Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the biggest disappointments of the first wave of 1950s science fiction, Conquest of
Space was a flop that seriously hindered George Pal's career as a producer. Originally planned
and rejected as a 'next step' beyond Pal's original blockbuster
Destination Moon, a pack of writers
added little of commercial interest except an unsatisfactory subplot about the spaceflight captain
going crazy and trying to sabotage the mission.
Worse, the ambitious special effects were some of the first to garner jeers for their lack
of realism. All in all, the boxoffice failure of Conquest of Space popped the balloon of the
science fiction craze, at least as far as expensive productions were concerned. Previously,
actors had little to gain from starring in a Sci Fi film, but from here on it was more often than
not a career kiss of death.
The 1980s. A crew assembles a moon rocket in Earth orbit, wondering why the landing
craft needs wings. A handpicked crew has to eat pills while the other space station
personnel get steak and turkey. Dr. Fenton (William Hopper) arrives with the news that the destination
is to be Mars, not the Moon. One astronaut has already washed out due to space sickness. The
willful commander General Merritt (Walter Brooke) is in denial that he suffers from a similar
nervous fatigue and bulls ahead with his plan to personally command the Mars mission, accompanied
by his reluctant son Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming). The mission goes as planned with only
one hitch: General Merritt goes off his rocker with religious delusions that the trip to Mars is
a blasphemous trespassing on God's domain.
The sweethearted George Pal was a very religious man, and a strong bible-class theme
marked all of his previous work, even his morally-centered Puppetoon productions. It looks
as though he was steamrolled by studio pressure on Conquest of Space, mainly through the plot
hook of the commander's religious meltdown en route to Mars. The concept of Destination Moon
was such a novelty in 1950 that Pal's quasi documentary approach was welcomed - a dramatic plot
would actually have been a hindrance. Five years later, space travel had become established in
the public consciousness and Pal's straight Mars Mission idea probably wouldn't have worked.
But the hash of bad writing and screwball ideas in the final script (which went through several
attempts) is equally unsatisfactory.
Outer space in Conquest of Space is colorful but not very consistent. The film was an
early attempt to do full-on travelling mattes in Technicolor, and the results are fairly
embarrassing. Hand-painted mattes are used a lot on the space wheel, resulting in fluttering edges
and erasures of parts of the station from frame to frame. One has to picture the Paramount brass
keeping a tight lid on optical expenditures and frustrating Pal's effects team by forcing them to
accept composites that needed one or two extra tries to succeed. When they can, the optical experts
try to do
away with mattes, resulting in transparent spacemen flying between shuttles and the wheel. The
models themselves were probably built on a smallish scale, particularly the space station. It
often looks like a toy, especially when it wobbles under a meteorite bombardment.
The science is silly but not terrible ... a moon mission becomes a Mars mission as easily as pulling
out a new set of maps, and the technological details are highly oversimplified. How does one cross a
hundred yards of space with no tether and no means of propulsion? Just have someone give you a good
push ... how many astronauts did they lose that way? "Oops, sorry Fred!"
This is the first space movie I can think of that has no scenes on Earth, although I'm sure someone
will be able to point out a Flash Gordon serial or something that came before. Earth is said to
be ruled by an international one-world political body. That in itself is a far cry from the jingoistic
saber-rattling of the average Sci Fi film, in which, as Pauline Kael once put it, spacemen never
launch into the heavens without itchy trigger fingers on their ray guns.
Where Conquest of Space
goes slack is in the dramatic unfoldment. The spacemen are a mix of altruistic scientists and guys
you'd expect to find in a filling station, with a very Destination Moon-like Brooklyn
bozo along for cheap laughs. Phil Foster is more lovable than his predecessor, but he's an awfully
dumb type to take along on a Mars mission.
The conflict imposed on the movie is the real joykiller. Walter Brooke's mad space captain is a rogue
maverick unsuited for normal command, let alone this kind of hazardous undertaking. Merritt has bullied his
son into becoming a space cadet as well, with the backing of a fanatical sergeant straight from
a bad WW2 movie (Mickey Shaughnessy). Brooke spouts freaky bible babble before the launch, but
nobody does anything about it, even when he tells his crew that this abominable mission
needs to be aborted. Here's one space odyssey that needed a HAL computer along to terminate some
life functions, for the good of the mission.
