You’ll rain stones on me like the Martian stonepeople in “Rocketship X-M”, but having watched the movie I’m not convinced it’s intended to be misogynistic so much as it does a confused job of showcasing misogynism as an anti-nuke vehicle.
Anyway, I blogged the movie because I know I’ll likely never watch it again and wanted to record why I think it may not be the misogynistic piece of crap everyone thinks it is. Yeah, there’s not much to vouch for it, but I’m thinking some key twists have been overlooked because of the cacophony of what seem colliding voices and visions in this film which is important as it’s pretty much the first modern era, post WWII, depiction of space travel as a real possibility, forecasting the race for space. You have to consider that the script was ghostwritten by Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted during the McCarthy years and that he he had written in 1939 the terrifying anti-war book “Johnny Got His Gun” (he later directed the movie). Among his long list of credits are “The Brave One” and “Spartacus”. While “Rocketship X-M” was being filmed he was going through hell, having been sentenced to jail in 1947 for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and would be imprisoned in 1950, the same year the movie was released.
I read he was able to churn out a 150 page script in a week, which means skill (at least I’ve read it associated with skill), which perhaps means skill in formula, which means leftover bits and pieces being cobbled together to make scripts, which means canned dialogue and thinly-written characters. Seems like a picture of a writer who had the projects he cared about and then the ones that paid the rent into which he still attempted to invest some meaning.
Stress and “Rocketship X-M” not being exactly high brow, might have meant less attention paid the project. But the script was also written by the director with additional dialogue by Orville Hampton and to me philosophical confusions in the movie seem to indicate either hasty writing or reflect some conflict in the voices and vision of all involved, perhaps including actors’ interpretation of their roles, because how an actor delivers a line can wreck havoc with a plot if his or her vision isn’t in line with the director/writers. It’d be interesting to know who wrote what and if the actors were botching intent of lines with their delivery but we don’t, so it’s impossible to say if the script was tighter than it appears and muddy characters are the cause of one writer confusing the intent of another. What we do know is someone wanted a money-making easy to the moon flick pushing the idea of real possibility. We know Trumbo was going to do anti-nuke, was probably skeptical about the wisdom of scientists and wasn’t going to be feeling very warmly toward tyrannical government, and those who hired him to work on the script would have been aware of this.
A lot is made of the movie being misogynistic but considering this brief history, I imagine instead that many of the seemingly misogynistic lines aimed at Lisa have less to do with her than being a criticism of the thoughtlessness of the scientists and military (who happen to be men) delivering them. One of the more impassioned lines delivered in this film is when Lisa accuses the head scientist of arbitrarily imposing his will on people whose lives are at stake. “Aren’t you human?” she asks. It’s delivered in the context of a male-female, mentor-assistant struggle, but the tray on which it’s served up has much less to do with male and female than opposing views on war and The Bomb and what’s collateral damage.
Really, what one needs to question is why I’ve spent any time blogging this cheeselog. But I did. Because it’s an interesting cheeselog in context of the time and when you consider who was writing it. And because I think that Trumbo probably didn’t expect it to have enduring worth but he did attempt to communicate an anti-nuke anti-war message to an audience expecting only an exploitation flick, who would have been happy with just a rocket and a girl. He wanted them to think twice about The Bomb.
So here’s my blog of it.
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Rocketship X-M (with instruments and technical support by Allied Aircraft Co. of North Hollywood CA,) was produced, written and directed by Kurt Neumann who had just finished “Bad Boy” (Tagline, “Danny is going straight–straight to the electric chair!”) and released the same year a film about Billy the Kid, “The Kid from Texas”. How he filmed this movie shows where his head has been.
The Medical – in which you’re reassured the old guy won’t croak during lift-off
Open with ominous music. A “US Government Property No Trespassing” sign hanging on a chain link fence, security patrolling. It’s White Sands, NM. Immediate identification for the post WWII Cold War world parents of the Boomers–atomic bomb!
