Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Heinlein in Hollywood

Destination Moon lobby card

I saw a story on the internet a few months back about the demolition of Ray Bradbury's house. It sold a while ago for $1.7 million and the new owners apparently want to put something else up on the property. This makes me sad, I suppose. I grew up reading Bradbury and watching the sci fi movies of the 1950s that bear his stamp. Bradbury was fortunate in his interpreters. Films like It Came from Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are touched with his humanism. Commenting on the demolition of his house, a friend of mine said, "...and there shall come soft rains."

I've been thinking about fifties sci fi lately. I recently caught Destination Moon.  I don't think I ever saw it when I was a kid, back when I was mainlining as much science fiction as I could lay my hands on. It's a film that reminds me that there's an alternate history of cinematic science fiction that never actually materialized in our world, one that's more influenced by Bradbury's great contemporary, Robert Heinlein, than by Bradbury himself. I'm reminded of this because there's a new movie based on one of Heinlein's stories out right now, and I'll get to that in a few days, but it's worth playing what-if with Heinlein. Heinlein is one of the founders of the modern genre, one who put people into the future along with the nuts and bolts of technology. In spite of this, he's a writer who always insisted on the technology being right. He was also one of the first science fiction writers to dabble in the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology as fertile grounds for extrapolation. Much of the appeal of his work comes from his depictions of societies as much as it comes from the gee whiz technological trappings. Heinlein's powers of extrapolation were often uncanny. My favorite of his ideas that wound up coming true? There's subplot in Stranger in a Strange Land in which the fastest way to get in touch with the leader of the free world is through his wife's astrologer. That's on-point satire right there, which became a tad less funny when it came true during the Reagan administration. Heinlein is arguably the architect of every SF trope you can think of, including the ones more famously associated with Philip K. Dick (see, for instance, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" or "They"). I read a lot of Heinlein as a teenager. I have a nearly complete set of his books, though I haven't touched them since a re-read of Citizen of the Galaxy a decade ago.

Hollywood has been interested in Heinlein for decades, but the movies have never really reconciled what's best in Heinlein with what's best for movie making. Part of this is the author's preoccupation with sex and with shuffling the conventions of social and sexual morality (this has long been the stumbling block with a film version of Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein's most famous novel). Part of this is the politics behind a good deal of his work. Part of it is the irascibility of the author himself. Even when the films have materialized--and there haven't been many of them--Heinlein often barely figured in them.

Destination Moon

Destination Moon (1950, directed by Irving Pichel) was the flashpoint for the explosion of science fiction films in the 1950s. It's one of the purest "hard" science fiction films ever made and among the very first science fiction films in which the production values are more than an afterthought. It spawned a whole cycle of imitators (one of them, Rocketship X-M, beat Destination Moon to theaters by three weeks). For all that, it's also among the most obscure films from the science fiction boom of the early 1950s: It's mentioned often enough in histories of the genre, but it's rarely screened. It's a film whose politics have become unfashionable. It's a film that often functions more as a time capsule than as an entertainment. Moreover, for all the savvy of its production, it's a stiff, mannered film that often acts as a polemic rather than as drama or entertainment.

The story finds rocket scientist Dr. Cargraves and his military associate, General Thayer, struggling to get their rocket program off the ground (if you'll pardon the pun). Both men are convinced that the program is being sabotaged by some foreign power, operating through dupes in the US government. As a result, they take their moonshot project to industrialist Jim Barnes, who agrees to bankroll the kit and kaboodle. Even with Barnes's backing, the project is almost halted by a court injunction founded on the premise that it's dangerous to launch atomic powered rockets into space over inhabited territory. Cargraves, Thayer, and Barnes contrive to dodge the injunction and launch anyway. The rocket, untouched by the government, actually makes it to the moon, but in landing, it burns a smidge too much fuel. The astronauts are faced with the dilemma of what they can leave behind and still make it back to Earth. It eventually comes down to human beings. It's a hard choice to make.

