(4/10) Back with his fourth science fiction epic, George Pal sets out to explore the mental and theological aspects of a trip to Mars. Good ideas abound, but the movie is scuttled by ham-fisted script. The special effects are very ambitious and impressive when they work. Unfortunately they don’t work most of the time, leaving us with flickering composites and thick matte lines. Pal’s idea of bringing humour into the mix is making one of the astronauts a dim-witted Brooklyn stand-up comedian. Fun to watch, but ultimately disappointing.
Conquest of Space (1955, USA). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by: James O’Hanlon, Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates. Based on the books Conquest of Space by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Lay and The Mars Project by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield, William Hopper, Benson Fong, Ross Martin. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures.
IMDb rating: 5.8/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
If someone asks you who was the most important person for the popularisation of science fiction films in the fifties, there can really only be one answer, and that’s producer George Pal. It was Pal’s extremely ambitious and visionary, albeit horribly flawed, independent film Destination Moon (1950, review) that kicked off the whole sci-fi craze. Likewise, it has been claimed that it was his 1955 movie Conquest of Space that killed it. This is a questionable statement, since some of the best sci-fi films of the fifties were still to come after Conquest of Space. And furthermore, even though it has been described as a horrible flop when it came out, it actually didn’t do all that badly. It made a million dollars at the US box office, essentially making back its shooting budget. That is not to deny that it is, at so many levels, a deeply flawed film.
George Pal, or György Pál, was the soft-spoken Hungarian animator who rose to fame for his brilliant Puppetoons animations and produced some of the most ambitious genre films of the fifties. He had three slam-dunks in a row in the early fifties, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide (1952, review) and The War of the Worlds (1953, review), the later two for major studio Paramount. After the tremendous success of the special effects extravaganza The War of the World, he was ”upgraded” by Paramount, meaning that he was given access to real movie stars, and by default that meant that his next films weren’t science fiction films. In 1953 he produced Houdini with Tony Curtis, and in 1954 he made the awesome ant-pocalypse film The Naked Jungle with Charlton Heston, by some considered to be his best film. However, throughout this time he was constantly working on his new space epic, Conquest of Space, which he probably planned as his biggest and best production, despite the fact that his budget from The War of the Worlds was halved.
The idea for the film came from a book with the same name by German-American science writer Willy Ley and astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell. Ley was a science writer and rocketry expert who, among other things, designed much of the rocket for Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929, review) along with Hermann Oberth. In the US, he often contributed non-fiction articles to sci-fi magazines, and wrote a number of books about the exploration of space, and about his other great interests, animals – he is something of a household name within the field of cryptozoology. Bonestell, on the other hand, was famous for his paintings of outer space, drawing on the latest scientific theories and evidence to accurately portray what space, the moon and other planets would look like. He often worked (sometimes uncredited) on science fiction films, in particular the films by George Pal. One of his pet peeves was that the filmmakers never got the surfaces of other planets or the moon right. Another book Pal drew inspiration from was renowned German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun’s The Mars Project, which gave a detailed scientific description of an expedition to Mars. von Braun is of course known as the man who invented the V2 rocket for the Nazis and the Saturn V for the US, and later became an integral individual for NASA:s space program.
However, these were non-fiction books, and Pal needed fictional drama to make a film, so he started culling scripts. According to Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies, four entirely different scripts were made. First up was Barré Lyndon, who had also worked on The War of the Worlds. His script detailed the building of a space station and a rocket mishap which leads to a rescue mission to one of the moons of Jupiter. Steeped in both anti-Communist and anti-Nazi sentiment, but still a decent script according to Warren, who’s read all four. The second one was made by Philip Yordan, who had previously worked with Pal on Houdini. According to Warren it’s an ”extravaganza of idiocy” involving a mission to Mercury. It does contain the space wheel, used in the final script. The third script was perhaps the best, writes Warren, done by mystery author and screenwriter George Worthing Yates. Yates had done the first draft for the original giant bug film Them! (1954, review), and would go on to become perhaps the most prolific sci-fi screenwriter of the fifites, contributing to It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Flame Barrier (1958), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Space Master X-7 (1958), Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958) . Yates worked from Yordan’s ideas, but without the idiocy. According to Warren, this was probably the best of the four scripts, apart from the fact that a mission to Mercury would certainly be a tall order, considering the temperature on the planet.
