A venerable and easily-mocked movie, "Rocketship-XM" could be seen as the grandfather of the genre. It’s certainly one of the first - George Pal’s “Destination Moon” came out the same year, 1950. That’s just XX years after Charlie Chaplin’s last silent movie. Rocketship movies had been around for a while, but this type was different - no Emperor Ming, no costumed minions, no death rays. Actual science! (Sort of.) Realistic crews! (Well, no, but you couldn’t sell a picture without the pretty girl.) It didn’t have the budget of “Destination,” but it had something else: that scrappy charm you get when you try to make up a genre while you’re borrowing from another.
Here’s the trailer:
It begins with a sequence no doubt intended to build tension: The military brass gives the press a rundown about the ship’s mission and operation, with the crew looking on . . . and a voice on the loudspeaker giving the countdown. Which is 15 minutes to liftoff. Yes, that’s right: a leisurely description of the mechanics of spaceflight while the crew stands around smoking, chatting with reporters. We meet the intrepid staff.
Captain Evil Walt Disney:
The Cocky, Confident Jockey:
Looks like I picked a bad week to stop thinking how awesome I am. Oh wait - I didn't!
Yes, it’s ever war movie gang ever assembled, with the Texan (Noah Beery, not Will Rogers) standing in for the White But Still “Ethnic” member of the platoon.
With five whole minutes to spare, they board the USS Matteshot:
The Enterprise it’s not.
After surviving a busted engine and a meteor swarm made up of Kix cereal, they overshoot the moon and manage to hit . . .
Mars. Nice work. That’s like aiming for Fargo, driving five miles north, and arriving in Sydney a day later. Actually, that doesn’t begin to describe the impossibility of it all, but never mind. Once on the Red-Filtered Planet, they find evidence of lost civilization, and find the first evidence that Mars may have been settled by the descendents of Fred Gwynne:
Good thing they destroyed themselves in a nuclear holocaust! Here the movie adopts the sonorous Cautionary Tone so overused by science fiction. They were always finding civilizations that had blown themselves up, and they would vow to take the news back to earth and hope to make everyone see the light. What they were fighting over was never apparent. It mattered not.
I forgot to mention that the crew included a brainy female scientist, who was naturally regarded as frigid because she stuck to her work.
Of course, she's treated with the utmost respect. (Flash vid; mouse over for controls if not visible.)
For all this, it's worth it - just as an early piece of sci-fi, and the remarkably downbeat, but yet uplifting, ending. (Note: the MST3K version is available on YouTube, and I hope I haven't duplicated any of their sterling japes.)
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