Man was a mere five years away from the actual moonwalk when FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was produced. The space program was preparing the Gemini missions that would ultimately become the Apollo launchings that would make H.G. Wells a visionary instead of a storyteller.
The release of Ray Harryhausen's only foray into scope (2.35:1) is as vibrant and fresh looking as when it was released in 1964. This film has a fairy-tale charm that makes it almost timeless. Technically it is a science-fiction film based on H.G. Wells' novel of 1899 and if not for the insertion of a prologue taking place in the 1960s and the addition of a female character, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is a fairly faithful rendition of his work.
As with all of the Charles H. Schneer/Ray Harryhausen films, the emphasis is on the special effects and as children we couldn't wait to see what the Master had in store for us. In the case of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON he does not disappoint. From the ant-like Selenites to The Moon Cow and the cleverly wrought introduction of the Grand Lunar encased in a liquid throne that eerily whispers to Joseph Cavour (Lionel Jeffries), Harryhausen's mastery of his craft is on screen and as magical today as it was in 1964.
The production values are all first-rate and this film benefits greatly from the comedic star turn of veteran actor/director Lionel Jeffries. A staple in the British film industry for decades, he simply steals the film away from everything but Harryhausen's wizardry. Jeffries embodies all the eccentricities of the Victorian scientist as Wells conceived him.
Edward Judd and Martha Hyer acquit themselves admirably as well and somewhere in the cast is an uncredited Peter Finch. Those of us who are familiar with Hammer Films cannot help but be amused at the scene stealing Miles Malleson who appears in the beginning as a records keeper.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is the story of Joseph Cavour's discovery of a substance that defies gravity and enables his obsession to travel into space. Part of the charm of this film is its ability to fluctuate between fantasy and science fiction with humor and panache. The rather speedy trip to the Moon is balanced with enough slapstick and bravado that as children we never really stopped to question its validity to science or reality. After all, one must always remember it is a fantasy and almost anything can happen.
The real fun begins when the marvelously Victorian spacecraft, complete with velvet upholstery, lands rather unceremoniously on the rocky surface of the lunar landscape. While the female member of the expedition remains behind for lack of a diving suit to explore in, the two men set out to discover the secrets that await. No time is lost as both tumble into the moon's interior and come face to face with the insect-like drones that inhabit the satellite's core. This writer's childhood memory of the Moon Cow always reminded him of the creature from THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD only this time in Lunacolor!
Even though Harryhausen's effects dominate the proceedings, it is Nigel Kneale's contribution to the script that really elevates this to one of the best in the series. Kneale, whose Quatermass films explored the possibilities of the earth having been visited by alien races, gives Wells' novel a dusting off and adroitly deals with the human condition for violence and war. Jan Read collaborated on this script and had worked for Harryhausen once before in writing JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).
Director Nathan Juran began his directing career in 1952 with the horror opus THE BLACK CASTLE for Universal-International Pictures. From there his body of work includes THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957), 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957), BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957), ATTACK OF THE 50-FT. WOMAN (1958), THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962). His final directorial credit is BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF in 1973.
The supplementary features here are: a 3-1/2 minute "This is Dynamation" short which is included on all of the Harryhausen DVDs as is the hour-long "Ray Harryhausen Chronicles" hosted by Leonard Nimoy. The trailers for this film, GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD are available for viewing as well. This 103-minute film has 28 chapter stops, is remastered in high definition with Dolby Digital sound. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is subtitled in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai and also boasts close captioning. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (16x9 enhanced) and is glorious and wonderful to behold.
Thanks, Columbia/Tri-Star Entertainment and keep those titles coming! (Christopher Dietrich)
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