“Space scientists Doctor Ralph Fleming and Doctor Karl Eckstrom conceive the first manned space flight ‘Rocketship eXpedition Moon’. Eckstrom crews the ship with his brilliant protegé Doctor Lisa Van Horn, astronomer Harry Chamberlain and engineer Major William Corrigan under pilot Captain Floyd Graham. After a successful launch, the mission goes awry, as the crew are hurled across space and past the moon by a rocket malfunction, to land instead on the planet Mars. Encouraged to explore by Eckstrom, they find the remains of a human civilization destroyed by nuclear warfare. They are soon attacked by a band of savage, mutated humans, and Corrigan and Eckstrom are killed. The survivors escape back into space, but Doctor Van Horn discovers that not enough fuel remains for a safe landing. She and Graham contact Fleming to pass on what they have learned, and share their first and last few tender moments together, before their ship crashes to Earth. Grief-stricken and stung by suggestions that the mission was a failure, a sombre Fleming proudly announces the imminent construction of RX-M2.” (courtesy IMDB)
A long time ago in a decade far, far away, animator George Pal announced to the world he was making a movie that was meant to usher in a new age of science fiction films: Destination Moon (1950). It did just that, but not exactly in the way George hoped. You take risks when you promote the making of a movie, namely that some bargain-basement independent filmmaker is going to squeeze out a low-rent rip-off and get it into cinemas while your project is still in post-production. Usually the culprit is Roger Corman but, amazingly, in this instance it was Robert Lippert who beat George by more than a month with the subject of this week’s discussion, Rocketship X-M (1950), which I suspect stands for Extra Medium. Where Destination Moon is a well-researched, lavishly produced, politically correct film with state-of-the-art special effects in full colour, Rocketship X-M is a poorly thought-out, cheaply made, misogynistic, black-and-white film laced with cardboard cut-outs and old stock footage. So let us launch ourselves into the evil anti-Destination Moon with Lloyd Bridges, Noah Beery Junior, John Emery – and a woman of all things! – in Rocketship X-M! Houston, the turkey has landed…
Right off the bat I must point out how rare and charming it is to find a movie with such strong basic messages: Nuclear war is bad for you, and women are for making babies. The plot is formulated to hit upon these two points again and again. Truth be told, almost everything about this movie is annoying: The casual sexism, the army surplus wardrobe, the guy from Texas whose only qualification seems to be he’s from Texas and, of course, the flawed science. The fifties did spit out sillier things, but not by much. Doctor Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen) is merely a plot device for the male characters to blurt out sexist remarks during the entire length of the film, right from the opening dialogue. This dooms them all by repeatedly ignoring her fuel calculations but, hey, that was the early fifties. She was there simply to fill a sweater, not to be a useful member of the crew. Sadly, Rocketship X-M was the closest Osa Massen ever got to a leading film role, doomed thereafter to play guest roles on television until Perry Mason got the best of her in 1962. But never fear, there are plenty of other familiar faces to keep an eye out for (ow!).
The annoying Texan from Texas is played by Noah Beery Junior, who appeared in annoying nice-guy roles much like his uncle Wallace Beery and his lesser-known dad, Noah Beery Senior. Junior was perhaps best known for playing James Garner‘s dad Joseph ‘Rocky’ Rockford in the seventies television series The Rockford Files, but I’ll always remember him in an old show called Circus Boy playing second fiddle to a pre-Monkees Mickey Dolenz and an elephant named Bimbo. Yes, Bimbo. You don’t want to know what the wrap party was like. I have no doubt that Project Director Ralph will look familiar to my regular readers. Morris Ankrum was the guy you got when you wanted a Colonel or a General during the fifties. He saved the Earth from Flying Saucers in 1956, The Giant Claw (1957), Invaders From Mars (1953) and giant grasshoppers in The Beginning Of The End (1957) and, in Red Planet Mars (1951), he played the Secretary Of Defence who helps Peter Graves find God (who turns out to be a pro-Communist ex-Nazi living in South America – but that’s another story for another time). For a change of pace he played the Martian Secretary Of Defence in Flight To Mars (1951) and, for the real trivia freaks out there – yes, I mean you – his son, David Ankrum, went on to play Adam in the short-lived Bewitched sequel Tabitha, as well as the voice of Red-Two in the original Star Wars IV A New Hope (1977) – and that’s about as close as we get to a good film this week.
