Posts Tagged ‘First Men in the Moon’

It occurs to me that I have never hosted one of your actual parties, which is probably just as well as I have no confidence in my ability to administer one effectively. That said, one thing I think I would be quite good at is mixing different people up to get sparky and interesting results. A, meet B! I think you’d get on really well! C, here’s D – have a drink together! Keep it clean!

Having said all that, putting interesting names together doesn’t always necessarily produce the results one might have hoped for. Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie as a couple on screen? How incendiary would that be? Well, as it turns out, not at all. When it comes to a more fantastical genre, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Ray Harryhausen, genius of stop-frame animation, and Nigel Kneale, famously sour author of horror-SF screenplays, to be natural collaborators, but you would at least expect the results to be memorable.


Well… of course, they did both work on the same movie, Nathan Juran’s 1964 First Men in the Moon, based on HG Wells’ planetary romance of the same name. Like Mark Gatiss and Damon Thomas’ 2010 adaptation of the same book, the movie makes a virtue of the fact that lunar exploration has shifted from science fiction to science fact since it was written. It opens with an only moderately implausible manned UN mission landing on the Moon in the mid 60s – but they are, to put it mildly, startled to discover a tattered Union Jack already there, together with a document claiming the Moon for Queen Victoria and the British Empire.

Back on Earth, the document is traced to Bedford (Edward Judd), an extremely old man who when questioned is happy to discuss this ‘lost’ moon voyage, which took place in 1899. In the flashback which constitutes most of the movie, Bedford, a financially-embarrassed young man, discovers his neighbour, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), is secretly developing a gravity-shielding substance, the potential value of which is incalculable. They strike up a partnership on the understanding they use Cavorite to construct a gravity-resistant sphere and explore the Moon. Along for the ride, as it turns out, is Bedford’s fiancee (Martha Hyer), who really doesn’t make any contribution to the plot and is basically just there to glam proceedings up a bit.

Arriving on the Moon, Bedford and Cavor discover an advanced native civilisation in place: that of the insectoid Selenites. The Selenites seize the sphere and seem intent on learning all they can about the visitors from Earth…

Well, given that Nathan Juran’s earlier films included The Deadly Mantis, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, the least you can say about First Men in the Moon is that it has a touch of class about it, what with Wells, Harryhausen and Kneale all making a contribution. And it’s a perfectly decent, family-friendly genre movie – very dated by modern standards, of course, but that’s inevitable given the film’s vintage and subject matter. The problem with it is that it doesn’t feel like the work of any of the trio.

Mostly this is down to the first half of the movie, which is knockabout filler set firmly on Earth. It takes a very long time for the sphere to launch, and this is filled by some broad slapstick with gravity-defying chairs and comedy yokels, and a somewhat laborious subplot about Bedford swindling money by selling a cottage he doesn’t actually own (as well as simply filling time, this appears to be here to set up some tension between Judd and Hyer, not that they are a particularly dynamic screen coupling).

It’s a bit of a trek to the point where the sphere lifts off, but at this point the film perks up considerably and becomes rather more faithful to the source. The tone becomes surprisingly dark, and the previously jokey relationship between Bedford and Cavor becomes fractious: Cavor is appalled by Bedford’s instinctive violence when they first encounter the Selenites, and Bedford’s concern for Cavor’s wellbeing seems largely motivated by selfishness, given the fact that he’s the most experienced in the workings of the sphere. One senses Kneale’s own natural misanthropy rushing to the fore here: the movie is by no means pro-Selenite, but it certainly doesn’t depict the humans positively, either.

The lack of a real hero marks this out from the jolly adventure films that Ray Harryhausen usually worked on, but then this is one of his films that never contributes much to the ‘Best of Harryhausen’ YouTube compilations, simply because there aren’t that many creatures in it, and no memorable big set-pieces like the cowboys roping the allosaur from Valley of Gwangi or the skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts. The modelwork of various spacecraft arriving and departing from the Earth and the Moon is well-executed, of course, but it’s not really what you expect from Harryhausen. When the giant moon-caterpillars turn up, they’re not exactly a premium piece of work either, although the stop-motion Selenites towards the end of the film are quite nice. (The film switches between man-in-a-suit aliens and Harryhausen animations, presumably depending on how many Selenites they needed in any given shot.)

Another issue is the lack of a strong climax – although this is something inherited from the novel, which concludes with a series of enigmatic radio messages. The Gatiss version got around this very neatly and satisfyingly, but here there is more of a struggle – there isn’t quite the conclusion you might expect, and what is here is suspiciously reminiscent of that in another extremely well-known Wells novel. This is a bit more clodhopping than one might expect of a writer with Kneale’s reputation, and one wonders just how much of the script is actually the work of credited co-writer Jan Read.

Still, the art direction is pretty, the score has its moments, and Lionel Jeffries in particular gives a well-rounded and engaging performance. But the fact remains that this is a film with serious pacing and structural problems, and in which none of the big-name creators  seem to have brought their A-game.

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