The final script was done by James Hanlon, who had also finalised the script for Destination Moon, and was primarily known as a comedy writer. With this in mind, it is interesting how unfunny both movies are – or rather how their misguided attempts at comedy fair so hair-raisingly bad in the movies.
The director of choice was Byron Haskin, former cinematographer and special effects man, who had directed Pal’s best films at that point: The War of the Worlds and The Naked Jungle. In later interviews, Haskin has revealed that he knew the script wouldn’t work, partly due to execs at Paramount insisting on a glued-on father-son subplot between the commander of the space station and the main protagonist.
As so often, some the ideas in the script are sound ones, despite not necessarily being scientifically feasible. When boiled down to its core, the script sets out to portray not only the practical problem concerning space exploration, but also the psychological ones. It even goes to the length of trying to discuss the philosophical (or in this case, theological) questions surrounding space exploration. The problem is that it does it so clumsily.
So, despite all this ado, let us get to the plot. The first part of the film takes place on a rotating space station, much like the one seen later in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Here we meet a group of specially selected super-trainees who have volunteered for a one-year training and conditioning mission on the station with the object of becoming the crew for the first planned moon landing. These include all-American Roy Cooper (William Redfield), Japanese Imoto, who lacks a first name (Benson Fong), Austrian Andre Fodor (Ross Martrin), Brooklynite joker Jackie Siegel (Phil Foster). These men (yes, they’re all men) have been living without privacy for a year withing the confines of the station, training and getting to know the moon rocket, and eating a diet of pills in order to precisely control the nutrition intake.
The film shows part of the training, where Cooper becomes paralysed with ”space fatigue” and is deemed unfit to continue his mission. We see some of the perils of space, as the station is bombarded by a meteor shower, and witness the strange dinner where the trainees eat pills that are both strangely accurate and inaccurate. For example there is a pill for roast beef, which seems a strangely accurate recipe for condensing into a pill, but on the other hand, if you want to keep count of your calories and vitamins, ”roast beef” really doesn’t tell you very much. There’s also pills for coffee, but if you want milk and sugar, you must eat two separate pills. (I can’t shake the idea that that the roast beef is a throwback to the 1930 sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine [review], where El Brendel eats a three-course meal in the form of a pill, and complains that the roast beef is a bit chewy.)
But one fine morning, the space station gets an important visitor from Earth, it is Dr. George Fenton (William Hopper), who is there to tell them that their mission has changed. Instead of going to the moon, they will go to Mars, because that was the plan all along, and the moon was really just a stepping stone.
This doesn’t go down too well with grumpy General Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke), who thinks this is pure lunacy. We have met Merritt before, he is the man who oversaw the construction of the space station, and is now in charge of it. While all of the crew aboard are volunteers, there is one person who is there against his will, Merritt’s son and second in command, Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming), who has even put in a request for transfer to Earth, but been denied by his father. However, now when things get tough, Barney shows true loyalty and rips up the transfer request.
Since Mars wasn’t the mission, General Sam asks for volunteers, even though he thinks the mission is crazy. But up steps Japanese Imoto, to tell the viewers why it is important for humanity to go to Mars, and in the process he delivers one of the most bizarre speeches in movie history. Remember, WWII was still in fresh memory, and even having a Japanese crew member on a – basically American – space mission was in itself quite a statement from Pal. But the film completely trashes this goodwill by having Imoto explain that the reason for their attack on Pearl Harbour was the fact that the Japanese ate with chopsticks and lived in paper houses. The reason for this being that Japan had no metal to make eating utensils or wood to build houses. They also didn’t have any food, that’s why they are so small. Japan’s past, Imoto explains, will be the world’s future unless we can colonise Mars for resources.
That settles it, and off they go, the crew consisting of Merritt Sr. and Jr., Imoto, wise-cracking Siedel and Fodor. But there’s also a stow-away, Irish Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy), whose loyalty to Gen. Merritt is such that he wouldn’t be left behind, despite being told he is too old for the mission, and the rocket can only fit five people.
A few mishaps along the way: the obligatory near-hit with a meteor (that looks a bit like a big glowing ball of spaghetti), and the death of one of the astronauts as he gets pelted with meteors. The bad luck continues when General Sam goes off the rails and suddenly becomes a raving religious madman, spouting that God does not want man to explore space, and that the mission is an abomination, and tries to crash the space shuttle and kill the crew. Jr. saves the day at the last minute. But instead of locking the mad general in a cupboard, they leave him free to almost completely drain the shuttle’s water and fuel tanks, before being stopped by his son, at which point he pulls a gun on Barney, but accidentally shoots himself while wrestling with his son. The struggle is seen by Sgt. Mahoney, and despite the fact that he sees just what the audience sees, which is clearly that Gen. Merritt was batshit crazy and was going to kill everyone, and shot himself in the struggle, he maintains that Barney murdered his father and is going to be court-marshalled once they get home.
Furthermore, the crew finds that Mars is barren and lifeless, and not the inhabited world of wonders that they had hopes for. They can’t take off home, because the take-off window has closed (it’s never explained why). They have to wait a year before the next chance, they have lost their radio contact with Earth, and they don’t know if their water supply will last another year. Perhaps the trip is really cursed, like Gen. Merritt said? Maybe God didn’t want them to come to Earth? The only one keeping a positive spirit is Imoto, who plants seeds from Earth in the ground, hoping to prove that the soil of Mars will turn out to be fertile.
And lo and behold, come Christmas, the birthday of Baby Jesus, and it starts snowing on Mars! To the soundtrack of church-bells ringing, they crew state that God indeed works in miraculous ways. The crew can now replenish their water supplies, and they have also proven that there is indeed water on Mars. And God approves of planet-hopping, and does not want to see the Japanese eat with chopsticks.
*** END OF SPOILER ***
The one thing that was always a problem in George Pal’s epic sci-fi films was the scripts. Destination Moon was a prophetic, visually stunning and scientifically bold leap into the unknown, with impressive miniatures and great special effects. And still, it managed to make the first trip to outer space seem as boring as reading the telephone catalogue. When Worlds Collide has holes in both plot and logic large enough to drive as space freighter through, and character motivations that make no sense. Furthermore, it doesn’t find room for a single non-Caucasian person to be rescued from apocalypse on its interplanetary Noah’s ark, but has no problem with picking up a dog as an extra passenger. The War or the Worlds has by far the superior script of these three movies, but it still has a lot of flaws, from extremely daft dialogue to a complete lack of understanding of H.G. Wells’ social commentary and an unforgivable 180 degree reversal on the author’s stance on religion, ending with the most pathetically bombastic religious tirade you have ever seen on film. Pal’s characters tended to be obnoxiously boring, flat as pancakes and behave in ways that no real persons would behave. The scripts were often saturated in jingoistic Americanism, paranoid fear of communism and religious pathos by the bucket-load, often extremely clumsily written into the films.
This doesn’t change the fact that Pal was, at heart, an internationalist and a humanist, as well as an optimist. He himself had fled to the United States, and he was a staunch believer in a US-led world, but one in which people from all over the world lived side by side as equals. In Conquest of Space the space station is an international space station, overseen by the UN. His crew to Mars does include three Americans, but also an Austrian and a Japanese.
