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DVD SAVANT

Conquest of Space


Conquest of Space
Paramount Home Video
1955 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 81 min. / Street Date October 19, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy, Phil Foster, William Redfield, William Hopper, Benson Fong, Ross Martin
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Art Direction Joseph MacMillan Johnson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Everett Douglas
Original Music Van Cleave
Written by Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates, James O'Hanlon from books by Chesley Bonestell, Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun
Produced by George Pal
Directed by Byron Haskin

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.

Synopsis:

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 Power.

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
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 30, 2004


Footnotes:

 1 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.
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2. Or as my daugher Rebeca says, Oregano, the Lost Condiment.
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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 called the DVD Classics Corner.)

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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