Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950), a Supersonic Honeymoon

Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950), a Supersonic  Honeymoon

Winner of an Academy Award for special effects and also the Bronze Berlin Bear award in the first Berlin International Film Festival, the 1950 film Destination Moon makes a big leap in realism in science fiction films. Although classified by the festival as a “thriller and adventure film,” the film was made under consultation with scientists and experts, among them Hermann Oberth, one of the founding fathers of astronautics and rocketry, so that Destination Moon would be as scientifically accurate as possible.

The film was based on the 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, by American science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who also contributed to the film’s screenplay.  Yet the plot is surprisingly simple: four astronauts fly to the Moon and do a little exploration on the foreign body, but soon they realize they have less fuel than they need for the return journey and have to get rid of the excess weight on the spaceship by any means. George Pal, the producer of this film, devoted the most effort to creating a completely realistic visual experience of this supersonic trip for the audience. Chesley Bonestell, a noted sci-fi artist, was responsible for creating the matte paintings for the filming background. The sound stage was built with the guidance of real photographs of the Moon. A miniature spaceship was used to film the launch scene, though a full-sized spaceship was indeed built in a desert. Wires, similar to those used to manipulate marionette puppets, were frequently used to imitate weightlessness. According to Encyclopedia of Movie Special Effects by Patricia Netzley, 36 separate strands were attached to each actor, and each of the wires was painted to minimize reflection so that they could be hidden from the audience. In terms of the facial expression of the actors, in order to show astronaut’s discomfort when the spaceship took off, thin membranes were glued to their faces to pull their skin back.

Yet the real challenge lay in recreating the absolute-clear atmosphere of the moon. The filming crew had to keep a special ventilation machine in operation during the filming to keep dust and smoke away from the sound stage, and the actors had to dub their voices into the soundtrack because of the noise of the machine. Moreover, to simulate the harsh and penetrating lighting on the moon, huge arch lights were used over the set, and automobile headlight bulbs simulated the glare of stars.

Destination Moon also came in Technicolor. Technicolor is a color process that involves multiple apertures during filming, each of which is equipped with a filter of certain color. In this way, even though only one camera is used, the same image will come with different color effects.  Technicolor contributed to some of the most loved and memorable scenes in Destination Moon in which astronauts walk around on the stark surface of the Moon in colorful spacesuits. Technicolor was used in a lot of early Disney cartoons. The Wizard of Oz (1939) was an early use of three-strip Technicolor, which produces very bright and saturated colors, but it was still a novelty when Destination Moon was released in 1950.

Destination Moon was filmed one decade before President Kennedy proposed to the nation the idea to put a man on the Moon, and almost two decades earlier than Apollo 11 made it happen. Destination Moon has long been said to have a political meaning during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In an article published in June 1950, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther reflected this idea.

“For instance, it is arresting to hear an eloquent scientist proclaim that the first nation which can use the moon for launching missiles will control the earth. It is thrilling to be told, in deepest confidence, that this is the greatest military fact of our age. And it is awesome to watch the mechanics constructing that giant rocket ship… Nothing (on the moon) to see but old, dead mountains and craters with cracked and scaling sides. There isn’t a single beautiful female nor even a Russian scientist anywhere, although we’re led to be on the lookout for the latter—just in case.”

Some other interesting comments in The New York Times include the classic sarcasm to the beautiful spacesuits: “an invasion of the nation’s stores” is said to occur by spacesuits, walkie-talkies, oxygen tubes, air-pressure gauges, magnetic boots… “Everything but moon maidens.”

  • What did people in the late 50s think the space look like? The opening title screen of New Adventures of the Space Explorers, a 1959 cartoon,  also portraits a planet in space, possibility the moon.
  • George Pal before Destination Moon: He directed the “Puppetoon” series in which wooden puppets were filmed frame by frame. Here is a five-minute Puppetoon movie in Technicolor called La Grande Revue Philips
  • George Pal after Destination Moon: He directed another masterpiece in 1960: The Time Machine