Rocketship X-M

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Rocketship X-M
Directed by Kurt Neumann
Produced by Kurt Neumann
Screenplay by Orville H. Hampton
Kurt Neumann
Dalton Trumbo
Starring Lloyd Bridges
Osa Massen
John Emery
Noah Beery, Jr.
Hugh O'Brian
Morris Ankrum
Music by Ferde Grofé
Cinematography Karl Struss
Edited by Harry Gerstad
Distributed by Lippert Pictures
Release dates
  • May 26, 1950 (1950-05-26) (United States)
Running time
78 minutes
Country United States
Budget $94,000

Rocketship X-M (aka Expedition Moon and originally as Rocketship Expedition Moon) is a 1950 American black-and-white science fiction film from Lippert Pictures, the first outer space adventure of the post-World War II era. The film was produced and directed by Kurt Neumann, and stars Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery, Jr., Hugh O'Brian and Morris Ankrum.

Rocketship X-M tells the story of a Moon expedition that, through a series of unforeseen events, winds up traveling instead to distant Mars. Once on the Red Planet, its crew discovers the remnants of a Martian civilization destroyed long ago by atomic war and now reverted to barbarism.[1]


Four men and a woman blast into outer space from the White Sands Proving Ground aboard the RX-M (Rocketship Expedition-Moon) on humanity's first expedition to Luna. Halfway to their destination, the RX-M's engines shut down; the problem is resolved by recalculating the fuel mixture ratios and then moving around some of the propellent tanks and their connecting hoses. When the engines are reignited, the RX-M rapidly careens out of control on a runaway course heading beyond the Moon and into deep space. During this burst of rapid acceleration, the crew becomes unconscious due to a drop in oxygen pressure. The engines are shut off just in time. The crew revives at some later time and discovers they have traveled some 50,000,000 miles. This sequence of events has put them on a direct heading toward Mars. They also notice their speed is still increasing, due to gravitational attraction of the Red Planet. They calculate they are only 50,000 miles away; this forces Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery) to "pause and observe respectfully while something infinitely greater assumes control".

The RX-M passes through the Martian atmosphere and begins its landing, eventually setting down as a rain storm begins. The next morning the scientists, clad in aviation oxygen masks due to the low atmospheric pressure, begin exploring the desolate surface, eventually coming across physical evidence of a now dead advanced Martian civilization: a partially buried-in-the-sand, stylized, Art Deco- or Tiki culture-like metal face sculpture, and in the distance Moderne architecture-like ruins. Their Geiger counter registers dangerous radiation, however, keeping them well away; from the levels detected, it is clear that a long time ago there had been an atomic war on Mars.

After the explorers find cave refuge for the night, they notice in the distance the primitive descendants of that civilization emerging from behind boulders and creeping toward them. Amazed, Dr. Eckstrom comments "From Atomic Age to Stone Age." Soon after leaving, two of the explorers encounter a dark-haired woman who has lost her footing and rolled down a hill toward them; she is blind, with thick, milky cataracts on both eyes. She screams at the sound of their oxygen mask muffled voices. They retreat, and she is quickly led away by two bald tribesmen with severe radiation burns. The primitives then attack, throwing large rocks and stone axes. Armed with only a bolt-action .30-06 rifle and .38 caliber revolver, the explorers defend themselves, purposely missing their pursuers. Two are killed during the ensuing pursuit, including Dr. Eckstrom, felled by a stone axe; another is badly injured by a large thrown rock. The survivors eventually make their way back to the RX-M.

The return voyage proves disastrous. The RX-M returns to Earth, but the survivors calculate they have inadequate fuel for a landing. Col. Graham contacts their White Sands base and reports their dire status to Dr. Fleming (Morris Ankrum), who listens intently and wordlessly over his headphones. Col. Graham's report is not heard, but Fleming's subtle reactions tells of the crew's odyssey, their discovery on Mars of a once advanced civilization destroyed long ago by atomic war, and of the crew fatalities at the hands of Martian descendants reverted to barbarism.

As the RX-M begins its uncontrolled descent, Col. Graham and Dr. Van Horn embrace, consoling one another in the moments left to them. Through the crew cabin's large porthole, they bravely watch their rapid descent into the mountains of Nova Scotia. The press is later informed by a shaken Dr. Fleming that the entire crew has perished. When asked if the mission was a failure, he responds in a voice laced with confidence and conviction, stating that all theories about manned spaceflight and exploration have now been proven. He continues, underscoring the point that a dire warning has been received that could very well mean the salvation of humanity, "A new spaceship, the RX-M-2, begins construction tomorrow". The pioneering exploration begun will continue; this is only the beginning.


