygen through the use of gigantic machines. This makes no sense whatsoever. If one assumes that the Selenites are native to the Moon and have never been off it (and we’re never given any reason to doubt said assumption), then what the hell were they breathing before they created the machines? In the book, their air comes from a subterranean ocean at the Moon’s center – why couldn’t they just have stuck with that explanation instead of introducing a plot hole that yawns a mile wide?

A few gripes about the characters aside (I’ll talk about them in a minute), that leaves the ending. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that the film doesn’t so much end as sort of fizzles out, said fizzle depending on something introduced rather desultorily a few minutes beforehand in a way that makes very little sense if you think about it. (Also, it’s a direct rip-off of something else – I won’t say what, but believe me, you’ll know.) The ending of the book wasn’t perfect, either, but it was a heck of a lot better than this one.

So what do I like about the movie, then? Well… it’s a lot of fun.

Seriously, I probably would not have had anywhere near as many problems with this movie if I hadn’t just read the book – or, at any rate, they wouldn’t annoy me as much. Taken on its own, First Men is a classic bit of fluff, a refreshing break from all the dolorous we-must-make-it-grim-or-the-critics-will-sneer sci-fi out there – or, for that matter, the bombastic epics which are really only sci-fi by default (they’ve got spaceships and aliens, so what else would they be?). At least FMiTM is genuine speculative fiction, even if what it’s speculating about is sadly incorrect. It may be a little ridiculous at times, but enjoyably so, and is undeniably sincere in its sense of wonder at the marvels of space. That’s something you don’t see much of in these jaded times, and it’s good to know you can look to older films like this for a little enthusiasm.

Furthermore, while I do wish that Harryhausen’s work had featured a bit more heavily in the film, this is not to say I didn’t enjoy the stuff that was there. Honestly, it’s some of the smoothest work of his I’ve seen, with barely a jitter in evidence – and I suppose you can put that down to the fact that he was able to focus his attention on so few models as opposed to lots and lots, so I guess that makes me a bit of a whiner. Really, though, I could have put up with the jitters if I’d gotten an all-Harryhausen cast of Selenites out of the deal.

Speaking of the Selenites, bug-suits aside, how are they portrayed? Not badly, actually. I kind of wish they’d managed to fit in a bit of the social commentary that Wells invested them with, but it’s understandable why they didn’t – this is basically a family adventure film, after all, and you don’t want to get too heavy. (Anyway, they do at least hint at some of the darker details of their society, which is appreciated.) They actually come across as reasonably sympathetic – they’re not villainous, they’re just reacting more or less the same way we would if aliens invaded.

Now that I’ve mentioned the ‘aliens’ – by which, of course, I mean the characters – I guess I should talk about them, shouldn’t I? That’s what I generally wind up doing, after all.

Let’s start with Bedford, our (sort of) main protagonist. Edward Judd does a serviceable job in the role, but he’s hampered by an element that drags him down – the writing.

Basically, Bedford changes his character completely between the first and second halves of the movie. On Earth, we’re clearly supposed to root for him – he may be a bit of a weasel, but he seems to genuinely love his fiancée (or at least have deep enough feelings for her that he’s distressed when she threatens to leave him), and he shares a few giddy ‘whee, we’re going to the Moon!’ moments with Cavor. The movie seems to be establishing him as a ‘jerk with a heart of gold’ type who will be redeemed in the end.

Once they actually get to the Moon, though, all that is thrown out the window. Bedford not only never gets redeemed, he becomes considerably worse. Theoretically, he’s meant to be the clear-headed voice of reason that keeps Cavor’s head-in-the-clouds nature in check, but in practice he comes off as a short-tempered, ill-mannered brute who snarls at everybody and deals with his problems by hitting them. Mind you, he’s got a bit of that in the book, too, but he winds up being a more well-rounded character who ultimately recognizes his flaws and tries to work past them. Here he’s just a cad, which is made more notable by his differing nature on Earth. It’s a bit off-putting, honestly.

