Byron Haskin followed up his H.G Wells adaptation The War of the Worlds (1953) and the Wernher von Braun derived Conquest of Space (1955) with this Jules Verne adaptation, one of many adaptations of the French science fiction pioneer’s work around the same time, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Mysterious Island (1961), Master of the World (1961), Valley of the Dragons (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) and Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon (1967). Sadly, Haskin doesn’t have as much success with Verne as he did with Wells.
Munitions producer Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotten) discovers a devastating new explosive which he dubs Power X which can destroy anything in its path, even the new super metal invented by his rival Stuyvesant Nicholl (George Sanders). President Ulysses S. Grant (an uncredited Morris Ankrum) pleads with Barbicane to abandon his research for fear of other countries perceiving it as an ostentatious display of America’s military might. Instead, he challenges it into a mission to the moon, using it to power a rocket ship, the Columbiad that he hopes will be constructed from Nicholl’s revolutionary metal. With Nichol tagging along, Barbicane and his assistant Ben Sharpe (Don Dubbins) set off to the moon only to find that Nicholl’s daughter Virginia (Debra Paget) has stowed away. Nicholl has sabotaged the ship and learning that his daughter is on board helps Barbican subdue Sharpe and pack him and Virginia off back to Earth in a detachable compartment. Barbicane and Nicholl continue on to the moon and are stranded there.
From the Earth to the Moon is unquestionably a good looking film, the lavishly appointed interior of the spaceship anticipating the steampunk aesthetic and Lee Zavitz’s special effects are effective enough throughout without ever really scaling the impressive heights of The War of the Worlds or Conquest of Space. Edwin B. DuPar’s Technicolor photography is a little on the gaudy side but it sits well with the overall look and feel that Haskin was aiming for.
But Robert Blees and James Leicester’s script lacks any real depth and goes off down less interesting diversions rather than sticking with the trip itself. It takes a long time for them to cut to the chase and actually get on with it, and when we do finally get into space the film gets bogged down with the rivalries between Barbicane and Nicholl. Spectacle is in short supply, with just a few meteorites to menace the crew on their voyage. The sabotage plot is unconvincing, the love story equally improbable, an anti-nuclear sentiment clumsily crow-barred in and and most damagingly, the actual lunar landing takes place off camera. Production was severely hampered by the fact that producers RKO were going through financial difficulties during shooting and when they finally shut up shop the film’s budget was drastically cut, leaving the cast and crew stranded in Mexico trying to finish off the film with what little money was left. The film was originally distributed by Warner Bros. when RKO finally folded for good.
The performances are all good enough, the cast struggling to find something of worth in the script. They don’t always succeed but they attack it with some gusto and they make the journey less tedious than it might otherwise have been. It’s a film whose reputation has never really been particularly high and it remains one of the less loved of the 1950s American science fiction films. It was a flop at the box office and is frequently dismissed today and understandably so.
From the Earth to the Moon is the sort of film you want to like more than you really can, Haskin has a certain amount of good will among devotees of science fiction thanks to The War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space, and the cast is likable enough, But it really is hard work and good will only goes so far. If you’re a hardcore fan of 50s science fiction cinema you’ll probably find more in this to enjoy more than most. For the rest of us, it’s a difficult film to like despite having so much going for it.