1964 was a better year for sci-fi and Columbia’s First Men in the Moon (FMM) was the year’s big-budget treat. HG Wells’ 1899 novel was adapted to a more modern retelling by Nigel Kneal (of Quatermass fame), but is still fairly faithful to the original. Two men (and a woman) travel to the moon in 1899 and encounter a civilization of insect-like beings. FMM also features the animation of Ray Harryhausen. He gives the usual monster (moon cows), but brings the selenites to life.
A modern (1960s) UN moon mission lands, only to discover a little British flag and a paper claiming the moon for Queen Victoria. On earth, they trace the names to an old Arnold Bedford in a nursing home. He tells his story as flashback. He rented a cottage next door to an eccentric inventor. Cavor created Cavorite, a substance which blocks gravity. Bedford sees the money-making potential, so attaches himself to the work. Cavor, however, wants to explore the moon. To that end, he built a sphere. Bedford agrees to go with him, thinking of gold on the moon. Bedford’s fiancee, Kate, is pulled aboard at the last minute. Amid some mild antics en route, they arrive on the moon. Cavor and Bedford explore, finding a labyrinth of tunnels and little insect people. They return to the surface, but the sphere (with Kate inside) has been taken by the selenites. They re-enter the tunnels in search, but become separated when a giant "moon cow" caterpillar beast attacks them. The selenite scientists study Cavor and Kate, eventually learning english. The selenites are disassembling the sphere for study. Cavor is given an audience with the Grand Lunar. He tells the Grand Lunar about earth and men. Cavor’s description of war alarms the Grand Lunar, who decrees that Cavor must remain on the moon to prevent more defective earthmen make the trip. Meanwhile, Bedford and Kate have reassembled the sphere, but need Cavor to get the shutters to work. Bedford interrupts the Grand Lunar audience, causing a fight. Cavor and Bedford flee to the sphere. Cavor fixes it, but refuses to return to earth. Bedford and Kate return. End flashback. Old Bedford sums up his tale. TV reports that the astronauts on the moon find abandoned underground cities. Quick conjecture is that some virus wiped out the inhabitants. Bedford quips that Cavor did have a bad cold. The End.
There is much to like in FMM. Lionel Jeffries almost steals the show with his highly colorful portrayal of Cavor. The matt art, scenery, sets and models are well done. Harryhausen’s work doesn’t dominate, but enhances the alien-world feel.
There is more of Wells’ original anti-imperialism message than anything of the Cold War. The portrayed fact that the first moon landing was an international effort shows a bit of optimism.
Nigel Kneal’s screenplay tries to maintain much of Wells’ original story, but a few concessions had to be made to make a good movie for mid-60s audiences. Rather than modernize the tale, Kneal framed the Victorian story as a flashback within modern bookends. Kneal omitted the frozen atmosphere and fungal plant life, (as modern audiences would not buy that). He kept a simplified version of the selenite civilization, and the moon cows. He also kept Bedford returning and Cavor remaining.
Kneal’s script pulls in elements from a couple of Wells’ other stories. He repeats the trope of the aliens taking the protagonist’s machine underground, which Wells had in The Time Machine. Kneal borrows from Wells’ War of the Worlds to have the aliens all killed off by a simple earth germ. In Wells’ novel, the selenites are not wiped out. Modern folk knew the moon was lifeless, so a handy plague was needed.
Embedded in Wells’ novel, and echoed somewhat in Kneal’s screenplay, was stratified, dehumanizing industrial society. A cute counterfoil to that and commentary on unionized culture, was the scene at Cavor’s house where the three workers argue about whose job it was to stoke the furnace. The metal worker complained that since he wasn’t a stoker (by profession), it therefore wasn’t his job. The gardener agreed that he wasn’t a stoker either. The butler also agreed that he was a butler, not a stoker, so none of them stoked, but all went out for a pint.
In Wells’ War of the Words, imperialist humans get a taste of their own medicine from the über-imperialist Martians. In FFM, imperialist humans go to someone else’s planet. In both the novel and the screenplay, the two protagonists embody classic British imperialism. Cavor is the benevolent explorer, missionary and claimer of places. Bedford is the exploiter capitalist, who puts little value on the lives of the "brownies". This condensed duo of earth-ish imperialism plops down amid a greater power. Cavor and Bedford play out the traditional arguments (benevolence vs. conquest) but Bedford’s view prevails and he goes about smashing their cities. In Kneal’s script, imperialist man manages to completely ruins things — even if only by accident (Cavor’s cold germs). This has several earth history parallels too.
It was fairly common in 19th century sci-fi (e.g. Wells and Verne) to have only men as the protagonists. Post-WWII Hollywood was unable to resist inserting a woman into the character mix. They usually served as simple cheesecake, or love-triangle fodder, or the damel to be rescued. In FFM, Kate is a bit less flagrantly the intruded woman. She is useful to keep up dialogue while Cavor and Bedford are separated. She is a occasionally the damsel, but not obnoxiously so. (Heck, she blasts some selenites with a shotgun). We can be thankful the producers resisted including a cute animal in Disney fashion.
Bottom line? FMM is a classic that no one should miss — even viewers who don’t normally go in for sci-fi. The story is thoughtful, the acting good, and the production very good.
While many contemporary science fiction and fantasy films find their inspiration in graphic novels and comic books, H.G. Wells is still the gold standard when it comes to an indisputable master of the genre. More than 62 years after his death, the film industry continues to steal from and rework ideas and storylines from his popular fantasy novels. Most of them have been enormously successful (The War of the Worlds [1953 & 2005], The Time Machine [1960 & 2002], The Invisible Man , Island of Lost Souls ). In fact, one of the first silent films to become an international success was French filmmaker Georges Melies’s 1902 adaptation of Wells’ First Men in the Moon, released as Le Voyage dans la lune.
TCM review by Jeff Stafford
In Wells’ original 1901 novel, the story, set in the rural village of Kent, focused on an eccentric scientist, Cavor, conducting anti-gravity experiments on a man-made substance called ‘Cavorite,’ and his neighbor, Mr. Bedford, a struggling, debt-ridden playwright. Enlisting Bedford’s help, Cavor eventually succeeds in proving the "gravitational opacity" of cavorite and together the two men depart for the Moon in a glass-lined steel sphere powered by Cavor’s invention. After successfully landing on the lunar surface and exploring the terrain, Cavor and Bedford are captured by moon men Selenites and imprisoned. Bedford manages to escape, and believing that Cavor has been killed, he locates their stolen sphere and returns to Earth. Once he is back, Bedford publishes an account of his adventures and learns from a Dutch scientist experimenting with wireless waves that messages are being sent from the moon by Cavor. It appears that Bedford’s former neighbor has learned to live and communicate with the Selenites but eventually Cavor’s messages become incoherent and then abruptly stop. The story ends with Bedford assuming that the Selenites silenced Cavor because they were afraid of further Earth expeditions to the moon.
Georges Melies’s loose 1902 adaptation of Wells’ First Men in the Moon condenses the story into a brief running time of barely eleven minutes but in 1919, Gaumont studio attempted a longer feature version, directed by J.L.V. Leigh, which added a female character as the love interest. It is now considered a lost film. No one else attempted to film Wells’ story until the early sixties when screenwriter Nigel Kneale, stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, and director Nathan Juran were brought together by producer Charles Schneer.
After securing the rights from Frank Wells, son of the famous author, Schneer approached Columbia Pictures with the project. Despite their initial reluctance, Schneer’s previous successes for them – 20 Million Miles to Earth , The 7th Voyage of Sinbad , Jason and the Argonauts  convinced them to finance First Men in the Moon . Kneale, who had penned The Quatermass Experiment, a highly influential science fiction series on BBC-TV, updated Wells’s original story to include a clever framing device set in present times in which a United Nations space mission to the moon discovers evidence of a British expedition in 1899, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Kneale also expanded the role of the female love interest who was first introduced in the 1919 version. Martha Hyer was cast in the latter role with Lionel Jeffries and Edward Judd being tapped to play Cavot and Bedford, respectively.
In the book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, the special effects master describes some of the difficulties of filming First Men in the Moon. "Along with numerous other tasks, I was also faced with the design basics for a whole alien civilization. Because the Selenites were to be insect-like, I decided that all doors and apertures were to be hexagonal, a common structure in the insect world. Whether it was scientifically accurate was secondary to the consideration that it should look realistic, be practical and above all spectacular. These basics were relatively straightforward, but when it came to broader aspects of the story that included tunnels, lunar landscapes, lens complexes, oxygen machines and the palace of the Grand Lunar, the budget prevented any of them from being built as full sets, so I designed them as miniatures and incorporated the actors with the aid of traveling mattes. For example, the huge bubbling vats that produced the oxygen were three- or four-foot high miniatures. However, these design headaches were nothing compared to Charles [Schneer] and Columbia Pictures announcing that the film, if possible, should be photographed in widescreen to give it an added attraction."
