Reading recent reviews of Conquest of Space (1955), I was struck by just how many writers still smugly insist on judging old movies like this by how well they stack-up against present-day special effects technology. Though dramatically-flawed (even in 1955 movie terms), that this science fiction melodrama still finds an enthusiastic following almost half a century after it was made -- and long after many of its then-fantastic speculations have come to pass -- is a testament to the showmanship and sense of wonder infused it by producer George Pal. I strongly doubt audiences in 2054 will hold the same affection for The Day After Tomorrow.
Similarly, some reviews suggest fans of classic science fiction movies like 'em "cheesy," as if their "retro sets and stolid acting" were actually preferred over imaginative art direction and expressive performances. It's as if one has to hide behind a jaded, amused contempt to avoid the embarrassment of actually liking a movie more than ten years old.
Enough. Before George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made science fiction and fantasy economically desirable genres with enormous earning power (as opposed to their modest earning potential in the fifties, a different era of film distribution), several generations of moviegoers turned chiefly to George Pal to fire our imaginations. His best movies were like no other. It wasn't just their orgies of colorful special effects, though that certainly helped. Pal's best films had a wonderful sense of story and a shared enthusiasm for the fantastic. And guess what? The passage of time hasn't changed that. Pal's War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960) will probably always impress audiences, no matter the evolution of special effects, and even as high-concept remakes come and, for the most part, are compared unfavorably to Pal's originals and quickly forgotten.
George Pal was the first Hollywood producer to really get behind science fiction and fantasy, unashamedly so. For instance, his Destination Moon (1950) made the idea of sending men to the moon and bringing them back seem scientifically plausible at a time when -- and this is usually lost on contemporary audiences -- it seemed to many an unreachable pipe dream. With Conquest of Space (1955), Pal hoped to nudge audiences even further into the future, suggesting that space stations and inter-planetary travel were not only possible, they would prove invaluable for all manner of things, from predicting the weather to providing new natural resources.
Pal was also one of the first filmmakers to conceive a "lived-in" future, where space travel and other wonders had become the norm. One of the chief problems with Conquest of Space is that in its long, multi-script journey from conception to production (as chronicled in Bill Warren's invaluable Keep Watching the Skies!) this concept is carried too far in the wrong direction. Instead of an everyday future full of wonder, Conquest of Space is populated with characters bored with life in space, who wish they were back home on earth. This is so overdone that it only undercuts the potential awesomeness of its concepts.
The story is simple. Aboard "the Wheel," a rotating space station orbiting earth, Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke) prepares a new spacecraft for what he assumes will be man's first trip to the moon. Instead, colleague Dr. Fenton (William Hopper) brings word that the mission has been scrapped in favor of a manned flight to Mars. Merritt, accompanied by son Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming), electronics expert Jackie Siegel (Phil Foster), and scientists Imoto (Benson Fong) and Andre Fodor (Ross Martin), make the long journey but are threatened when the elder Merritt abruptly becomes a religious fanatic, convinced the trip to Mars is an invasion "of His sacred domain."
It's this latter crisis that's earned Conquest of Space its biggest and most-deserved criticism. Through its multiple drafts, and probably at Pal's behest, the religious angle is so abrupt and unbelievable as to cause the film serious damage. Another complaint of both Conquest and Destination Moon is that they are populated by standard war movie types, from Conquest's overdone Irish sergeant (all he needs is a clay pipe and muttonchop whiskers) to both films' wise-cracking guy from Brooklyn. But these standard movie caricatures are forgivable when one considers that they functioned as a kind of oasis in what was then virgin territory for audiences as yet undecided about the idea of space travel. Less acceptable is the colorlessness of several main actors, especially Walter Brooke, whose very blandness earned him what immortality he has, as the man who in The Graduate offers Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) a single word of advice: "Plastics." By contrast, Phil Foster's electronics expert may be as subtle as Leo Gorcey, but at least he isn't the stiff Brooke is.
Until Conquest of Space, no Hollywood film had seriously attempted science fiction on this scale, so that it only partially succeeds is likewise forgivable. This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956), produced in quick succession soon thereafter, were better movies, but Conquest of Space, in one sense, had blazed the trail. Today's savvy audiences, well-educated in the art of special effects via shows like Entertainment Tonight, articles on the Internet, and as behind-the-scenes goodies on DVDs themselves, might complain about the obvious matte lines, the not-so-hot lighting of the model work and so forth. At the same time, it's easy to forget its small achievements. At a time, for instance, when views of the earth from space weren't even possible, astronomical artists Chesley Bonestell achieves remarkably accurate views of both the earth and Mars.
Video & Audio
A thank you to Paramount is in order. First, they got the aspect ratio right, this being 1.85:1 (with a 16:9 squeeze yet!), making this a rare three-strip Technicolor movie that's also widescreen (This Island Earth is another one). Director Byron Haskin doesn't take full advantage of the wide ratio, but at least actors and effects shots play better than they did full frame. The colors are good but not outstanding, and after the 47-minute mark their vividness is lost, and the image becomes slightly flatter and remains so for the rest of the picture, making one wonder if the color separations on this title still exist. But for a movie whose only prior home video release (I think) was as an EP (extended play) VHS tape, a 16:9 Conquest of Space counts as a major release for '50s sci-fi fans. The mono sound is acceptable; the only audio/subtitle option is English subtitles. There are no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
Conquest of Space is a flawed movie, far from producer George Pal's best. But it is also full of sights and ideas that were new to movies in 1955, and while special effects technology and, well, technology itself, has come a long way since, it's still a film whose sense of adventure has dimmed only slightly since its original release.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.