First Men in the Moon – 50th anniversary review

Celebrating the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1964, Cinefantastique looks back at Ray Harryhausen’s classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.

Fifty years ago, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen took movie-goers on a memorable trip to the moon – a half decade before Neil Armstrong actually reached the lunar surface. Can the cinematic adventure survive not only the test of time but also the incursion of scientific reality, which has debunked the popular notion of life on the moon as a quaint fantasy? The answer is yes: Despite its flaws, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a charming entertainment that stirs our Sense of Wonder with its fantastic imagery, lifting us out of mundane reality and transporting us into an alternative world of the imagination.
To a large extent, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is an archetypal Ray Harryhausen production, which is to say that it initially confounds our expectations only to ultimately confirm them. Critical consensus has taught us to expect an obligatory live-action story that serves only as a showcase for Harryhausen’s marvelous special effects work. However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON launches with a promising start, raising hopes for a truly good movie, not merely a succession of set-pieces. Although those hopes remain unsatisfied when the curtain falls, the film remains engaging and entertaining, if slightly frustrating.

SYNOPSIS

First Men in the Moon UN landing
The U.N. Moon Mission

Utilizing a flashback structure, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins with a contemporary prologue depicting a United Nations landing on the moon. The lunar explorers discover a British flag, next to some kind of legal document with a hand-written note on the back, dated 1899, claiming the moon in the name of the Queen of England.
Back on Earth, a team of investigators follow a name on the document to track down Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), an old man in a nursing home, known as a crank for his dire warnings about the moon. Initially panicked about the recent landing, Bedford calms down and relates his story, which becomes the body of the film…
In 1899, after a series of failed business ventures, Bedford is living in a cottage in a the country, where he hopes to write a successful play. His fiance, Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a Boston actress, comes to live with him, in anticipation of getting married. Bedford continually demurs, citing financial concerns; what sounds like an excuse has an element of truth, because Bedford is indeed hiding from creditors.
Financial rescue comes in the form of Joseph Cavor (Lionell Jeffries), a research scientist who offers to buy Bedford’s cottage, for fear that his experiments might damage the property. Bedford agrees, on the condition that he be allowed to reinvest the money into Cavor’s experiments into an anti-gravity substance dubbed “Cavorite.” There is only one problem: though he claims to have inherited the cottage from an aunt, Bedford is actually renting it. He circumvents this obstacle by “transferring” the title to Kate, who sells it in her name, unaware of the illegality of the transaction.
With one or two mishaps, Cavor completes his experiments; at one point, an explosion of Cavorite literally lifts the roof off his house. While Bedford waxes over the commercial potential of anti-gravity boots, Cavor dreams of flying to the moon – an idea Bedford dismisses until Cavor tells him the lunar surface is rich in minerals such as gold (“Better than boots, isn’t it?”).
Kate objects to the planned excursion, which she considers a pointless risk, and threatens to return to Boston. However, when she is served with papers for the illegal sale of the cottage, she runs to confront Bedford, who is about to take off with Cavor in an iron sphere that will serve as their space ship. (The film gets off one of its few really good jokes here: Anticipating the take-off, Cavor warns, “There might be a violent shock coming” – and we cut to Kate outside, knocking on the sphere.) Rather than risk her being killed in the blast, Bedford drags her inside.
After a mishap or two, the sphere lands on the moon. Bedford and Cavor explore the terrain and plant the flag that we saw found in the prologue. They also crash through an artificial, concave surface, leading to an underground area with breathable atmosphere. They encounter pygmy-sized insectoid aliens, whom Cavor dubs “Selenites” without much explanation. Surrounded, Bedford fights several them off, possibly killing some, while Cavor laments the “taste of human violence” that Bedford has given to this alien civilization.
First Men in the Moon Mooncalf
The "Mooncalf" - a giant caterpillar

Back at the landing area, Bedford and Cavor see that the sphere has been dragged away. Returning underground, they encounter giant caterpillars, which Cavor takes to be “moon calves” – that is, the lunar equivalent of cows, bred for food. Chased by one of the monsters, they get separated. Cavor is captured and, along with Kate, is taken to meet some taller, apparently more advanced Selenites, who manage to translate English well enough to ask him about Cavorite.
Bedford rescues Kate, but Cavor wants to continue communicating with the Selenites. While Bedford and Kate fix the sphere (which has been partially disassembled by the aliens), Cavor stands before the Grand Lunar (never so named on screen), who questions him about human society. Cavor explains that, unlike the Selenites, humanity is divided into different countries, who sometimes make war. When the Grand Lunar expresses concern that other men may follow Cavor and make war on the Moon, Cavor points out that only he knows the secret of Cavorite. The Grand Lunar proclaims that Cavor must remain with his secret.
Unable to fix the sphere without Cavor’s help, Bedford returns to rescue the scientist, blasting away at the Selenites with an elephant gun. Though deploring Bedford’s violence, Cavor repairs the sphere. Bedford and Kate may escape. Cavor chooses to remain behind,  to prevent other humans from discovering the secret of Cavorite…
Back in the present day, Bedford and the investigative team interviewing him watch the moon landing on live television. As the astronauts descend beneath the surface, they pass areas that Bedford recognizes, but there are no living beings; in fact, the entire civilization has been wiped out as if by some disease. While the others marvel at this unexpected turn of events, Bedford gazes at the moon through a small telescope pointing out his window. Knowing now that the danger he feared will not materialize, he smiles to himself and mutters,  “Cavor had such a terrible cold.”

PLOT AND PERFORMANCES

The aged Bedford smirks over the extinction of the Selenites.
The aged Bedford smirks over the extinction of the Selenites.