Next we have Cavor, who is quite a bit different. Lionel Jeffries is one of those actors that I’m sure I’ve seen in something before now, but I can’t place my finger on what. Whatever it was, I’ll be looking out for him in the future, because his performance here is the highlight of the movie. Cavor comes across as someone who has so much whirring around in his head that when he tries to communicate it to other people, it all comes spilling out in a babble of enthusiasm. Everything he does is dialed up to eleven – he hops around with excited joy, he yells in anger, he yelps in anguish when something goes wrong. He’s like a great big friendly dog who bounds about and wags his tail and knocks over the furniture – he’d be a bit exhausting to be around, but you can’t help but find him endearing.

This is unfortunately not the case with Kate Callender, a character who, as one could probably guess, was not in the book. Martha Hyer does the best she can with what she has to work with, but there’s no getting around the fact that she plainly and simply has no reason to be there except to add a female presence. Sure, one gets the feeling that she’d be a decent enough character in a different sort of movie – she doesn’t put up with Bedford’s B.S for one minute, and she does seem to be a bit more practical than the others at times – but seriously, you could cut her out entirely and it would change things very little. She never affects the plot in any way, and the longer she’s onscreen, the more I get the unpleasant feeling that I’m supposed to be nudging a fellow male, rolling my eyes and going ‘Wimmen!’ I’ve gotten said feeling from a few other films, and I didn’t like it then, either. Still, I guess she’s relatively innocuous as far as these things go – she’s not a bad character, after all, just an unnecessary one.

Anything else? Well, the overall design of the film is pleasantly Victorian while still invoking exotic interplanetary weirdness, as well as successfully conveying a more ‘modern’ feel when it comes to the ’64 bookends. I especially like the way the Sphere was handled – it’s a bit different from how it was in the book, but in a way that works.

Overall, First Men in the Moon is a flawed but enjoyable yarn that serves up some interesting imagery, a bit (but no more than that) of classic stop-motion animation, and an overall hearkening back to the days when a tale of ant-men in the moon was not only enjoyable but semi-plausible. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a solid enough bit of mid-‘60’s sci-fi, and if that sounds up your alley, it’s certainly worth a watch.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my picnic basket is under attack. I may have to break out the shotgun for these fellas…

Louise’s Rating: Perfect for a Sunday afternoon – a little adventure, a few laughs, ten minutes’ sleep in the third act.

Louise’s Review: I haven’t actually got much to say about First Men In The Moon(I know, right? Praise the Lord and call the New York Times) apart from recommending it as a gentle and charming way of spending a few hours. If you wish, it won’t even take you away from your cooking, emailing, ironing, whatever it is you like to do around your house on a weekend afternoon. Because this really is a weekend afternoon sort of movie. People who remember the 60s will enjoy it, young children will genuinely enjoy the adventure and mild scares, sci-fi fans will want to comment on its place in the canon as a just pre-Neil Armstrong era take on a Victorian romance. It will bring the whole family together and its undemanding nature will help you (yawn!) relax.

The film begins in the modern day, i.e. 1960s, with the first moon landing. Unsurprisingly, fiction did one better than reality, and this early 60s landing is a UN mission, with American, British and Russian astronauts participating. When the scientists are exploring the moon, they come across a rather battered British flag and a piece of paper claiming the moon for Queen Victoria and the Empire. Everyone is naturally rather upset about this “taking the frosting off the UN cake.” The UN trace Arnold Bedford, a very old man in a nursing home who relates to the officials how, in 1899, he, his then fiancée Kate and their neighbour Cavor made a journey to the moon and what they found there. It turns out that Cavor was a nutty professor with a miraculous invention, Bedford a speculating businessman not averse to fraud and skipping town, and Kate a New Woman from Massachusetts who came along by accident after being patronized by the menfolk. On the moon, they discover a civilization of ‘Selenites’ and some really horrible huge man-eating caterpillars. Kate is studied by the Selenite scientists, Cavor has an audience with their ruler (he has a big head and he lives in a green bubble) and Bedford stalks around with an elephant gun and tries to rebuild the space sphere. Now, obviously, because it’s in the frame story, we know that Kate and Bedford got back to Earth. But what about Cavor? What about the Selenites? What do the modern UN astronauts face on the moon at that very moment?

You’ll have to watch to find out. And I think you’ll be a little disappointed. I know I was.

