10 July 2007 | Bunuel1976
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Nathan Juran, 1964) ***
The Schneer/Harryhausen team’s follow-up to the Jules Verne adventure MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) is this similarly colorful turn-of-the-century spectacle adapted from an H.G. Wells novel. While not as popular or as exhilarating as the earlier film perhaps, it’s nonetheless a delightful yarn and one of the team’s best overall efforts.
Starting off in a modern-setting as the ‘first’ landing on the Moon is taking place (about 5 years before the actual fact), the astronauts are flabbergasted to find the Union Jack and a note indicating that an English scientist had already claimed it back in 1899! We’re then introduced to the character played by Edward Judd (currently institutionalized in old folks’ home) – who, with his fiancée Martha Hyer, had accompanied Professor Lionel Jeffries on that fateful yet unsung trip to the Moon; the story proper is then told in flashback. The film has been criticized for its over-abundance of comic relief in the persona of the buffoonish Jeffries; however, for my part, I was totally taken with his eccentric character and his performance is an utter joy to behold. Judd is his typical roguish self, while Hyer adds charm and loveliness to the already attractive scenery (of Victorian England and the imaginative lunar landscape with its cavernous interiors).
It takes quite some time to get to the scenes on the Moon and, once there, we’re treated to just two of Harryhausen’s trademark (albeit marvelous) creations – a couple of giant caterpillars, whom our heroes have to fend off, and the mass of Selenite inhabitants, who seem eager to study the intruding Earthlings (the script, co-written by famed sci-fi expert Nigel Kneale, is at its most introspective during Jeffries’ trial before The Grand Lunar). Further reason why the expedition proves insufficiently exciting is the fact that we learn precious little of Life on the Moon…and it all concludes on a somewhat anti-climactic note (even more disappointing because Wells was basically repeating himself!).
That said, the film does looks great in color and widescreen (luckily, the DivX copy I watched didn’t suffer from the distracting jerkiness which had plagued my recent viewings of other vintage sci-fi titles on this format), and Harryhausen’s various props – such as the makeshift space-gear (actually diving-suits), the spherical ship, and “Cavorite” (the substance invented by Jeffries which enables the flight into outer space and back, simply by being applied as a coating on the spaceship’s surface!), add to the fun and pervading sense of wonder. Laurie Johnson’s rousing score, then, emerges as the perfect accompaniment to the fantastic proceedings and, undoubtedly, one of the film’s major assets. By the way, Peter Finch famously appeared in an unbilled cameo in this film as a messenger for the local bailiff (apparently, he visited the set and then offered his services to replace an actor who had failed to show up!).
Ultimately, rather than being considered a visionary sci-fi epic, the film rightfully belongs amid the long-running cycle of entertaining (if somewhat juvenile) adventure films based on classic literary tales – 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), THE LOST WORLD (1960), MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961), the aforementioned MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962), THE LOST CONTINENT (1968), THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975), etc.