This doesn’t help the script much, though. This was perhaps the worst scripted of his four sci-fi films to date. One can oversee some of the flaws, but the thing that really does the movie in is the sudden religious fanaticism of General Merritt. Here is a man who has worked tirelessly his whole life to advance space exploration. Mahoney even quotes him as saying he will give the moon as a birthday gift to his son. He previously doesn’t seem to have shown any signs of any stronger religious ideals, Barney is even surprised to find his father reading the bible. And then – completely out of the blue – he suddenly believes that space exploration is the work of the devil, a crime against God, and is ready to kill himself, his oldest friend and his own son just to prevent them from carrying out their mission. Sure, one can chalk it up on ”space fatigue”, but it still comes so way, way out of left field that it’s just impossible to accept as a viewer.
There’s also the problem with the father-son relation, which wasn’t there in O’Hanlon’s first draft. It was one of the executive producers at Paramount who insisted on having this bizarre father-son drama. In the original text, the two weren’t even related. It adds nothing to the film, and just makes for more extremely implausible passes. What are the odds that any governing military body would let a general choose his unwilling son as his second in commands at an international space station? That would be called nepotism, or in this case, inversed nepotism. Why on Earth (or in space) would a general choose for his second in command a person that has no desire whatsoever to do his job at the space station, and is also his son, and basically it’s pretty difficult to pull rank on your family?
It seems that none of the volunteers seem particularly happy to be in space, and most of them just seem to be aching to go back home. The reason for this is that O’Hanlon has simply copied the premise of the film from old WWII movies of soldiers on tour in ships or submarines in the Pacific. Almost all of them deal with groups of young men, living closely together, complaining about their circumstances, having their own inside camraderie and jargon, waiting to get home when their tour ends, or they’re granted temporary leave. The first part of Conquest of Space is exactly this – a WWII film where the ship is simply replaced with a space station. Unfortunately O’Hanlon has also copied the characters from the old war movies. The stern general, the colourful Irish Seargeant, the young and naive but deeply idealistic all-American goodie-two-shoes, even the wise-cracking, working class New Yorker. And these are supposed to be the cream of the crop, the elite of the elite, specially chosen for this historic and arduous mission to Mars. And as one reviewer points out, you wouldn’t put these guys in charge or a row-boat, let a lone a space ship. None of them seem especially physically cabable, none of them seem to be an expert in a field of anything, the Brooklynite doesn’t even have a formal education, but he’s still the best electrical engineer the entire world can muster. Like all expert engineers his dream for when he gets home is to repair TV:s.
The rather ”colourful” characters are probably partly due to Pal listening to the critics of Destination Moon, who complained about the boring characters, but to be fair, Pal also had a wise-cracking New York radio engineer in that film, and it didn’t help.
Then there’s the exposition, which Pal covers by having some of the team members explaining basic facts of space and rocketry to other members of the team, making them look like complete idiots. On a space walk, Cooper explains to Siedel that he doesn’t fall off the rocket, because there is no wind friction, and he’s travelling at the same speed as the rocket. Sure, some audience members probably needed to be explained this, but surely this is something that someone who has trained for a year in preparing for space flight would have known.
Just like in Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide, Pal forgets to infuse outer space with any sort of wonder. None of the people involved seem to have any sense of joy or excitement about working in outer space, about exploring new planets or even about being the first people to set foot on Mars. All they talk about is whether Mars will be inhabited, and how great it will be to get home. It sort of reminds me of the scene in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), where the first man to plonk down on the surface of the moon utters the legendary words ”It works.” I do get the idea that Pal and Haskin are trying to create a feeling of a ”lived-in future” where working a space station is a day job, but this doesn’t add up to the script, which clearly tells us that the station is new and wonderful, and man still hasn’t visited the moon. And even if they had, there’s a difference between what you want your characters to feel and what you want the audience to feel. While Ridley Scott’s space truckers in Alien (1979) spent half of the film bantering about pay shares, the audience was certainly awed by space. In Conquest of Space, the audience quickly starts feeling just as bored as the protagonists.
Which brings us to the visuals of outer space. Conquest of Space is a visual effects extravaganza. We get space stations, rockets, astronauts floating between the station and the rocket, space walks, meteors, crash-landing on Mars, the Martian desert, etc. The opening of the movie employs quite impressive special effects, and quickly sets the tone, as we see the astronauts floating over to the rocket from the station. The movie is filled with composite shots, not only doubles, but sometimes triples, as where astronauts are walking on different planes on their space walk. The visual effects were supervised by John P. Fulton, one of the great visual effects pioneers of Hollywood, who created some of the most impressive effects cinema has ever seen, like in The Invisible Man (1933, review), or The Ten Commandments (1956). He, if anyone, knew how to work with travelling mattes, as he pioneered the technique for his invisibility effects at Universal.
And some of the work in the film is great, especially stand-out are the wire-work for the floating astronauts. Some matte shots are very impressive. But more often than not, they fail because of thick matte lines, fuzzy edges and sometimes even transparent images and flickering and jumpy mattes. The only conclusion one can draw is that either Fulton didn’t actually work on the film, and only got a credit as Paramount’s department head, or the studio had him on such a rush that he didn’t have time to make the effects the way they should have been done.
It doesn’t help that the lighting is all wrong and the miniatures too small, which makes them look like toys, in classic B movie fashion. This may have to do with the fact that the film was made in Technicolor, which required a lot of light, and they simply over-lit the miniatures and live-action sets. But there’s also the fact that all is carefully both front- and side-lit, like you would light something on a normal picture. But now we are in space, which means there should be only one light source, and it should be a sharp light, leaving sharp and hard shadows. It all looks just as studio-bound as it is. Chesley Bonestell’s matte paintings are awesome, as usual, and this partly helps to compensate. I suppose one can forgive the team for some of its mistakes, this was new territory, and travelling mattes (or blue or green screen as we tend to call the process) hadn’t been done on this scale in a colour film before. But the fact is that it was done considerably better on two other films released roughly at the same time, This Island Earth (1955, review) and Forbidden Planet (1956).
Strangely enough, despite all its many flaws, I still find myself liking the film. There is the fact that George Pal always wanted to bring science and fact to the forefront. His optimism and child-like naivete is contagious, even when he takes you to dark places. Pal was not just a techno-optimist, he was a life-optimist. People who’ve met him say they never saw him without a smile on his face, even when his chips were down, like they were after the poor reception of this movie. During his time at Paramount, he trusted his colleagues and freely talked about his ideas, shared designs and movie plots, only to seem them stolen from him. The idea of dishonesty seldom comes into play in his movies. People may be misguided, uninformed, scared or crazy, and thus create problems, but in his four sci-fi films up until 1955, the only one that actually has an evil person in it is When Worlds Collide, and that’s such a caricature, that it’s hard to take him seriously.
There are some nice touches to the movie’s ideas. This is actually one of the first films that tries to deal intelligently with some of the challenges of space. Of course there’s the classic case of the magnetic boots to keep people from floating, which makes no sense whatsoever outside of films. There are no upsides in being tied to a floor, apart from the fact that shooting a whole film on wires was almost impossible in the fifties. But I think this is the first movie in which the filmmakers actually deal with the concept of food in space. When mentioned in previous movies, we were dealing with quite ordinary food, except it floated. I recently read a book called 43 000 000 mil i världsrymden (43,000,000 miles in outer space, 1936) by Russian-Swedish author Vladimir Semichov, which describes how to solve the problem of frying pork chops on a skillet in zero-G. They settled it with a net over the skillet. Of course they didn’t take into account the problem with 1. getting the frying oil to stick to the pan or 2. hot oil spraying over the entire space ship. The book also have the classic glass bottles of booze, often seen in old space movies. Conquest of Space actually does think about this, bringing out the now classic scene with the pill dinner. Nevermind that the pill dinner has never come to fruition as such, and is mostly used as a comedy device in the movie, at least the filmmakers though about it. The movie also uses plastic squeeze bottles for water, just as modern astronauts do. I thank the film for not using nuclear power as propulsion, but rather liquid fuel.
