Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rocketship X-M (1950)

Rocketship X-M (1950) was the second of the American science fiction feature films of the space adventure genre begun in the post-war era, in 1950. Because expensive special effects and production value delayed the release of Destination Moon, this black-and-white film was quickly shot (in 18 days) so as to be able to make it to the cinemas first with the story of a moon expedition that instead lands on Mars. In the original 1950 theatrical release, the Martian landscape was shown with a red tint.

It was directed by Kurt Neumann and features Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery, Jr., Hugh O'Brian, Morris Ankrum, Patrick Ahern, Sherry Moreland, John Dutra and Katherine Marlowe. The film was scored by American composer Ferde Grofé. Instruments and technical equipment were supplied by Allied Aircraft Company of North Hollywood. The film is also known as Expedition Moon and originally as Rocketship XM-1.

The Plot:
Four men and a woman, all scientists, blast into space aboard the RXM (Rocketship Expedition Moon) on humanity's first expedition to the Moon, a 48-hour journey. At 112,000 miles into their 238,000-mile journey to the Moon, the RXM's engines shut down because of a fuel problem. There are some tense moments while the crew works on the problem. They solve it with a new fuel mixture, the engines reignite and the RXM tears off on a new course directly to Mars. Regaining consciousness after just a short burst of acceleration, the crew finds it has covered maybe 50,000,000 miles. With Mars only 50,000 miles away; this causes Dr. Karl Eckstrom to "pause and observe respectfully while something infinitely greater assumes control," which made everything work to guide them there. The RXM passes through clouds to land on Mars, where they find evidence of a once-powerful civilization, as evidenced by an art-deco wall-hanging of a face, and a backdrop of a building shaped rather like a dynamo. There has been a planetary nuclear war. They meet a descendant of the builders of the civilization: a mute woman, whose pupils are large as her eyes, who is pursued by other descendants, savage cavemen who attack them by throwing large rocks. Armed only with a rifle and a pistol, they hit no one and two of their crew are killed by rocks while another suffers crush injuries. The return voyage is only a partial success: the RXM makes it back to Earth but hasn't enough fuel for a landing. As Col. Floyd Graham and Dr. Lisa Van Horn embrace, the ship crashes in Nova Scotia. The press are informed that the crew has perished, but a new ship, the RXM-2 will be built to continue the exploration of space.

Production notes:
The explorers wear U.S. Army-surplus clothing, with gas-masks to represent oxygen augmentation. In the first release of the film, these scenes were shot with color tinting, but the originals were lost. In the 1980s, some fans got some body-doubles to dress up the same way so that replacement, matching, shots could be taken using similar film stock at the same sites in Death Valley that were used to represent Mars in the original.
Curious particulars of this film include the trajectory that is prescribed for going to the moon. From standing on its pad, the rocket goes straight up. Once it escapes the atmosphere, it then makes a 90-degree turn. Simultaneously with the turn, the cabin rotates within the rocket hull around a lateral axis so that the floor is always "down" — oriented as in an airplane. Though a few minor objects float from lack of gravity, none of the crew members float due to weightlessness. A meteor storm makes an audible roar in the vacuum of space. All the meteors appear to be the same tri-lobed rock.

The rocket design was taken from the illustrations in an article in Life, January 17, 1949, though not the spacesuits. The structure of this rocket is hollow, having a ladder in the middle surrounded by slender tanks of various fictitious chemicals. It is by selecting from these chemicals in various proportions that different levels of thrust are stated as being attainable from the engine.

Several scenes involving the interaction between the sole female crew member, scientist Dr. Lisa Van Horn, and the male crew, launch staff, and press corps provide insight to 1950s attitudes toward women, both in cultural expectations and attempts to change them. One notable scene involves Van Horn and expedition leader (and fellow scientist) Dr. Karl Eckstrom rushing to recalculate fuel mixtures after their initial problems. When they come up with different figures, expedition leader Eckstrom decides that they must proceed using his numbers. Van Horn objects to his "arbitrary" decision, but submits, and Eckstrom forgives her for "momentarily being a woman." Subsequent events prove Eckstrom to be wrong.


76 MIN

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