What can you say about a film that treats the extinction of an entire civilization as a bad joke? Ironically, the best thing you can say is that ending does not work – and it’s to the film’s credit that it does not. Bedford’s closing comment is laughable only if one shares his simplistic view that Selenites were inherently evil – a threat to humanity that need to be extinguished; however, the action in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON does not support this reading, and it’s a bit of a wonder that the filmmakers thought they could get a laugh with his smirking bon mot. (Additionally, there is the matter of Cavor’s almost symptom-free illness; his “terrible cold” manifests only as a few coughs dubbed onto the soundtrack near the end.)
In fact, the faux-funny conclusion of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is symptomatic of the film’s schizophrenic nature, which suggests two scripts spliced together: the first half is comedy romance; the second half is serious science fiction. Presumably, the humor was provided by Jan Read (who had co-scripted Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS the year before), and the serious aspects were provided by science fiction specialist  Nigel Kneale (who created such thoughtful scripts as THE QUATERMAS EXPERIMENT). However the contributions break down, the two sensibilities wrestle for supremacy, and if in the end, the serious aspect loses out, at least it leaves an impression strong enough to endear the film to viewers willing to overlook a few lapses.
After a clever opening credits sequence (a graphic of a crescent moon is “eclipsed” by ripples as if we are seeing a reflection in a pool of water), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins strong with its depiction of a contemporary lunar landing. The international flavor of the crew, including Americans and Russians, is a nice, progressive touch for a film shot during the Cold War, and the sequence not only provides a spectacular opening; it also updates the Wells novel for contemporary audiences, who already knew more or less what to expect on the moon (a lifeless, arid surface with no atmosphere, unlike the blooming plant life depicted in the book). Thus the screenplay provides the scientifically accurate surface while concealing Wells’ marvels below ground, where they seem a bit more credible.
When the action switches to Earth for a few scenes explaining how the U.N. finds Bedford, the script offers what at first seems like a surfeit of comedy relief, as if over-compensating for  the obligatory nature of the connect-the-dots narrative. However, once Bedford’s tale takes us back to 1899, we see that the comedy is not merely “relief”; it is in fact the focus. We get comical sound effects for the boiling Cavorite. We learn that working class people are shiftless and unreliable. Laurie Johnson’s otherwise fine score underlines allegedly humorous moments, inadvertently reminding us how un-funny they are. Kate continually says, “We could get married,” to which Bedford replies, “We could, but…”
Martha Hyer as Kate, Edward Judd as Arnold
Martha Hyer as Kate, Edward Judd as Arnold

Essentially, we are watching a Victorian-era Rom-Com, but the situation is not very amusing for two reasons: First, Arnold Bedford is a bit of a scoundrel; second, he never really does anything to deserve Kate’s forgiveness, but she forgives him anyway (a relationship arc that would be more or less recreated in Harryhausen’s 1969 effort VALLEY OF GWANGI).
Actor Edward Judd almost sells Bedford to us as a lovable rogue. Though the script gives us little reason to admire him, Judd shows us the man’s appealing charm, and to some extent gets us forgive Bedford’s deceptions about his embarrassing financial matters. However, the character crosses the line when he talks Kate into “selling” the cottage in her own name – a ruse that puts her in legal jeopardy.
All of this would be acceptable if the script were setting up Bedford as a flawed character who becomes a better man after Kate calls him on his bullshit; unfortunately, the only time Kate shows a little willpower is when she threatens to return to Boston if Bedford refuses to back out of his lunar voyage. Why this should be the breaking point is unclear (it’s almost as if Bedford is choosing Cavor over her), but she is given a real reason to be angry when she receives the legal summons. Nevertheless, the most she says during the weeks-long trip to the Moon is that she “shouldn’t” forgive Bedford (her tone suggests she does).  That’s the last time the topic is even mentioned; the romantic-comedy story line is forgotten once Cavor’s sphere lands, at which point the science fiction half of the film takes over.
This is when FIRST MEN IN THE MOON becomes truly interesting. At first, the film seems to conform to the traditions of cinematic science fiction at the time, which tended to portray aliens as hostile and dangerous, justifying any  “defensove” taken by the humans, not matter how overtly hostile. And indeed, if you saw FIRST MEN IN THE MOON when you were five years old, Bedford’s violent reaction to the Selenites seems justified.
However, one suspects that Nigel Kneale saw things differently. Unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), which depicted the scientist’s attempts to communicate as hopelessly naive, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON gives Cavor a fair hearing; his despair over Bedford’s actions is palpable and, to some extent, justified. Presumably, Nigel Kneale’s first draft was thematically sympathetic to Cavor, and Jan Read was brought in to conform the script to the tenor of the times, presenting the questionable Bedford as the macho hero battling the evil aliens.
first-men-in-the-moon-selenites
Stop-Motion Selenites

Yes, the Selenites want to prevent Cavor from returning home, but only to protect themselves from other humans, who might use Cavorite to invade the Moon. One can hardly blame them after hearing Cavor himself describe the human propensity for war, which is horrible and yet considered heroic and noble, even glorious. Unable to resolve the contradiction, Cavor is reduced to almost pleading:  “We’re not perfect,” he admits, but insists, “There are men of peace.” To which the Grand Lunar replies, “My concern is men of violence,” and Cavor knows that concern is justified.1
When Bedford interrupts Cavor’s audience with the Grand Lunar, the scene is staged like a traditional rescue, and perhaps we are expected to cheer as Bedford fires his elephant gun, yelling at Cavor that his “audience” with the Grand Lunar is actually a trial. On the other hand, Bedford’s actions seem to confirm the Selenites’ view of humans as dangerously violent,2 and a moment later we are given further reason to doubt Bedford’s character: when Cavor says he did not want to be rescued, Bedford responds, “Don’t flatter yourself. I didn’t risk my neck for you. I need you to repair the sphere.”
Pushing the hapless scientist around and even threatening him, Bedford reveals himself once and for all to be a total ass, loosing any sympathy he may have earned, and when Cavor voluntarily decides to stay behind, it is a truly grand gesture. The young handsome Bedford may conform to the stereotype of a movie hero, but it is Cavor who ultimately behaves heroically, sacrificing his return home both to preserve his secret and also to undo some of the damage Bedford has done.
Edward Judd and Lionel Jeffries on the Moon.
Edward Judd and Lionel Jeffries on the Moon.