Even though the special effects are flawed, they should be applauded for effort. Pal and Haskin took on a huge task on a time frame and budget much too small. They would have needed the budget of The War of the Worlds, or more, to pull off the movie visually, but Paramount gave them half of that. Unfortunately, Haskin’s overall direction feels static and cramped, even when moving about the vastness of space, which was probably due to the technical challenges with travelling mattes.
Haskin was primarily a visual director, as he had risen through the ranks from cinematographer and special effects creator to start directing. When the visuals don’t work, there’s no hope in the actors saving the day, since Haskin wasn’t an actors director. Between the lines in an interview, he admits to knowing he was in trouble when the human drama was put front and centre at the behest of Paramount. And there’s not much to applaud in the acting department. All the actors are decent, and some of them would go on to have great careers, but with the material they get here, it’s difficult to do much. The best parts are when Haskin is allowed to stay in the WWII setting of the cramped space station, and have the actors riff off each other as an ensemble, as the movie describes the dynamics of a group that has lived together for a year, and there’s a sympathetic warmth between the actors.
Walter Brooke is stiff as a board, and one wonders what prompted Paramount to put him up front in a movie like this. Doing guest spots on TV shows for most of his career, he was immortalised in the 1967 Dustin Hoffman classic The Graduate for one unforgettable word: ”Plastics”.
Eric Fleming is sympathetic in the role as Barney Merritt, and brings a sense of warmth and stability to his role. A man who liked gambling, he underwent reconstructive surgery to his face after failing to lift a 91 kilo weight as a bet in the army. The weight dropped on his face. He got into acting when working with construction at Paramount, and lost a 100 dollar bet with an actor, claiming he could do a better audition that the actor. After losing 100 dollars to acting, he decided to make it back on acting and started taking acting lessons. After Conquest of Space, he made a few B pictures, including the western horror Curse of the Undead (1959) and the sci-fi film Queen of Outer Space (1958). In 1959 he was cast as the co-lead in the long-running and very successful western series Rawhide, alongside Clint Eastwood. Tragically his career, and life, was cut short during the filming of a jungle adventure movie in Lima, Peru in 1966, after he had left Rawhide. During a scene on the Hullaga river, Fleming’s canoe was overturned, he was swept away in the rapids and drowned.
Mickey Shaughnessy was a burly, good-natured Irish-American actor, who had a stage show and turned up in about 40 films and a few TV series from the fifties to the eighties. He is best known as the cell-mate who discovers Elvis Presley’s performing talents, and later punches him in the throat, in Elvis’ most successful movie Jailhouse Rock (1957). Shaughnessy hams his way through the performance of the hopelessly written role, turning from comic relief to nemesis in a single stroke. He gets by on his natural charm, but especially during the first part of the movie he seems like he’s wondered off the set of a Three Stooges movie.
The same can be said for Phil Foster, a native New Yorker and stand-up comedian, who walks about the movie looking like a New York stand-up comedian oddly like a fish out of water without an audience. Probably someone told Pal he had to have some humour in the movie, but just like in Destination Moon, he does the mistake of thinking this means there has to be a comic relief character. And even if they had a comic relief character, you don’t hire a guy to do non-stop stand-up comedy throughout the movie. In a film as deadly serious about its subject as this one, Foster’s character just kills all suspension of disbelief and every time he opens his mouth, you’re painfully aware of the fact that he is an comedic actor completely out of his element, which in turn reminds you that you’re watching a movie, and the whole illusion shatters.
A young William Redfield is perky and bit too sincere in his role as the trainee that gets space fatigue and is shipped on home to Earth. Redfield was a very gifted character actor on Broadway and one of the founders of legendary Actors Studio. He is probably best known for his role as the memorable Harding in the Jack Nicholson classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1976). During the filming of that movie, Redfield was diagnosed with leukaemia, and died a year later, only 49 years old. Redfield also appeared as one of the main cast in the brilliant Raquel Welch sci-fi Fantastic Voyage (1966).
