Conquest Of Space
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Conquest Of Space

I have maintained the pet theory that a significant factor in the American victory in the Cold War’s space race was the vast proliferation of science fiction flicks in the fifties. A large percentage of them had to do with the manned exploration of space with heightened awareness, understanding and ultimately the fervor to embark on the real thing. Over a decade before Neil Armstrong set his boot in the dusty soil of the moon we of the baby boomer generation spent many Saturday afternoons in the darkness of the neighborhood movie theaters enthralled by images of rocket ships blasting through the cold void of outer space carrying courageous astronauts to incredible adventures. Lying on the living room floor years late one July evening seeing Commander Armstrong descend the LEM’s ladder seemed very familiar already thank to all those movies; it was literally observing our imaginations come to life. One man you were instrumental to inclining our young minds to Sci-Fi and outer space was the legendary genre director and producer George Pal. Just about every film he had a part in creating would become a classic helping to define that decade. His legacy was vast that greatly influenced the imagination of a generation. Some would go on to becoming our greatest modern filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg. Others would become the pioneers in the technological revolution but even those like me, lifelong fans, were indelibly affected by these movies. As soon as it became possible I began collecting the movies and television shows that served as the vanguard of a new era in mankind. I naturally started with video tapes, subsequently migrating to DVD, formats that made collecting movies possible. All collectors maintained a list of the most desirable titles and for many of us the films of George Pal were always at the top of the list. Every so often it’s great to put aside the mind boggling technological advances special effects have made and take a little trip in time to where much of what we take for granted now got its start. After watching something like ‘’Avatar’ I wanted to go back to basics and popped in one of the greats from 1955, ‘Conquest of Space’. This is a film that is certain to create a generation gap right there in your own living room. The young folk around will be dismayed at how primitive the effects and even the story are but for those of us brought up on these flick it is a childhood memory brought back to life. movie like this are what the modern film masters like Spielberg and Cameron grew up watch and the fact is they still hold up as fun movies to watch.

While Mr. Pal was occupied with the production of this film the actual task of direction fell to a well-established and notable name in the genre; ‘Byron Haskin. If you have ever attended a Sci-Fi convention for the panel you will recognize this man immediately. He was a special effects innovator for many years running the gamut from war flicks to sports and drama. As a director he helmed one of Geo Pal’s most famous productions, the 1953 version of ‘The War of the Worlds’. He carried his directorial vision over to television with several episodes of the sixties anthology series ‘The Outer Limits’. Among the episodes he directed was one written by Harlan Ellison; ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’. These were men with a vision of the future as demonstrated by the first words spoken in this film; ‘this is a story about tomorrow, or perhaps the day after’. For many this film is seen as the nadir in Pal’s career and from an adult vantage point considering the technical aspects of the film a strong case may be made to support that statement. The ending is so cheesy that it is difficult to believe it came from one of the giants of Sci-Fi. The crew of the space ship is trapped on Mars with limited supplies and a one year wait until earth can rescue them. One of the crew members, Imoto (Benson Fong) unrealistically plants a flower in the arid Martian soil. Then, on Christmas morning it blooms giving hope and showing God’ presence on Mars. This has to be placed a Japanese man on the rocket was somewhat controversial. He has one impassioned speech about how the world sees his people who eat with sticks sitting on the floor of their paper houses. He goes on to explain they don’t have the natural resources for anything better so he is in space hoping to find some way to help his people. Instead of outer space being depicted as a great unknown that holds deadly creatures this film was intended to bring a hopeful view of technology. In the war science was demonized with the A-bomb and Nazi rockets but here Pal wanted to so a bright potential to scientific advancement. It is part of our fundamental nature to explore the unknown and outer space is the logical target of this thirst for knowledge. For us as kids all that mattered was this was a movie with rockets and space suits.

There was something intentionally familiar about this film; it was molded along the same lines as any of a hundred war movies. Imoto was the sensitive soldier while his best friend on board was Brooklyn born Jack Siegel. Jack is always wise cracking or complaining which is usually kept in check by the no nonsense Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy). It’s his job to keep the specialist building the space ship on track. One of the most intelligent of the crew would become quite well known as a character actor, Ross Martin. If you are inclined to follow the credits of movies, you will realize that much of the talent on both sides of the camera had been recruited from westerns and military movies. The construction of the interplanetary rocket was being done just outside a huge space circular space station called the wheel. In command is Gen. Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke). Of all the men under his command the one unhappy about being there is his son, Capt. Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming) who just wants to go back to earth to be with his bride. The orders change and instead of going to the moon the mission is now summarily changed to Mars. No concerns for the vast increase in consumables like food, oxygen, water and fuel were mentioned. The commitment to the revised destination was accomplished as casually as the family setting out to go to the neighborhood diner with Dad announcing, off the cuff it’s dinner in Little Italy. While films like this affected the public’s opinion of space little effort was made to be scientifically accurate. That would have to wait for the kids in the audience to provide the innovation, imagination and drive to create the science and technology that would make it possible. Yes, the film is dated but it’s still very enjoyable to watch. After all, this is a significant portion of our cultural legacy.

Posted 01/30/2015

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