ROCKETSHIP X-M landed in May, 1950, its $94,000 vessel beating ballyhooed Destination Moon by a month, thus taking pride of place for launching the decade’s sci-fi boom. The other pic, heavily promoted, was considerably more upscale, with six times the budget for its impressive special effects, and bore some relation to the actual ‘science’ part of science-fiction. But apart from its visuals (Chesley Bonestell’s matte painting backdrops) the moon-bound movie is a dry slog, while fanciful X-M—originally aimed at our friendly satellite only to lurch wildly off-course to hostile Mars—is a lot more fun. Its catastrophic finale packed considerable dramatic wallop for impressionable kids. *
“With that differential of six over N to the thirtieth power the halfway check result is two hundred and sixty-two thousand to three hundred and forty-one thousand both using tangent E, correct?”
Four men and a woman blast off from Earth to explore the Moon. Space suits and helmets are absent, but leather bomber jackets, gasmasks and sidearms are on hand (who will they shoot on the moon?) The gal, ‘Dr. Lisa Van Horn’ (“Ph.D.,chemistry”), played by languorous-locked Ona Massen, is pitched woo from Lloyd Bridges’ pilot, ‘Col.Floyd Graham’. He muses “I’ve been wondering, how did a girl like you get mixed up in a thing like this in the first place?” When she replies “I suppose you think that women should only cook and sew and bear children?”, he settles the issue with “Isn’t that enough?”
Before they can solve boundaries, they witness a cluster of “meteorites!” (which bear a distinct resemblance to enlarged Cracker Jacks), then the engines go wacky and rapid acceleration causes the crew to pass out, only to awaken several days and 50,000,000 miles later, about to land on Mars. WTF? Thoughtful designer ‘Dr. Karl Eckstrom’ (John Emery) observes they should “pause and observe respectfully while something infinitely greater assumes control”. What they find to be infinitely greater are the murderous mutants of Mars, who greet the American Earthlings with tossed boulders and hurled axes. Two killed, one wounded, the surviving astronauts head back to Earth, despite knowing they don’t have enough fuel to make it.
Produced & directed by Kurt Neumann (Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, The Fly), the script, also credited to him was actually co-written by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. The other crewmen are played by Noah Beery Jr. (bring a Texan along for jokes) and Hugh O’Brian. For the ‘surface of Mars’, the 18-day shoot made good use of handier California locations—the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon and Death Valley.
61st place for the year may not seem like much, but a $1,600,000 gross against the $94,000 cost vectored a resounding hit. The likewise success of Destination Moon (88th place and copping an Oscar) ensured that space, what came from it and assorted scientific mischief would bombard the atomic 50’s with a dosage of fantasy fare.
Back on Earth, ‘Dr. Ralph Fleming’ (Morris Ankrum) promises space exploration will not be halted by mere mission massacres: “Tomorrow we start construction of RXM-2!”
* Not yet a gleam in parental eyes when this came out, your humble navigator was one of many shocked kidlets who caught it a decade later on TV, taken by cruel surprise that “Holy cow, they killed off Mike Nelson’ and Wyatt Earp!” Nelson being Lloyd Bridges hero on Sea Hunt and Earp, as every tyke with a six-shooter knew, was Hugh O’Brian. Though it didn’t have quite the Santa-revealing Richter scale effect of seeing the 1953 Titanic go down singing or realizing Walt Disney was letting not just Davy Crockett die but Old Yeller, too, the sacrificial fate of Rocketship X-M still made for ample sandbox & playground chatter.