Hungarian-born filmmaker George Pal became an American citizen after emigrating from Europe. For seven consecutive years his short animations were nominated for Academy Awards and he received an honorary Oscar in 1944. As an animator, he made the Puppetoons series during the forties, then switched to live-action films with The Great Rupert (1950). He’s best remembered as the producer of landmark genre films in the fifties, such as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), Houdini (1953), The War Of The Worlds (1953) and The Naked Jungle (1954), and his background with the whimsical Puppetoons set the foundation for the imaginative production designs for his films during this period.
Pal returned to the subject of ‘serious’ space travel with Conquest Of Space (1955), a film so bad – how bad was it? – it was so bad it effectively killed off the genre until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Not as dull as Destination Moon, it is certainly one of the most embarrassing science fiction films ever made, for which James O’Hanlon‘s script must take a major share of the blame. Set in the far-flung future year of 1980, the story begins on a space station in orbit around the Earth. The commander of the station, Samuel Merritt (Walter Brooke), has been supervising the construction of a huge spaceship which is now complete and moored nearby. Officially the ship’s destination is the moon, but it’s been built with a large pair of wings attached to it – obviously a useless modification in a vacuum – yet, amazingly, the commander has refrained from asking his superiors on Earth why he has been asked to build the wings. No wonder he doesn’t register much surprise when he receives a curt message just before the mission is about to begin: “Moon trip canceled. Your destination is now Mars.” As simple as that.
Also on board the space station is Merritt’s son Barney (Eric Fleming) with a team of highly-trained astronauts destined for the moon. They’re a pretty hilarious bunch of characters and act like a group of lustful sailors from a mediocre Second World War navy movie. This is apparently the scriptwriter’s method of establishing that, despite being highly-trained spacemen, they’re not stuck-up but simple down-to-earth guys just like the members of the audience. However, this doesn’t work, and we’re left with the impression that they wouldn’t be safe in control a rowing boat, much less capable of handling a spaceship. The reason for going to Mars is to see if it contains valuable raw materials. This explanation is put forward by a Japanese astronaut named Imoto (Benson Fong) who, in a bizarre speech, suggests that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the war in the Pacific were caused by Japan’s lack of steel and good food. The shortage of steel forced people to live in paper houses and eat with chopsticks, while poor nutrition made them stunted, unhealthy, and consequently very envious of the rich, healthy, handsome Americans. But, says Imoto, if Japan can obtain all its necessary raw materials from Mars, it’s unlikely that war between America and Japan will ever happen again.
Director Byron Haskin was well aware at the time that he had a stinker on his hands. Years later he told me, “The picture was a flop because the personal story was too intrusive. Our co-producer, Macrea Freeman Junior, insisted that we have this incredible father-and-son neurosis. The father loses his cool and his son has to kill him. Now, a person chosen to be an astronaut is not going to blow his stack. He’s long since been tested to prove he’s not the kind of guy that would succumb to that kind of pressure. Also, we had another crewman killed earlier on and his body is sent off towards the sun. If anything, the whole film was a series of impressive funerals.”
Unlike most of George Pal’s other films, the special effects in Conquest Of Space were often ambitious but, on the whole, badly executed. Early in the film, for instance, there is an elaborate effects set-up showing a space shuttle arriving next to the space station and then a number of space-suited figures ‘swimming’ from the shuttle to the station while the Earth revolves below them. Thick matte lines around the various images completely destroy the illusion. The other major flaw is the model work. The models themselves are very unrealistic with no surface detail, and so badly lit they look no bigger than their actual size, nor are they well animated, sometimes resembling spacecraft from a Flash Gordon serial.
That being said, there were a couple of high spots in the effects, such as the sequence Byron Haskin mentioned in which Ross Martin‘s space-suited corpse is pushed off towards the sun, and the actual landing on Mars. For its day, though, the film was technically accurate in its description of how a trip to Mars might be carried out, which was to be expected considering that the technical advisor was Wernher Von Braun, whose book The Mars Project provided the inspiration for the film. I’d now like to take time to thank Cinema Papers (March 1975) for assisting my research, and I’ll be back next week, whether you like it or not, with a much better film than this week’s offering, I promise, cross my heart and hope to – ahem – and that’s all the time I have left for…Horror News! Toodles!