Film score[edit]

The soundtrack is by American composer Ferde Grofé. Grofé uses a Theremin in the score, the first use of this electronic instrument in a science fiction film; it would later become strongly identified with the genre in the years to come.[2] Grofé's score, running 37.16 minutes, was first released on LP from Starlog Records in 1977 (SR-1000) and contained a bonus track not in the film.[3]

No. Title Length
1. "Main Title"   1:21
2. "Good Luck"   1:53
3. "Stand by to Turn"   0:50
4. "The Motors Conk Out"   2:55
5. "Palomar Observatory"   1:11
6. "Floyd Whispers"   1:57
7. "Floyd and Lisa at Window"   2:56
8. "We See Mars"   2:06
No. Title Length
9. "The Landing on Mars"   3:17
10. "The Ruins"   3:10
11. "I Saw the Martians"   1:02
12. "The Atomic Age to Stone Age" / "The Chase"   4:59
13. "The Tanks Are Empty"   3:37
14. "The Crash"   3:22
15. "End Title"   0:59
16. "Noodling on the Theremin" (bonus track) 1:35

The soundtrack was re-released in 2012 on CD from Monstrous Movie Music (MMM-1965) in an edition of 1000 copies; it came with an 16-page booklet of film score liner notes, illustrated with copies of Grofé's original written score pages.


Because production issues had delayed the release of George Pal's high-profile Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M was quickly shot in just 18 days on a $94,000 budget; it was then rushed into movie theaters 25 days before the Pal film, while taking full advantage of Destination Moon's high-profile national publicity.[2]

Given the film's minimal special effects budget and limited shooting days, the surface of Mars was much easier to simulate using remote Southern California locations than creating the airless and cratered surface of the Moon.[2]

The film's original 1950 theatrical release prints had all Mars scenes tinted a pinkish-red color.[2]

The RX-M's design was taken from rocket illustrations that appeared in an article in the January 17, 1949 issue of Life magazine.[3] The interior structure of the spaceship's larger second stage is shown as having a long ladder that the crew must climb; it runs "up" through the RX-M's fuel compartment, which has on all sides a series of narrow fuel tanks filled with various propulsion chemicals. By selecting and mixing them together in various proportions, different levels of thrust are attainable from the RX-M's engines. The crew ladder ends at a round pressure hatch in the middle of a floor bulkhead that leads to the crew's upper living and control compartment.[2]

Instruments and technical equipment were supplied by Allied Aircraft Company of North Hollywood.[1]

Historical accuracy[edit]

The five Mars explorers wear U. S. military surplus clothing, including overalls and aviator's leather jackets.[1] It has been noted in other film reviews that the explorers are wearing gas masks, but gas masks would include goggles to protect the eyes. Due to the thin Martian atmosphere, the explorers are actually wearing military "Oxygen Breathing Apparatuses" (OBA) like those used by military firefighters.[3]

Various scientific curiosities and errors are seen during the film:

With less than 15 minutes to go until launch, the RX-M's crew are still in the midst of a leisurely press conference being held at a base building. From its launch pad, the RX-M blasts straight up, and once it leaves the Earth's atmosphere, the ship makes a hard 90-degree turn to place the RX-M into Earth orbit. Simultaneously with that turn, the crew cabin rotates within the RX-M's hull, around its lateral axis, so the ship's cabin deck is always "down"; the crew cabin's orientation is always shown like that of an aircraft. Though objects are purposely shown to float free to demonstrate a lack of gravity, none of the five crew members float, apparently unaffected by weightlessness.[2]

The RX-M's jettisoned first stage, with its engine still firing, and a later meteoroid storm (inaccurately referred to in dialog as meteorites) both make audible roaring sounds in the soundless vacuum of space that can be heard inside the crew compartment. The clusters of those fast moving meteoroids appear identical in shape and detail (actually, the same prop meteoroids were shot from different angles and positions, then optically printed in tandem, at different sizes, on the film's master negative).[2]

A point is made in dialog that the RX-M is carrying more than "double" the amount of rocket fuel and oxygen needed to make a successful round trip and landing on the Moon; while impractical for various reasons, this detail becomes a convenient, then necessary plot device in making the later Mars storyline more believable.[2]

Several scenes in Rocketship X-M involving the interaction between the RX-M's sole female crew member, scientist Dr. Lisa Van Horn, her male crew, the launch site staff, and the press corps provide cultural insights into early 1950s sexist attitudes toward women. One notable scene involves Van Horn and expedition leader (and fellow scientist) Dr. Karl Eckstrom rushing to recalculate fuel mixtures after their initial propulsion problems. When they come up with different figures, expedition leader Eckstrom insists they must proceed using his numbers. Van Horn objects to this arbitrary decision, but submits, and Eckstrom forgives her for "momentarily being a woman." Subsequent events prove Eckstrom's "arbitrary decision" to be wrong, placing them all in jeopardy.[2]

