Friday, February 14, 2014
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
I reread H.G. Wells' 1901 novel FIRST MEN IN THE MOON about two years ago, but I found it far less riveting than his "big three"-- TIME MACHINE, INVISIBLE MAN, and WAR OF THE WORLDS. Even THE FOOD OF THE GODS, the distant ancestor of the "giant menace" films that have come to characterize 1950's SF-cinema, displays a better range of characters and situations. Wells' novel seems dull and fusty, largely because the two lunar-nauts, scientist Cavor and entrepreneur Bedford, strike me as sketchily conceived. Wells' attention seems to be focused wholly on the subterranean civilization of the Selenites, but even they failed to capture my imagination as much as did the Martians, the Eloi and the Morlocks.
The 1964 film-- the best-known cinematic adaptation of Wells' novel, and another collaboration of producer Charles Schneer and FX-master Ray Harryhausen-- is another story. While it's far from being a great film for its genre, the film humanizes Cavor and Bedford, and does so in large part because, like so many commercial SF-adaptations, it chooses to bring a woman into the mix.
From the early days of cinema onward it's been de rigeur for filmmakers to insert female characters into narratives that originally had none. Sometimes this alteration is obvious and awkward. But in MOON the injection of the character Kate, fiancée to Bedford, proves a distinct improvement.
A female lead's inclusion is also significant in two other Schneer-Harryhausen collaborations that preceded MOON: 1958's THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and 1960's THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER. The female lead in SINBAD provides some modest help to the main hero, but in GULLIVER she's used for much the same purpose as in MOON: to make practical comments on the wild voyages conceived by impractical men.
This "Greek chorus" strategy does more than just given female film-goers someone to identify with, though this may well have been the prime consideration. GULLIVER isn't entirely successful in its theme of sorting out the quarrel of the titular character and his fiancée, but the film does make a valid attempt to see the sides of both masculine and feminine priorities, and MOON's scripter Nigel Kneale pursues similar goals.
The film begins with a framing-device in which a "modern" moon-flight of the 1960s finds evidence on the 1890s lunar flight of Bedford and Cavor, and the bulk of the film is then narrated by the eighty-ish Bedford. as he describes their adventure. This story begins, as does the novel, by showing that viewpoint character Bedford is an unsuccessful entrepreneur who has racked up many debts. He flees to an isolated house in the English countryside, hoping to make money by writing a successful play. He never writes the play, because he meets his neighbor Cavor, learns of the oddball scientist's concoction of an anti-gravity substance, and realizes that "Cavorite" can bring him great fortune if he can manage it correctly. Wells may have been making a satirical comment on the commercialization of science for financial benefits. The film doesn't emphasize this theme. But through MOON's introduction of Bedford's fiancée Kate-- whose Boston roots may have been a strategy to further "Americanize" this British SF-tale-- the script does comment upon Bedford's folly and rashness. Bedford displays this character flaw when he inveigles Kate into signing her name to an invalid contract involving his estate-- which has been claimed by creditors-- thus involving Kate in some dodgy legal business. Despite her anger when she finds out that he duped her, Kate still supports the voyage to some extent, and is the only one practical enough to insist that they take a means of defense, an elephant-gun, which turns out to be instrumental in the males' battle with the Selenites. Kate shows her own rashness later, as she intrudes on the two men when they plan to take flight in their Cavorite-coated sphere. They're forced to take her along so that she won't be killed in the takeoff.
To be sure, once Cavor's sphere reaches the moon, there isn't much for Kate to do in the story, since the lunar-nauts only brought two space-suits in which they can explore the moon. She stays behind in the sphere while they explore the moon. The men plunge through the lunar surface and end up in the chambers of the Selenites, where an artificial atmosphere is maintained by the buglike humanoids. Cavor, like so many SF-film scientists, is willing to risk life and limb to make contact with an alien life-form, while Bedford wants nothing but to get away from a potential threat. Bedford's animus to the Selenites is justified. The super-organized moon-dwellers-- who place members of their species in stasis when they have no function to perform-- view the chaos of Earth's warring with government with trepidation, and intimate that they may do away with the threat. In the end Bedford reveals the Selenites' hostile aspects to Cavor-- "This isn't an audience; you're on trial!"-- and tries to get the scientist back to the sphere so that all three of them can escape. While Bedford and Kate do manage to activate the sphere and flee back to Earth, Cavor voluntarily stays behind, still wanting to reason with the new life-form. Though Cavor is frequently played as a British eccentric throughout the film, he takes on a dignity here that the other two protagonists never aspire to.
In the Wells novel's ending, it's suggested that Cavor may still be alive on the moon with the Selenites, who cut off all future contact with the dangerous masses of Earth. Kneale, possibly making a wishful-thinking comment on the fate of the Selenites' quasi-Communist society, takes a different route, one partly borrowed from Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. The framing-device ends as Bedford's story does, returning us to the 1960s. Aged Bedford and his listeners watch on television as the current astronauts come across the underground galleries of the Selenites, and find them empty of life. Though one character speculates that the Selenites may have emigrated to parts unknown, Bedford believes that the moon-dwellers have been expunged by the germs Cavor carried, given that Cavor had a nasty cold at the time of the flight.
Returning to the theme of male-female relations, I find it significant that although the notion of "military preparedness" appears in many Ray Harryhausen films, regardless of the producers or directors involved, it's only the "giant monster" films of 1953-1957 that display a theme of relentless hostility to the metaphenomenal entity. A rhedosaur, a giant octopus, a Venusian humanoid-- all of these are impediments to America's military might, and they are all destroyed without the slightest regret. In addition, though the male and female leads are allies in destroying the outsider, the male leads often act prickly toward the female leads, as if their femaleness was a threat on some level as well.
The films that Schneer and Harryhausen made from 1958 on, for the duration of their contract with Columbia Studios, show the two genders interacting more maturely, complementing one another even in the midst of quarreling. Not all the female characters are as interesting as Kate of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON; Medea of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS proves woefully underwritten. But for whatever reason-- possibly the producer feeling like the "giant monster" schtick would soon become played out-- the Schneer-Harryhausen team did invest more efforts in adapting works that had greater cultural repute, as I argued in my review of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
Unfortunately most of them were not box-office successes, so that FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was the last film the team made for their Columbia contract. But even though MOON is not the team's best achievement, it's one of the few adaptations of a classic SF work that is at least as good as the original novel.