Directed by Nathan Juran (a man whose resume is strong with such genre credentials as 20 Million Miles To Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, as well as episodes for Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space, and The Time Tunnel), the film was adapted from the H.G. Wells source material by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read. The story finds failed investor Arnold Bedford (played by Edward Judd) and his fiancé Kate (the lovely – and then some – Martha Hyer) joining forces with inventor Joseph Cavor (a sometimes bumbling Lionel Jeffries) on a trip to Earth’s only satellite, but much of the action is in fact explored via Bedford’s flashbacks: when a U.N. trip into space uncovers evidence that someone has been to the lunar surface before them, the investigators seek out and find the codger in an old folks’ home with a dire warning to leave the moon pronto.
Though I don’t recall the film specifically from my youth, I can’t help but wonder if I saw previously on television while growing up. Certain elements of the production (largely the set design, Cavor’s lunar capsule, and costume/creatures of the Selenites) seemed familiar, but I’ll admit the overall arc of the characters was new territory. Still, ‘Men’ feels like the type of flick that would’ve found a home on my set, perhaps playing on WGN’s popular “Family Classics” out of Chicago.
That said, performances are fine, a bit oafish compared to those I usually prefer in my genre choices, as Kneale & Read’s screenplay reduces the inventor to shtick more commonly associated with Abbott and Costello pictures than more legitimate Science Fiction material. It’s easy to forgive when the production and effects work is this grand (major thanks to the legendary Ray Harryhausen for his contributions here), and – at just over 100 minutes – it largely moves at a good pace once our space travelers have thrown off the bonds of Earth and find themselves in the heavens.
As is my custom when reviewing older releases, I do tend to scour the web just a bit to see what I can find written about the film, usually looking for historical trivia which might enhance or amplify some of my impressions of the work. To my surprise, there’s surprisingly little out there regarding the release; one would think that a Harryhausen picture would have a larger contingent of fans! While there are fragments about some of the more arcane elements (such as where the film’s spacesuits originated and some discussion about the overall effects process), I was disappointed to learn so little.
… which kinda/sorta brings me back to my quandary.
First Men In The Moon is heavily dated entertainment. Its sense of humor – much of it is chocked into the first half – is old, and – as such – probably doesn’t translate well to today’s more cynical audience mindset. In many ways, the comedy feels directed more at 1964’s children, but the latter half deals with some grittier and slightly more intense subject matter (man versus monster, hints of a possible nefarious plan by the Selenites for Earth, etc.). I tend to think that those youngsters would’ve been disappointed in what they could followed as our heroes race against the Fates to escape the moon and its insectoid inhabitants. Even further, I’m not entirely certain those same kids would even understand everything the “Grand Lunar” – their leader – is waxing on about with Cavor.
That being the case, Men feels very much like two differing features: a comedy of errors featuring three would-be explorers which then morphs into a mildly meaty existential ‘Star Trekkie’ space yarn about defending your world from would-be invaders. This isn’t to imply that the picture is inferior; rather, I’d say it’s confusing in the way some older films are in that they don’t mean as much to today’s viewers as they might have to our parents. Or grandparents. But when they were young. If that makes sense.
If anything, watch First Men In The Moon for its sense of wonder. Forget about the fact that, eventually, there’s an atmosphere which magically/mystically allows our heroes to walk about without pressure suits. Try not to notice that – when they are protected by those suits – they’re not wearing any gloves, leaving their hands exposed to space radiation. Look at what Harryhausen accomplished on a respectable budget, and marvel over how so many elements such as aliens and spacecraft and general space hardware still fascinate us today. You’ll find things that endure, but odds are this isn’t a trip you’ll feel impelled to take anytime again.