The character of Kate is rather frustrating in how she’s written and how she’s treated by the other characters. She’s not that great to start with, but then she’s lied to and tricked into breaking the law by her boyfriend, and insulted by Cavor for bringing a weapon, and a bottle of gin-and-bitters (apparently this is not appropriately scientific equipment). It’s not nice to see the ONLY FEMALE CHARACTER berated and humiliated in this way. But it was the 60s and we’ve got a lot better at writing female characters and treating them broadly the same as male characters since then… la la la can’t hear you!

But, apart from Kate and the ending, by which point I was kind of doing something else anyway, I enjoyed First Men In The Moon a great deal. Bedford is just so slimy and hateful, the Victorian scenes are so cozy, the science they got wrong is so adorable… The aliens are men in masks in a cave and their technology is based on prisms and crystals, in the grand tradition of classic Doctor Who and Superman. It’s just so old-fashioned! It is enjoyable for that reason! I also must mention Lionel Jeffries, who is simply fantastic as Cavor. He’s a great actor physically, facially, and in particular I like his voice. Definitely check the film out if you get an opportunity and you  like sci-fi before it got too clever for its own good.

“Now look here, for the last time, I don’t WANT any blasted tickets! Yes, yes I appreciate that you got all dressed up in costume and everything, and I want to support the school, but dash it all, I have no interest in your play!”

Intermission!

  • The creatures encountered in the caves are named in the book – they’re called Moon-Calves. There they’re designed after slugs; in the movie they’re more like caterpillars.
  • There seems to be a cut scene or line where the UN are trying to find Katherine Callender – somehow the focus gets shifted to Bedford, but we never really learn how. Similarly, when we first see the Sphere Bedford talks about it in a fashion that suggests Cavor has mentioned it before, despite the fact that we’ve never heard him do so.
  • While the movie pays lip-service to explosive decompression early on, it seems to completely ignore it later.
  • The flag and note are shown to be brittle and delicate with age, but since they’re in a vacuum, they should still be in perfect condition.
  • That helmet must have a heck of a lot of bounce to it.
  • The actor playing Rice, the American astronaut, is pretty obviously not an American.
  • Why does Kate keep mispronouncing Cavor’s name as “Caver”? He’s already told her how to say it!
  • The U.N Space Agency actually exists. However, in real life it’s strictly for the purposes of information-gathering, whereas in the film it’s responsible for the (second) moon-landing. (What makes this interesting is that NASA, who were of course behind the actualmoon-landing, are referenced in the movie. One wonders just what they were doing in this version of things – were they one of a number of groups that provided support, or what?)
  • Notice that Cavor and Bedford lark about on the moon with exposed hands.
  • Lionel Jeffries is the grandfather in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Groovy Quotes:

Elder Bedford: You found them on the Moon, didn’t you?

Cavor: I’ve got a book! I’ve got a book! I’ll go and check! I’ll go and check! Excuse me! Excuse me! I’ve got a book!

Cavor: It’s absolutely imperial!

Kate: You forgot your bicycle!
Cavor: Yes, yes I have a bicycle, that’s quite right. GIBBS!

Cavor: Geese, I adore – chickens I detest.

Grand Lunar: Tell me of war.
Cavor: Tell you of war? My goodness. Well, it usually starts with a whacking great explosion.

Cavor: (repeated line) I’ll explain – I’ll explain!

Bedford: …That is, of course, if it’s not a secret.
Cavor: It is a secret – it is a secret.
Bedford: Would you, um… would you tell me?
Cavor: Yes, I will tell you.

Cavor: Madame, the chances of bagging an elephant on the moon are remote.

Grand Lunar: First of Earth-men, welcome on the Moon.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Time Machine
  • Dr. Dolittle (the Rex Harrison version)
  • Any other of the other movies Ray Harryhausen was involved in
Advertisements

2 Comments

    • True enough, but these aren’t just vestigial wings. They’re full-sized ones that, in any case, certainly LOOK like they’re supposed to be functional. In any case, even if they are vestigial, that could be explained away on Earth, where the species could have at one point been a flying one but evolved past that. The Selenites, on the other hand, have, as far as we know, always lived on the moon, and at no point has the moon’s surface ever been anything but airless, while the interior is largely comprised of cramped tunnels; not the best place to fly in. (If the movie had been a little closer to the book, that might have been another story, but it isn’t, so yeah.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s