From the Earth to the Moon (1958) is a 93-years-later adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. It was only one in a series of at least ten Verne-based movies made within the space of as many years, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The main character, munitions producer Victor Barbicane, has discovered Power X, a new ultra-destructive explosive. Since this weapon is too dangerous to test on Earth, Barbicane in his wisdom decides to fire it at the moon instead. To tally with the Cold War morals of the late 1950s, director Byron Haskin (who also made the ‘64 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which sounds well worth watching) made some plot alterations: whereas Verne’s Barbicane was more concerned with the pioneering aspect of sending a projectile to the moon, the film's protagonist is a megalomaniac warmonger who plans to set up an arms race for financial gain.
The first part of the film consists of him trying to sell the Power X dream to various besuited investors. Unfortunately for us, these earlier scenes successfully produce the effect of sitting through a protracted board meeting. Luckily, the men eventually realise that if one nation buys a rocket, everyone will want one and they will become rich.
As the film progresses, things get more confusing. One of Barbicane's old rivals, Stuyvesant Nicholl, challenges our man to a wager, betting that Power X cannot destroy Nicholl's latest invention, the strongest metal on Earth. A test run is set up, Barbicane gathers a crowd and fires his Thermos-like Power X cannon at a plate of Nicholl's metal. Half the surrounding landscape is destroyed, everyone is suitably impressed and the surprise by-product of the experiment, an ultra-strong ceramic, is eventually used to construct a new, peaceful rocket that will be fired at the moon with Barbicane, his assistant Sharpe and Nicholl on board. (Incidentally the film was made 11 years before the first moon landing happened for real and doesn't rate scientific plausibilty high on its list of priorities. Verne's novel, on the other hand, contained calculations that later turned out to be remarkably close to the reality of operating the cannon he described.)
At the plot's next baffling turn, a love story descends out of nowhere when Nicholl's daughter Virginia outrageously kisses Sharpe. This female character was not in Verne's book, and I'm not sure whether we should be celebrating or castigating Haskins for dropping in a token woman, but sadly, even with the inclusion of the lovely Debra Paget (and what a mighty fine selection of corseted frocks she wears), the film still fails the Bechdel Test miserably.
Virginia is so keen on Sharpe that she sneaks on to the rocket, it takes off with a blonde stowaway on board, and thus begins the 'space travel' section of the movie. If your adrenal glands start twitching at this point in expectation of fantastic special effects and will-they-won't-they suspense, it may be a good idea to adjust your expectations. The moment when the rocket actually lands on the moon – surely the apex of the entire plot – happens off camera. What the heck, Haskin! But it's not all his fault: the studio that originally produced the film, RKO, closed down during the filmmaking process, budgets dried up and the cast spent the duration of filming on a shoestring in Mexico.
Yet it's the cast, if anything, that makes this film worth watching. Joseph Cotten (also wonderful in Soylent Green) is excellent and George Sanders makes a fine rival. If you find yourself remarking on how much he sounds like a Bengalese Tiger, that’s because he played the voice of Shere Khan.
Sadly, despite the strong leads, From the Earth to the Moon was a box office flop. It's probably Haskins' attempt to make the story relevant to his own era that causes the biggest problems, leaving the plot confused and frankly inexplicable at times. It does feel as if he's taken Verne's novel, stuck on a nuclear arms race theme, chucked in a quickie love story and run out of money for special effects halfway through. But give it a go, see if you can make any more sense of it than I could, and if you do happen to fall in love with the film, you can buy an original transcript for $75 here.
Interval reading: cast fact file
Henry Daniell (Morgana): PG Wodehouse wrote this about Daniell and his wife (no kidding): “Apparently they go down to Los Angeles and either (a) indulge in or (b) witness orgies – probably both … there’s something pleasantly domestic about a husband and wife sitting side by side with their eyes glued to peepholes, watching the baser elements whoop it up. And what I want to know is – where are these orgies? I feel I’ve been missing something.” So just think on THAT while you're watching the rocket take off
Patric Knowles (Josef Cartier): was mates with Errol Flynn, and looking at photos of him, may even have done a bit of a Single White Female on him
Melville Cooper (Bancroft): was, according to Wikipedia, “usually cast as ineffectual snobs or crooks”. What a way to be typecast
Ludwig Stössel (Aldo Von Metz): wore an alpine hat and lederhosen in a long series of wine adverts in which his catchphrase was: “That Little Old Winemaker, me!”
Les Tremayne (Countdown announcer): used to work as a ‘barker’ at an amusement park, enticing customers on to the rides with his silky pronunciation
Bonus fact: Jules Verne suffered four attacks of facial paralysis during his lifetime, which turned out to be caused by a middle ear infection.
Jody Elphick is an editor and writer who lives in London. Her hibernating blog is at www.guardiangirl.com and you can follow her on Twitter @theguardiangirl, although don't expect any tweets.