I and my wife, the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, love old S-F movies, preferably “B” movies. We scour the airwaves and the interwebz for them because we’ve stopped collecting new DVDs and Blu-Rays (we’ve seen all the ones in the house multiple times. Have you seen the prices on those things these days?) As certified (ahem!) middle-aged people living on CPP/OAS and Social Security, we have to watch every penny. And our damn insurance (renters’ and Health) have gone up again. What hasn’t? At any rate, we got a double play this week: on two successive days we saw almost the same picture, but with different casts and slightly different plots.
Here’s a simplified plot for both: see if you can guess whichmovie is which. A really smart scientist, dedicated to his work (yes, it’s a male scientist) has designed a rocket that can take people to the Moon. Or Mars. Whether it’s a fuel/power issue, or a materials issue, this scientist has a crew which includes one woman—a scientist, but first and foremost, a woman—and three or four apparently random men. They may not make it; if they make it there, they may not be able to land; they may not make it back, but by golly, they’re gonna go! The casts are:
Lloyd Bridges as Col. Floyd Graham (Pilot)
Osa Massen as Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Ph.D. in Chemistry)
John Emery as Dr. Karl Eckstrom (Physicist and RX-M designer)
Noah Beery, Jr. as Maj. William Corrigan (Flight engineer)
Hugh O’Brian as Harry Chamberlain (Astronomer and navigator)
Morris Ankrum as Dr. Ralph Fleming (Project Director; not actually on the flight)
Flight to Mars Cast
Marguerite Chapman as Alita (Martian scientist)
Cameron Mitchell as Steve Abbott (reporter)
Arthur Franz as Dr. Jim Barker (scientist)
Virginia Huston as Carol Stafford (scientist and woman)
John Litel as Dr. Lane (scientist)
Morris Ankrum as Ikron (Martian Council Leader)
Richard Gaines as Professor Jackson
Lucille Barkley as Terris (Martian woman/spy)
Robert Barrat as Tillamar (Martian Councillor)
Wilbur Back as Martian Councilman
William Bailey as Martian Councilman
Trevor Bardette as Alzar (oddly enough, he played the leader of the Clantons on Hugh O’Brian’s Wyatt Earp TV series)
But partway there, they encounter a couple of problems—one is a meteor shower, another is either a fuel or power problem (for different reasons, but the end is the same), and they’re thrown off course. (In one case, the meteors appear as orange balls of light; in the other, they’re made of one to three attached little balls of rock. Both sets of meteors announce their presence by roaring loudly so the people inside the ship can hear them. Wha’?) In one case, the power outage causes them to hang in space near the moon for days. In the other, they’re thrown out of their planned course and, while all are knocked unconscious, receive such a speed boost (from circling with the Earth’s rotation) that they reach Mars before any one of them wakes up.
If you guessed the speed boost one is Rocketship X-M* (*Expedition Moon), you’re right. When they swerved to avoid the meteor swarm, they attempted a speed boost to get back on course and Bridges turned the power unexpectedly high (I guess), and they were all knocked out until they were 50,000 miles from Mars itself. Waking up, they discovered that not only had their speed unexpectedly taken them to the Red Planet, but the meteors had damaged their radio and landing gear, so they had to crash-land at the foot of a mountain, in the snow.
If you guessed the power outage one was the film shot in 5 days (according to Wikipedia), Flight to Mars, which obviously didn’t give them time to research what would happen to a rocket when the engines stop firing partway to the Moon, you’d be right. According to them, they’d hang in space, unmoving, for days. (Not exactly what I learned in school, but….) By the way, their engines were powered by a mixture of O (oxygen), H (hydrogen) and A-14 (?) or A-16 (??). In both cases they ended up on Mars, where the black-and-white film (Rocketship X-M) inexplicably became orange/sepia tinted. (Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Mars is… um, red-coloured. Wikipedia says the film was tinted red, but that’s not what we saw.) Flight to Mars was in colour to begin with.
It’s not terribly obvious unless you watch both movies, and I was partway through the second film (F to M) before I noticed it, but both films used the same rocket interiors, with some redecorating between. It was the portholes that gave it away, then I verified it with Wikipedia. Figures 3 and 4 will give you a little bit of information.
After the second film, (F to M again) got to the point where the crew went out on the surface, I immediately saw—when the Martians came out to meet them—that they’d stolen the spacesuits from Destination Moon, the Irving Pichel-helmed George Pal movie co-written by Robert A. Heinlein from his own book of the same name. Figures 5 and 6 will confirm it. F to M just painted the helmets. Some examples of Hollywood recycling. (We once saw some “Krell power meters” from Forbidden Planet in a Twilight Zone episode, so we already knew it happens.)
The acting is nothing special; the only “name” actor is Bridges, and if you’ve ever watched Sea Hunt (or Hot Shots, Part Deux) you’ll know what to expect. The other actors are okay; nothing to write home about. I was (as an older cismale white guy) surprised at how much unconscious sexism was in these movies; Bridges, for example, when asked by Massen (a scientist) if he thought the only things women were good for was cooking, housekeeping and child rearing, replied “Would that be so bad?” And she didn’t kick him in the goolies. Things have changed. At least somewhat. Of course, all the actors are white, which didn’t surprise me (face it, white people didn’t even question it) now. It’s the way things were.
Oh, and I must address the Martians. In the first movie (with some pretty good matte shots; in fact, both movies did pretty good matte work, except for space shots of Earth—never a cloud and the only continents you see are North and South America) there had been an atomic war and all the remaining Martian men had degenerated into cavemen types. In the second movie, the Martians (who spoke perfect English thanks to our radio broadcasts) lived underground. The second movie has an upbeat ending; not so much the first one (I’m trying for fewer spoilers for a 70-odd-year-old film, ha.)
I found both films interesting and typical of their time; I like the old practical special effects, and seeing how they overcame the lack of CGI. A lot of the science in such films is, by today’s standards, laughable, but they mostly did the best they could with what they had. All in all, I’d recommend these films to S-F fans.
One item of note about R X-M: the soundtrack was composed by none other than the composer of the “Grand Canyon Suite,” Ferde Grofé. I found that extremely interesting.
Got any comments about this? If you have, you can comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). I’d appreciate anything you have to say (Just be polite, please.) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!