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First Men on the Moon, Er, Mars
'Rocketship X-M' jump-starts the 1950s science-fiction movie boom.
I'm not sure what possessed me to pay $1.99 to watch a science-fiction movie this past Saturday, but I'm glad I did. Rocketship X-Men (1950) may not be a very good movie, yet I found myself caught up in its sense of wonder.
Reportedly, producer and cinema chain owner Robert L. Lippert "read a 1949 Life magazine article about a proposed trip to and landing on the Moon. He rushed into production his version called Rocketship X-M, released a year later in 1950; he changed the film's destination to Mars to avoid copying exactly the same idea being utilized by producer George Pal in his large-budget, high-profile Destination Moon.
"Rocketship X-M succeeded in becoming the first post-war science fiction outer space drama to appear in theaters, but only by 20 days, while capitalizing on all the publicity surrounding the Pal film. More importantly, it became the first feature film drama to warn of the dangers and folly of full-scale atomic war."
Running just 77 minutes, Rocketship X-M flies by at a pleasant pace. The opening sequence revolves around a press conference held just 15 minutes before the rocketship is due to blast off to the Moon, with the ship's entire's crew in attendance. Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery) is in charge and introduces his crew, which includes now-familiar faces Lloyd Bridges, Hugh O'Brian, and Noah Beery Jr., as well as the rocketship's fuel creator, Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen).
Once the ship blasts off, we get to know the crew a bit more, as they sit around without helmets and chit-chat in the tiny cabin, occasionally watch random objects "float" in the
gravity-free environment, and dodge a hail of asteroids. (Really it's a very eventful trip.) They lose touch with Earth, many more things go wrong, and soon they are on their way to Mars, instead of the Moon.
Oh, well. By this point, the crew members have reminded modern viewers over and over again that women really are the weaker vessel -- they get so emotional! -- and that people from Texas are really quite dim. (Noah Beery Jr., who later played James Garner's father on The Rockford Files, is quite disappointed when he can't use his fancy space helmet to explore Mars, since Mars doesn't require an air-tight space helmet.) Lloyd Bridges makes romantic moves on Osa Massen, and she reciprocates, because how can you ignore the dynamic charm of the man who would become a star on Sea Hunt and father two adorable boys, Beau and Jeff?
The deathless dialogue is credited on-screen to Orville H. Hampton and director Kurt Neuman, though famed blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo evidently wrote the script, per Glenn Erickson's Cine Savant and J. Hoberman's Army of Phantoms, the latter of which places the film into its historical context as things were heating up for war in Korea.
Presented in black and white, a "pinkish red sepia" filter is applied to the Mars sequences, which were filmed in California's Death Valley National Park. Having landed, Dr. Karl Eckstrom decides that they simply must explore the planet, which holds great secrets that may influence the future of life on Earth. (No spoilers here, though if you pay me the $1.99 rental fee I paid to watch the movie, I'll tell you what happens.)
Considering its low budget, Rocketship X-M would have satisfied me, I'm sure, if I'd been able to see it during its initial theatrical run. Space is the place for dreamers, after all, and even today, it's fun to watch.
It's not truly science fiction, as I've come to identify books and movies that speculate about the future for fun, fashion, and profit. In its heart, it's a B-picture, meant to accompany a longer and more lavish production on the big screen as the lower half of a double bill. Spritely and sassy, it laid the groundwork for better things to come.
Even so, the ending has a bite, perhaps reflecting Dalton Trumbo's own anxiety about the world in the dawning atomic age. Monsters awaited. [Prime Video]