Destination Moon (1950)

Director: Irving Pichel

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t the first film of its kind, indeed it wasn’t even the first film of its kind in the year it came out; after the pre-release hype surrounding this George Pal production, Robert Lippert managed to get his cheaper and faster-made knock-off Rocketship XM into cinemas ahead of Pal’s film. In spite of that, this still represents a landmark in the SF film genre; it had a real SF author on board (Robert Heinlein being one of the screenwriters; one of his books was a partial source for the film) and it looked like a serious attempt to elevate the genre—such as it was by that time—above the B-grade serial level. In spite of which, Destination Moon is not exactly without its own pulp elements; there is a bit of a “boy’s own adventure” aspect to the plot (and it most definitely is “boy’s own”; no one of the female persuasion in this crew!), involving the first rocket to the Moon, which is actually kind of underlined—intentionally or not—by what I presume was intended as the “adult” libertarian subtext (I’ll bet that was Heinlein at work), the railing against government and the insistence that only good old private enterprise can be relied upon to get us—more particularly, the US—to the Moon. And, of course, just look at how the rocket takes off in brazen defiance of government orders not to. (At least by being an independent production, the film did kind of live up to its own political stance.) The cardboardness of the characters, too, is perhaps another pulp hangover, and it’s a more problematic; the characters are so ho-hum it’s hard to invest much in the way of emotion into their plight when they get to the Moon but find they’re going to have trouble getting away from it again. (Good old American optimism and the need for a happy ending presumably meant copying the ending of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon wasn’t an option.) Still, though I have quite some reservations about Destination Moon, I’ll give it its due respect as a genre landmark, and I will applaud the inspired use of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the art of rocket science both to the private investors being asked to back the project and to us in the audience. It’s an unusually blunt bit of exposition, but a very clever way in which to present it.

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