Much of the credit for this goes to actor Lionel Jeffries, whose sincere performance helps Kneale’s intent shine through. Jeffries perfectly embodies Cavor, first as an absent-minded eccentric in the comical half of the film, then as a dedicated man of science in the latter. His frustration over defending the human race’s less noble characteristics is heartfelt, and his initial reaction to the Selenites’ attempt to translate English is splendid (or “imperial” as the character would say – and let’s not forget the irony of the word in the context of a story about aliens wary of Earth’s intentions).
Jeffries wins us over to such an extent that we cannot laugh at Bedford casual disregard for the extinction of the Selenites, which registers as a tragedy instead of a relief. In this context, one should note that the international nature of the contemporary lunar expedition belies the Grand Lunar’s fear of Earth: humanity has  outgrown the war-mongering divisiveness, and one suspects that, had the Selenites survived, the meeting may have gone off peacefully.
The supporting cast is strong, filled with reliable British character actors such as Miles Maleson and Michael Ripper, not to mention a young un-credited Peter Finch (who would eventually win a posthumous Oscar for his role in NETWORK). Martha Hyer deserves some credit for playing the rather thankless leading lady role: though Kate is too gullible and forgiving, Hyer almost makes something of the character. In particular, she pulls off scenes that have defeated many an actor in a Ray Harryhausen film: while staring silently at the off-screen special effects, she actually seems to be looking at something, not just waiting for her cue; while Jeffries is given all the dialogue expounding on the wonders being viewed, Hyer seems on the verge of speaking, as if itching but unable to articulate her reactions.
Still, it is Jeffries show, as far as the live-action actors go. Our final image of Cavor shows him crouching before two Selenites as the sphere takes off in the background, leaving him behind on the Moon. Somehow, the character deserves more.

BEHIND THE CAMERA

Cavor and Kate communicate with the Selenites
Cavor and Kate communicate with the Selenites

Like the majority of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects epics, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was produced by Charles H. Schneer for Columbia Pictures,. The duo had previously collaborated on an adaptation of a Victorian-era science fiction novel, Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), and Harryhausen had long wanted to film Wells’ War of the Worlds, even going so far as to shoot test footage of the tentacled Martians (though the film ended up made by Paramount instead). Like THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON benefits from the source material, which provides an imaginative, fanciful narrative to which Harryhausen can apply his visual effects magic, though in this case the screenplay is a bit more obviously compromised.
Though shot on a modest budget, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON looks grand in scale. As producer, Schneer kept costs down by putting most of the budget below the line, spending money on the actual production rather than on big-name stars. Wilkie Cooper’s Panavision cinematography (in “Lunacolor”) is beautiful, despite an occasional lapse (e.g., a slightly jittery tilt-down in Bedford’s nursing home). Sets and locations (including some beautiful caverns) effective convey the subterranean lunar landscape with a vividness absent from today’s digitally created backgrounds.
Nathan Juran, who earned a reputation as one of the worst directors ever thanks to his involvement with the bad-movie classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (helmed under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz), proves here that he was actually a competent craftsman, who knew how to stage and shoot a scene with narrative efficiency, if not with a recognizably personal style. Though he resorts to the occasional cliche (the hand that reaches on screen to startle our hero is revealed to belong to a friend)3, Juran also manages a few suspenseful moments (rare in Harryhausen films, which were always wary of scaring off younger viewers), including a nice bit of foreshadowing when we – but not the oblivious characters – first glimpse the lunar inhabitants only as shadows on a cave wall. The script’s comedy may not be particularly funny, but thanks to Juran, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON seldom drags, and once the characters reaches the orbiting orb, the film becomes a non-stop tour of wondrous sights.
Martha Hyer seems to be thinking, "Some day, Sandra Bullock will get an Oscar nomination for this sh-t."
Martha Hyer thinks, "Some day, Sandra Bullock will get an Oscar nomination for this anti-gravity sh-t."

Those sights are enhanced by Laurie Johson’s music, which is suitably grand when not obligated to underscore the comic high jinks (the orchestra sounds slightly drunk during the zero gravity scenes). Early on, Johnson uses the recurring motif of a British anthem to tie together the discovery of the British flag on the moon with the presentation of that discovery to Bedford. Later, he offers a stately march as Cavor ascends the stares of the spectacular set for his audience with the Grand Lunar, dotted with strange angular crystals that seem otherworldly but believable.
The cumulative effect is quite impressive, eclipsing the somewhat mundane aspects of the film’s first half. But of course the star of the show remains Harryhausen himself…

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS

FIRST MEN IN THE MOON Bedford and MoonCalf
The Mooncalf corners Bedford.

Ray Harryhausen is relatively unique in the annals of cinema – a special effects artist who not only provided technical excellence but also contributed to the development of his films, sometimes conceiving sequences that would showcase his visual effects process, which he dubbed Dynamation (short for “Dynamic Animation” or “Dimensional Animation,” to distinguish the work from hand-drawn cartoon animation). In the days before computer-generated imagery, Harryhausen’s specialty was stop-motion, in which miniature creatures, built from foam rubber laid over metal armatures, were manipulated by hand and photographed one frame at a time; the resulting sequence, when projected at regular speed, gave the illusion of motion. Though time-consuming compared to CGI, stop-motion provided a hand-made charm, allowing Harryhausen to work as an artist and almost an actor, imbuing his characters with amazing semblance of life and personality.
FIRST MEN  IN THE MOON is somewhat atypical, in that little stop-motion is utilized; the only animated creatures are the giant caterpillars and the larger Selenites. Despite a weak sound effect for their snapping mandibles, the caterpillars are impressive monsters, nicely detailed and animated, their menace enhanced by Johnson’s ponderous score, but essentially they are a throw-away plot device to get Bedford and Cavor separated, and to showcase the technology of the Selenites, who are able to fell the beast with some kind of ray gun. (We later see its skeleton is picked neatly clean – so much for the voracious monster!) The special effects equivalent of a bit player, the caterpillars do not provide Harryhausen with much opportunity for virtuoso work; the lead Selenites; however, are another matter.
The smaller Selenites are portrayed by children in rubber costumes, which are fairly well utilized, though the rubber faces sometimes bend awkwardly. (Harryhausen uses his special effects to increase their numbers, filming the same dozen or so three or four times and matting them into different parts of the frame.) The later Selenites are achieved with stop-motion, which gives them an entirely different character – more insect-like and alien, able to walk on spindly legs that would not support a human actor’s weight.
First Men in the Moon - x-ray skeleton
Kate under x-ray observation

