Today is a historic day, because an international effort to put a man on the Moon has come to fruition and the capsule lands on the surface successfully. When the astronauts disembark and begin to search around, they discover something very strange: it's a British flag and a note saying it was planted during the reign of Queen Victoria in 1899. Back on Earth, there is a commotion amongst the project leaders as they attempt to find the source of this anomaly. They track it down to an English old folks' home, and one Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), an elderly gent with quite a story to tell...
The work of H.G. Wells has provided the source for much of science fiction cinema's most fertile and imaginative flights of fancy, and if First Men in the Moon was regarded largely as a minor entry, it was actually one of the more satisfying endeavours. It was notable for being co-scripted by another giant of science fiction writing, Nigel Kneale - here collaborating with Jan Read - and the screenplay remained sympathetic to Wells' concerns. Also noteworthy was the fact that this was a Ray Harryhausen production, and the high quality of the rendering was unmistakable.
However, if you're expecting a host of Harryhausen creations in the mould of his other films of the sixties, then you might be disappointed. He animated the spacecraft and the denizens of the Moon (some of them, anyway), but as they take up a short amount of screen time you would be better off appreciating his designs for overall look of the film, the lunar parts at any rate. But along with being a handsome production for the eyes, this also did not shirk in the worries over war and mankind's propensity to violence, something that is embodied by the two personalities who reach the Moon.
It takes them half the running time to get there, as first we flashback to Bedford's life as a struggling writer in a country cottage he cannot afford, whose fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer) is coming to stay to offer support. Nearby is Professor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) - Hyer and Judd seem to be at odds over how to pronounce his name - an inventor who pops over one day to tell Bedford he wishes to buy his cottage so his experiments may go ahead. When Bedford discovers that his creation is an anti-gravity "paste" to be applied to the outside of a sphere, he is eager to be a part of it, and soon the three of them are leaving their troubles behind to journey into space.
First Men in the Moon may take its time, but it is a far more sprightly film than the majority of Harryhausen's screen work, and this can be attributed to the bright playing of the three leads. Judd makes for a square-jawed hero who might not be as admirable as we would like, but Jeffries is the real highlight as an initially comic character who grows in stature when his faith in science and the nobility of mankind is severely tested. Once they reach the Moon, they meet the Selenites who live under its surface, and Bedford's reaction is to attack them. Cavor is horrified and is determined to understand and find common ground with these moonmen, and it's only the pessimistic ending which prevents the film going out on a high and staying true to his humanistic beliefs. Still, this is an exceptionally fashioned entertainment for the most part. Music by Laurie Johnson.