Conquest of Space
|Conquest of Space|
|Directed by||Byron Haskin|
|Produced by||George Pal|
|Screenplay by||James O'Hanlon|
|Music by||Nathan Van Cleave|
|Editing by||Everett Douglas|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||81 min.|
|Box office||$1 million (US)|
Conquest of Space is a 1955 Paramount Pictures Technicolor science fiction film produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, which depicts the first voyage to the planet Mars. The science and technology depicted in the film were intended to be as realistic as possible. The movie poster's tagline reads: "See how it will happen in your lifetime!"
Sometime during the late 1950s, mankind has achieved the capability of manned space flight and built "The Wheel," a space station in orbit 1,075 miles above the Earth; the station is commanded by its designer, Colonel Sameuel T. Merritt. As the film opens, his son, Barney, a Captain, is wanting to return to Earth after being stuck aboard for a year without any leave.
The space station's personnel have been hard at work for months constructing a giant spaceship in a nearby orbit. An inspector arrives by shuttle craft from Earth with new orders: Not only is Merritt being promoted to General, but the advanced spaceship is now being sent to distant Mars under his command, not the Moon as originally expected. As General Merritt considers which three enlisted men and one additional officer will go with him to Mars, his close friend, Sgt. Mahoney volunteers for the mission. The General, however, turns him down for being 20 years too old for the voyage (in reality Mahoney is actually three months younger than the General, but rank has its privileges). After hearing the ship's new destination, Merritt's son, Barney, changes his mind about returning to Earth and volunteers to be the ship's second officer.
After the selected crew members watch a special television broadcast featuring their family and friends, the mission blasts off for the Red Planet. By this time, however, the General's hidden and growing space fatigue condition is beginning to seriously affect his judgement: Reading his Bible frequently is causing him serious religious doubts about the righteousness of their Mars mission. At about the same time Sgt. Mahoney is discovered to have stowed away, hiding aboard in one of the ship's spacesuits stored in the airlock. En route to Mars, something goes wrong with their piloting radar antenna, so two crew members go on a spacewalk to make the necessary repairs. They manage to get the antenna working again, just as the ship's television monitors show a glowing planetoid, 20 times larger than their ship, coming at them from astern. Thanks to the General, they barely manage to avoid a collision, but the very fast-moving meteor debris surrounding the planetoid punctures the spacesuit of Sgt. Fodor, killing him; after a religious funeral service conducted in space by the General, Fodor's body is then cast adrift.
Eight months later, as the spaceship approaches the Red Planet, the General has become increasingly mentally unbalanced, focusing on the loss of Sgt. Fodor as God's judgment; on final Martian landing approach, he attempts to crash the spaceship, now convinced their mission violates the laws of God. Barney wrests control from his father, ultimately landing the large flying wing glider-rocket safely on the Martian surface. Later, as the crew takes their first steps on Mars, they look up and see a stream of water pouring down from the now vertical return rocket. Barney quickly discovers the leak is sabotage caused by his father, General Merritt, who threatens his son with a .45 automatic; the two struggle and the pistol discharges, killing the General. Sgt. Mahoney, who observed only the last stages of the struggle, wants to have Barney confined to quarters under arrest, but cooler heads prevail for the time being: Barney is now the ranking officer and commander of the mission.
The crew discovers that Mars is quite inhospitable. With their now limited water supply, it will be a severe struggle for the crew to be able to survive the year it will take for the Earth to reach the precise orbital position needed for their return trip. Despite the absence of water on Mars, Japanese crew member Sgt. Imoto plants a single seed in the Martian soil.
The crew is glumly celebrating the first Christmas on Mars when a sudden snowstorm blows-up allowing them to replenish their dwindling water supply. In due course, as their launch window arrives, the seed Imoto planted sprouts into a tiny flower. Their joy over its discovery is short-lived when the crew hears low rumbling sounds and then see rocks falling and feel the ground shaking, which opens up large holes on the Martian surface. The ground level shifts because of this violent Marsquake. Their spaceship is now leaning at a precarious angle that is far too dangerous for making an emergency blastoff. The crew decides to make a risky and desperate attempt at righting their ship's position, using the rocket engines' powerful thrust to shift the ground under the landing legs. The attempt works, righting the ship so that it can immediately blastoff; as the ship rises from the Martian surface, the ground where it stood completely collapses.
Once in space, Barney and Mahoney reconcile. Mahoney decides not to press charges upon their return to Earth, having become impressed with Barney's heroism during their time together on Mars. A court-martial session would likely impugn the General's reputation and tarnish what previously had been a spotless career. Better that "the man who conquered space" died in the line of duty, sacrificing himself to save his crew.
- Walter Brooke as General Samuel T. Merritt
- Eric Fleming as Captain Barney Merritt
- Mickey Shaughnessy as Sgt. Mahoney
- Phil Foster as Sgt. Jackie Seigel
- William Redfield as Roy Cooper
- William Hopper as Dr. George Fenton
- Benson Fong as Sgt. Imoto
- Ross Martin as Sgt. Andre Fodor
- Vito Scotti as Sanella
- John Dennis as Donkersgoed
- Michael Fox as Elsbach
- Joan Shawlee as Rosie
- Iphigenie Catiglioni as Mrs. Fodor
Background and sources
Conquest of Space is based on The Conquest of Space, a 1949 non-fiction book illustrated by Chesley Bonestell and written by Willy Ley. Bonestell is noted for his photo-realistic paintings showing views from outer space; he worked on the space matte paintings used in the film. The production also incorporated material from Wernher von Braun's 1952 book The Mars Project. Both books feature text that is straight popular science with no fictional characters or story line.
Had Pal followed either book, he would have produced a speculative futuristic documentary, much like of the trio of 1955 Tomorrowland-set (Walt Disney's) Disneyland television episodes: Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond. The final screenplay by James O'Hanlon, from an adaptation by Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon and George Worthing Yates, instead creates a fictional story from whole cloth.
Judgments on the quality of the film's special effects have varied. Modern audiences are apt to notice the presence of matte lines. Reviewer Glenn Erickson said that "the ambitious special effects were some of the first to garner jeers for their lack of realism." Paul Brenner said "Pal pulls out all stops in the special effects department, creating 'The Wheel', rocket launches into space, and a breathtaking near collision with an asteroid." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction said "The special effects are quite ambitious but clumsily executed, in particular the matte work." Paul Corupe said that often "the overall image on screen that inspires awe: the Martian landscape, the general's high-tech office and the vastness of the cosmos. The film's budget is certainly up on screen for your entertainment, but it's just spectacle for spectacle's sake." He too complains of matte lines but acknowledges that "the composites are convincing enough for the time the film was made."
Upon the film's release, the New York Times praised the effects, but was disparaging of the storyline, noting "as plots go...it is not offensive." The public was even less kind: Erickson called the film "a flop that seriously hindered George Pal's career as a producer." Corupe described it as the "first big flop in Pal's career. It was a major setback that saw him abandon science fiction filmmaking for five years, including a planned sequel to When Worlds Collide." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction remarks "A truly awful film, The Conquest of Space is probably George Pal's worst production."
- 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1955', Variety Weekly, January 25, 1956
- Glenn Erickson (October 30, 2004). "DVD Savant Review: Conquest of Space". DVD Savant. Retrieved February 3, 2013.
- "Conquest of Space, The". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. March 22, 2012. Retrieved February 3, 2013.
- Paul Corupe (November 26, 2004). "DVD Verdict Review - Conquest of Space". DVD Verdict. Retrieved February 3, 2013.
- O. A. G. (May 28, 1955). "Special Effects Show 'Conquest of Space'". The New York Times. Retrieved February 3, 2013.
- Bonestell, Chesley and Willy Ley. The Conquest of Space, 1949. Viking: New York. ISBN not in use.
- Hickman, Gail Morgan. The Films of George Pal, 1977. A. S. Barnes and Company: New York. ISBN 0-498-01960-8
- "O. A. G." review. "Special Effects Show Conquest of Space", New York Times May 28, 1955 p. 7.
- Strick, Philip. Science Fiction Movies, 1976. Octopus Books Limited. ISBN 0-7064-0470-X.
- Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Films of the Fifties, Volume One (1950-1957), 1986. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-89950-032-3
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