I’ll admit it, I love this film.
One of the main reasons is obvious: this was one of Ray Harryhausen’s movies, and we get lots of visual effects and creature animation.
Which is the main reasons we love any Ray Harryhausen film.
Another good reason is that Nigel Kneale, best remembered for creating the Quatermass serials, wrote the script.
Which means, of course, that this is a remarkably good adaptation of one of H.G. Wells’ better novels — and one which actually puts it in its original Nineteenth Century setting. Both of those are far too rare. I particularly like the fact that Kneale keeps one of my favorite (and creepiest) parts of the original novel, the curious fate of those Selenites who aren’t needed at the moment.
I think most of us would prefer an unemployment check.
Yet another reason is the presence of the great Lionel Jeffries, an actor who showed up in far too few films, but was always worth watching. Here he is “absolutely Imperial” as Professor Cavor, playing him with an eccentric, childish joy as a man absolutely entranced with learning and knowledge, without the slightest regard for the cost.
And I have to admit that I enjoy the fact that Edward Judd’s Arnold Bedford is allowed to be a thoroughly devious and unreliable sort of person. I believe this was the case in the original novel, but we normally don’t expect such dubious characters as one of the leads in a motion picture — at least not when we are talking about a family film. In an era when so many British films (and particularly the genre films!) had a minor American actor in the lead, Judd managed to win leading roles in quite a few British films, including such SF efforts as Invasion, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and Island of Terror. I’m not sure how he managed this but he does bring a charm to his rogue that a lesser actor probably couldn’t have.
Finally, there is the clever framing story, which gives us a nod and a wink of an excuse for using that Victorian setting for the rest of the film — and ties the ending to another of Wells’ stories
Now we all know why we watch any Harryhausen film, and that is his incredible special effects work. After all, some of them, particularly the last few Sinbad films are plagued with wooden acting (trust me, we don’t care if he is John Wayne’s son!) and indifferent scripts (and a lot less of Ray’s work). However, First Men in the Moon is a light-hearted and sprightly film, with a generous display of impressive effects.
The irony here is that I long had the impression that, despite the fact that this was one of my all time favorite Harryhausen films, it did not have a lot of his effects word in it. Well, that is hardly the case, although a lot of his work is far less visible here than in some of his others because a lot of it is used to put his stars in the Selenites’ subterranean (or should that be “sublunarian?”) world, on the space flight itself, and on the explosive launch of Cavor’s sphere. I have to wonder if he’d intended to use stop motion animation to create all the Selenites instead of the men-in-suits approach used for most of the workers. When Ray pitched a film, he would create these beautiful drawings of the scenes he intended to create for the film — and he knew that if he did the drawing that scene would have to be in the film.. I have to wonder if his pitch for this film included images of armies of Selenite workers dragging the sphere into the caverns, or surrounding Cavor and Bedford and the producer just cut a few corners.
For a glimpse of Ray’s unique gifts, note the mooncow that attacks our heroes: it may just look like a big caterpillar, but he makes it huge, powerful and incredibly threatening, like a charging Rhino.
Yet, when it is killed and the Selenites strip it clean, Ray shows us with a wink that isn’t just a big bug: after all, they leave behind not an empty shell but a skeleton!
Complete with a massive fanged skull and a backbone with visible vertebrae.
Okay, we can grumble a little that they couldn’t resist the urge to throw in that requisite for every Hollywood film, a totally unnecessary female character. But then how many films managed to avoid that one, no matter how absurd?
After all, the audience accepted Fay Wray running through the jungle in her high heels and escaping a skilled hunter, right?
However, while a few critics haven’t been kind towards it, this is one of Ray’s best films, a fun and eccentric offering that gives us extravagant adventures and terrible monsters, a few clever ideas and a bit of comedy.
What more could anyone ask of a family creature feature?
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