Filmed in the anamorphic process known as "Dynamation," in which live action and stop-motion animation can be combined via rear-projection and split-screen techniques, First Men in the Moon proved to be more restrictive and cost-prohibitive for Harryhausen on a creative level. As a result, his famous stop-motion work was only highlighted in three key sequences the Selenites in their high tech laboratories, the giant mooncalf and the Grand Lunar.
Most of the live-action cinematography took place at Shepperton Studios where a full-sized section of the moon’s surface was constructed on a sound stage for the framing sequence and for the arrival and departure of Cavor’s sphere from the lunar surface. NASA served as technical advisors on the film and the blueprints for their own Lunar module aided Harryhausen tremendously in designing the entire U.N. expedition sequence; it would also serve as a dry run for NASA which would stage a real moon walk for the entire world on television on July 20, 1969.
Less successful was the design of the Selenites. Harryhausen said, "I have never been keen on using ‘men in suits’ as animated creatures, but several scenes called for masses of smaller ‘worker’ Selenites, which would have taken an eternity to animate. So we had to resort to using children in suits. I designed a suit made into twenty-five moulded latex costumes with reinforced sections. Although they were never really convincing, mainly because the children’s arms were not spindly enough to match the animated Selenites, the low-key lighting allowed Jerry [a nickname for director Nathan Juran] to use the suits with reasonable success."
Despite the many technical frustrations he experienced while working on First Men in the Moon, Harryhausen also enjoyed some aspects of it. "Some of my fondest memories during production," he said, "were the surprise visits of several personalities. The first was Frank Wells, son of H.G. Sadly, I only met him briefly, but he showed great enthusiasm for the design and animation, and we talked about his father. Another visit was by one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, William Wyler. He was shooting a film on another stage, and although he wasn’t there very long, I did manage to talk with him, and he seemed intrigued at what we were doing. Furthermore, when British performer William Rushton was unable to turn up for the part of the writ server, we unexpectedly secured the services of one of the world’s top actors. Lionel [Jeffries] persuaded Peter Finch, who happened to be shooting The Pumpkin Eater (1964) on the next stage, to guest in the role. To save time, Lionel wrote out Finch’s lines on the back of the summons paper, which he delivered with enormous enjoyment."
When First Men in the Moon opened theatrically, it was treated by most critics as a children’s film and not as a bona-fide sci-fi thriller in the style of Wells’ The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. Howard Thompson of The New York Times dismissed it, writing, "Only the most indulgent youngsters should derive much stimulation let alone fun from the tedious, heavy-handed science-fiction vehicle that arrived yesterday from England…" The Variety review was more positive and reflected the film’s general reception, calling it "an exploiteer’s dream. Family audiences should flock to the wickets. It is an astute blend of comedy, occasional thrills and special effects work. Film is a good example of the kind of fare that television cannot hope to match in the foreseeable future."
Moviegoers did not, however, flock to see First Men in the Moon as they had previous Harryhausen ventures such as Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Part of the problem may have been the film’s emphasis on comedy instead of suspense or action-adventure and many reviewers noted that the whimsical tone neutralized any potential excitement. The Hollywood Reporter, in fact, proclaimed it "the first space fantasy comedy." Harryhausen was also working with a different composer this time instead of Bernard Herrmann, who was unavailable. While Laurie Johnson’s score is atmospheric and evocative of its setting, it lacked the dynamic range and intensity that Herrmann’s music brought to such Harryhausen films as The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Mysterious Island (1961), among others.
Harryhausen also admits that "…the poster Columbia came up with really didn’t help to sell it. It was too childish in its attempts to point out that it was ‘in’ in the Moon, not ‘on.’" Yet people who avoided the movie missed a visual treat, brimming with rich Victorian-era art direction, futuristic set designs reflecting the Selenites’s world and unusual special effects. "Personally," Harryhausen stated, "I believe it is one of the most faithful adaptations of Wells’ novels, but perhaps the time was not right for such a film, or perhaps the real moon landings were too close. Hopefully, posterity will look upon it with kinder eyes."
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, Jan Read; H.G. Wells (story)
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: John Blezard
Music: Laurie Johnson
Film Editing: Maurice Rootes
Cast: Edward Judd (Arnold Bedford), Martha Hyer (Katherine ‘Kate’ Callender), Lionel Jeffries (Joseph Cavor), Miles Malleson (Dymchurch Registrar), Norman Bird (Stuart), Gladys Henson (nursing home matron), Hugh McDermott (Richard Challis).
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