Of course, the general lack of anything like rational thought is best exhibited in the speech by a
dedicated Japanese botanist (Benson Fong of
Our Man Flint). While volunteering
for Mars duty, he comes out of nowhere with a hairbrained apology for WW2: Pearl Harbor might not
have happened if nutrition in Japan had been better and they'd been able
to grow bigger and taller like occidentals. The speech is a stack of non-sequitirs that
never fails to make audiences gasp. Was the final author of Conquest of Space a precocious
6th grader? Amiable producer Pal never had much of a grip on complex issues, to the detriment of
several otherwise honorable efforts:
When Worlds Collide, Atlantis, the
Lost Continent, 2
The space flight is standard stuff with some nice touches. The astronauts have to evade a giant rolling
asteroid that looks like the lethal planetoid from
Gorath. They jet out of the way in a
maneuver identical to that in Starship Troopers. Poor Ross Martin gets plugged when a meteorite
hits him like a sniper bullet (his faceplate mists a blood red too!), and is given a brief but eerie
burial in space. At least the talented Ross gets more than halfway through the picture; in Colossus
of New York he's hit by a truck in the very first scene!
In outer space the ship is obviously rolling on uneven rails (accompanied by some nice, spacey Van Cleave
music trills) and the Mars landing is an okay but overly familiar scene. For some reason, Mars
is incredibly dull. There's no sense of wonder or mystery about the landscape and except for
Benson Fong's efforts to get a seed to sprout, the crew shows little interest in doing anything but
waiting. I won't give away the plot, but a fight between the commander and his son is resolved with
the sergeant bringing ridiculously unsubstantiated charges against Merritt junior. Events perk up
for a last-minute earthquake and relaunch, but the overall this is a slow 81 minutes. I can see
1955 space fanatics flocking to this one and not catching on at all.
Interestingly, the only time the movie jumps to life is at a pre-launch dinner party where the spacemen
are treated to entertainment and personal messages from home. Phil Foster gets a testimonial from
his steady girl (played by Joan Shawlee of
Some Like it Hot and
The Apartment) who is clearly
two-timing him. Ross Martin's scientist hears from his mother in Germany. To entertain the boys,
Rosemary Clooney does a Harem musical number. Clooney is unbilled, which would seem to
indicate Paramount's desire for her not to be hurt by asssociation with this space movie. 3
That seemed to be the pattern for any actor cast in 50s fantastic genre fare. Eric Fleming made Queen
of Outer Space and retreated to TV's Rawhide, only to be overshadowed by
his co-player Clint Eastwood. Walter Brooke stayed with character acting, to become famous twelve
years later by saying the immortal word "Plastics!" to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
Paramount's DVD of Conquest of Space is the first acceptable version I've seen. It's
properly formatted in an enhanced transfer that crops away a lot of dead space above and
below, eliminating some of the worst of the bad mattes in the process (on televison, I remember
whole parts of the space station being blooped away for individual frames). The picture looks a tiny bit
soft and grainy, but that may be a function of the effects work. For a no-frills plain-wrap
bargain edition, you can't go wrong.
Now Paramount needs to steel itself and release its even
rarer genre oddities, the paranoid The Atomic City and (is this too much to ask?) a 'scope,
uncensored disc of Roger Vadim's version of Carmilla, Et mourir de plaisir
(Blood and Roses). That, as Dr. Seuss would say, would be a priority If I Ran the Circus.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Conquest of Space rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 30, 2004
1. The 'straight' telling
of much the same story became the 1955 Disney TV show featured in the
Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland
Walt Disney in Space and Beyond DVD. Its special effects are technically superior to those
of the Pal film.
2. Or as my daugher Rebeca says, Oregano, the Lost Condiment.
3. Dick Dinman has the answer, 10.30.04: Hi Glenn, Rosie's harem
song in Conquest of Space was simply lifted
from a completed number that was used in Paramount's '54 Bob Hope flop
Here Come the Girls. By the time Conquest of Space was released (as a
second feature to Run for Cover) Clooney's option at Paramount had been
dropped. Enjoyed your review of Conquest a great deal more than the film
itself. Upon hearing the "Pearl Harbor" speech I threw my hands up in
the air and moved on to another DVD. Cheers, Dick Dinman
(Note: Dick's review page is
DVD Classics Corner.)
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson