Thursday, February 20, 2014

First Men in the Moon ( 1964 )

Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen, two of the foremost producers of sci-fi films of the 1960s, had in 1963 recently completed their sea-faring mythology extravaganza " Jason and the Argonauts "  when they decided to embark upon a screen-telling of H.G Well's famous Victorian fantasy novel "First Men in the Moon".

Filmed in astounding "Dynamation!" the movie begins in modern times with a UN space ship rocketing to the moon. Amidst cheers on Earth for the historic moment, the very first men walk on the surface of the moon.....but lo! within steps from their rocket ship these astronauts discover a flag - a Union Jack flag.  And along with the flag, a declaration ( written on the back side of a summons for Katherine Callender ) claiming British subjects had honorably walked that solitary surface in 1899....and had claimed the moon for her majesty, Queen Victoria.

Quickly a UN investigation team is dispatched to the tiny village of Dymschurch to question Katherine Callender, but when they discover that she had since died, they seek explantations from her husband Arnold who is now living in a nursing home.

After his initial shock at seeing photographs of the flag he had helped to place on the moon, he relates the story of their voyage.....

In the secluded country village in England, Arnold Bedford ( Edward Judd ) is working ( or rather....not working ) on his play. Always looking for a new way to make some money, he becomes fascinated with the scientific substance his neighbor, an eccentric scientist named Joseph Cavor ( admirably played by Lionel Jeffries ) has recently invented....Cavorite it is called. A liquid substance it be, and it deflects the force of gravitity on any object that it is painted unto. Seeing a very lucrative business opprotunity here, Arnold talks his way into becoming partners with Cavor.

Cavor explains that his main use for Cavorite will be to apply it to the surface of a bathysphere that he has constructed in his greenhouse with the intention of flying to the moon...and of course, Arnold is astonished at this fool hardy scheme...UNTIL that is, he hears the reason why. "There be gold in them thar mountains!" Ah yes, to the depths Man would fanthom for the pursuit of wealth.

And so, in no time at all our merry duo hastily prepare for their sojourn to the Moon. Unlike the book, where Bedford and Cavor remain the only passengers on this journey, the film added a female character - Bedford's fiancee, Katherine ( Martha Hyer ) known simply as "Kate" to tag along with the boys on their ride through space. A pretty addition she is too.

" Stop calling me Mrs. Bedford. We are not married! " ....." Not married?!... Madam ....kindly leave the room! "
Once on the moon we see the handiwork of model-maker extrodinaire Ray Harryhausen with magnificent space sequences, a gigantic brained Grand Lunar ( seated on a throne behind a veiled screen, much like the Wizard of Oz ), a caterpillar-like mooncalf, and a number of little Selenites....which are actually children in suits, so maybe that doesn't count as Harryhausen handiwork.

"First Men in the Moon" has always been my favorite of all of the Charles Schneer/Ray Harryhausen pictures because of the mood it evokes. There is a beautiful Victorian flavour throughout the film and the pre-moon scenes are my especially favorites ( oddly enough, these are the ones that have no special effects at all and make up about 45 minutes of the picture ).

" It's....simply.....imperial "

Laurie Johnson, one of England's most renowned television and film composers at the time, wrote a haunting and atmospheric theme to "First Men in the Moon" as well as a lovely romantic ballad that can be heard softly in the background whilst our characters are at Cherry Cottage and during the greenhouse sequences. The complete soundtrack to the film has been released on audio cd but unfortunately, is quite a rare album to find today.

Peter Finch happened to stop by the set one day to visit his good friend, Lionel Jeffries, and found himself being used for a guest spot as the baliff who serves Kate her legal summons. Aside from his appearence there are not too many well-known character actors with the exception of Milles Malleson who does one of his characterisitc dithery/absent-minded impersonations as the church registar.

" Poor Cavor...he always did have that nasty cold "

"First Men in the Moon" takes us on a wonderful light-hearted sojourn to a Victorian era, a period when the spirit of exploration was at its peak and there were new and exciting worlds just waiting to be explored....and conquered. Some say this film drags on until the scenes when they land on the moon and see the "creatures" but I disagree. But then, that may be because I have never been much of a sci-fi film fan.

Anyway, overall the film is a delight to watch and the recent DVD release has just astounding sound and remarkable color restoration. Details you never thought to notice stand out bright and bold. It is a relaxing movie and what I like best of all about it is the carefree way our heroes go about on their expedition to the moon. They pack a few cans of sardines, a couple of chickens and are off on their way in no time at all. Where modern scientists take months and months of planning and preperation for a routine space flight, Bedford and Cavor simply put on their jackets, hop in their sphere....and enjoy the ride! What comes, comes.

Quite right.....the only way to travel.

Two chumps having a jolly good time on the Moon

This post was originally published on The Absent-Minded Buccaneer blog. 

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