BR: First Men in the Moon (1964)

May 22, 2015 | By


FirstMenInMoon_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  March 10, 2015

Genre:  Science-Fiction / Fantasy

Synopsis: A trio defy the odds and mount their own home-brewed mission to the moon in search of gold and the thrill of adventure.

Special Features:  2012 Audio Commentary with Ray Harryhausen and FX artist Randall William Cook / Isolated stereo music track / Film Intro by Randall William Cook (4:52) / 1964 featurette: “Tomorrow the Moon” (4:32) / Original Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





According to the Blu-ray’s commentary track, Ray Harryhausen had wanted to film a work by H.G. Wells since the 1950s, but things finally clicked in 1964 when he developed and produced a lively version of the author’s 1901 slim novel, and what remains his only film in 2.35:1 ‘scope.

Wells’ novel is at best fanciful – both the prose and lunar encounters by its oddball heroes are amusing and sometimes rather precious – but its plot certainly gave Harryhausen enough material to fashion a script that offered several effects sequences, albeit much later in the film.

Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass series) and Jan read’s adaptation is fairly close to the novel, with hack writer Bedfordt (The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s Edward Judd) retiring to a cottage to write the Great British Play, but shifting gears and becoming an investor when his eccentric neighbour Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) creates a ruckus developing an anti-gravity coating called cavorite: paint it on something, and it’ll float skyward.

The pair eventually head to the moon in search of mineral riches and encounter a lunar species called the Selenites, who have two social tiers: workers (men in rubber suits) and upper-class overlords (stop-motion animated) who oversee the sustenance and disciplinary needs of their society. The men eventually make a run for their ship but are soon separated, and Bedford returns to Earth wondering whether Cavor ever survived. (In the novel, he did, or at least long enough to send a radio message.)

That’s a severe chronology of the novel’s events, but it’s the backbone of the script, plus some significant changes. Gone are the spontaneous vegetation that erupts when the lunar surface is bathed in sunlight, as are mooncalves, a ridiculous creature raised by the Selenites for vittles.

Worked into the script is a love story – Martha Hyer (The Best of Everything) plays Kate Callender, an American who unexpectedly joins the lunar mission, becomes separated from the men, but is soon reunited with Bedford and returns with him to Earth – and bookend material that starts the film with a citywide chase for Bedford when the first lunar landing (a peaceful collage of Soviet, British, and American astronauts) reveals a British flag and note planted decades before their arrival.

Bedford then explains his expedition with Cavor, albeit with great reluctance as he fears the astronauts may be in danger from the Selenites. The finale is more benign and Cavor’s fate is more stark, but Kneale and Read give Bedford one of the best closing lines in a sci-fi film, and one that ties the story rather cheekily to Wells’ best-known work, War of the Worlds (1953).

Although Harryhausen inserted his own mooncalve variant ( a giant bug that’s reduced to its skeletal remains), the animated Selenites, and shots of the space-travelling orb, a good third of the story occurs on Earth and doesn’t involve much effects material. The impression is a film that’s slightly more adult, but to ensure the kiddies weren’t left out, Jeffries plays Cavor as a nervous Nellie, physically jaunty, verbally awkward, and often gibbering and whizzing about like an insect himself rather than a classically bookish scientist typical of American sci-fi fodder. It mostly works for the film, but Jeffries’ Cavor feels like a distant cousin of his senile Grandpa Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Love interest Kate has little to do, but she broadens Bedford’s character by having to deal with his lies as he maintains the facade of a great, undiscovered writer rather than a hack about to be served with papers for back rent for the quaint cottage he dos not own.

As brisk as the scenes may flow, Moon is less taut and alluring than Harryhausen’s more superior Mysterious Island (1961), in which characters are perpetually pushed into states of great physical distress (by creatures, wiley Captain Nemo, or an exploding volcano). It’s still a strong work within Harryhausen’s canon – co-commentator / FX artist Randall William Cook (The Lord of the Rings series) regards it as Harryhausen’s best film – but there’s pacing issues that delays the launch of the orb, and a meandering quality to Cavor and Bedford’s scenes as they wander through tunnels seeking Kate and the missing orb.

Laurie Johnson’s score (isolated in stirring stereo on a separate track) is very lush and elegant, and features some Herrmannesque use of brass and woodwinds, but he overuses the love theme, recapping it almost verbatim, and adding redundancy to scenes. Johnson’s more abstract cues work beautifully in the lunar scenes, adding extra dimension to Harryhausen’s gorgeous matte paintings which clearly show he could create sprawling perspectives for the 2.35:1 ‘scope ratio.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features another aborted Sony special edition, sporting Harryhausen’s last commentary, recorded in 2012 prior to his death a year later. Cook also provides a personal intro to the film & commentary (being almost apologetic, when he needn’t), and a vintage making-of featurette that ties the film’s development with NASA’s own lunar plans which were still in the test craft phase.

(One intriguing aspect of the film strikes one as practical and plausible:  Cavor’s orb is studded with railroad studs, enabling a landing not dissimilar to NASA’s own Martian probes which used airbags to temper a probe’s landing as it bounces, rolls, and settles down on a rocky surface.)

Sony’s efforts ultimately benefit Harryhausen fans who’ll appreciate the leisurely commentary – it’s not heavily detailed nor packed with consistent chatter, but it’s a decent recollection by a master animator and fantasy filmmaker whose work always balanced entertainment, story, and kid-like excitement with exceptional creatures, forbidden worlds, and a great grasp of milking mysteries to the max.

Twlight Time’s Blu sports a gorgeous HD transfer that really flatters Wilkie Cooper’s marvelous cinematography and Harryhausen’s effects, and the pools of pastel colours, especially on the moon, are just one more coincidental element that ties this Wells film adaptation to Byron Haskin’s 1958 version of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

Both films involve eccentrics travelling to the moon, the injection of a protracted love interest, primordial spaceships, quaint perceptions of space travel (Kate actually brings live chickens for food!), and the use of pastel colours that feel more fifties than antique. Harryhausen’s film benefitted from a vastly superior script, production budget, and director Nathan Juran, who knew the routine with Harryhausen’s films, having directed the lively The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

In fairness, Haskin managed one great film for benefactor / collaborator George Pal – War of the Worlds (1953) – but he fumbled when saddled with Conquest of Space (1955) and The Power (1968), his last film as director. Career-wise, Juran was the better filmmaker, but both soon ended up in TV, with Juran being more comfortable (or maybe more stoic with his final career phase) due to his early years making B-films.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes round out Twlight Time’s release, whereas unique to Sony’s 2002 DVD are a stills gallery, assorted Harryhausen trailers, and the vintage “This is Dynamation” short and “The Harryhausen Chronicles” hour-long doc which Sony repurposed on all of their Harryhausen DVDs, whether it was necessary, or not.

Ray Harryhausen films released by Twilight Time include Mysterious Island (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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