Heinlein's original 1947 novel was about a group of boys who build a rocket and travel to the moon, helped by a mentor who was an engineer (just like the author). Producer Pal optioned the story and insisted on a script that would be as scientifically accurate as possible. Heinlein worked with writers Rip Van Ronkel ("Destination Space," "The Bamboo Saucer") and James O'Hanlon ("The Harvey Girls," "Conquest of Space") and they put together a script that represented up to the moment thinking as to how to get a man on the Moon.
Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) is a rocket engineer whose final test launch of an experimental rocket ends with the ship crashing. Convinced his rocket ship was sabotaged, Cargraves seeks private funding for a new rocket that will use a nuclear reactor for propulsion. Investors are shown a cartoon where Woody Woodpecker provides the basics of rocketeering, and it is pointed out that whoever controls the moon will be able to launch missiles against whoever they want. General Thayer (Tom Powers) and Jim Barnes (John Archer) becomes Cargraves' key partners, but as the date for the launch approaches the bureaucratic red tape increases substantially. So the group decides to launch at the next opportunity, which happens to be in 17 hours (fortunately they have this giant computer to help them with their last minute calculations). Along as radio operator is Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), who provides a modicum of comic relief as the guy from Brooklyn who does not believe the rocket will ever get off the ground let alone to the moon.
The part of the film where they rocket ship is constructed is interesting enough, and the whole idea of sabotage, red tape, and wives left behind are minor distractions. The main part of "Destination Moon" is the trip to the moon where such things as a space launch, a space walk, and walking on the moon are all presented with an impressive scientific accuracy via some nice old-fashioned wire-work. From the time the space ship takes off the movie becomes rather fascinating, so it is clear the second half is a lot stronger than the first and you just have to make yourself sit through it to get to the good stuff.
The film won the 1951 Oscar for Lee Zavtiz's Special Effects, while the Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color) of Ernst Fegté and George Sawley received a nomination. The panoramic view of the lunar scenery was a massive painting by astronomy artist Chesley Bonestell. Again, this is not an argument that "Destination Moon" is the best science fiction film of the 1950s, an honor that probably goes to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "Forbidden Planet" (although it is well known I have a warm spot in my heart for "The Thing From Another World"), but this is a film that is as historically important as Georges Méliès' 1902 "Le Voyage dans la lune," and a lot more accurate from a scientific standpoint. Of course, producer George Pal would go on to make other landmark films in the science fiction genre, including "When Worlds Collide," "The Time Machine," and "War of the Worlds," but it is "Destination Moon" that stands out as the grandfather of American science fiction films.
Destination Moon is a gloriously Technicolor movie about the first journey to the moon. A group of scientists decide to convince private US companies to assist to finance the building of a rocket to the moon before the Russians get there first. To show the rocket physics in simple terms a Woody Woodpecker cartoon is used. We follow the journey to the moon with its associated problems and drama.
This sounds very plain and simple today but one has to remember that when this film was made this was total theoretical science fiction. This film was made 19 years before the first Apollo moon landing. When viewed in this context Destination Moon is outstanding in it's accuracy. The concepts of G forces, weightlessness, airlocks, 1/6th gravity on the moon and the physics of space travel would have been totally alien to most of the 1950's audience. The moonscape created in this film is uncannily true to life, despite some forgivable minor errors in the cracked appearance of the moon's surface and the over brightness of the stars in the sky. The first words of the astronaughts on the moon's surface in the film nearly mirror those of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrian in 1969.
Destination Moon is an interesting and enjoyable little film. The special effects are decent enough especially the weightless characters and the take-off of the rocketship. The pacing and acting are more than satisfactory to provide some entertainment for an afternoon. The characterisation is somewhat lacking, and the four astronaughts in the main journey of the movie are almost interchangeable, but that's true of a lot of science fiction from the period. The DVD print is more than adequate, and the vivid Technicolor is bright and clear. It is not going to be the sort of film you watch over and over but it's well worth adding to anyone's sci fi collection. Destination Moon is an interesting film, if only to see how ahead of it's time it was. Dated yes, but remember that this was made 54 years ago, two whole decades before the first moon landing. Viewed in context it is very impressive indeed.
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