Destination Moon behind the scenes

Destination Moon is immediately striking for its production. This was George Pal's first big sci fi production and he lavished resources on to the project. He engaged with rocketry experts as technical consultants, brought in Heinlein himself to adapt his own book, Rocketship Galileo, and he hired the great science illustrator, Chesley Bonestall to design the "look" of its space environments. Don't get me wrong: this film LOOKS fantastic. The Bonestall art was re-purposed by the producers into a publicity campaign in Life Magazine, which primed the pump for the film (and invited imitators to beat it to the punch).  Many of its techniques are groundbreaking, whether it's the rotating sets that simulate weightlessness or the use of children in space suits on the moon sets to create a greater feeling scale and forced perspective (this is a technique that's been used even unto the present day--most notably in Alien, but in other more recent films as well). It was undoubtedly a technical marvel in its day.

Destination Moon is also immediately striking for its politics. This is a paranoid right wing fantasy, one not hidden behind a veneer of distance provided by genre. Destination Moon doesn't tell you when it's set, because it was set in the here and now (in 1948-1950). It's conceived as agit prop for the founding of a space program, and it uses a stick rather than a carrot. It harps on Heinlein's well-known paranoia about the military uses of space. He puts this in the mouth of General Thayer:

"We are not the only ones who know that the Moon can be reached. We're not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on - and we'd better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles... will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century."

When thwarted by protesters--whose position on launching an atomic rocket over populated areas seems entirely reasonable in retrospect, especially given that the film's previous rockets have all exploded in the sky or fallen to Earth--our heroes dismiss their concerns as propaganda manufactured by some shadowy interest intent on keeping America down. They launch anyway and damn the government.  This is Progress, dammit! The word, "Communist," is never used in the film, but you can fill in the blanks.

Destination Moon

Regardless of its design and its politics, Destination Moon has one central problem: its characters act mostly as mouthpieces and ideologues, something the film is aware of. As I've said, this is a film with an ideological agenda to get the American space program kickstarted, if only in the minds of the American public. It does this through a combination of methods: First, most of its characters are provided with dialogue that functions as info-dump. Its plot is moved forward in the early going in meetings rather than in scenes, where its characters can give speeches to groups that stand in for the audience. It even goes so far as to put the science of rocketry into the mouth of Woody Woodpecker. Second, in the films second half, it provides the audience with an everyman in Joe Sweeney, the blue collar astronaut who's skeptical of the whole project. Sweeney is a stereotype of the uncooth, uneducated prole, a character who has been borrowed from The Bowery Boys, dusted off, and put into the autoclave of this movie's tech. He's a very 1940s sort of character. A few years later, in Frank Capra's Bell Labs science films, his role would be played by Richard Carlson and instead of being a mug from the old neighborhood, he became the very model of the middle class salaryman. Destination Moon is more similar to those films than to anything else I can think of. It's basically an educational film on top of being tract on behalf of science. Because of this, it's dramatically inert. The problem that its characters face in the end, in which they wrestle with the fact that someone needs to be left behind on the moon in order for the mission to return to Earth is fraught with dramatic possibilities, but those dramatic beats never materialize. This is at the heart of this film's relative obscurity. It was first in space, sure, but it's not thrilling. You need character and drama for thrills, and that's something this film lacks. I don't know that this is Heinlein's fault so much as it's George Pal's fault or Irving Pichel's fault, but I do know that it's a lesson that Pal learned pretty quickly, because his next venture into science fiction was The War of the Worlds. That film doesn't skimp on the thrills.

Project Moonbase

Heinlein participated in two other films in the 1950s, though "participated" is perhaps putting things too strongly. Project Moonbase (1953, directed by Richard Talmadge) was originally intended as a television pilot. It was expanded from its original format by the producers, and became a film that's embarrassing to watch. Heinlein did not participate in its expansion and disowned the final project, but you can still see his fingerprints on it. This is another film where the Red Menace looms large, having replaced a key scientist on its central mission to space with a saboteur, but that's not what jumps off the screen when you watch the film. The film provides a female lead (as opposed to the almost exclusively male cast of Destination Moon). This is Colonel Briteis, whose name is very much in the tradition of Heinlein's coyness when it comes to women (one of the lead characters in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instances, is one "Wyoming Knott" or "Why Knott") and the threat that her commanding officer makes to bend her over his knee and spank her when she gives him attitude is another familiar trope that occurs in Heinlein's fiction. Colonel Briteis, the film tells us, got her rank and her notoriety as a pilot because of tokenism. The film is horrifyingly sexist from a 21st Century perspective. Whether its sexism derives from Heinlein himself is open to debate. Although Heinlein's heroines were sometimes coquettish, they were also usually competent. One wonders what Gini Heinlein thought of this. She might have been one reason her husband disowned the project. In any event, Project Moonbase is almost unwatchable.

