Ray Harryhausen – First Men in the Moon (1964)
Children are easily influenced. Primarily by their family and friends, but also by those who incite their imagination. As a child there were many individuals who coaxed me to discover all sorts of wonders. Early on it was driven by Saturday morning cartoons, which progressed to books and eventually to films. And while I always had a fascination with the macabre, fantasy is what always seemed to inspire me the most.
Saturday evenings at my friend’s houses I would often stare with wild-eyed wonder at Japanese Kaiju films, while at the same time being quite obsessed over Star wars and Star trek. But Sunday afternoons were reserved for glimpses of the past as I watched men fight all manner of stop-motion creatures. Krackens and octopods, Pagasus’ and dinosaurs. And these fantastical stories and creatures were brought to into the collective dreamscape by one man, Ray Harryhausen.
For many it seems as though the name Harryhausen doesn’t provoke such loving thoughts and memories of the fantastic, but rather blank stares or hazy recollections of films long since forgotten. This is, of course, through no fault of their own, Harryhausen has been retired for over 30 years and his films haven’t been box office giants since the early 60’s. Once you’re long gone, it’s easy to be forgotten.
But perhaps one of my favorite things about Harryhausen films is that almost all of them are set in the distant past, and none are set in the future. While Harryhausen’s special effect techniques were cutting edge technologically speaking, he used them to bring the past, and its fantastical stories to modern day lives.
But over time Harryhausen’s style resulted in long production schedules and huge budgets. While spectacular, his pioneering techniques were hardly cheap, and eventually gave way to even more modern practical effects. Yet when I watch a Harryhausen film there is always a special feeling I get watching them, as I see something I will witness nowhere else. It is craftsmanship and artistry on display, and it seems like it is just for me.
Over the next week each of us will be reviewing a Harryhausen film in our own way. Some of us have seen many of his films, and some of us haven’t seen any of his films. I’m hoping that all of us, and that includes you dear reader, will watch more of his films.
A United Nations expedition to the Moon has discovered that they are not the first humans to have visited the satellite. Rather it was done by Arnold Bedford and Joseph Cavor some 65 years earlier. Will the UN astronauts encounter the same Moon bound horrors that befell the First Men in the Moon?
As a lifelong friend of Ray Bradbury, and a clear fan of mythology, it is easy to conclude that Harryhausen would have an affinity for the works of HG Wells and Jules Verne. Harryhausen was long known to be quite taken with The War of the Worlds, and for much of his career hoped to be able to make that film. And while First Men in the Moon is hardly an alien invasion film, it does hinge on a particularly well known trope that concludes War of the Worlds.
First Men in the Moon is a fascinating tale, and one that clearly influenced CS Lewis and his ridiculously great Space trilogy. Both feature similar protagonists of a wealth obsessed business with goals of profiting from the rich mineral deposits on other planetoids paired with a scientist whose only goal is that of greater knowledge. They also both start their journey’s in rather remote countryside’s which allow them to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull without being discovered by the larger world.
Of course, First Men in the Moon seems a bit more focused on being a bit of a lark in tone and style for much of its runtime, focusing instead of the odd and confrontational dynamic of its two male protagonists. As if that isn’t enough, first men in the Moon adds a female element to the mix in the form of one Martha Hyer as Kate Callender.
Kate acts a bit as the emotional and ethical center for businessman Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) whose constant attempts to gain an underhanded financial upper hand are thwarted by his borderline incompetence and Kate’s fiery temper. Kate also acts as a bit of a foil to Joseph Cavor (Lionell Jeffries), as she attempts to mother the two men and make sure they are adequately supplied while Cavor is far more interested in running out to play in outer space.
It is a bit of a shame that the film eventually resorts into turning Kate into a more classic damsel in distress than give her any real weight or meat to chew on throughout the latter half of the film, but the film instead chooses to focus more on Cavor’s romanticizing of the quest for knowledge than tear into any truly weighty or heady topics. Oh sure, it certainly broaches plenty of them, firing them off fast and furiously, particularly in an end scene where Cavor consults with a supreme alien intelligence, but far to often the film flippantly resolves the issues similarly to how the film casually ends the film with a glib remark, substituting power for sass.
It’s quite clear the film is far more comfortable with being cheeky and fluffy than with being a thorough examination of some interesting ideas, and while that can be a bit frustrating, the film certainly does excel at the areas it aims too.
As for Harryhausen’s special effects, he devoted plenty of resources to the bodysuits that he designed for the alien beings that populated the catacombs of the Moon’s subcutaneous hive, but the stand out sequence is clearly of the moon cow, a giant caterpillar like creature which chases the men and the Selenites through the Moon until it meets its eventual doom. One must also wonder, perhaps cynically so, if the skeleton effect used in the film was merely a way to capitalize on the now famous sequence from Jason and the Argonauts from just a year earlier. While still a great effect, it’s hard to not view it as more of a gimmick than the cinematic equivalent of a prehistoric Easter egg.
And while those effects hold up quite well even today, as do many of the outer space sequences, the rubber suit Selenites and the Grand Lunar pale in comparison as cheap looking relics of a bygone age. Perhaps even then Harryhausen’s style of effects was already beginning to appear dated, and could no longer hold up under the scrutiny he was now beginning to receive.
Even so, the film’s breezy feel and throwback style hold up well and make for an amusing romp. It certainly isn’t a masterpiece, but not every film has to be. When it comes to fantasy, fun is often more than enough.