DVD Review Of First Men In The Moon
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/10/09
The 1964 film version of H.G. Wells’ First Men In The Moon is a film I was never really fond of. Yes, it was directed by the estimable B film legend Nathan Juran, who brought the world such great B film classics as The Brain From Planet Arous, 20 Million Miles To Earth, and The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, but it lacked the great special effects, hamminess, and babeoliciousness of those three films. On top of all that, it lacked the really horrid technical schlockery to propel it to the ‘so bad it’s good’ category either that films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Robot Monster occupy.
But, that was before I saw it in color, released on its Columbia Pictures DVD, part of the five film The Fantastic Films Of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Science Fiction Series. Not that color suddenly made the tale, screenplay, nor acting any better, but, having only seen it in black and white, on a small tv screen and never in the theaters, I was taken aback by just how effective the camerawork by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper, and the effects by the master, Ray Harryhausen, were, starting from the terrific opening credits, wherein shots of the moon are interrupted by colored plashes of water on water. Laurie Johnson also provided a particularly effective film score, and one quite a few notches above standard B film fare. The film was among the last in a series of internationally financed space films, which range from the serious- First Spaceship On Venus and Planeta Burg (later recut into Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet and Voyage To The Planet Of Prehistoric Women, by Roger Corman) to schlock even worse than Corman’s.
The film is a bit different than Wells’ book’s tale, in using the framing device of a then contemporary first moon landing finding evidence of the Wellsian adventure from 1899, tracking down the lone survivor, who then tells his tale. The film ends back in the present, with evidence found that, ala Wells’ other tale, War Of The Worlds, the lunar inhabitants- Selenites, were killed by the common cold imparted to them by the oldest member of the 1899 trio. Overall, Nigel Kneale’s screenplay works, although the film never quite reaches the heights of the best Hammer films of the period, nor the Quatermass films he’s most noted for.
Herein a synopsis of the plot: when the 1964 United Nations lunar party finds a withered and tattered Union Jack and a handwritten note claiming the moon for Queen Victoria (the first of many scientific inaccuracies which fall under the ‘suspension of disbelief’ column, for the relics would be pristine and unweathered- due to lack of weather on the moon), the UN space agency tracks down the lone survivor of the 1899 mission, one Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), who relays his tale. He and girlfriend Katherine Callender (aka Kate, played by a demure Martha Hyer)- a character not in the original book, end up involved with loony inventor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who has invented cavorite, a compound that somehow blocks the pull of gravity. Cavor has a steel sphere ready for a moon flight and plans to take Bedford, who becomes an investor (while seeking to avoid debts on earth) and accidentally they take Kate with him. Their flight to the moon is total suspension of disbelief (they could easily shoot right past it, and what of a built in toilet?), but, upon arrival, where they wear old fashioned diving suits with exposed hands (again, suspend the knowledge of searing cold and radiation), the pair discover a culture of giant insects they call Selenites, who live below the lunar surface and create their own oxygen with a perpetual motion device powered by solar energy. Hence the word In not On in the film’s title. In short, the Selenites are ‘green’ bugs or ‘green’ little men. But, they are well in advance of humanity, in many ways.
The pair escape, after their first encounter where, naturally, Bedford ends up killing quite a few Selenites, but Kate, who was left in the sphere, is captured by them. The Selenites learn to communicate via a translator and their leader- called the Grand Lunar in reviews and the book, but not in the film itself, interrogate Cavor as to the ways of Mankind and learn of war (as if Bedford had not given them a taste of it. Naturally, Bedford soon plays to all the worst fears of the violent ape, and ends up helping to destroy much of the Selenite digs, before escaping back to Earth with Kate. Cavor chooses to stay behind to learn of the Selenites. His fate is never learnt, only assumed by the ending, which connects a head cold he had with the ultimate destruction of the Selenites. As the modern astronauts inspect the ruins, it collapses and they barely escape. Bedford ends the film gazing up at the moon in remembrance.
Overall, while a solid film (however dated), and with excellent visual
and aural efforts, this is not one of Harryhausen’s grander efforts in special
effects. They are solid, effective; but that’s exactly why this film never
left that great of an impression in my mind, nor the minds of other young boys
of my generation- even those who originally saw it in color. As example, the
Selenite leader gains gravitas from the voice of the actor, not because of how
cool looking he is. He is basically a marionette encased in ice. And the giant
millipede-like creature that threatens the earthlings, and is eventually killed
and gutted by the Selenites, is simply not in a league with the effects from
Harryhausen’s masterpieces, like Jason And The Argonauts nor The 7th
Voyage Of Sinbad, nor is it truly frightening. Yes, the Selenites do have a
nightmarish quality that evokes the dinosaurs from Planeta Burg and the
Bogeymen of Babes In Toyland, while foreshadowing the Sleestak of the
1970s era Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning live action kids show Land Of
The Lost, but little is done with them, once Cavor and the lunar leader get
As for the DVD? The film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and not only is the color wonderfully effective (and occasionally sublime), but the remastering job done on the film is perhaps the best of those films I’ve yet watched in the The Fantastic Films Of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Monster Series DVD set. There are also other extras, including some Harryhausen theatrical film trailers, a photo gallery, a three minute long featurette called This Is Dynamation, on the stop motion process Harryhausen used, and an hour-long featurette called The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles. These are part of all the DVDs in the set.
First Men In The Moon is not a classic- not even in the B film sense of the term, nor is it an example of Ray Harryhausen’s best and most challenging special effects work, but it is an entertaining and none too long (104 minutes) diversion that kids and adults can enjoy, even if mostly in a kitschy way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, eh?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the No Ripcord website.]
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