Whereas Jules Verne, the “Father of Science Fiction,” was essentially an adventure writer with a flair for imaginative fantasy scenarios, Herbert George Wells was foremost a moralist – couching his sharp critiques of human behavior in science-based allegory. His three most popular novels (War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine) were, at their cores, all dire warnings of man’s inhumanity to man. What little allegory that existed in the text of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (i.e. social engineering, bad!) was excised for the theatrical version. FIRST MEN plays more like a throwback to Verne’s own From the Earth to the Moon; a lighthearted exploration drama fueled by “stuff and nonsense.”
FIRST MEN is a somewhat curious piece for producer Charles Schneer and FX Master Ray Harryhausen to tackle. Their previous outings in the sci-fi realm prominently featured giant menaces like the prehistoric BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS or mythical creatures from THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Furthermore, the Space Age was gearing up. American astronauts were circling the Earth in Gemini capsules; moon exploration soon to become a reality. It was a curious time to be launching a simple Victorian fantasy.
Screenwriter Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) solved this conundrum by wrapping contemporary bookends around the unlikely retro events of FIRST MEN. Kneale set it solidly in the quaint “past,” as the final living 19th-century lunar pioneer reveals precisely why a Union Jack flag was planted on the moon for 20th Century astronauts to discover. Apparently, real estate rights were bequeathed to Queen Victoria as well. (As if Buckingham Palace big enough?)
Wells, an early advocate of women’s rights, would be pleased at the addition of a woman to his story. Kate Callender (Martha Hyer, PYRO) adds some spice to the mix; as the inadvertent stowaway inside a riveted circular spacecraft powered by a bizarre “anti-gravity paint” created by eccentric inventor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTIN). Ostensibly, Callender’s fiancé Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd, ISLAND OF TERROR) accompanies Cavor to escape his creditors! (Wells wasn’t too keen on Capitalism, either.)
FIRST MEN is clearly a triumph of sheer spectacle over common sense. It’s a shame that Hyer spends the majority of her time in the second act waiting in the spacecraft for the men to return, for her no-nonsense attitude would’ve lent another level of interest to their exploration party. The moon landing – and subsequent episodic adventures on its surface (and below, in decidedly Verne-like caverns recalling JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH) are strictly utilitarian. Also like JOURNEY, they don’t propel the story in any particular direction so much as they engender a variety of “gosh-wow-look-at-that!” sequences. For example, a slithering “moon calf,” (looking suspiciously like a humongous caterpillar) endangers our stalwart heroes. Their human hides are saved… then subsequently imprisoned and interrogated by Selinites – a race of intelligent insectoid aliens.
Frankly, one can’t blame the Selinites for treating Bedford and Cavor with insect-like contempt. They aren’t exactly prime specimens of the homo erectus species. Bedford is short-tempered and embarrassingly xenophobic. Interestingly, he is the primary protagonist as well, making for an interesting dichotomy which is never fully explored. On the other hand, Jeffries’ take as Cavor exploits every moment of screen time. He milks the bumbling, excitable intellectual role for all it’s worth; making his performance in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) appear subtle by comparison. Callender, the true representative of Earthly reason was left waiting in the car!
Eventually, the Grand Lunar Selinite (you can tell he’s boss because he literally has a bigger brain) issues a stinging verbal smackdown to Cavor about the inherently violent tendencies of human nature. This lunar lecture lacks the irony Wells intended because a bigger picture of the rigidly-structured Selenite society is never completely realized due to budgetary limitations. Wells’ commentary about class division/warfare is conspicuously absent. We’ll never know if FIRST MEN could’ve achieved the classic status of other Wells adaptations (might as well add Things to Come to the aforementioned list). As a piece of light entertainment, however, it hits the spot – primarily for viewers who saw the film in their youth. Nathan Juran, who helmed some of the best Schneer/Harryhausen productions, handles FIRST MEN deftly as possible. He tends to allow more room for broad performances than other directors, and his staging of the actors makes the most of the sets they inhabit. The film looks and sounds bigger than it actually is.
Laurie Johnson’s delightful score (with its otherworldly alien ambiance in direct counterpoint to traditional orchestral swells and dips) borrows heavily from Bernard Herrmann, especially THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. No surprise here, as Herrmann was practically a “regular” for team Schneer/Harryhausen. As a respectful homage, John’s music adds another layer of enjoyment to this frivolous layer cake of fantasy. Give a listen to the isolated score and see how it evocatively cinematic it really is.
As advertised, the miracle of Dynamation is the true star of FIRST MEN. Ray Harryhausen’s technique of animating articulated puppets against previously-shot backgrounds (that’s a real simplification!) serves the film as “Wells” as it could be imagined, especially for a time when computer generated imagery was as far away from reality as a moon landing was to the Victorians!The widescreen cinematography by Wilkie Cooper is appropriately vibrant and atmospheric where it needs to be. The new 1080P HD transfer, presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is sharp, with vivid color and excellent detail. It takes one back to the original theatrical experience. If anything, its sharpness reveals more grain than customary… but an FX-laden picture like this contains so many layers that it’s an all but unavoidable by-product of the genre; and well within tolerability. The English audio is provided in an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and the music score can also be isolated on an additional DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track.
The commentary with the late Harryhausen, hosted by fellow animator Randall Cook (who went on to do Gollum in LORD OF THE RINGS) first offers an overview of Harryhausen and Dynamaition, the kicks into gear, revealing the kind of fascinating detail that FX aficionados crave. Among the tidbits is the fact that Harryhausen had never before (or since) used anamorphic widescreen in his FX toolbox. The marrying of the puppets and the backgrounds were achieved through photochemical means, similar to what we now refer to as “greenscreen.” Tabletop miniatures shot in slow-motion also enhanced such scenes as the spacecraft’s liftoff through the roof, (from within Cavor’s barn/laboratory) and the near-weightless surface of the moon. (Gravity and air are unaccountably present underneath the lunar surface.)
Harryhausen’s always-captivating set-pieces are worth the price of the disc. Limited to a pressing of only 5,000 we suggest you secure yours immediately. (Steven Austin)
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