A hitherto top secret project conducted by the United States government is about to come to fruition, and the four men and one woman involved are just having their last medical check-up before meeting the press. Once they are seated in the conference room, the talk commences headed by the project's chief, Dr Fleming (Morris Ankrum). He has spectacular news to inform the world: these five people the newsmen and women see before them are about to embark on a pioneering mission. In fifteen minutes they will blast off in a rocket to the Moon to explore its surface for the first time in the history of mankind - but what if things don't go to plan?
In 1950 the Space Race was well under way, no, not the one between the Americans and the Soviets, the one between rival film production companies to see who would get the first serious science fiction movie into the world's cinemas. This combatant was scripted by the director and producer Kurt Neumann with additional help from Orville Hampton and an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, and was crowned the winner when it beat George Pal's Destination Moon by a few weeks. Pal may have enjoyed the higher budget, but Neumann had the advantage of being first, although not first on the Moon as it turns out.
Rocketship X-M (standing for Expedition Moon, if you were wondering) starts out as sober-minded and as technical as the filmmakers can make it, but by increments becomes sillier - the science is ridiculous. Boarding the ship just five minutes before it's due to take off, the crew, headed by Colonel Floyd Graham (a cocky Lloyd Bridges) fill the soon to be traditional roles, with the older scientist (John Emery), the comic relief (a Texas-obsessed Noah Beery Jr), the bland but handsome character to make up the numbers (Hugh O'Brian) and, of course the essential Beautiful Lady Scientist (Osa Massen).
The B.L.S. is Dr. Lisa Van Horn, and she is greeted with much scepticism by Floyd, after all, what does a woman need to go on space trips and fill her pretty little head with facts and figures for? I mean, the very idea! When she tells him that maybe he thinks she should be a homemaker, cooking and having babies, Floyd responds, "Isn't that enough?" Fortunately these now-hilarious attitudes don't dominate the storyline, but do provide some inadvertant humour, much needed when the mission takes on a grimmer development.
Thanks presumably to Trumbo, the film has an early, anti-atomic power message that may not be subtle, but is relevant as the following events of the decade would show. Once up in space, with some very selective gravity effects, an accident ensures they are knocked off course and on waking from unconsciousness they realise they are not orbiting the Moon, but the red planet Mars instead! Not wishing to waste this opportunity they land on the surface, which looks suspiciously like a Californian desert, and get out to explore.
They discover a radioactive wasteland, the remnants of a once proud race's descent into nuclear war which has sent them dramatically back to the Stone Age. The seriousness of this message, in spite of its now absurd-seeming presentation, is underlined by the downbeat ending which, thanks to some nice playing by Ankrum (it wouldn't be proper 1950s sci-fi without him), is almost poignant. It's still heavy handed, though means well: be careful how you use the Bomb, it warns, because there's no going back once you do. Music by Ferde Grofé. There is a version of this available from the 1970s with new special effects added, but they don't add much as the core film remains pretty much the same.
German director who came to Hollywood in the early-talkie era and soon established himself as a competent, economic film-maker. Moved from studio to studio directing in a variety of genres, but it was his love of sci-fi that led to his best films - The Fly, Kronos and Rocketship X-M.