They also have a peculiar, almost analytic personality, emphasized in a wonderful shot as one of them peers curiously through a distorting lens while observing Kate (who comically appears only as a talking skeleton, as if being examined via some kind of x-ray device). Harryhausen’s staccato stop-motion emphasizes the inhuman aspect of the Selenites, whose portrayal conforms with the attitude of the time, which often depicted alien life forms as emotionless “brainiacs,” who might be able to run an efficient society but would probably rob it of any soul, turning people into mindless drones.4 Perhaps the Selenites could have been portrayed with masks and makeup, but it is unlikely they would have achieved the same unearthly effect.
Other than that, Harryhausen restricts himself to depicting the wonders of a lunar voyage, putting his special effects in the service of the story instead of generating set-pieces to showcase his work. The results are spectacular to behold.The matching of miniatures to full-scale settings is marvelous, shifting seamlessly back and forth, and the composite work is convincing except for a few matte lines betraying the juncture between elements shot separately from each other. (There is also one weird jump-cut as Cavor and Bedford explore the lunar caves: while the angle angle moves in from long-shot to medium-shot on the actors, the matte painting in the background remains at the exact same distance.)
Five years before the first real-life moon landing, Harryhausen does a fine job of visualizing the event in the modern-day prologue, including a reasonably accurate depiction of a lunar module that separates from the mother ship to touch down on the surface. That the astronaut descends from the vehicle by hanging from a wire like a trapeze artist is eccentric but not enough to ruin the spectacle of the moment.
FirstMenInTheMoon-sphere-moon
Cavor's sphere on the way to the Moon

The 1899 landing is a bit less elegant – the bouncing of the sphere betrays its miniature nature – but the trip through space is convincingly rendered. As Cavor and Bedford explore the Moon, the script provides several wonders beneath the surface, which Harryhausne realizes to perfection, including a gargantuan glass cylinders that provide oxygen for the Moon’s subterranean atmosphere and an enormous rotating orb that generates energy from the sun (yes, the 1964 film predicts solar power!). Hell, even the lunar surface is beautiful – more beautiful than the real thing, filled with eye-catching colors that are consistently amazing in both the live-action and the special effects.
Harryhausen’s hand-crafted techniques have their limitations. When combining live-action, matte paintings, miniatures, and models into a single shot, proper alignment usually required the camera to remain motionless (unlike the sweeping crane shots seen in today’s CGI spectacles). Yet this static quality created its own sense of style, forcing Harryhausen to fill the frame with dynamic action and to avoid letting any shot run on too long. Of all his work, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one of those that best disguises this shortcoming.
Perhaps this is due to the Panavision aspect ratio. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is the only film Harryhausen ever made in a widescreen format, which allows filmmakers to squeeze more onto the edges of the frame without having to pan back and forth. Though Harryhausen felt the process was too cumbersome for his techniques, he filled the frame with such wonders that they eye is seldom aware that the camera has become locked down to enable the special effects.

DODGY SCIENCE

Cavor claims the Selenites are small because of the Moon's gravity. Huh?
Cavor claims the Selenites are small because of the Moon's gravity. Huh?

Typical for its time, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is a bit dodgy in its science. Although NASA receives a thank you in the credits, implying a level of authenticity, the film makes several unapologetic errors, assuming that viewers are not familiar with even the fundamentals of astronomy.

  • During the lunar flight, Kate touches the controls, sending the sphere careening off course. Cavor shouts angrily that the ship is now heading “straight for the sun!”  His tone somewhat overstates the danger: whereas the Moon is a mere 237,000 miles from Earth, the Sun is 93-million miles away. Assuming the sphere is traveling at the “speed of a bullet” as Cavor says (approximately 800 miles per hour, depending on the bullet), it would take 116,250 hours to reach the sun – that is, 4,843 days or a little bit more than 13 years. Even if the sphere were traveling ten times as fast (which it would need to do to make the lunar voyage in the few weeks the film implies), Cavor would have over a year to readjust the trajectory before falling into the sun. (On another note, though lip service is paid to the issues of food and oxygen, the lack of bathroom facilities is politely overlooked.)
  • When confronted with the first Selenite, Bedford remarks on the creature’s diminutive stature, to which Cavor replies, “It’s the low gravity” – as if the statement provides some kind of explanation. If low-gravity results in smaller life forms, one wonders how Cavor accounts for the giant caterpillars.
  • During Cavor and Bedford’s initial moonwalk, the film seems well aware of the low gravity; for instance, the not particularly athletic Cavor leaps into the air like John Carter of Mars. Yet when Kate and Bedford are re-assembling the sphere near the conclusion, they lug the items around as if they were at full weight.
  • The modern-day expedition beneath the lunar surface is conveyed to Earth via live television broadcast, but we are left to wonder: Who are manning the cameras that film the astronaut’s escape as the Selenite city collapses around them?
  • I suppose I should mention Cavorite. Back when Wells’ novel was published, Jules Verne (who strove for scientific accuracy in his own work) derided the concept of the anti-gravity Cavorite, famously demanding, “Show me this metal.”