Lippert's feature was the first film drama to explore the dangers of nuclear warfare and atomic radiation through the lens of science fiction; these became recurrent themes in many 1950s science fiction films that followed.[2]

Rocketship X-M was one of many B-movies later mocked in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.[1]

New footage added[edit]

Rocketship X-M was rushed to market to be in theaters before the more lavishly produced but delayed Destination Moon that was finally released 25 days later. A lack of both time and budget forced RX-M 's producers to omit special effects scenes and substitute stock footage of V-2 rocket launches and flight to complete some sequences that otherwise would have been made using the Rocketship X-M special effects miniature. The V-2 inserts created very noticeable continuity issues.[3]

In the 1970s the rights to Rocketship X-M were acquired by Kansas City film exhibitor, movie theater owner (and later video distributor) Wade Williams, who set about re-shooting some of RX-M 's special effects scenes in order to improve the film's overall continuity.[3] The VHS tape, LaserDisc and DVD releases incorporate this re-shot footage. Williams funded the production of new RX-M footage to replace the stock V-2 shots and missing scenes. The new footage was produced for Wade Williams Productions by Bob Burns III, his wife Kathy, former Disney designer/artist Tom Scherman, Academy Award winner Dennis Muren, Emmy Award nominee Michael Minor, and Academy Award winner Robert Skotak. Costumes were re-made that closely replicated those worn by the film's explorers, and a new, screen accurate Rocketship X-M effects miniature was built.[3]

The new replacement shots consist of the RX-M flying through space; it landing tail first on the Red Planet; a different shot of the crew heading away from the RX-M to explore the stark Martian surface; the surviving explorers quickly returning to their nearby spaceship; and the RX-M later blasting off from Mars into space. These six replacement shots were filmed near Los Angeles in color, then converted to black-and-white and re-tinted where necessary to match the original film footage. (Unlike the DVD release, the earlier laser disc of Rocketship X-M contains extra bonus material documenting the making of the film and the creation of this new footage.) The film's production and the making of these new scenes were also presented in RX-M feature articles in both Starlog magazine and later expanded in the first issue (1979) of Starlog's spin-off magazine CineMagic. Prints of the original theatrical release version of RX-M are still stored in Williams' Kansas City film vaults.[3] They have not been converted to a home video format.

Rocketship X-M is not in the public domain. A copyright renewal for the film was registered under Certificate # R 678 491 from the Copyright Office, Library of Congress.[4]

Rocketship X-M is available on-line at both YouTube and at the Internet Moving Image Archive.[5] This later print contains a mixture of both original Lippert footage ("lab splices" made for movie theater 35mm reel change cues and V-2 stock footage can be seen), as well as all six of Williams' new scenes. This version also retains Lippert's original pinkish-red tinting.[3] The LaserDisc and DVD releases from Image Entertainment have a brighter red tinting.

Image's 50th Anniversary DVD release (2000), under license from Williams, is oddly missing two of his re-filmed Mars scenes:

Lippert's original matte painting scene, which has tiny matted-in figures leaving an obviously painted RX-M, is retained instead of the Williams' re-shot replacement scene that has the five explorers heading away from a convincing RX-M effects miniature standing on a barren Martian plain. A new bridging scene, set at the end of the Mars sequence, showing the surviving explorers hurriedly returning to the RX-M, is also missing from Image's DVD.

Award Nomination[edit]

Retro Hugo Award: Rocketship X-M was nominated in 2001 for the 1951 Retro Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, being one of the science fiction films eligible during calendar year 1950, exactly 50 years after the film's first release. (50 years, 75 years, or 100 years prior is the eligibility requirement governing the awarding of Retro Hugos.)

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Rocketship X-M at the Internet Movie Database
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Warren 1982.[page needed]
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Williams, Wade. "Re-making Rocketship X-M". CineMagic magazine #1, 1979.
  4. ^ "'Rocketship X-M'." Retrieved: April 16, 2015.
  5. ^ "Trailer: 'Rocketship X-M'." Moving Image Archive. Retrieved: January 10, 2015.


  • Parish, James Robert and Michael R. Pitts. The Great Science Fiction Pictures. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1977. ISBN 0-8108-1029-8.
  • Strick, Philip. Science Fiction Movies. New York: Octopus Books Limited, 1976. ISBN 0-7064-0470-X.
  • Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Films of the Fifties, 21st Century Edition. (greatly expanded 3rd printing, now a single, large volume). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009, First edition 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.

External links[edit]

Mystery Science Theater 3000[edit]