Troy McClure…I mean, Hugh O’Brian found fame in 1955 as the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp. Together with Gunsmoke and Cheyenne, the three shows were responsible for bringing forth the nullifying plague known as the Television Western. Despite its emphasis on character development instead of sermonising, it became one of the highest-rating shows ever. During the seventies he co-starred in a television series called Search alongside Doug McClure and Tony Franciosa. The three actors would take turns appearing in episodes as high-tech private eyes. Well, high-tech for 1972, meaning chunky miniature cameras, surgically implanted radios and lots of beige. Twenty-five years my junior, Hugh still looks after himself, in fact the last time I saw him was as Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s dad in the Ivan Reitman non-comedy Twins (1988). Almost ninety years old, he must be near the top of a lot of dead-pools – floating face-up…for now.
The most familiar face aboard Rocketship X-M is the one attached to the front of Lloyd Bridges’ head, seen in more than 150 films, famous for starring in such television shows as Sea Hunt and Joe Forrester, and for producing hot Hollywood properties like Beau Bridges and Jeff Bridges. Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry, who worked with Bridges on Sea Hunt, first offered him the role of Captain Kirk, but he declined, holding out for something bigger and better than the USS Enterprise. Nothing materialised until a decade later when he accepted command of the Battlestar Pegasus. Late in his career he re-invented himself as a comedy actor, along with other post-prime performers such as Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack, in a series of parodies featuring exclamation marks like Airplane! (1980) Airplane II The Sequel! (1982) Hot Shots! (1991) Hots Shots Part Deux! (1993) and Jane Austen’s Mafia! (1998).
With such a disposable…I mean dependable cast, the acting isn’t too bad, considering the challenging dialogue – a challenge not to laugh out loud, that is. Leaving the atmosphere sounds like negotiating a roundabout: “Launch straight up, and then do a ninety-degree right turn and circle faster and faster until you reach escape velocity.” They don’t just say stupid things, they do stupid things too. They were going to the moon, but they miss and land on Mars instead, but that’s okay, they brought along hiking gear and rifles just in case there was any good huntin’ up there. Actually, they were lucky to land at all, since the guidance system consists of someone looking out the window telling the pilot to tweak the throttle every now and then. The gravity changes directions every time they go through the hatch, and the astronauts give a press conference exactly twelve minutes before launch, which is why Doctor Eckstrom is still wearing his coat and tie during the launch. Oh well, at least he’ll leave a neatly-dressed corpse should anything go wrong.
These and other bizarre notions may make your modern mind reel, but the story is worth it. Will they have enough fuel to get back? Will Lloyd Bridges’ charmingly outdated misogyny break down the female’s icy and totally understandable disinterest in the rocketship in his pants? These and other questions will remain unanswered if you don’t watch the film! But Rocketship X-M isn’t all bad, in fact I believe it should be viewed by any serious movie buff. Why? I’m glad you asked. Here are five good reasons:
1. No happy ending. Admittedly, the effect was more profound when I first saw it back in 1950 but, nonetheless, the tragic finale certainly adds to the film’s message.
2. It’s one of the first films to attempt to portray space travel seriously and, despite the lack of actual research, the film still stands on its own as drama.
4. The soundtrack by Ferde Grofe was the first to extensively use the Theremin, and the instrument has been handcuffed to science fiction films ever since.
5. Although Destination Moon was content to merely tell the story of manned flight into space, Rocketship X-M was far more ambitious.
The whole may be more than the sum of its parts, but it’s still a pretty deep hole. Unfortunately, almost everything good about Rocketship X-M happens in the last twenty minutes, but I hope you didn’t find the first hour too tedious though, because I look forward to enjoying your company seven days from now, to continue our eternal quest to find the second-worst film in the entire universe for…Horror News! Toodles!