VHS: From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

May 22, 2015 | By


FromEarth2Moon_1958_VHSFilm: Good

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Genre:  Science-Fiction

Synopsis: Two rival industrialists band together for a manned ship to the moon in post-Civil War America.

Special Features:  n/a




Jules Verne’s eponymous  novel and its sequel, Around the Moon, were fused into one screenplay that should’ve been fanciful and filled with plenty of political commentary on the military industrial complex, but being the second-last completed production by dying studio RKO, the film’s budget was reportedly cut down, leaving supervising editor / co-writer James Leicester and director Byron Haskin to make sense of a patchwork of scenes of varying quality, although the film’s failure can’t be fully attributed to a sudden lack of funds.

The script borrows chunks from Verne’s novels and a bit of political punch from George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950) – unless Pal’s film was already a riff on Verne’s unusually prescient premise of military entrepreneurs searching for some new exciting project, now that a post-Civil War America no longer had use for guns, ammo, and protective cladding.

From the Earth to the Moon begins with industrialist Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotton) presiding over a dinner with his financiers, and revealing his plan to build a giant canon that will propel a payload of Power X to the neutral terrain of the moon, vividly demonstrating the potency of his deadliest war toy.

The plan isn’t just to make a fireworks show and lots of money: after selling the device to every leading nation, no one will ever consider waging war since each owner would possess the power to destroy cities (and the world) several times over.

Barbicane’s arch nemesis comes in the form of fellow industrialist Stuyvesnat Nicholl (George Sanders), who plans to use every drop of money made from selling an impenetrable steel to destroy what he perceives as an evil, war mongering devil. A request to engage in a duel (yes, really) fails to entice Barbicane, and a subsequent $100,000 bet that his latest steel plating would recoil Barbicane’s combustible potion fails miserably.

As a small town is erected in the desert for the giant canon that will propel the deadly payload to the moon, Barbicane is requested by the U.S. President to halt all test activities, because America’s allies are convinced the U.S. will use such power to conquer other nations into submission. The message is clear: America needs its economic and strategic allies for future wars, and giving anyone such a doomsday device is foolhardy.

Barbicane decides to reconfigure plans into something more humane: his deadly creation will launch a spaceship which he’ll pilot and land on the moon, an accomplishment coordinated with a light yet powerful steel designed by rival Nicholl, who believes Barbicane may have turned towards a higher moral calling.

After launching into Earth’s orbit, Barbicane’s assistant Ben Sharpe (Don Dubbins) discovers Nicholl’s daughter Virginia (Debra Paget) has snuck on board (apparently there was no security around the ship), but the real shock comes from her father, whose plot to set off multiple sabotages to kill Barbicane and end Power X’s further development will now affect pretty little Virgnia.

The group then find themselves trapped around the moon’s orbit until a nuclear-like explosion breaks up the ship into separate sections, triggering proprietary stage rockets to send newfound lovers Ben and Virginia en route back to Earth, and the elder eggheads to the moon where they can live out their final days bickering.

Whether designed to exploit atom bomb fears of post-WWII America, the burgeoning military complex, or function as cautionary political commentary on rival superpowers U.S. A. and Soviet Russia, RKO’s film seems like an unusual box office gamble, especially when the message – the world is slowly going to Hell – isn’t in line with the sleek escapist productions typically marketed to consumers, messaging positive living through good science and spectacular, space-age inventions.

Pal’s Destination Moon is headed by a blatant antihero whose stance is morally repugnant – redirect arms to space conquest for profit – whereas RKO’s production is a weird mix of piquant critiques and standard melodrama, the latter largely in the form of Ben and Virginia’s clichéd romance. (The two characters were replacements for Verne’s male ‘adventurer’ who reportedly convinces the rivals to join forces prior to the ship’s launch. In the novel, all three men head for the moon in a female-free ship.)

Barbicane isn’t a good man – as portrayed by Cotton, there’s a smarminess to his persona, going as far to flippantly smoke cigars and puff little donuts as the ship’s about to break apart – but unlike Pal’s films which have overt religious tonalities, the endless bickering doesn’t revolve around exploring God’s universe or playing God; Nicholl regards Barbicane as an affront to humanity. Moreover, when the quartet manage to escape Earth’s orbit and head for the moon, the celebrations do not include Biblical quotations, but champagne toasts – a capitalistic salute to men’s genius rather than paying tribute to the unknown beauty of God’s universe.

The rather gloomy finale in which two sets of characters drift towards different worlds is rather unique: neither the lovers nor the scientists are dead, but their fates aren’t great – the eggheads will ultimately die on the moon, running out of provisions if not patience, and whether the young lovers survive Earth re-entry is dubious. Virginia’s prior request to have Ben be at her side should the ship burn up allows for some comfort, but all they can do is look through a porthole and hope Nicholl’s metal cladding will prevent them from being BBQ’d.

As tantalizing as From the Earth to the Moon sounds, what was ultimately completed is a mess, with highly questionable editorial decisions that suggest the film was slapped together by random editors using whatever footage existed. It’s a finished film, but barely.

The $100,000 challenge between Barbicane’s doomsday potion and Nicoll’s steel is a great sequence that shows production money and cinematic scale, whereas the pivotal dinner where Barbicane entices his investors is sloppily covered, lit, and edited with weird cutting points – an early hint of Edwin B. DuPar’s background as a B-level cinematographer, and Leicester’s own background cutting montages rather than dramatic scenes. The same problems also plague scenes in the ship, with cramped camera positions that allowed for minimal coverage, or in one shot, forcing an angle after a breakaway wall was yanked and revealing a couch edge that shouldn’t have been seen whatsoever.

