(1964) Directed by Nathan Juran; Written by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read; Based on the novel by H.G. Wells; Starring: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer and Lionel Jeffries
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“H.G. Wells did suggest that perhaps the ant men grew intelligence far in advance to the human race on earth. So we wanted that element, and I designed the moon creatures as ants, intelligent ants.”– Ray Harryhausen (from The Harryhausen Chronicles featurette)
Thanks to Debbie Vega from Moon in Gemini for hosting the Outer Space on Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out all of the participants here.
The imaginative worlds of H.G. Wells and Ray Harryhausen’s fanciful stop-motion creations are such an ideal pairing* that it’s not surprising Mr. Harryhausen intended to make a film version of one of the author’s works since the 1930s. It is surprising, however, that Harryhausen first adaptation of a Wells story wasn’t until 1964,** with First Men in the Moon. Based on Wells’ 1901 novel, the story is mainly set in 1899, incorporating co-writer Nigel Kneale’s (Quatermass and the Pit) idea to frame the Victorian-age story with a modern-day (circa 1964) lunar expedition. Nathan “Jerry” Juran, who previously collaborated with Harryhausen on 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, once again provided directorial chores.
* Fun Fact #1: Harryhausen tried to get a production of War of Worlds off the ground in 1949, but couldn’t garner enough interest from short-sighted film producers. His sketches and test footage remain, providing us a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been.
** Fun Fact #2: The first adaptation of Wells’ novel was in 1919, but this version appears to have been lost.
First Men in the Moon begins with a multinational voyage to the moon (a joint venture between the U.S., Soviets and Great Britain). As they begin to explore the lunar surface, their moment of triumph is cut short. They discover someone has beaten them to the punch, with a small, weathered British flag as evidence. A U.N. team is promptly dispatched to England, to learn about the origins of the expedition. The investigation leads to a rest home, where an elderly gentleman, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd in old-age makeup)* relates his fateful extraterrestrial voyage, with most of the remaining story told in flashback. Bedford, up to his ears in debt and hoping to make a quick pound, forms a business partnership with Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who has invented a gravity-defying substance, Cavorite. Cavor creates a spherical-shaped craft for the lunar voyage, and they embark on a trip to the moon, with Bedford’s unwitting fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer) in tow. When they arrive, they encounter an underground city populated by the Selenites, a race of intelligent, insectoid creatures.
* Watch for a small, but amusing role by veteran actor Miles Malleson as the Dymchurch Registrar, who helps the U.N. team discover the whereabouts of Bedford.
Bedford, our nominal protagonist, starts out sympathetic, but becomes increasingly irritating as his incompetence grows. He makes one poor decision after another. He uses his fiancée as a pawn in his scheme to avoid his debt collectors. When he observes the results of the professor’s amazing invention, he latches on to it as means of getting rich quick. Not long after his arrival on the moon, he gets into trouble with the inhabitants. First Men in the Moon employs the age-old cliché in which the woefully outnumbered, albeit morally and physically superior protagonist, successfully defeats the natives on their own turf. Cavor observes, “You’ve certainly given them a taste of human violence.” Bedford shows no remorse for the havoc he creates, or consideration for the consequences of his actions. Cavor wants to establish communication with the Selenites, contrasted with Bedford, who wants to survive at any cost, even if that involves killing Selenites along the way.
Lionel Jeffries shines as the absent-minded Professor Cavor, an incurable eccentric who possesses an indomitable childlike sense of wonder and prefers guard geese to guard dogs
(It’s hard to resist lines like, “Geese, I adore. Chickens, I detest.”). He’s introduced as a scatter brain, but his true colors emerge, once he’s on the moon, facing the unknown. In one scene after a group of Selenites are no longer needed, they’re cocooned and placed in suspended animation for later use. This evokes some mild social commentary by Cavor: “Well, it’s a unique way of dealing with unemployment. Entirely reasonable, I suppose.” That is, until the horrible ramifications catch up, and Cavor and Kate realize they could be next. He meets with the Selenite leader, The Grand Lunar, who decides the secret of Cavorite should remain with them, to prevent more humans from coming. Considering Bedford’s rash actions and Cavor’s unflinching account of humanity’s checkered history, the Selenites’ concerns don’t seem unwarranted.
The most under-developed character is Kate (Martha Hyer), which isn’t too much of a surprise, considering her character wasn’t in the source material (Shouldn’t the movie be called First People in the Moon?). To her credit, she isn’t a mere damsel in distress, and doesn’t scream at the sight of the Selenites. She does her share of fighting when they try to drag her away, and actively assists Bedford with the repair of the sphere. To her detriment, her character is far too fickle. After she falls victim to Bedford’s fraudulent attempt to transfer the title of his rented cottage to her, she threatens to leave him, but her ire is only temporary. Ultimately, she sticks with him, despite the clumsy subterfuge.
* Fun Fact #3: Although the film insinuates that Kate is the youngest, Martha Hyer was the oldest of the three leads, being 8 years Judd’s senior, and nearly two years older than Jeffries.
As with any film involving Ray Harryhausen (he also served as executive producer), the effects are the true star. While Harryhausen created the stop motion effects, he coordinated with Les Bowie’s effects company, which assisted with the moon sets and other effects. As with other film projects, his father Fred Harryhausen designed the armatures for the moon creatures. It’s a little too obvious that the filmmakers cut corners where they could – most of the Selenite footage is nothing more than people in awkward rubbery suits. The animated sequences, which are sadly not as prevalent, are much more convincing, featuring more insectile Selenites, as well as a giant mooncalf, which resembles an overgrown caterpillar. The sets and props are well done, capturing a distinctly Victorian appearance. Most notable is the distinctive sea urchin-shaped moon vessel, with a plush interior, furnished in green velvet, wood paneling and brass accents.
First Men in the Moon is best categorized as a science fiction/fantasy, for playing fast and loose with the science. I’m not an expert in astrophysics, but I question the validity of the mysterious substance Cavorite and its gravity blocking properties. Also, Cavor and Bedford’s moon suits are conspicuously missing gloves, leaving their hands, and presumably the rest of their bodies open to the vacuum of space and any temperature extremes. There’s also a convenient solar eclipse, which temporarily shuts down the city, and places the Selenites into a deep sleep. When the mooncalf meets its demise, the Selenites scavenge every last scrap from the carcass, leaving a skeleton (!). Considering the creature appears to follow the same basic insect physiology of the Selenites, it should have had an exoskeleton, rather than an endoskeleton. Perhaps it was some sort of hybrid, so I’ll give it a pass. And yes, I know we’re not supposed to ask these things. By this time, I think we’ve established Nathan Juran wasn’t Stanley Kubrick
There’s an undeniable sense of déjà vu about the story elements, cobbled together from other H.G. Wells stories. Cavor’s discovery that the sphere was dragged away by the Selenites, echoes the actions of the Morlocks in The Time Machine. Likewise, the film’s ending is lifted from War of the Worlds. There are also some pacing issues that threaten to derail the movie. The story becomes bogged down in a romantic subplot, and we’re almost halfway through the film’s running time before the moon voyage is underway. But despite some creaky elements, there’s much to like about First Men in the Moon. Harryhausen’s always enthralling stop-motion animation and Jeffries’ animated, enthusiastic portrayal of Professor Cavor makes it a delight to watch. It’s a prime example of a sub-genre of Victorian-age sci-fi that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s that’s mostly faded away.