Dr. Karl Eckstrom and Dr. Lisa Van Horn are having their blood pressure checked. Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges), Major William Corrigan (Noah Berry Jr.), and Harry Chamberlain (Hugh O’Brian) huddle around Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Danish Osa Massen) and her bared arm, no one around Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery) whose check takes longer than the lovely Lisa’s. Floyd makes a joke about men being the weaker sex as it’s Lisa who is the only one whose blood pressure isn’t elevated. Had it not been for this joke, one might have thought this opening moment was to say something about Karl’s age versus Lisa’s comparative youth, and perhaps that may be there as well, suggesting a generation gap. Perhaps, since this was my first emotional response. But Floyd highlights the male/female contrast here, joking how the feminine is the better, ha-ha. He’s being sexist, yes. He is through nearly the whole of the film, for which reason the film has been labeled as misogynistic, but I don’t think it should be.
These five individuals (despite the trailer, we should take it for granted we shouldn’t know yet they’re a “crew”) walk down a film noire lit brick hall, and though they’re in military drab their procession is eerily reminiscent of future footage of the Apollo astronauts making their way to their ship.
Introducing the characters to us and the press
It’s press conference time at X minus 16 minutes. A Dr. Fleming mans the helm, asking the reporters to reveal only the information that appears in the authorized press materials. He’s a friend, it turns out, of Dr. Karl Eckstrom, and have both planned for years for what is about to take place.
UFOs and space ships! Wild tales? says Dr. Fleming. Not at all, for in just a few minutes the first manned spaceship, the R-X-M is to be launched. Rocketship Expedition Moon.
There’s hardly a gasp from the press corps which has been commended for downplaying reports of UFOs and thus not inciting mass public hysteria. They briefly talk amongst themselves and bobble their heads. One would expect more of a reaction but the wooden opening sets the tone of the film.
Why are we going to the moon? Because…and because there is now a practical possibility that an unassailable base could be established on the moon, Dr. Fleming explains, all in the interest of world peace, you understand, as long as it’s chain link fence, no trespassing Americans hailing direct from White Sands, NM (site of the first atomic bomb blast) and a smart, attractive Danish woman along for the ride.
Most watching in their parked cars at the drive-in theaters, chewing popcorn, not yet feverishly making out, in the thrall of sci fi, would nod heads, “Yes, yes!” They would. Yes, yes, to the bombs aimed at the USSR from Space Station Moon.
I bet Ronnie Reagan vigorously nodded, “Yes, yes!”
Dr. Fleming introduces the crew to the reporters and the audience. First is Dr. Karl Eckstrom, designer of the ship and one of the most brilliant physicists of the day. Next (look, ma, it’s a woman with a PHD) is Dr. Lisa Van Horn, a chemist, his comely co-worker and assistant. Colonel Floyd Graham plays pilot. Nothing exciting there for me but the 1950s understood, “Lloyd Bridges=movie hunk”. Moving along–what’s this, another hunk? What’s going on here? Chisel-jawed Harry Chamberlain plays astronomer and navigator and peculiarly the camera seems to sit on him a while, giving him a chance to milk the scene in his mountain top, not used to the limelight way and granting us the opportunity to wonder about the upcoming chemistry of the film. (I’m thinking, why’s the camera settling on him? Something’s up. Will it be developed fully or will it fall to the side and become a seeming red herring.) Finally, grant a second to Major William Corrigan, engineer, but first and foremost character actor. Written all over him. When light-hearted laughs are needed, Corrigan will no doubt step forward with a line.
Now, at X minus 14 minutes, Dr. Karl outlines the flight plan. This is during that era when America can have the hubris to send men and women to the moon but must draw the flight plan on a blackboard (I’ve the feeling that Karl practiced drawing circles for this presentation), making it ultra simple for us at X minus 14 minutes with a big circle representing the earth and a small circle representing the moon. Important ideas introduced are gravity and escaping gravity and fuel, the fact there will be enough to carry them to the moon and back. Like we would think they’d be launched with only enough fuel to get there and some of the way back. Haha. Right?
Ah, but wait. The Race For the Moon supposedly hasn’t even begun yet! It was in 1961 that Kennedy made his Let’s Put a Man on the Moon speech, a Soviet scientist in 1958 having written of the possibility of aiming for the moon, and NASA in 1959 beginning development of a rocket that would support a manned moon mission. And there was Sputnik in 1957.
So, officially the Race for Space began circa 1957. But one has to wonder when it really began.
Back to the press meeting. Interestingly, up front and center of the shots of the reporters are Lois Lane and Clark Kent, to be noted because of the film’s questioning of women’s roles in a supposedly male work world. Thus far we seem to have no problem with it, not with this show of women in the press corps, not with a female Dr. of Chemistry being one of the first astronauts. In fact there are at least three female reporters all seated in a pretty much straight line from front of room to rear so that we don’t miss out on their presence.