Haskin did manage to create some great colour schemes using pink, blue, and green pastels, but the use of saturated colours also hides lesser sets, and sometimes the complete lack of props and decor. The desert control centre resembles a stage corner with a blank wall and a big desk, over which a pool of green light smothers what’s obviously a blank chunk of the upper film frame.

Nicholl’s address to Congress looks plain cheap: Sanders barks bad dialogue to the camera in a medium shot with just a blue curtain in the background; Haskin then cuts to a reaction shot with Barbicane in front of a red curtain, but we never see anyone else. There’s no cutaway to an audience, and while the curtain colours may suggest opposing Democrat and Republican stances, it also looks like the shots were  hastily filmed one afternoon after RKO’s brass hacked the budget during production.

Other oddities include very few details of the ship’s exterior and launch from Earth; and a repeated shot of the ship with its rockets firing after Nicholl’s sabotage has already rendered the engines inert. Leicester also cuts back to what resembles outtakes where one can see a crane arm holding the large model with flaring rockets.

Many effects look like tests or one-offs rather than refined creations, and the footage is oft-repeated, as in a meteor shower that amazingly never shatters the ship’s observation deck. There’s also a shot of an incoming, flaring orb that resembles a test version of the more epic meteor in Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), but lacking money and time, it resembles a light-studded metal ball in a shot that’s missing some layered animation.

When the budget was still solid, Haskin managed to pull off some significant effects, such as a flickering neon tube grid during the launch sequence; electrified bolts that endanger Barbicane as he tries to salvage the ship’s gyroscope; and aspects of the engine room which evoke a marine-styled technology adapted for space travel. Unfortunately, like many scenes in the spaceship, the set is so cramped, Haskin lacked either wiggle room or much desire to find good angles.

And then there’s the orchestral score by Louis Forbes which was junked in favour of heavily re-edited cues from Louis and Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet (1956) ‘electronic tonalities’ once the ship is launched. Near the end of the film, the sound editors managed to edit select sounds into quasi-musical fragments, over which Forbes (or someone else) added a few ambient tones. Hopefully the Barrons were paid for use of their work, but one doubts they were pleased they weren’t personally asked to score the film’s second half.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, resides in the script’s really banal dialogue, as crafted by Leicester, whose prior writing credits include the clunky (and similarly badly edited) noir The River’s Edge (1957) and Enchanted Island (1958); and co-writer Robert Blees, a scribe seemingly downgraded from A-level films such as Magnificent Obsession (1954) to TV and exploitation fodder like High School Confidential! (1958).

Nicholl’s address to Congress is especially awful – one can see Sanders, who looks generally bored in the film, trying to find dramatic beats in a monologue that makes no sense in the first half – but with few exceptions, all scenes in the ship consist of characters talking, moving to another section, more talking, crisis, more talking, going through doors and up ladders, and more talking.

Like Verne’s second novel, the original shooting script reportedly contained scenes of Barbicane and Nicholl on the moon. It’s likely the material would’ve been interpolated as Ben and Virginia were slowly making their way back to Earth. The only consolation for viewers is that RKO’s cancelling of the planned lunar scenes saved us from further verbal banalities.

Running just under 90 mins., From the Earth to the Moon feels much longer – the dialogue exchanges are really interminable – but there are small moment where ideas click, and Verne’s prescient concepts come close to reality.

How much of the science was tweaked by the filmmakers is unknown, but it is worth noting the concept of a ship with stages meant to break apart during flight wasn’t far off from NASA’s modular craft design; and the danger of a propulsion system going nuclear (even though the word is never used) isn’t far off from the insane Project Orion which the U.S. military was imposing in the 1950s: pack astro-scientists in a capsule propelled by a payload of nuclear bombs that ‘nudge’ the craft forward through space, or off a planet / moon’s surface.

Haskin had previously directed a pair of top-level, effects dominated genre classics for George Pal – the gripping War of the Worlds (1953) and the visually striking but dopey Conquest of Space (1955) – so there’s a big question as to why the film is so sloppy. He may well have lost interest once he realized the degree of budgetary and qualitative limitations being imposed, or he may have needed a more astute, visionary producer instead of Benedict Bogeaus, whose roster of credits were mostly B-grade efforts with the odd, seemingly coincidental use of A-level talent, as with Jean Renoir for Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). Bogeaus also produced Leicester’s other screen credits, including Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) which reunited the producer with River’s Edge director Allan Dwan and co-star Debra Paget.

Because RKO had shut down production in 1957, From the Earth to the Moon was ultimately released by Warner Bros., and remains an orphan film – a movie bouncing around TV and budget video releases from poor quality sources.

Haskin’s film may not be good, but there are some interesting efforts in which he plays with lighting and optical effects that would arguably look more dynamic if a decent print were sourced for a new HD transfer. (One aspect of the set design – the gyroscope which gives the humans gravity – was arguably appropriated and gorgeously ‘redesigned’ in Paul W.S. Anderson’s visually striking but narratively incoherent Event Horizon in 1997.)

Should the film ever receive such treatment, it behooves its producers to make an effort and use From the Earth as a reference point to discuss in a documentary or commentary format the last days of a once thriving studio, and the production problems which remain relevant today when money, talent, and time are mucked up big time.

Jules Verne’s first lunar novel has been adapted several times into films, including Georges Melies’ silent classic A Trip to the Moon (1902), From the Earth to the Moon (1958), the French TV movie Le voyage dans la lune (1986), and the Greek animated version From the Earth to the Moon / Apo ti Gi sti Selini (2013).

Although working from difference source material, Ray Harryhausen would succeed in producing a more polished sci-fi / fantasy where the characters did manage to reach the moon in his 1964 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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