LOOKING BACK FIFTY YEARS LATER

The Grand Lunar, lead of Selenite society
The Grand Lunar, leader of Selenite society

Like much of Harryhausen’s oeuvre, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON falls short of being a masterpiece but remains a joyful entertainment. To some extent its appeal is rooted in nostalgia: a generation of viewers who saw it at an early age recall it fondly and enjoy revisiting it; some of those now-grownups have graduated to making their own science fiction and fantasy films, keeping the Harryhausen legacy alive through the next generation and beyond.
However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is not merely a museum piece. Its power to captivate an audience remains intact. Though today we are (justifiably) less inclined to forgive Bedford for his dishonesty, and more inclined to question Kate’s devotion to him, the film’s charm lays elsewhere, with Cavor and his mission to the Moon. The fanciful depiction of lunar travel has aged well, partly because the narrative’s framing device accounts for the archaic elements, which were always supposed to look like a leftover remnant from an earlier era. Perhaps more importantly, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON creates its own stylized semblance of space travel. Like the Wells novel, it presents a fantasy rather than believable science fiction, and fantasy’s power to entertain is unchecked by decades of real-world advances in science (unlike the more realistic approach of 1950’s DESTINATION MOON, which seems rather dull now).
Though the film will never stand as Harryhausen’s shining moment – others showcased his talent for amazing animation far more memorably – FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a job well done, its old-fashioned approach retaining a special charm five decades later. As Cavor transports himself and his comrades to the Moon, so Harryhausen transports the audience into a world of imagination where scientific impossibility takes a back seat to our Sense of Wonder.
[rating=3]
A trip worth taking!
*
Cavor's sphere on the lunar surface
Cavor's sphere on the lunar surface

FOONOTES:

  1. One of the screenplay’s more felicitous decisions was incorporating this material into the main body of the story. Wells’ novel, originally published in serial format in a magazine, was intended to conclude with the sphere taking off and leaving Cavor on the moon, but the author decided to extend the story with three additional chapters in which the scientist sends wireless messages to Earth, offering an anthropological account of Selenite society. Communication is suddenly terminated when the Selenites realize that Cavor could transmit the formula for Cavorite, potentially paving the way for an invasion of the Moon. This extended epilogue worked in the literary format, expanding and deepening what had been up to that point an imaginative adventure rather than science fiction. This structure would have been dramatically anti-climactic in the film, which benefits from using Wells’ sociological ideas in the third act.
  2. This tactic used four years later with the character of Taylor (Charlton Heston)  in PLANET OF THE APES (1968).
  3. Juran pulled a similar stunt in the earlier Harryhausen film, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
  4. Which is almost literally the case here: when the Selenite chemists have finished their failed attempt to analyze Cavorite, they are cocooned into hibernation. Cavor at first seems to approve of this method for “dealing with unemployment,” until Kate suggests the Selenites may do the same to them. Cavor is suitable horrified – the only time he truly seems wary of the Selenites.

first_men_in_moon_poster_resizeFIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Columbia Pictures, 1964). Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Directed by Nathan Juran. Screenplay by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. 103 minutes. Not rated. Cast: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries, Miles Malleson, Norman Bird, Gladys Henson, Hugh McDermott, Betty McDowall,  Michael Ripper (uncredited), Peter Finch (uncredited), John Forbes-Robertson (uncredited).
[serialposts]

THOR: THE DARK WORLD: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 4:43

Chris Hemsworth wields a big hammer to no great effect in THOR: THE DARK WORLD.
Chris Hemsworth wields a big hammer to no great effect in THOR: THE DARK WORLD.

It’s two steps forward and one step back for the custodians of the Marvel Universe. If THE AVENGERS took a rudimentary storyline — bad guy wants to rule the universe — and created something fleet, exciting, and witty, THOR: THE DARK WORLD takes the same outline — with Chris Hemsworth as the hammer swinging god going up against a universe-destroying Christopher Eccleston – and pretty much stops there. With some nice production design, good special effects, and Tom Hiddleston once again giving the proceedings a much-needed shot in the arm as the sardonic Loki, the film is a serviceable example of the superhero movie, but not much more.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French and Dan Persons sit down to discuss the film, spotlighting the stuff that makes it stand out, for good or ill. Then, Dan gives his capsule thoughts on the Lynchian, dark coming-of-age fantasy, ANIMALS, and Steve talks about the career-spanning documentary, RAY HARRYHAUSEN: SPECIAL EFFECTS TITAN. Plus: What’s coming to theaters this weekend.

Cybersurfing: Was Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion more real than CGI?

Ray_Harryhausen_Clash
Ray Harryhausen animates the Kraken model for CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980).

In an article at Boingboing.net. author Ethan Gilsdorf muses on the recent passing of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen, an event which inevitably symbolizes the demise of old-fashioned analog special effects: miniatures, models, and most especially the Harryhausen style of stop-motion puppetry that brought imaginative creatures to life for decades. While acknowledging that digital effects offer their own brand of artistry, Gilsdorf believes these effects lack heft, gravity, and presence.
Gilsdorf’s point is a bit vague in terms of defining realism and its cinematic value. On the one hand, Harryhausen used puppets with texture – palpable objects that could be touched, lending a greater sense of reality – and this makes his stop-motion monsters superior to today’s artificially created computer-generated effects. On the other hand, today’s computer-generated creations are feeding audience appetite for ever greater realism and becoming so convincing that they will soon be indistinguishable from images that were actually photographed – and this makes them somehow inferior.
So, which is more real, and which is best? Though the answer to the former question is unclear, Gilsdorf’s enthusiasm for stop-motion comes through.
Like many people who address this topic, Gilsdorf has a view of modern effects that is tainted by (an acknowledged) nostalgia for older techniques. For him, the death of Harryhausen represents the death of “real” special effects and of the “real” in fantasy films. “Times have changed,” he insists. “And not necessarily for the better.”
Perhaps, but not necessarily for the worst, either. Today’s computer-generated effects may be overused, but they have solved numerous problems that plagued older movies; in particular, CGI has freed the camera from its lock-down, proscenium arch look that often identified effects in Harryhausen films. Today, filmmakers can create effects-laden sequences that fit seemlessly into the live-action, the camera style virtually identical.
The problem, I think, is that the over-abundance of effects leads to a certain carelessness – not in technical matters but in artistic ones. What “effect” – emotional, intellectual, whatever – is supposed to be accomplished by each special “effect” in the movie? When filmmakers were limited by time, money, and technology, they had to make sure that their special effects paid off with emotional effects. Even JURASSIC PARK, the film that spelled the death-knell for stop-motion (switching from that technique to computers during pre-production) was somewhat old-school in this regard, making fairly economical in its use of movie magic, so that each dinosaur shot really seemed to matter.
Harryhausen animates a snake woman.
Harryhausen animates a snake woman.

I, too, miss the demise of stop-motion as a special effects technique, along with models and miniatures; I believe there are stylistic reasons why those techniques are superior in some situations. However, the same holds true for computer-generated imagery, which gave us, for example, the Balrog in LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING  – one of the most convincing movie monsters ever depicted.
Fortunately, stop-motion lives on in films such as PARANORMAN and FRANKENWEENIE. Hopefully, it will continue to enchant film-goers for at least a few more years.

Tribute to Ray Harryhausen: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 4:19

Ray Harryhausen & friends.
Ray Harryhausen & friends.

It is not an understatement to say that, for many who work within the industry of fantastic film and those who cover it, Ray Harryhausen was one of the key godfathers of the Sense of Wonder. In such films as EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and CLASH OF THE TITANS, Harryhausen’s collection of creatures — singlehandedly and painstakingly stop-motion animated by the man himself — exhibited a wondrous sense of life, and convinced many of us that, with dedication and love, almost anything that could be dreamed of could be realized on the screen.
Come join our special guest, theofantastique.com‘s John W. Morehead, as he sits down with Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons to celebrate Ray Harryhausen’s achievements and evaluate his indelible contribution to the world of film. Plus: Dan gives his capsule reviews of SIGHTSEERS and THE PAINTING, and previews what’s coming to theaters next week.

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From One Generation to the Next: Ray Harryhausen in the 21st Century

Editor’s Note: One recurring theme to emerge in the wake of Ray Harryhausen’s death yesterday was the tremendous influence his work continues to exert over today’s filmmakers, over three decades since his last film, CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). With that in mind, we are publishing this 2006 article, which uses the occasion of Harryhausen’s appearance at an animation festival to illustrate the high esteem with which the stop-motion pioneer was regarded by the next generation of animators.

Article by Frank Garcia; Interview by Frank Garcia and Graeme Bennett

Ray Harryhausen at the Vancounter Effects & Animation Festival
Ray Harryhausen at the Vancounter Effects & Animation Festival

On April 2001 a remarkable convocation was held in Vancouver, Canada, where a meeting between a legendary filmmaking pioneer and today’s animation and computer artists at the annual Digital Media Exposition was held as part of the Vancouver Effects & Animation Festival. Thundering and sustained applause from an appreciative audience greeted filmmaker and stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen as he made an appearance at the Exposition to sign autographs and to screen a reel presenting highlights of his long and illustrious film career, interspersed with tributes and commentary from today’s filmmakers.

Because of his work as a producer, writer, director, special effects technician and designer on a series of fantasy adventures spanning over 17 films, Harryhausen has inspired generations of filmmakers and animators to launching their own professional careers. This is a man who has single-handedly animated, without computer assistance, images that have imbedded themselves into the minds of countless fans. Many of his noted admirers are today’s legends: directors George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron; makeup artists Stan Winston, Rick Baker; modelmakers Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and Phil Tippet.

Ray Harrhausen walks the festival corridors
Ray Harrhausen walks the festival corridors

Ray Harryhausen revealed that he appeared at the event because he is still very interested and active at attending festivals and conventions. “I like to keep up with the times, although I don’t want to get involved with the computer,” said Harryhausen with a wan smile. “Computer generation, I think is a wonderful tool, but it’s not the be-all, by-all that everyone seems to think it is. I wish I had a computer to blot out the strings of my flying saucers! I had to paint out each wire in every frame! If you passed a cloud, you’d see the wire if you were so close to the lens. A computer can wipe out a cable holding Arnold Schwarzeneggar. It’s helpful in that respect.”

A recipient of the Gordon Sawyer award in 1992 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Harryhausen says that he also stays busy with other activities. “I am doing a lot of sculpting in bronze. We had to cannibalize many of the characters in our films because of time and money. Some of them no longer exist so I try to revive them in bronze.”

Figures from CLASH OF THE TITANS
Figures from CLASH OF THE TITANS

The figures being made include the Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and the rhedosaurus from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. These figures were made for Harryhausen’s personal use and for display at the permanent exhibition at the Sony Film Museum in Berlin, Germany which is titled Artificial Worlds: Ray Harryhausen.

Discussing his views on today’s visual and animated special effects, Harryhausen remarked that “they do some marvelous things. The BBC made a documentary called Walking with Dinosaurs, that was very impressive. There were things that we couldn’t do, like multiple animals walking off in the distance. That would take forever in animation. And we can move [the camera] on objects. There were certain things that would have been very difficult for us to do with travelling mattes. I had to pave the way for that technique on film rather than digital — the way it is today.”

Harryhausen has a very simple philosophy when it comes to the nature and use of stop-motion animation. “Animation to me is: you don’t expect them to be too real. You know that dinosaurs don’t exist. You try to make them as real as you can, [but] if you make them too real, it loses the fantasy. I always felt, like a good painter, if you ask a landscape artist to paint a photographic copy of a scene, it’s not an interpretation. Anyone can do that. You want to give your interpretation. The modern films try to make it a semi-documentary, not a melodrama, like the Sinbad voyages, Perseus and Jason, rather than just a straightforward, ‘Look! A dinosaur! Another dinosaur!’ This is what I learned from Willis O’Brien. He was the only one to make the dinosaurs movie stars.”

Sadly, CLASH OF THE TITANS was his final feature, but Harryhausen is relieved to know that all of his films continue to be distributed and appreciated today thanks to television, videotape and DVDs. “Thank god it’s not dated,” he says. “All our films are reissued to new generations, and they appreciate it even more than the original release!”

For three of today’s busiest animation artists – Vancouver animator David Bowes, and MTV’s CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH co-creators Eric Fogel and Steve Jaworski – appearing with Harryhausen at the festival’s stop-motion effects panel was a dream come true. For Bowes, who was also an exhibitor at the Digital Media Expo, and who specializes in stop-motion and clay animation, Ray Harryhausen was a childhood inspiration. Watching JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS on television with his father set him on a long journey that culminated in his becoming an professional animator with extensive commercial and corporate credits.

The skeleton battle from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) - a memorable influence on the creators of CELEBRITY DEATH MATCH
The skeleton battle from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) - a memorable influence on animator David Bowes.

“My father really loved Ray Harryhausen’s work,” Bowes said. “The films would appear on TV, and my Dad and I would sit down and watch, and I was so inspired by this. My Dad’s favorite was the skeleton scene. When Jason was trying to kill the skeletons, you basically couldn’t kill them. Because, as Ray told me the other day, ‘You can’t kill death.’ Jason could only escape by leaping off the cliff. To this day, I still have that spookiness. And Ray Harryhausen’s animation instills that emotion. At 24 years old, [inspired by] the memories of what Ray Harryhausen had created, I decided to do my own.”

In addition to producing lively animation for music videos and children’s programming, a major project for Bowes in 2001 was completing animation for VOYAGE OF THE UNICORN, a four-hour mini-series starring Beau Bridges which aired Spring 2001 on The Odyssey Channel in the United States to high ratings.

“I don’t know if you can replicate that [type of animation] today with computers,” notes Bowes. “There’s something about the real puppets he used — and the timing! Just think about it — there were no video assists at that time. Everything was blind animation. It all had to be precise and timed out meticulously to the live action. The man is a legend of his own time.”

Being a professional animator and having the opportunity to be introduced to his childhood hero was a big thrill for Bowes.

“It was a big honor,” he says. “You have so much respect and admiration for this person. And then, to actually meet this person. To me, as an animator, I spend 12 hours in front of the camera, and you think about other people in the past who have done this, and I would think about someone like Ray Harryhausen, and what he went through. When you really start getting involved in the process and starting a business, and you look back at your roots and wonder how did I get into this? What did inspire me? It was Ray Harryhausen.

“A lot of people think stop-motion animation is boring, like watching paint dry.” Au contraire, says Bowes, “You’re going into another world. And you’re into your characters. Seven, eight or 12 hours later you’ve created this fabulous scene. It’s absolutely magical.”

Bowes’ final thought is intriguing: “I wonder, today, people who are playing video games, where will they be when they’re my age?” Can the inspirational cycle repeat itself?

For Eric Fogel – co-creator of the very popular, satiric stop-motion CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, which pits a variety of celebrities against each other in the wrestling ring to comedic effect – meeting Harryhausen sent him back to his childhood.

THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD - a major influence on the co-creator of CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH
THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD - a major influence on the co-creator of CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH

“I remember begging my mother to let me stay up late at night to watch THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD,” says Fogel. “I just remember that the images of the creatures that he’d created were the coolest things I’d ever seen. Those images stayed with me throughout all my childhood and growing up. They were with me when I decided to go to film school to pursue a career in stop motion animation.

“Still, to this day, on CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, we’re using his work as a point of reference for the work we do on the show. He created a palette for us to work from and being inspired by.I don’t think [his work] hasn’t lost any of its edge or attitude or beauty in all these years. It’s got a timeless quality. I think it stands up.”

Because of dedicated artists like Bowes, Fogel and Jaworski and all the other animators in the visual effects industry today, the memory and appreciation of Harryhausen’s films and his stop motion animation techniques will live on.

There has been so much activity in 2006 over Harryhausen’s continued impact that it is safe to say he is undergoing a renaissance and a heightened appreciation by his admirers of today’s generation. Just look at these events that took place earlier this year:

  • On March 2006, a soundtrack CD album was released from Monstrous Movie Music, of re-recorded music from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Also included was music from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
  • On April 2006, Harryhausen was bestowed upon with a lifetime achievement award at Universal Studios from a new honorary society of motion picture character designers called Cinerouge. The award was a bust of Lon Chaney as he appeared in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).
  • On June 2006 Mindfire Entertainment, an independent film production company, announced that they will be producing four movies under the banner “Ray Harryhausen Presents” which will be films drawn upon ideas supplied by Harryhausen. Many of the ideas to be explored deal with Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts and a “lost” film project called THE ELEMENTALS. Mindfire’s CEO, Mark Altman says that Harryhausen will be actively involved in the stories development and special effects. Computer graphics will be used to simulate Harryhausen’s process, Dynarama. Other projects also revolve around “alien invasion” or “lost world” themes.
  • On July 2006, Blue Water Productions announced a new line of comic books under the banner “Ray Harryhausen Presents” based on stories from the various films he created. On the lineup are six comic titles including WRATH OF THE TITANS, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, andSINBAD, ROGUE OF MARS.

“As an artist, I’ve always enjoyed exploring new and exciting areas,” Harryhausen said in a statement. “Although many of my feature films were adapted into the comic-book format, I have never been directly involved in that art form until now. I look forward to seeing characters from my films in new and exciting adventures.”

Medusa from CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) - a huge influence
Medusa from CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). The film made a "memorable impressions" on Darren Davis.

BlueWater President Darren Davis says he’s humbled to have Harryhausen aboard. “Ray Harryhausen is one of the reasons I create comics. CLASH OF THE TITANS made a priceless impression on my career. I’m honored to work with Ray.”

Harryhausen’s role in the comic books will consist of approving the story and artists and making sure the visions are not compromised. As a result of the comic books, potential spinoffs includes live-action or animated films and, perhaps, even toys.
The comic books will begin December 2006 and will become five-issue story arcs.

If all this isn’t enough, Strictly Ink, which specializes in media-related trading cards, will be releasing in 2007 a limited-edition run of a series of cards titled The Harryhausen Collection, which is devoted to images from his fantasy films.

Today, at 86 years old, Harryhausen’s career looks like it’s taking off all over again!

Thank god – actually, Harryhausen – for my Sense of Wonder

After seeing Jason slay the Hydra, a five-year old will never look at the world the same way again, and thats a good thing.
After seeing Jason slay the Hydra, a five-year old will never look at the world the same way again, and that's a good thing.

Having spent the better part of the morning posting new articles about Ray Harryhausen, and digging up old ones from the CFQ archive, you would think I had nothing more to say about the revered cine-magician, who passed away today at the age of 92. Yet even after writing an obituary that attempted to asses Harryhausen’s contribution to cinefantastique, I feel compelled to offer a slightly more personal take. Harryhausen’s death has brought me to realize, more than ever before, the debt I owe him for the Sense of Wonder that not only drove me to write for Cinefantastique magazine, but also enriched the psychic space in my mind that interfaces with the so-called real world.
If that sounds a bit abstract and philosophical, let me put it a bit more simply: how we experience life depends very much on what is inside us. For example, depending on our mood, a ringing phone can be either an annoying interruption or a welcome respite. On a larger scale, how we feel about ourselves and the world, on a day to day level, is very much a matter of our own private inner world, from which we look out upon external reality. Mine, I am happy to say, is filled with magic, and much of that magic was summoned by Ray Harryhausen, in the form of myriad monsters and mythical creatures that paraded across the movie screen during my youth – and continue to parade across the mental movie screen that exists inside me.
Harryhausen’s work has been a part of my psychic space for so long that it seems almost from birth – as if an integral part of my DNA – but in truth I can recall that my first encounter was through JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, which screened as part of a summer series at my local theatre when I was in grade school. No one who has ever seen that film, especially at a tender young age, can ever forget the astounding adventures, which include a giant walking statue, the gods of Mount Olympus, a multi-headed Hydra, and a virtual army of sword-fighting skeletons. Decades later, my mind recalls few details of that long-past afternoon, but I know I loved the film and never forgot it; years later, when I started to read about film, the name of Ray Harryhausen passed before my eyes, and I made it my business to catch his work whenever and wherever I could – which in those days was mostly on television and at the occasional revival screening.
Not all of the films are great. It is an acknowledged fact, even among fans, that Harryhausen’s films emphasized his special effects over story. And yet, they all have their charms, because Harryhausen’s effects truly were special. Emphasizing them may have been an example of the tail wagging the dog, but it was never an example of technique trumping artistry. For Harryhausen truly was an artist – a puppeteer, a performer. Like a diva, for whom the opera’s story is just an excuse to get to the arias, Harryhausen dazzled us, but his virtuoso technique was always hidden behind an ineffable layer of magic that was equal parts arcane craftsmanship and exuberant showmanship.
Harryhausen’s creatures had energy but also grace and even personality. Almost every character – whether a mythical monster or a prehistoric beast – seemed to have something distinctive. Even the allosaurus in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI – not the most expressive or sympathetic creature – betrays the occasional character tic (such as scratching its chin), giving the impression that this is not just any dinosaur but a very particular dinosaur – certainly like none you will see in any other film (unless that film features stop-motion effects by Harryhausen).
I don’t believe that any individual Harryhausen film matches the impact of his inspiration, KING KONG (1933), but the cumulative impact of his oeuvre is tremendous. Harryhausen never quite understood that Kong was impressive not merely because he was a giant ape but because he was a compelling combination of savagery and sympathy – a brutal killer that could chow down on a hapless human one moment, then go starry-eyed and sentimental over Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) the next.
Harryhausen’s films worked on a simpler, more child-like level – but the key point is that they truly did work on that level. In a strangely paradoxical way, the limitations of the stop-motion technique (single-frame photography renders a moving image that is somewhat stroboscopic) yielded an amazing dividend in Harryhausen’s hands: the unreality of the image increased its fantastic appeal, rendering it slightly unbelievable yet perfectly and timelessly appropriate for an incredible world of the imagination that appeals to children of all ages.
When I think back upon all the wonder that Harryhausen bestowed upon me, all for the price of a few movie tickets, I suspect that, between the two of us, I am the one who profited the more. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, along with JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, remain among my favorite films, their magic undimmed by the cynicism of my now much older eyes.
I guess that is the legacy of Harryhausen that will endure – the ability to keep alive the inner child within us, so that we may continue to see his films as we did when we were young, regardless of the more sophisticated demands our adult selves may make of other movies. For me, this legacy will always be best expressed by Tom Hanks’ enthusiastic declaration, during the presentation of Harryhausen’s lifetime Academy Award:*

“Some people say CASABLANCA or CITIZEN KANE. I say JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is the greatest film ever made.”

Was Hanks completely serious? Probably not. Yet he spoke for the child, wide-eyed and amazed, who lives inside everyone who has ever enjoyed the magic of Ray Harryhausen.
For a perhaps more eloquent reaction to Harryhausen’s death, I heartily recommend Tim Lucas’s post “He Moved Us” at Video Watchblog.
FOOTNOTE

  • In passing, I have always felt that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Gordon E. Sawyer Award for “technological contributions [that] have brought credit to the industry” was a bit of a back-handed compliment to Harryhausen. Harryhausen’s greatest contribution to cinema was not the technique of stop-motion animation, which had been pioneered by his mentor Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen’s contribution was using the the technology to achieve an amazing artistry.