Saturday, April 10, 2010

Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon is a 1950 American science fiction feature film produced by George Pál, who later produced When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. Pál commissioned the script by James O'Hanlon and Rip Van Ronkel. The film was directed by Irving Pichel, was shot in Technicolor and was distributed in the USA by Eagle-Lion Classics.
Four American astronauts blast off from the New Mexico desert and fly to the Moon. They land after difficulties that cause more fuel to be used than anticipated. Consequently, the crew must race against time to lighten the ship for a successful return to Earth.

The film features the premise that US private industry will finance and manufacture the first spacecraft to reach the moon, given the Soviet threat at the time, and then the US government will bring itself to buy or lease the technology. Visionary industrialists are shown cooperating to support the venture.

Destination Moon was the first major science-fiction film dealing seriously with the prospect, problems and technology of space travel produced in the United States, and won the Academy Award for Visual Effects in the name of the effects director, (Lee Zavitz). The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Ernst Fegte, George Sawley. The eminent science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein contributed significantly to the script and served as a technical advisor. Heinlein also published, about the same time as the release of the film, "Destination Moon." a novella of the same name that was based on the screenplay.
The film was promoted through an unprecedented onslaught of publicity in the print media. Seven years before Sputnik, the movie clearly spells out a rationale for the space race: unnamed enemies (clearly understood at the time to be the Soviets) are sabotaging the American space program, and unless the West beats them to the moon, they will establish a strategic advantage to conquer the world.

Destination Moon includes an animated segment of Woody Woodpecker illustrating the basics of space flight. The segment serves to educate not only certain characters in the story, but the audience as well. As a narrative device, this technique has been employed in subsequent films, such as Jurassic Park.

The film shows the rocket being constructed in situ in the desert, and Lockheed aircraft plant in Southern California is shown with workers examining a model of the nuclear spacecraft. Transitional sequences show Lockheed Constellations being assembled. The fictional rocket uses nuclear thermal propulsion, a method that has not been employed in actual rocket launches to date.

This movie was not the first such to hit the screens, however; Rocketship X-M stole its thunder. The sets and costumes were re-used in films subsequently, and even appear in the second episode of The Time Tunnel. Both Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M contain a polemical element, but with almost diametrically opposed messages: where Rocketship X-M contains a seriously intended anti-nuclear message, Destination Moon has a nuclear-powered spacecraft taking off in defiance of a court order, and depicts the court order as inspired by irrational fear. Once on the moon, the crew find evidence that the moon is a source of uranium.

A relationship between the film and Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo exists. In the novel, the astronauts are high school boys led by an older scientist, the enemies are the Nazis rather than the Soviets, and the emphasis is on conflict with them. In the movie, sabotage is only vaguely hinted at, the concept of a space race is introduced, the voyage is a massive industrial undertaking, and the plot revolves around the dangers of the voyage. A common element in both stories is that the rocket takes off in defiance of a court order. The movie is in fact more similar to Heinlein's novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, which according to its copyright date was written by 1949, although it was not published until 1951, the year after Destination Moon premiered.

The matte and scene paintings for 'Destination Moon were created by the famous astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell. Pál also employed Bonestell for work on When Worlds Collide from the novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer; The Conquest of Space, which in turn was based on the book by Willy Ley and Bonestell; and The War of the Worlds, notably the opening

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