While watching television late one night, I came across a movie from 1954 called Riders to the Stars. At first, I thought it might be one of those cheesy space movies – full of bad science, bad effects, and bad writing. The kind of movie the geek in me really appreciates. So naturally I had to watch it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Oh, it had its bad points, but the ride was still fun and almost as good as the book.
For the film buffs, the movie was directed by Richard Carlson and Herbert L. Strock and the stars were William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, and Martha Myer. You can go to your favorite video sharing website if you would like to check it out.
The original screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak. A novelization from Ballantine Books based on the screenplay was published a year earlier in 1953, but this was written by Robert Smith. Finding the book soon became a quest. Again, I was not disappointed.
Noticeably on the cover of the book, the name Smith is omitted while Siodmak is given full credit. Considering the writing style and execution of the text, Smith was deprived of well deserved recognition. As much as I enjoyed the film, the book was much better at handling the absurd plot.
The basis of Riders to the Stars revolved around a team of scientists working on rocket technology. It was discovered that the molecular structure of the material used for the rockets would become altered by cosmic radiation, the brittle results always ended in disaster. So the theory was to send three rockets up into space to retrieve meteorite samples – because of course meteorites have traveled through space for billions of years and billions of miles, and learning about the composition of these rocks might help in the eventual design of an orbiting space platform used for preventing wars. The government hopes that this space station will become an eye in the sky, a deterrent to all attacks while being able to direct their own missile strike around the globe. Crazy, right?
In the book (as in most books), Smith gives the readers a little more to ponder than the film does. The extensive process that goes into selecting the individuals who fly the rockets is expressed in both film and book, but as a reader, you get to become more intimate with the frustrations the candidates face. The irritation test in particular is quite enlightening. The various characters react differently to isolation and one can’t help but wonder how “they” might react in a similar situation.
Another noticeable element that has nothing to do with the plot of the story, but very relevant to the setting as well as the timeframe in which the story was written is the amount of smoking done throughout. Cigarettes become a significant prop by the characters. They are used to magnify comfort, stress, and even social compatibility. But perhaps more importantly they show readers a change in times as the image of smoking is greatly reduced in film and literature today. Admittedly, the image of scientists, doctors, and medical technicians lighting up is quite conspicuous and reminds the audience that times have indeed changed.
The bottom line is, the movie is about rockets while the book is about the dedication and sacrifices people endured in order to make these rockets. Okay, the movie did this too, but not as well as the book. However, for all of its shortcomings, the movie really wasn’t that bad. Sure the technology was poorly dated and some of the editing was subpar, even for 1954, but it was still fun to watch – and the book was a pleasure to read.
Oddly, the weakest element of Riders to the Stars was the plot, the primary contribution from Curt Siodmak. Thankfully, directors Richard Carlson and Herbert L. Strock and writer Robert Smith made the story work in both forms of media and made the journey(s) worth taking.
(Editor’s note: The SF Encylopedia points out that this is about the only 1950s film that got its depictions of space flight right; government lead, staged accomplishments. SFE3)