FIRST MEN IN THE MOON brought H.G.Wells 1901 book to memorable life on screen in 1964, and it remains a yesteryear delight today, thanks to the talents and decisions of the filmmakers. Right off the launch pad, they made a smart move by—apart from the intro and exit scenes—keeping the Victorian Era story set back when H.G. conceived it, a day when there were still places on our orb where the intrepid could plant a flag, lay claim, affix your name and get captured by the locals. He just logically extended Britain’s territorial reach a little. *
When a U.N. mission lands on the Moon they discover a Union Jack flag and a note claiming our helpful satellite for Queen Victoria. Back on Earth, cranky old ‘Arnold Bedford’ (Edward Judd) relates how in 1899, he and fiancée ‘Kate Callender’ (Martha Hyer) journeyed to the Moon with eccentric inventor ‘Joseph Cavor’ (Lionel Jeffries) in a homemade sphere Cavor designed, coated with his gravity-deflecting ‘Cavorite’. Some exploring results in the trio finding themselves beneath the surface, the lunar interior provided with oxygen and a race of curious insectoid creatures—‘Selenites’. Will the selenites allow them to leave, and spur further visits from other Earthlings who might want more than a tour?
Producer Charles H. Schneer and special effects wonder-worker Ray Harryhausen teamed for the 7th time. Efficient director Nathan Juran, who’d worked with them before on 20 Million Miles To Earth and The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, took the helm, with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Xperiment and its sequels, plus the nautical rouser Damn The Defiant!) and Jan Read (Jason And The Argonauts). Bernard Herrmann wasn’t available to score this time, so Laurie Johnson took the baton for soundtrack duty. Wilkie Cooper was on camera, John Blezard designed the neato art direction and Harryhausen’s creations served his stop-motion process prominently billed as DYNAMATION !
Judd and Jeffries were chums (they’d just finished supporting roles on The Long Ships) and their yin-yang teaming works quite well—Jeffries in particular is wonderfully exuberant. Hyer—added for a feminine angle and a U.S. hook—is less stiff than usual. As to non-human animation, this time out Harryhausen gives us a giant angry caterpillar-styled chomper dubbed a Moon Bull, a slick perpetual motion machine, neat shots of the sphere speeding in flight and the weirdly charming bug-bizarre array of selenites. Laurie Johnson’s music score is now regarded a classic, perfectly capturing the awesome idea of pioneering space travel and that of the irresistibly eerie denizens of the lunar basement, making cool-creepy chirping noises as they shuffle through their cavern-laced realm. Great fun.
It did well in England, but in the States a gross of $4,600,000 (62nd place for the year) tabbed less than expected, even though better than the other genre entries vying for attention among the throngs flocking to new fancies like 007. With Milles Malleson, Marne Maitland, and in a disguised (barely) unbilled cameo, Peter Finch. 103 minutes. **
* When Wells penned his 342-page space saga, there were still enough sufficiently unexplored regions here on Earth to allow armchair adventurers and future globe-trotters to wonder/wish that there might indeed be dinosaurs atop a plateau in South America, or perhaps a tunnel in Iceland that led to the center of the earth. Who knew what lurked in New Guinea, lay buried in the Antarctic or was biding time at the bottom of the sea? Notepad, pith helmet, rifle—check. Suffragette stowaway?!!
** Trips to the light & dark fantastic in 1964, in order of money-making: Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao, The Incredible Mr.Limpet, The Last Man On Earth, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, The Masque Of Red Death, The Tomb Of Ligeia, The Brass Bottle, The Gorgon and—last but hardly least— Godzilla Vs. The Thing. I suppose, to be fair, at the head of the list we should add a Miss Poppins.