The Brain Eaters lobby card

Only one other film from the 1950s used Heinlein as a source text. That was The Brain Eaters (1958, directed by Bruno VeSota), an unauthorized adaptation of The Puppet Masters. The film retains the book's central monster--alien space slugs that attach themselves to their victims and control them--but omits the rest of the book's plot. Heinlein sued the producers of The Brain Eaters, which forced them to edit the movie in such a way as to remove as much similarity to the book as possible. It also edits away any kind of coherence the film might have had. For all that, the end result is more watchable than you might expect. It's not good, mind you. It's charming in the way that fifties Poverty Row productions often were. The special effects are laughable, often consisting of inventively photographed pasta. It's a huge comedown from the technical mastery of Destination Moon. It's more Ed Wood than Roger Corman, but that's not necessarily a knock against it. It's certainly more fun than Project Moonbase. And if the plot too closely resembles The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Well, that's par for the course in the world of genre filmmaking.

In any event, The Brain Eaters was the end of Hollywood's dalliance with Robert Heinlein in the 1950s. The writer himself was about to embark on one of his most fertile periods, a ten year stretch that included Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Although all three of those books and more besides would be optioned by Hollywood in the intervening years, nothing that Heinlein wrote would make it onto the screen again until the mid-1990s, years after his death. But that, as they say, is another story...

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dfordoom said...

I may have to add THE BRAIN EATERS to my shopping list. I actually quite liked DESTINATION MOON.

John Hitchcock said...

I can't say I know a lot about Robert Heinlein, though I have read some of Ray Bradbury's short stories, Kaleidoscope probably being one of his best (amusingly, that one went on to inspire the ending of the John Carpenter's 1974 cult classic "Dark Star"). I remember him being a decent writer with some interesting ideas, but sometimes having trouble getting past a lot of the outdated elements, such as the all-male space crews and 1940's ideas of what space travel would look like. I used to find it amusing how he kept describing rockets going up and down in ways that seemed impossible, but apparently they are actually designing rockets like that now so I guess he was right about something.

The only one of these films I've actually seen is Destination Moon, and I'd say you make some pretty good points. I personally enjoyed it but it did feel more like an educational video. If anything the "plot" is pretty much just an excuse to provide all that information, though most of the science referred to still holds up rather well, at least in theory. On the other hand, it was one of the first serious attempts at science fiction and also one of the first to make a concerted effort to depict space accurately. You can't expect perfection the first time around. After all a lot of Pal's later science fiction films like, as you said, The War of the Worlds as well as When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space, did try to incorporate more drama and downplay the exposition (though whether they succeeded is debatable). Still, a very good post, with some interesting points to consider.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! I didn't know anything about this era of Heinlein adaptations, they seem like a mixed bag ideologically (like Heinlein himself!), but the visuals of Destination Moon are gorgeous.

Has anyone ever seriously attempted a film adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land? That'd be a hard one to pull off - it's such a specific blend of sci-fi concepts and hippie-era ideas (free love/sex cult but whoa, no homo! *eyeroll*).

Vulnavia Morbius said...

In the 1970s, the rights to the book were purchased by David Bowie, who was never able to get it funded, either, though it may have inspired him to make The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is superficially similar (though based on another book).

The last serious attempt at filming Stranger in a Strange Land had Tom Hanks of all people attached to star as Valentine Michael Smith, with Sean Connery as Jubal Harshaw. That was in the mid 1990s. It never got a director, though.

I can't imagine that anyone who attempts to film it would be able to get past the sexual politics.

Anonymous said...

Tom Hanks and Sean Connery???? Wow. I'd probably watch that, to be honest, but hahaha!

Joe Thompson said...

That was interesting. I have never been a science fiction fan, but I heard a lot about it from my sister, who is. Films like Destination Moon always left me feeling flat. I'm glad to know it was the movie and not me.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Joe. Yeah. The movies have often left something to be desired.

JoeS said...

I think folks are being too hard on DESTINATION MOON. One must put yourself back into the time a movie was made. I've always found it very good from that perspective. Too many people toss around the word "dated" as if it only applies to films made in THE WRITER'S OWN PAST. Remember, some day the "cool" "hip" movies of TODAY will one day looked upon as "dated". Take each film on it's own. It's a much more generous way of looking at cinema.