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Film Review: Project Moon Base (1953)

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Project Moon Base posterSYNOPSIS:
“Set in a future 1970, the United States is considering building bases on the Moon. Colonel Briteis (Donna Martell), Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford), and Doctor Wernher (Larry Johns) are sent to orbit the Moon to survey landing sites for future lunar missions. However, Wernher is an imposter whose mission is to destroy America’s Earth-orbiting space station, which he plans to do by colliding the rocket with the station on the way back from the Moon. While on the way out however, Wernher inadvertently gives his identity away. In the ensuing struggle for the control of the rocket, Briteis has to make an emergency landing on the Moon. With them all marooned, Wernher redeems himself by helping establish communications with Earth, although an accident results in his untimely death. In response to the unexpected turn of events, the US authorities decide to make the immobilised spaceship the core of a new moon base. To avoid a scandal, their commander, General Greene (Hayden Rorke), cajoles Moore into proposing to Briteis (so as not to have an unmarried male and female astronaut alone in close quarters for weeks). Briteis accepts, but requests that Moore be promoted to Brigadier-General after they are married so that he will outrank her.” (courtesy Wikipedia)

REVIEW:
Destination Moon (1950), produced by Hungarian effects artist George Pal and directed by former actor Irving Pichel, was unique among fifties science fiction films in having an actual science fiction author work on the screenplay. Together with Rip Van Ronkel and James O’Hanlon, Robert Heinlein himself was employed to work on the script, and it was thanks to him that the more sensational elements were kept out of the proceedings: “For a time we had a version of the script which included dude-ranches, cowboys, guitars and hillbilly songs on the moon, combined with pseudo-scientific gimmicks that would have puzzled Flash Gordon!” In retrospect, this version might have been a little more entertaining than the film that actually reached the screen because, unfortunately, Destination Moon turned out to be quite a dull film despite its scientific authenticity.

Project Moon Base photosA few years later Heinlein worked on another space film, a cheap little production entitled Project Moon Base (1953 often listed as Project Moonbase). How cheap? They used the exact same sets and costumes from Cat-Women Of The Moon (1953) and then had the gall to release both films the very same day! Project Moon Base was initially intended as a pilot film for a television series called Ring Around The Moon, but the sci-fi boom at the time inspired producer Jack Seaman to add just enough footage for it to qualify as a feature film (106 minutes). This was done without Heinlein’s knowledge or consent, and the author disowned the result. It was directed by Richard Talmadge, a former stuntman who became one of Hollywood’s top second-unit action directors, and the screenplay was written by both Heinlein and Seaman, which is to say Heinlein wrote the first version which was then ’embellished’ by Seaman.

Project Moon Base lobby card 2Set in the far-flung year of 1970 it starts with the first orbital flight around the moon being organised from a United States space station in orbit around the Earth. The pilot of the spaceship is to be a female officer named Colonel Briteis (a typical Heinlein touch) and she is to be accompanied by two males, Major Moore and Doctor Wernher. Little does anyone realise however, that the Wernher who arrives at the space station is not the real one but an enemy imposter. The ship leaves its base on schedule but, during its trip to the moon, Moore discovers the truth about Wernher, they start throwing punches and, in doing so, activate the wrong set of controls which sends the ship hurtling out of its orbit. With their fuel almost gone they are obliged to crash-land the ship on the moon’s surface. They survive the landing but are stranded on the moon.

Project Moon Base lobby card 1Relations between Moore and the false Wernher do not improve and, during the erection of a communications antenna on the summit of a moon mountain, Wernher falls to his death. This leaves Briteis and Moore alone on the moon, something that the American media (and therefore the public) finds rather disturbing and, when communication with the space station is established again, one of the first things their commanding officer does is order them to get married simply to appease public opinion. Their marriage is subsequently televised and performed by Madame President of the United States, and the American public is finally able to breathe more easily. Unsurprisingly, Project Moon Base is not a very good film. Despite the tiny budget the special effects and miniatures created by Jacques Fresco are impressive, but the cast deliver their lines with all the conviction of a jury giving their verdict on an open-and-shut case, and the script itself is terribly trite, which leads me to believe that not much remained of Heinlein’s original.

Project Moon Base lobby card 3One of Heinlein’s abilities as an author was to make space travel grittily real and could make his readers feel what it might actually be like to live and work on a spaceship. He was able to achieve this on the printed page, but to recreate it on the screen demanded resources far beyond those available to genre filmmakers in the fifties. It wasn’t until many years later that Arthur C. Clarke – who concentrated on themes similar to Heinlein’s – was to see his work given cinematic flesh by the genius of Stanley Kubrick – plus MGM‘s money – but Kubrick’s equivalent didn’t exist back in the early fifties. Heinlein refused to have any further dealings with Hollywood, until The Brain Eaters (1958) produced by Roger Corman for US$26,000 was released. Heinlein filed a US$150,000 lawsuit against the movie, charging screenwriter Gordon Urquhart and its producers with copying, imitating and appropriating his serialised story The Puppet Masters which had appeared some years earlier in Galaxy Magazine.

Project Moon Base lobby card 4Corman and the author settled the matter out-of-court in an extremely friendly manner: “Heinlein was a good man, as a matter of fact we even talked about doing a film together. He had a novel I was interested in but it was ultimately too expensive for me.” One can only imagine which of Heinlein’s novels Corman was contemplating on purchasing – Starship Troopers perhaps? Would it have been any less faithful than the 1997 film version, which wasn’t even based on the novel but was actually an original screenplay entitled Outpost Seven, but that’s another story for another time. Please join me next week when I serve-up more celluloid slop and force-feed it to you through the boob tube without a spoon for…Horror News! Toodles!

Project Moon Base lobby card 5Project Moon Base (1953)

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