One has to give credit to Pal for going for an multi-ethnic cast, and including a Japanese among the main characters. He could, of course, also have hired a Japanese actor instead of the Chinese-American Benson Fong, but I suppose including any Asian as a lead was rare enough those days. Grocerer Fong got into films by chance in the mid-forties, when Asian actors were in high demand as Japanese villains, and for an Asian actor in Hollywood he had a rather decent career with appearances in close to a hundred films and TV-series. He is perhaps best know for playing Son #3 in a number of Charlie Chan films in the forties, and for his turns as the Old One in the seventies series Kung Fu, as well as in the movie with the same name in 1985. He played Dr. Wu in Our Man Flint (1966) and Mr. Wu in The Love Bug (1968). Imoto is a very sympathetic character, again played with perhaps a little too much sincerity, probably stemming from the script.
The last man on the mission is Andre Fodor, played by Ross Martin, a polyglot born Martin Rosenblatt in Poland. Martin studied business and law and trained as a concert violinist before embarking on an acting career in radio, TV and stage. Conquest of Space was his first movie role, and it was followed by a brief but memorable role in The Colossus of New York (1958), where he gets hit by a truck in the first scene of the film. He is best know for playing one of the two leads, the inventor spy Artemus Gordon, in the sci-fi/western TV series The Wild Wild West between 1965 and 1969. A chance connection with Benson Fong is that Martin played Charlie Chan in the 1973 film The Return of Charlie Chan.
Perhaps the best known actor of the film is William Hopper as the government official who delivers the news about the change of mission goal from the moon to Mars. Ridiculously handsome white-haired actor Hopper was immortalised as private detective Paul Drake in over 270 episodes of the TV series Perry Mason from 1957 to 1966. Hopper started his film career as early as 1916 as an infant, but made his actual acting debut in 1936. Mostly playing uncredited bit-parts, it was his white-haired charm that started earning him bigger roles in the fifties. He played Judy’s father in the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 and Col. Penmark in The Bad Seed (1956), but was still mostly confined to B movies, such as The Deadly Mantis (1957) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), in which he finally got leading roles. He passed away in 1970, only 55 years old.
Among the minor roles are also some interesting people. Character actor Vito Scotti turned up in films like The Godfather (1972) and Get Shorty (1995), as well as the Jules Verne adaptation Master of the World (1961) and a whole slew of sci-fi series. John Dennis appeared in Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), Garden of the Dead (1972), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Soylent Green (1973), End of the World (1977) and Young Frankenstein (1974).
Michael Fox is a real science fiction fixture, whom we encountered on this blog on a number of occasions. He appeared in Killer Ape (1953), The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), Riders to the Stars (1953, review), Gog (1954, review), War of the Satellites (1958), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), as well as the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, Adventures of Superman, The Twilight Zone (both the original and the remake), My Favorite Martian, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild Wild West, Lost in Space, Batman, Gemini Man, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Voyagers! and Knight Rider.
The movie is devoid of women, save for one short and bizarre scene, where the team of trainees get farewell messages from family on Earth. This was probably an attempt to focus more on the characters and the emotional side of space missions, but it is another example of the fact that Byron Haskin and George Pal just didn’t know how to handle this side of filmmaking. Austrian bit-part player Iphigenie Castaglioni appears on a screen as Fodor’s mother. Sobbing, she tells her son how proud she is of him, and that he is a hero. Once again, the lines are so clumsily written that they fail to awake any real emotions. After that, raunchy comedienne Joan Shawnlee takes the spotlight as the Brooklynite’s, forgive the expression, slutty girlfriend, which develops into yet another questionable stand-up routine, again throwing the viewer straight out of the movie. Shawnlee, who appeared in over 100 films or series, is perhaps best known for her supporting role as Sweet Sue in Some Like it Hot (1953). Stranger still, the whole segment starts with a long musical number – shown on the screen – by popular star Rosemary Clooney (wife of José Ferrer, father of Miguel Ferrer and aunt to George Clooney). The clip on the screen is actually the number Ali Baba (Be My Baby) from the 1953 film Here Come the Girls. This was probably another studio demand that the film should contain a musical number with some pretty girls to lighten up the mood, but once again it just comes off as bizarrely misplaced.