Time for the reporters to question the crew. And make it quick, asking first astronomer Chamberlain how he fits into the picture. Which is what we’ve been wondering since we first saw there were two official hunks, and he even out-hunking Lloyd Bridges. Chamberlain basically protests he’s not a hunk as he’s been isolated on his astronomical mountain top observing the stars and we’re inclined to believe him, that he’s not thought of anything but his telescope ever. There follows some queer dialogue raising the question as to if he’s ever flown. Only as a passenger but “you have to understand” interplanetary travel demands greater precision and blah blah if I had a remote I’d outline more but I’m watching this on a little portable without a remote and the back and forward buttons don’t work, so never mind that.
And the writer doesn’t want to get into it any further either so next stop is the engineer who thrusts his hands in his pockets with overweening confidence, a la George Bush, and talks about his ranch back home in Texas. How does his wife feel about his leaving her and flying off to the moon, the reporter asks for the audience which is wondering about family life? The Texas Man replies that a Texas Woman knows when a Texas man makes up his mind to do something, that’s it. Then confides, haha, “I wish you guys could have seen her face when I told her…” Yes, here’s where we are to look to for the laughs.
Now on to Floyd who dignifies the situation by talking about how this is the hottest crew he’s ever worked with, “especially in the brains department”.
Cut to Lisa, who Floyd says pays no attention to you unless you look like a test tube or a chemical formula.
This is not an ultra young crew, except for the astronomer. Lloyd Bridges and Noah Berry Jr. were 37, Osa Massen was 35. Hugh O’Brian was 25. John Emery was 45. The casting of Osa Massen, at 35, is rather interesting. Maybe. She was a beautiful woman but was also at that age where it might have been felt the audience would have thought at a glance, “biological clock ticking away”.
Another practical question on the mind of most every audience member. A woman reporter asks how Lisa feels about making the trip alone with four men. Lisa lies and says she hasn’t thought much about it.
The woman reporter wonders why include a woman on a space flight anyway, a very practical question for the time as many in the threshold 1950s audience would believe a woman’s place was in the home (though it’s to be remembered that many women worked during WWII) and I imagine too you had many women in their theater seats thinking, “You’re not going into space with my guy, no sir!”, viewing Lisa as a potential threat.
At which point Dr. Karl steps forward and says it’s because of Lisa’s pioneering research which resulted in rocket fuel powerful enough to make the flight possible. He’s defending her presence but one feels she should have been able to defend her presence on her own. The relationship between the two is fuzzy but clearly not romantic. Development of the characters wasn’t considered essential to the film and the relationship remains fuzzy throughout, but he is clearly a mentor and is perhaps a father figure to a certain degree. Some are going to see sexism in his speaking for Lisa.
But Karl designed the rocket. Lisa developed the gas. Men and women can work together, says the film and I think at least some of the writers felt this to be true.
Walking the plank
X minus 11 minutes and it’s time to get going. Crew to the rocket and press corps to the observation deck. Everyone literally ambles away. The only one who ever displays a modicum of energy is Dr. Fleming, the old guy at 54. Maybe the director thought everyone else ambling along would make his few sprints stand out. It does.
Another shot of the crew making their way down the dim brick hall and once again one is eerily reminded of future footage of astronauts. One wonders if NASA sat them down in front of “Rocketship X-M” and said, “Walk like this”, except those later astronauts weren’t sauntering toward their rocket at x minus 11 minutes and counting.
Now we finally see the rocket with its Cadillac fins. As far as rockets in sci fi films go, it’s certainly an easy classic.
X minus 6 minutes and Dr. Fleming bids adieu to his friend Dr. Karl in a surprise moment of wooden male bonding in this thus far wooden film.
X minus 5 minutes and the crew, sauntering up the walkway to the rocket, is stopped by Dr. Karl who says a fond goodbye to Mother Earth.
Geez, they still have the ladder to climb up to their capsule.
X minus 3 minutes and the crew is in their capsule and casually removing jackets as they close the hatch then casually review the flight plan for the audience.
X minus 2 minutes and they bunk down. Literally. Strapping themselves into their bunk beds. Karl helps Lisa buckle up because…because…
She smiles a night daddy smile.
Product placement. X minus 1 minute on a General Electric clock.
We are now granted sharp shadow and light close-ups of each face. Keyword is apprehension. Lloyd Bridges attempts to play apprehensive but there’s something wrong with his face. Even though it’s 1950, he looks like he’s been pumped full of Botox. The actor is vaguely seeking a revelation on his character and unable to find it he decides to go with looking like he’s thinking, which he kind of is, about hoping it’s a good shot of him first and foremost, which it isn’t.
To the moon!
You know there’s trouble when a rocket ship blasts off and you can see straight through its cone to the ground below. Not good. When you care so little that you don’t bother with making your rocket ship opaque, well, I don’t know, but it’s kind of disturbing.
As the rocket blasts off, the actors try to simulate gravity and the force of acceleration testing flesh and blood. The Texan presses his hands to either side of his head and pulls the skin of his face taut. Good goin’ William–you at least tried.
As the actors unstrap themselves and stumble out of their bunks, the astronomer dutifully notes that the human body was never intended to withstand such acceleration. But the old Dr. and Lisa are doing just fine. This is the beginning of our grasp of the astronomer as a dour pessimist, even though he’s only 25 and has spent his youth examining the stars. What’s wrong with this man, we eventually think, because star gazing is supposed to fill with awe and wonder. Well, isn’t it? But he also resonates as being just plain practical right now, so maybe being practical is the root of dour pessimism. Actually, though, my response to this scene is more that Woman is once again being shown as “I’m OK and pretty hardy” in opposition to the astronomer and Texan stumbling around like they’ve been whacked with sacks of bricks.
Lisa thinks to look out the window at Earth. The music is descending scales because they’re ascending. She calls over the oddly handsome but non-threatening astronomer to share the view. They discuss, briefly. Three sentences back to back constitutes a monologue.
“Stand by to turn!”
I think here we’re supposed to wonder if the great mistake happens now, the way the astronomer jumps to get back to his unpadded seat, because lethargy thus far is the directorial word. I note Lloyd Bridges is at his station exhibiting the Static V posture of legs planted far apart as a display of Alpha male authority.
Everyone leans to one side. I’ve never tried leaning to one side on film and it may take more acting ability than I imagine.
Get off the edge of your theater seat, folks, the rocket ship has turned successfully. The astronomer contacts the base. There’s more talk about altitude and speed in matter-of-fact tones assuring us we’re watching future possibility and not Buck Rogers in Space. Sometimes I feel this movie was the government’s prepping the American public for the race to the moon. “Here’s the plan. First we hit them with a decade of man in the moon entertainment and then we make our man to the moon announcement.”
Karl now stands next to Lisa to look out the window. What is supposed to be a solar flare emerges from behind Earth, but I think, “Big glowing empire state building” and Marty says “Wow, the Empire State Building really is tall!” They probably tried to do a shot too of the sun in space and decided it was too pathetic because they resort to an allusion to big sun with a hot spot suddenly illumining the faces of the actors. And I’m thinking, these are scientists and they don’t know you’re not supposed to stare at the sun with the naked eye?? Hope not too much retina is burned out.
Because the members of the crew are always manning their stations we get a lot of rear shots of them, which gives us the opportunity to appreciate how snugly Lisa’s fatigues fit her rear and avails us the opportunity to contemplate too the pleats and volume of her blouse which the costume designer seems to have received instruction to construct so as to endow her with a rear bust. After a while, you do wonder why there are no full-face close-ups of the crew from the front when they’re manning their stations though. Like it didn’t occur to the director to position them in front of the cameras and have them pretend to be looking over the controls. I dunno. It’s odd.
The Texan continually brings up Texas because that’s his character. Texas cowboy. It’s a character stereotype. Bears noting that it’s the most fully fleshed character in the film.
To the moon, redux!
They jettison the tail section then slow speed and Whoops! the tail nearly collides with them! Lisa screams! But is it acting?
Contact with earth is severed by static as the rocket ship is flung full-fledged spacewise. The audience is secluded now with the crew of the Rocketship X-M who get down to the business of acting for us alone. The result is so immediately sad that you notice that Lloyd Bridges is trying to act eating a sandwich for you and fails.
Led by the Texan, once again everyone moves to appreciate the beauty of Earth’s school room globe showing an obvious seam at the equator, and the Texan appears to have flunked his geography lessons, staring down at Africa and asking where Texas is. The astronomer has the audacity to say that Texas will be a mere speck from this distance. Valiantly, the Texan struggles to recover from shock, maintain dignity and confidence in his Country of Texas. I think one writer intended Texan to represent not just Texans but Americans.
The gravity of the situation
The others distracted, Floyd focuses now on Objective Lisa. In an odd display of “Look at me, Lisa, look at me!” mashed up with a Hollywood lesson on gravity, Lloyd attempts to act as though he feels as though he’s floating, and because he can’t show without telling, he tells us what’s happening as buoyancy has nothing to do with the wooden Lloyd. And look at that! The astronomer’s flight jacket sails up into the air. “An unseen visitor!” The astronomer, occasionally animated, announces he needs that and rescues his jacket in loving embrace. Oh, what a young pup is the astronomer and what a salty dog is Floyd who now zeroes in on lovely Lisa who has seemed troubled by her captivation with the view and returned to her work, or maybe she just cares about reaching the moon. Whatever, she’s not laughing. Doesn’t she think the jacket flying is funny, Floyd asks. Nope, Lisa says, she doesn’t.
And, no, it wasn’t funny. It was weird the way the astronomer lunged too meaningfully for his jacket. He’s a lonely guy.
Gravity (or the lack of it) plays random in the capsule. The actors’ long hair and the jackets they wear and their ties stay primly in place but the straps of the bunks, on cue, rise in unison like cobras.
Now that Floyd’s got Lisa captive, he asks her when she’s going to relax. Man, she’s always working! Not even magic cobra straps and flying jackets will deter Lisa from her duties.
Floyd tries out on her the tired pick-up line of how did a girl like her get mixed up in a thing like this.
“I suppose you think that women should only cook and sew and bear children?” Lisa asks.
“Isn’t that enough?”
Poor 35-year-old Lisa and her ticking biological clock.
“There’s such a thing as going overboard in the other direction,” Lloyd, paragon of wisdom, says.
And…whoops…what’s that? Something is powering down that wasn’t supposed to be powering down.
The pick-up line was so bad that it actually stopped the ship dead! Cue thriller music.
Yes, the Kotex are stuffed under the bunk
Floyd and the engineer, attempting to fake a knowledge of mechanics, thoroughly check out the fuel tanks and wires. Thoroughly. For a confused couple of minutes.
Everything looks all right but there’s no power. “Must be the fuel mixture,” Karl decides, and he and Lisa settle down to labor over their equations while her biological clock continues ticking the seconds away.
Karl checks the result of his equation with Lisa. Uh-oh. They’re at odds. Karl says Lisa made an error. Lisa says she didn’t. Can’t they try them both? And now comes what is by internet consensus one of the ultimate sexist moments in the film. Karl says sorry but Lisa did make an error and must discard her figures. She pouts. Or scowls. One of the two, I’m not sure which. “Surely,” says Karl, “you’re not going to let emotion into this.” Of course not. But Lisa does object. She says he’s arbitrarily imposing his will on people whose lives are at stake. “Aren’t you human?” she says, “are you made of ice?” Too many writers working on the script because at least one of them is attempting to paint Lisa as the ice woman, while another has other plans for her and doesn’t view her as cold and austere. Ultimately, Lisa ducks her head and apologizes. “For what?” says Karl. “Momentarily being a woman?”
While Lisa takes her Midol, back on Earth we look at stock footage of a mega telescope at Mount Palomar tracking the rocket ship going symbolically nowhere rather than contemplating what kind of working relationship these two have had for the past umpteen years they’ve probably worked together.
But good going Lisa, who immediately thereafter proves her superior stamina, if not her powers of concentration. Lisa’s first husband or dad (I can’t tell what role exactly Karl is supposed to be playing but if he’s a mentor then possibly both) has fallen asleep at the wheel. Time for Lisa and Floyd’s first date, inaugurated by Floyd with an impromptu recitation of Kipling, taking Lisa aback and letting her know Floyd apparently has a serious and soulful side. Which he kind of doesn’t, or at least only potentially. He’s a make-out artist, or considers himself to be.
“The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,”
Lisa says she’s tired and shaky so would Lloyd take out from under Karl’s arm some graphs she needs for her computations. Lloyd tells a story that gives him an opportunity to compare Karl to a broken Christmas Tree. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just to see if Lisa will laugh at Karl, thus proving she doesn’t mind making fun of him and has at least not slept with him in a while if she ever had, which will prove her availability. When Lisa won’t take Floyd’s advice and rest, Floyd tells her he used to know a guy like her during the war and how he pushed himself so hard he got a Section 8. Lisa gets the idea. Numbers buzzing in her head like wasps, she says she wants to think of something different so Floyd shows her the Earth.
In the meanwhile, now you know the way to Lisa’s heart and bunk. Threaten her with the loss of her mind.
Romantic Lisa compares Earth to a mere moon, a dying planet that can only reflect light. Floyd talks up the romantic qualities of the moon and its effect on women. Which he doesn’t need, by the way, the effect of the moon. Because he’s a man, I guess, and I guess the feminine moon isn’t supposed to speak to men. I dunno. Poor Lisa admits she has never considered the moon in that way, except once, and all she did was stroll around a lake with someone for two hours, the water like black coffee and the moon light like flecks of ice cream on it.
Whoops! Meteor shower!
Cloverleaf meatballs make for some odd looking meteorites.
God fills the jacket of unseen visitor
The Texan considers that maybe somebody doesn’t aim for them to get where they aim to get?? Crossed brows fill the cabin. The astronomer is starting to show his depressive qualities, saying it would have been better if one of the meteorites had struck the ship. “At least it would have been sudden.”
Time for Lisa and Karl to compare computations again. They agree. “These H tanks” have to be replaced with these. Another short spat of tech talk to assure us this is really real.
Now Lisa questions their math. Karl says math is precise and Lisa says sometimes it behaves unpredictably.
“Woman’s intuition again?”
She furls her lip and walks off, hands shoved into pockets.
Ok now they’re powering up again only this time it’s rough. They’re all thrown around. Lisa is tossed back on her bunk. And Floyd’s hand on the gear looks positively flaccid. The Texan is ripped loose from his pole. And Floyd’s hand is positively flaccid. The astronomer is down for the count. Karl is finally thrown into Lloyd who releases the gear and falls down with him to the floor. “No blame” says the I Ching.
It was meant to be
Everyone passes out, enabling the rocket ship to speed out into limitless space.
Lisa is the first to wake up and, having bonded with Floyd over her revelation of black coffee lakes and moonlight ice cream, she rouses him next. (That’s it. They’re a couple.) As ever, Woman Is Fine. Then she wakes up Harry. Then the engineer and finally Karl. Which is weird. After waking up Floyd, she should have woken up Karl. Certainly she should have woken up Karl before the Texan.
“It couldn’t be mere chance!” Karl says as he looks out to see Mars, an incredible set of circumstances having carried them to their most congenial sister planet. Yes, there are times when a mere scientist has gone as far as he can and you must pause as something infinitely greater assumes control, reflects Karl.
They were wondering how long they’d been asleep. Perhaps days! Try 260 days. That’s how long, I read, it would take to get to Mars.
They’ve used up 42% of their fuel according to Lisa, assuring the audience that there’s plenty of fuel for the return trip to Earth. Another diagram is drawn for us showing how they will land. And whap down they go. Mars answers with thunder and rain. Lisa flinches. Floyd grasps her arm protectively. She notices after a second and extracts herself but is smiling. Lisa’s in love. 260 days is a decent amount of time to get to know someone, wouldn’t you say?
Uncredited extras and lots of sand
The next day Karl and astronomer grab their pickaxe walking sticks and it’s all out the hatch and down the ladder for a tour of the red planet, accompanied by spooky music. The tour of the red planet is red, tinted a la Dorothy walking Oz in color. Which was a bad idea because at one point Karl points out the variety of mineral colors, but all we’re seeing is red.
The duties during the walk are sorted as follows. Karl carries binoculars. Lisa carries the camera. Worrywart astronomer/navigator is Gretel making sure they can find their way back. Arriving at a plateau overlook, Floyd straddles air in that odd V stance and plays Alpha male.
The Texan wonders if they’re going to run into some Martians, who he reads are pale and have pin heads and fishy eyes. I realize one of them is carrying a gun and Floyd has a pistol strapped on and I wonder what in the hell they thought they were going to hunt on the moon?
The appearance of dead western-style vegetation immediately precedes their cresting a hill to see a dead city! Must be thousands of years old. Lisa takes pictures with less enthusiasm than if she was taking pics of her great-aunt at the annual July 4th picnic. They stumble upon an Art Deco Easter Island kind-of head buried in the sand. What caused Martian society to collapse? A meteor? No. Karl says this is definitely a blast effect coupled with intense heat. The astronomer points the way toward a radiation resource with his Geiger counter. Floyd and the engineer are unable to complete uncovering the source before Karl warns them away as the radiation is at the danger level.
We all know what this means.
Karl meditates on how the highest attainments of human intellect are always diverted toward self destruction. When he wonders if the whole planet is a vast ruin, Floyd suggests returning to the ship, but Karl and Lisa insist on progressing and using this valuable opportunity to explore for sake of research.
Were there survivors? Karl says we still don’t know all the effects of radiation but talks of genetic defects like blindness. “A blast like this, I should hate to think that any survived.”
They have rested and the astronomer stands to look out over the canyon. He sees…what…Martians?
Yes, there are stonemen emerging from behind rocks with stone instruments of destruction. “It’s not a dream!” he protests. He hadn’t slept! And, indeed, Lisa finds the footprints.
The astronomer wants to return to the ship, but Karl says no they must proceed and see what kind of creatures they are. The Texan volunteers to accompany him.
They haven’t progressed far when they see the stonemen skittering over the rocks like goats. (These shots of the stonemen galloping over the rocks are some of the strangest in film history, as far as I’m concerned.) As they trip the horizon in a peculiarly comic way, a figure spills out of some rocks in the foreground. Karl and Tex step forward to explore. It’s a woman in a short pre-Raquel Welch stoneman kind of dress. She is obviously blind, waving her arms around in an attempt to feel out where she is, her eyes clouded. Karl remarks on her to Tex. Hearing the men, she screams bloody murder–a long and fairly impressive, very long scream–then continues feeling the air. The stonemen come running down the slopes to grasp her arms and take her away. The stonemen skittering the rocks have long hair but these are bald and burly and have really hairy backs with strange growths on them. As far as I can tell, the woman offers no resistance.
“Atomic age. Astounding,” says Karl.
And that’s it for pre-Raquel Welch woman.
Now, going into the film I had been given a somewhat different idea of what the encounter would entail from Wikipedia which described the scene as below:
On Mars, they find evidence of a once-powerful civilization, as evidenced by an art-deco wall-hanging of a face, and a backdrop of a building shaped rather like a dynamo. There has been a planetary nuclear war. They meet a descendant of the builders of the civilization: a blind and mute woman, who is pursued by other descendants: cave-men, whom they fight off and escape…
First off, she was obviously not mute. Was this woman running from the stonemen? I can’t say that she was. She spilled out of the rocks. She screamed upon hearing Karl and the Texan talking at which point the stonemen came down and took hold of her arms and walked off with her. She didn’t scream at them. From the description at Wikipedia I was expecting exposition (though she was given as mute, which I clearly intuited in my precognizant way that she wouldn’t be) a story told by the blind woman that made clear her plight.
However, when I’d read the scenario, knowing a little also about the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo who had worked as a ghost-writer on this film, I had considered that the woman and the stonemen pursuing her might not have been quite the story as portrayed. That it was instead partly about Lisa and her relationship with the men on the spaceship, the men on the spaceship representing of course also the minds that brought us the Atomic Era.
Escape from Mars
The fruits of the Atomic Era now proceed to flatten the crew.
A stoneman pushes down a boulder. The Texan leaps to save Karl and is himself promptly killed.
Pitching rocks, the stonemen pursue Karl. Floyd runs toward the commotion with his pistol drawn. The astronomer follows holding Lisa’s hand. They come upon Karl who tumbles over, mysteriously wounded in the gut.
“Savages!” Floyd says of the stonemen.
“Poor, crazed, despairing wretches,” Karl replies, disagreeing. “Pity them, pity them.” He urges them to get back to earth and tell them what they’ve found. There’s no reason for his character to die but pffft there he goes. The bodies of Karl and the Texan will petrify on Mars.
Lisa and Floyd and astronomer run back to spaceship. Astronomer trips and is clobbered with a rock. Lisa and Floyd rescue him. By now the viewer may quite possibly care about the characters and what happens to them. Like I did, kind of, except I knew (spoiler) they were all doomed to die and thus not to get too attached. Not that there was too much risk of that. Even as Lisa and Floyd help the astronomer struggle back to the rocket, I was still wondering, “How does he fit into this picture?” An answer lurked somewhere.
Love the one you’re with
From what I read you’d have to stay on Mars three months before the window of opportunity to make that 260 day trip back to Earth again.
The astronomer lies ill on his bunk, bandaged, sometimes delirious, and Floyd and Lisa share an intimate moment as they approach Eearth. He says she’s a sweet beautiful girl. Lisa says has she changed? He says yes. Lisa says, no, she’s just the same as she was. Floyd says then maybe he is the one who’s changed. He says something to the effect that he feels he’d never seen her before.
It’s a stop the presses and review the movie moment. And another one is soon to follow. The movie is bad, bad, there’s no way around that. It also has too many writers, I think, wrestling whose vision for the movie comes out on top. But my idea, when I’d read of the misogyny and the encounter with the blind woman was wondering if she represented Lisa and the stonemen represented the misogynistic aspects of society and the crew, not to mention their anticipating a future post atomic age Earth. And now here we have Lisa submitting she hasn’t changed at all, that it’s Floyd who has changed, and the movie doesn’t argue with this; instead he’s even given to admit that he is seeing her for the first time. Lisa is not apologizing here for who she is or has been, though for some reason she delights in being called a “girl”. There’s still some confusion but it’s a confused movie. What we do know is that according to the movie Floyd has changed, Lisa hasn’t and Floyd is seeing her for the first time with new eyes supplied by his visit to Mars, the planet named for the god of war, on which everyone’s eyes were opened to the prospective fruits of war and the Atomic Era.
Blah blah. They’re within the reach of earth. Lisa realizes they have no fuel for a landing. They are going to crash. They contact Dr. Fleming to inform him of what they found on Mars, of the “mistakes” humankind has made, hoping to divert disaster. Dr. Fleming is shown listening with horrified awe.
Now, preparing to crash, Lisa asks if they should wake up the astronomer. No, let him be. She asks Floyd to hold her. They embrace. Then she says she’s no longer afraid. “Something happened like a great wave bearing us up, protecting us…”
A memorable movie climax. Especially for impressionable teens. It suddenly all feels more real to them than their own lives.
If only the film had ended here, we’d have some weird Americana version of Bergman and a truely tragic cult classic, despite Lloyd Bridges.
Finding meaning in the wreckage (in which the blogger sifts the sands)
Reporters are shown into Dr. Fleming’s office. They say that a Flight 19 saw a strange object crash over Nova Scotia and is there any connection with the long overdue spaceship? Dr. Fleming, surveying the desert landscape with its barren winter tree outside his window admits that yes there is a connection, but denies the idea that the trip and the loss of the crew was for nothing. Interspace travel is possible and RXM has supplied them with information that might well save the world! No, it was not a failure.
Close curtain on Dr. Fleming declaring it’s time to build a Rocketship X-M II.
Dr. Fleming looking out the window on White Sands is actually looking out on the Martian landscape that the crew had explored, putting the people at White Sands in touch with the tragedy of the era. The Martian desert is actually the desert outside Dr. Fleming’s window. Its dead foliage is the dead or wintering tree outside Dr. Fleming’s window. White Sands is the place of the first atomic explosion = the explosion that had destroyed the society on Mars. The blind woman only screams at the voices of the Texan and Karl because she hears and sees in them the Atomic age and its horrors. Texan even made a point of saying, looking over the Martian landscape, that it was just sand and rock as far as the eye could see. And the reason for Karl bothering to mention the many varied colors is because of the recalling the alternate Dorothy in Oz world she experiences while dreaming. Who’s the dreamer here? The pessimistic astronomer who was focused on at film’s beginning, who has spent his days on the mountain top. He is the one who is asleep both ways, to Mars and on the return back. He’s the only one who wasn’t shown falling down with the catastrophic acceleration because he was already lying passed out on the floor. He’s the Dorothy Door that sends the crew to Mars where they have a revelation on war and wish to bring home knowledge of mistakes made and being made.
The navigator-astronomer is the script writer who’s been beaten up by McCarthy, that too.
Reasoning out a poorly written movie hurts the brain, so I’m going to stop now.