‘See how it will happen… in your lifetime!’
Conquest of Space is a 1955 science fiction film about an American-led team of international astronauts on the first mission to Mars.
Directed by Byron Haskin (The Power; Robinson Crusoe on Mars) from a screenplay written by James O’Hanlon, Barré Lyndon, George Worthing Yates and Philip Yordan, the Paramount production stars Walter Brooke, Samuel T. Merritt, Eric Fleming, Mickey Shaughnessy and Phil Foster.
A pioneering international Mars mission, dominated by military men, is threatened by natural perils and a leader who suffers a bout of religious fanaticism and tries to destroy the expedition.
The legacy of cinematic science fiction and fantasy certainly owes a debt to producer George Pal, one of the few Hollywood producers who believed out-of-this-world material was actually worth spending real money on, not ghettoizing to the B-studios and cut-rate Buster Crabbe serials. Thanks to Pal (also an animator; in terms of sheer visionary, he could be a runner-up to Walt Disney), we were left with such full-colour fifties epics as When Worlds Collide, Destination Moon and, perhaps his most enduring feature, the 1954 Americanization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Alas, few people remember Conquest of Space as fondly, and the commercial failure of the troubled production matched the poor reviews and marked Pal’s association with Paramount.
Give Conquest of Space consolation credit for visuals. With inspirations from legendary aerospace artist Chesley Bonestell, here was the optimistic, post-WWII dream of what space travel was predicted to be, as peddled on loads of technical-magazine layouts. Giant inner-tube-ring orbital stations, sleek spaceships only a few design modifications away from a big-finned Detroit automobile, and those wonderfully puffy pressure-suits, worn by he-man astronauts full of Yankee can-do spirit. One can at least argue (mildly) that Conquest of Space paved the way for Star Trek and Kubrick’s 2001, if thuddingly.
The plot takes place circa the 1980s. With a moonbase and a permanent orbital platform in position, the US military is now ready to supply know-how and key personnel for the first manned mission to Mars. However, en route, Sam (Walter Brooke), the esteemed general in charge, develops religious-based objections – for the Bible says nothing about going to Mars (a critic at the time pointed out the Bible also doesn’t mention moonbases and orbital platforms either yet Sam doesn’t seem to have thought of that).
Second-in-command is none other than Sam’s own son Barney (Eric Fleming), who takes over after dad becomes unstable. The spaceship makes a successful Mars touchdown but the general’s fundamentalist mania and acts of sabotage only get worse, threatening the whole team’s survival. And yet, rank being what it is (remember that the fiercely militaristic writings of Starship Troopers author Robert Heinlein inspired Destination Moon) crew loyal to the mad general view young Barney as a mutineer, and threaten him with execution when they get back to Earth – if they ever get back.
There are no Martians or UFOs. Source material, loosely, was the nonfiction book The Mars Project, by eminent/notorious NASA rocketeer Doctor Werner Von Braun, and an effort was made here at valid speculating about exobiology and realistic interplanetary dangers. However, diverse hands and studio meddling had their part in the material and it shows.
Besides a few bad stabs at romance, there is the odd religious angle, most likely attributable to co-screenwriter Philip Yordan, a journeyman scribbler in movies assisting, often uncredited, on scenarios across genres, including some cult classics. Matters of God and faith intruding in manners somewhat bizarre are a Yordan trademark (he later wrote Cataclysm and co-scripted The Unholy).
Minus that, Conquest of Space otherwise operates on the unsubtle level of a typical vintage flag-waving Hollywood battlefield or service drama wherein a bunch of squabbling guys-in-uniform must undertake a risky mission. The sudden death of the most clownish, a stereotypical Brooklyn grunt (Phil Foster) being cuckolded by his floozy wife back on Earth, ends with the character’s ritual “burial” in space, bathed in starlight, a sequence that still remains evocative, transcending the banality of the rest of the picture (quite possibly influencing the similar sendoff of the deceased Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).
There was a good word coined by NASA engineers during the Apollo program for any improvised, ungainly fix to a problem: “kludge.” Sometimes a kludge would work, sometimes not. Conquest of Space is very kludgy. Just watch for yesterday’s rosy vision of tomorrow.
For all that, Conquest of Space should merit a Blu-ray release above and beyond the desultory Paramount DVD extant – although the Bible also obviously makes no mention of Blu-rays. A creaky British space drama that might be described in near-identical terms, yet with a smaller scale, was Satellite in the Sky.
Charles Cassady Jr, MOVIES and MANIA
” …I can’t help but feel some affection for a science fiction movie that aspires toward human drama rather than just spectacle or action, but you still need a good convincing story to make it work, and that is just what this film does not have.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings
” …this was all in the service of reassuring the viewer space exploration was perfectly within the morality and guidance of scripture, as demonstrated by the infamous snowing scene, and there was more than that to get over with the characters drawn from stock and representing various stereotypes, comedian Phil Foster’s comic relief being especially tough to get along with…” The Spinning Image
“The film’s moments of corporeal suffering still have a surprising punch, like Fodor’s wide-open mouth as a red-hot rock shoots through his suit and body, flash cuts to the faces of the crew during the emergency take-off from Mars, each man with blood flowing from his face as they’re pummelled by G-force, and the sight of Fodor’s dead body, tethered to the spaceship whilst drifting, has a haunting sense of vulnerability and pathos…” This Island Rod
Cast and characters:
Walter Brooke … General Samuel T. Merritt
Eric Fleming … Captain Barney Merritt
Mickey Shaughnessy … Sergeant Mahoney
Phil Foster … Jackie Siegle
William Redfield … Roy Cooper
William Hopper … Doctor George Fenton
Benson Fong … Imoto
Ross Martin … Andre Fodor
Vito Scotti … Sanella
John Dennis … Donkersgoed
Michael Fox … Elsbach
Joan Shawlee … Rosie McCann
Iphigenie Castiglioni … Mrs Heinz Fodor
Paramount Studios – 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California
Aspect ratio: 1.66: 1
Audio: Mono (Western Electric Recording)