Van Cleave’s bombastic music is one of the few things in the film that actually works. Van Cleave was a jazz musician who also composed classical music, and had worked in radio. At one point he invented a needle for record players that improved sound quality, and started a needle manufacturing company. He worked as composer for some dozen films and in TV, as well as orchestrator for about 100 films. He composed music for The Space Children (1958), The Colossus of New York, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and Project X, (1968).
If the cinematography is static, it isn’t because of an incapable DP, since that task was handled by later Oscar-winner Lionel Lindon, who filmed movies like Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He also won two Emmys. Lindon had also filmed Destination Moon, and went on to work on The Black Scorpion (1957). Editor Everett Douglas had worked with Pal and Haskin on The War of the Worlds and The Naked Jungle.
Conquest of Space is set in the far-off future of the eighties, but it is what might be called contemporary future. Designing the future is hard enough, because no matter what we do, we are always stuck in the style guide of our own time. Space ships from the fifties are always very distinctly space ships from the fifties, and people tend to wear the kind of clothes and hairdos that are popular at the time of the film’s making, no matter how far off in the future they are. Even more difficult, it seems, is to break out of the contemporary moral environments. Hence the complete lack of women in space. With some few exceptions, the international crew of the station is all white and everyone speaks English. There are a couple of black people standing around in the background, and there’s Imoto, but that’s about it. Even so, it is an improvement over When Worlds Collide, in which the Noah’s ark saving people from the apocalypse fails include a single person of colour. In fact, since the script for Conquest of Space is really based on a WWII film, life on the space station must have felt archaic even in the mid-fifties.
All in all, it’s a messy film, due to what is probably the weakest of Pal’s sci-fi scripts up to that point in time. It’s been said before, and it’s probably true that George Pal, despite his many successes, didn’t quite understand how a dramatic film should be constructed. He probably would have made wonderful documentaries about space flight, but when it comes to dramatic presentation, he is like a fish out of water. It doesn’t help that he chooses as director a man who’s background is in visuals rather than dramatics. Desperate to increase human drama, the studio then throws one concept after the other at the movie, hoping that something will stick. Pal was never good with philosophy either, and once again he drowns the film with religious pathos, but the theological ponderings remain on a third-grader’s level.
Defenders of the movie often claim that the special effects and the visuals were outstanding for their time, but they weren’t. The camera work is static and dull. The effects are ambitious, perhaps the most ambitious for their time, but they are poorly executed – even for their time. Haskin did better work in The War of the Worlds, and there were several other films around at the same time that did much better work with travelling mattes than John P. Fulton did in this film. John P. Fulton did better work with travelling mattes 22 years before. This probably wasn’t Fulton’s fault, but due to time and budgetary constraints, but unfortunately excuses don’t make the film any better. It’s a fun film to watch, and I highly recommend it – mainly because it is so zany, and at the centre of it there is George Pal’s sweet, kind heart which gives the film a warmth and optimism missing from many of its contemporaries.
Conquest of Space (1955, USA). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by: James O’Hanlon, Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates. Based on the books Conquest of Space by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Lay and The Mars Project by Hermann Oberth. Starring: Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield, William Hopper, Benson Fong, Ross Martin, Vito Scotti, John Dennis, Michael Fox, Joan Shawnlee, Iphigenie Castaglioni. Music: Van Cleave. Cinematography: Lionel Lindon. Editing: Everett Douglas. Art direction: Hal Pereira, J. McMillan Johnson. Makeup supervisor: Wally Westmore. Astronomical art: Chesley Bonestell. Sound: Gene Garvin, Harold Lewis. Visual effects: John P. Fulton, Jan Domela, Farciot Edouart. Produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures.