The year is 1980 and mankind has set aside their differences to explore the stars. So far they have built a space station, a huge wheel in space, that orbits the Earth and operates as a basis for constructing a craft that is supposed to take people to the moon, and a small crew have been in training for such a mission for around a year now. But the leader of this is Colonel Merritt (Walter Brooke), and he means to venture forth himself and take his son, Captain Merritt (Eric Fleming) with him, as he has ensured the younger man has stayed on the station for the whole of the training because he believes his family are destined for space. However, it will not be a walk in the park by any means…
Conquest of Space was planned by its producer George Pal to be his biggest epic of science fiction so far, with much reliance on scientific facts – the craft were based on designs by rocket boffin Werner von Braun, a very big name at the time – married to a concern about where the pursuit of adventure in the cosmos would leave humanity’s relationship with God. Add to that the most expensive effects money could buy, and it would have been his proudest achievement, but oh dear, the studio decided it wanted to cut costs, and with The Ten Commandments eating up finances this film was one of the casualties of Paramount’s penny pinching. The results were a decidedly non-epic production with visible wires on both cast and models and a very brief running time, as if in this pre-Forbidden Planet age the idea of treating science fiction on anything but B-movie level was absurd. Needless to say, the idealistic Pal disagreed.
Therefore what you see when you settle down with this is a compromised vision, though one that nevertheless managed to put across the religious musings and as much accuracy as the writers could muster for their space exploration sequences. That it looks less than convincing these days can be put down to the passing of the decades since; they got the date for the Mars landings wrong, and also that we would not bother about visiting the moon and effectively run before we could walk, something that didn’t happen in real life as unmanned missions were seen as the way forward once the moon landings had been quickly exhausted of possibilities - and budget, for that matter. On the other hand, if you want to peek into another world, it offered that opportunity.
Another world of optimism that the deep differences between people could be put aside for some common good, a very nineteen-fifties notion for those who felt a lesson should be learned from World War II, therefore prominent in the cast were a Japanese character (Benson Fong) and an Austrian character (Ross Martin) who were treated as equals. Conspicuous by their absence were any Russians, perhaps because they didn’t wish to alienate the local, American audiences when it was so often the case in science fiction of the day that the Soviets were the bad guys, and if they were not overtly Soviet then they knew exactly what the meant by those evil Communist-like aliens. So there were no villains such as that, yet once the mission to Mars is underway that was not to say there were no human antagonists.
We get a strong hint of what they might be when one of the trainees suffers a moment of hysteria and cannot move while in orbit; over the course of his scenes he cracks up under the pressure and doesn’t make it to the crew of the Mars expedition. But this threat is replaced in an interesting way, as it is the Colonel himself, promoted to General, who snaps, apparently after over-reading his Bible which sends him into a paranoia that they are somehow going against God’s will, and therefore the mission must fail, fatally, if necessary. Even so, 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, and Mickey Shaughnessy meant to portray the best of the military man yet written as a moron. Historically interesting, but of a far different era. Music by Van Cleave.
American director, cinematographer and special effects pioneer. Entered Hollywood in 1919 as an assistant cameraman, and was director of photography for several John Barrymore films. Haskin directed a few films in the late 1920s and worked in England as a technical advisor, and in 1937 became head of Warner's special effects department. In the 1945 he joined Paramount to resume his directing career, where he worked for the next 20 years, turning in such sci-fi classics as The War of the Worlds, From the Earth to the Moon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, plus the adventure yarn The Naked Jungle.