The passage of time is an interesting thing, we look back at classic science fiction novels and see how the people of the past saw our future, the same is now the case of science fiction movies, and oh how I love old science fiction movies for that.
First Men In The Moon was written by H.G Wells in the 1900 and published in full the year after. Back then going to the moon was truly science fiction, yet at the time the film adaption was coming out, 1964, we were well on our mission to land there. A feat so amazing some people refuse to accept we did, ignoring all the evidence and failing to understand the monumental effort it would take to keep such a thing secret, fool people with technology that didn’t exist yet, and never once have the Russians check to make sure. Also this film contains the works of Ray Harryhausen, always a plus.
Made in 1964, America and Russia were currently in the space race and plans to land on the moon were being worked out – so what does the film do? Incorporates the moon landing into the plot. My friend Nephrite correctly informed me that the opening of the film featuring the moon landing is movie original and not part of the book, but it is a clever way of opening the story and leading into the more standard adaption. The astronauts find the remnants of a previous moon landing from people in the Victorian era, they then send the information to Earth and discover the one man still alive that was part of that unheard of landing.
The film then goes into a more straight forward adaption telling the tale of Arnold Bedford ( Edward Judd ) how while renting an accommodation so he can work, encounters the somewhat eccentric scientist Joseph Cavor ( Lionel Jeffries ). Made for the movie (according to Nephrite) is Bedford’s fiancée Katherine Callender (Martha Hyer ) who you can easily tell is made up for the movie as once they get to the moon she is of no real consequence.
Anyway this part of the film is really to get to know the characters. How Bedford is a manipulative dick, Cavor is a man of science whose far more interested in what can be achieved and pushing science forward than noticing Bedford is a dick (though actively using his greed to get him to come along on the trip) and Katherine being utterly pointless outside of showing that Bedford is a dick.
Of course since this is a film with Ray Harryhausen working on it, you’re naturally waiting for that element to pop up and it does once they get to the moon. While the first Selenites they encounter are men in suits (though good suits, much more impressive than you see on other films of the time, oh and they never explain how Cavor knew the name) Once you get to the other classes of Selenites you see the master at work. Able to bring to life back what cannot just be a man in a suit, in this case bodies with proportions and limbs that would be too large or small for a man, and thus the underground civilisation of the moon is brought to life. Yes this is the part of the film you want to see. And then Bedford is a dick and ruins everything.
While the Selenites are not some grand peaceful loving Utopia, they are by no means an evil race, acting more with caution towards these strange aliens but at no point being malicious. In fact the person who acts with instant hostility as you guessed is Bedford, much to the anger of Cavor. It’s hard to tell given its age if the film writers were trying to imply if Bedford is right in his attitude and Cavor is just some idealistic man, it was a different time (though Nephrite did say when we watched this that yes, Bedford is a dick in the book too).
The film is enjoyable, while not the best film Ray Harryhausen worked on, though that is not due to his excellent skills mind you. It’s mainly because the film is rather all over the place tonally. The bits just before they get to the moon had the feeling of some kind of live action Disney comedy of the time, compared to later on the Selenites wise leader asking Cavor about War and why Man would do something they found so confusing. The best bits are clearly those that are more faithful to the book while the weakest parts other than the start and end are those more created for the film (aka all the stuff with Katherine). Still Ray Harryhausen’s creating some truly excellent alien life is a pleasure to see.