Last night, Phillip and I started watching our latest DVD from Netflix: Season one of “Absolutely Fabulous”. (We knew we’d seen most of the episodes before, we but can always watch them again.) I wrote “starting watching” because, once again, Netflix sent us a damaged disc. Partway into the second episode, the disc was unplayable.
We ejected the disc, booted up the computer, and turned to Paramount’s YouTube channel. Phillip gave me the honor of picking out a movie. I chose a 1955 movie named Conquest of Space, without knowing anything about it.
Most of the movie was pretty bad (which we expected), but parts were surprisingly well done.
The fascinating thing to me about Conquest of Space is that care was obviously given to depicting the physics of space travel realistically, and at the same time, physics was ignored completely.
The special effects were good, despite the obviously low budget.
Among the actors in Conquest of Space were William Hopper (who would later play Detective Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” TV series) and Ross Martin (who would later play Artemus Gordon in “The Wild Wild West”).
Conquest of Space starts out in a circular space station named “The Wheel” orbiting 1,000 miles above Earth. It spins to create an artificial gravity for the crew of men working there. Orbiting near the wheel is a giant spaceship, being built for a flight to the moon.
Five men have been chosen for the moon mission. They represent nations from around the world. Benson Fong plays Sargent Imoto, from Japan. He’s not as stereotyped as I would have expected him to be, considering the time the movie was made. Phil Foster plays Sargent Jackie Seigel. He’s the “comic relief”. He seems to be doing a Lou Costello impression throughout the movie.
The five men are isolated, most of the time, from the rest of the crew of The Wheel. In the cafeteria, they sit at a separate table and eat food-flavored nutrition pills, while the rest of the men are feasting on roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and hot coffee. (The five men are allowed to smoke, however.)
The moon mission is headed by Colonel Samuel T. Merritt. His son, Barney, is on The Wheel, but wants to go home to Earth.
A surprise meteor storm hits The Wheel. (Conquest of Space is one of those movies in which meteor storms appear out of nowhere without anyone seeing them coming.) The Wheel stops spinning. Instead of the men in the cafeteria losing the gravity effect and becoming weightless, however, the men are thrown sideways onto the floor, as if they were in a sea vessel which has hit an iceberg. (This is what I mean about the disregard for physics.) Moments later, The Wheel starts spinning again, the men clean up the cafeteria, Jackie Seigel grabs a roast chicken leg and bites into it (ha ha), and everything continues as if nothing has happened.
On a trip to the giant spaceship, one of the moon mission men develops momentary paralysis. The Doc looks him over, determines that he’s developed a space sickness which often affects men after a prolonged stay in space, and scrubs him from the mission.
A spaceship from earth arrives at The Wheel. On board is an Earth-government official of some sort (William Hopper). Apparently, The Wheel has no docking ports, so the only way into it is to climb out of the spaceship and jump to The Wheel. It’s a cool effect, but it also looks a little funny to see the official in a spacesuit, flying through space, with a standard leather briefcase under his arm.
The official has a promotion for Colonel Merritt – he’s now a General. He also has Barney’s ticket home.
General Merritt has a couple of questions for the official: Why is there so much fuel on the giant spaceship they’ve built, and why does it have wings?
The official explains that the mission will not be to the moon after all – it’s going to Mars!
Barney tears up his ticket home. He volunteers to go on the mission. Now with General Merritt and his son going, the official explains, there’s room for only three of the five men. Sgt. Imoto, Sgt. Seigel, and Sgt. Fodor (Ross Martin) volunteer. Sgt. Mahoney, General Merritt’s best friend, who’s been by his side ever since they fought in the war together, also volunteers. The official explains that Sgt. Mahoney is too old for the mission. Sgt. Mahoney is extremely unhappy about this.
There’s an odd sequence in this movie in which the crew of The Wheel watch a movie together. It’s a musical with a lot of white harem girls singing about “making love in the desert sand”. This movie-within-a-movie goes on for a very long time. It has nothing to do with anything. (My theory is that Paramount decided it needed some sexy women in this all-male movie.)
The harem girl movie is interrupted so that family members on Earth can say goodbye to the Mars mission crew. Sgt. Seigel’s blond bombshell wife is there, pledging her love. Meanwhile, a male voice off-camera makes it obvious that Sgt. Seigel’s got a two-timing wife. (ha ha)
My favorite sequence in the whole movie is when the giant spaceship (I don’t think it’s ever given a name) leaves Earth orbit. As the ship accelerates rapidly to 20,000 miles per hour, we’re shown the crew members’ faces contorted by the force. It really is nicely done.
Soon, we discover that Sgt. Mahoney has stowed away on the space ship. (I’m not sure how he was able to do that without anyone seeing him, but, then again, these are people who can’t see a meteor storm until it’s hitting The Wheel.) Fortunately, there just happens to be six seats in the five-man spaceship.
On the way to Mars, the radio antenna jams, Seigel and Fodor go outside to fix it, and an asteroid appears out of nowhere. (This asteroid is the size of a moon, but, of course, no one saw it until it was right behind them.) The ship manages to maneuver out of the way, but the meteor storm that follows kills Sgt. Fodor.
Meanwhile, General Merritt starts spouting Bible verses. He’s convinced that Man has no business conquering space, and that Mars will be their version of Hell. General Merritt has contracted the space sickness! (I find it interesting that a 1955 movie would show quoting Bible verses as a sign of madness.)
The spaceship has no gravity, but the crew has magnetic boots to allow them to walk around. Sgt. Seigel forgets to fasten his boots and goes flying up until he bangs his head on the ceiling. (ha ha) But, in this weightless environment, it’s possible to set a Bible down on a desk, and it’s possible to sit in a chair without being strapped in.
They reach Mars. They jettison the empty fuel tanks, and there’s an at-least-they-tried scene of the tanks burning as they hit the Martian atmosphere. On the way to the surface, General Merritt tries to crash the ship – Man has no business here! Another crew member grabs the controls and brings the ship to a rough, but safe, landing. They discard the wings and set the rocket upright.
Four of the crew members leave the ship and become the first humans to set foot on Mars. They wisely leave the crazy man, the one who had just tried to kill everyone and destroy the mission, alone and unconstrained inside the ship.
Sgt. Imoto had brought some flower seeds with him. He had wanted to try to plant a flower on the moon, but realized that it would probably grow better on Mars. It’s too bad there’s no water on Mars, he says. Suddenly, gallons of water start pouring out of the ship. General Merritt is trying to stop the mission again! Barney rushes in to stop his father. A fight breaks out. General Merritt pulls a revolver out of somewhere and starts shooting at Barney. In the struggle for the gun, it goes off, killing General Merritt. At that moment, Sgt. Mahoney walks in. He vows to testify against Barney in a court martial hearing, and he hopes Barney hangs for the murder of his best friend.
Barney is overcome with grief.
They’ve just landed on Mars, they have a year until the next launch window opens for the return trip, and they have almost no water. They set up a rationing system.
This is the worst part of Conquest of Space: The movie jumps forward to Christmas morning. Sgt. Seigel and Sgt. Imoto are toasting with a few sips of water. Suddenly, it’s snowing on Mars! It’s a Christmas miracle! The crew uses a giant vacuum to gather up as much snow as they can. They have water!
It’s now time for the launch home to Earth. Sgt. Imoto’s flower has grown! It is possible to grow a plant on Mars (without water, apparently). Suddenly, sinkholes open up all around them. The ship starts leaning. It can’t take off unless it’s perfectly vertical. (I don’t know why.)
Barney uses the rockets to cause the ground below the ship to sink in exactly the right pattern, so the ship is upright again. (I guess they had more than enough fuel with them.) The ship takes off, and the crew is on their way back to Earth.
Sgt. Mahoney is so grateful to Barney for saving them that he promises to tell the military that General Merritt died a hero.
Conquest of Space is a lot of fun. It’s neither bad enough nor good enough to be good, but it was fun.