30 August 2009

Harryhausen Goes Panavision: The First Men in the Moon

The First Men in the Moon (1964)
Directed by Nathan Juran. Starring Lionel Jeffries, Edward Judd, Martha Hyer.

I recently re-read H. G. Wells’s 1901 classic The First Men in The Moon, and that combined with reviewing The 3 Worlds of Gulliver made me eager to re-watch the Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer film version of The First Men in the Moon. Like The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, it hasn’t received as much attention as some of Harryhausen’s other classic stop-motion animation pictures; it must have been at least a decade since I sat down to watch the whole thing from first frame to last.

Harryhausen, who is also credited as Associate Producer along with his effects work, wanted to do an H. G. Wells movie for a number of years and did some development for a possible version of The War of the Worlds. But it was Wells’s deeply satirical tale of two Englishmen—a classic absent-minded professor and a greedy, myopic lout—who journey to the Moon and discover an underground civilization of creatures they call “Selenites” that really seized Harryhausen’s attention. When great British SF screenwriter Nigel Kneale (also responsible for The Abominable Snowman) came aboard as a writer, the project got the rights for the novel from Wells’s son Frank and funding from Columbia. Nathan Juran, who had directed The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth took the director’s chair for his third outing with Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer. Schneer insisted on Panavision, and the anamorphic process ended up causing Harryhausen numerous headaches. According to Harryhausen’s biography:
I argued against its use, knowing there were going to be major complications for the Dynamation sequences. Charles simply reminded me that I’d resisted colour for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and that scope was simply another technical advance audiences expected. In the end I had to give way to the commercial arguments and began redesigning the Dynamation process…. When the picture was completed, even Charles conceded that “the extra time we took to do it didn’t seem to merit the use of the process.”
They were both right. Because of the Panavision switch, many of Harryhausen’s planned animation sequences were eliminated in pre-production, and only three major ones ended up in picture. Later classics like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans didn’t require an anamorphic screen size to tell a great yarn—it just wasn’t a necessary technical step for this series.

Wells’s story did offer a poser of a problem for a 1960s adaptation: Lunar research since 1901 would make it difficult for contemporary audiences to believe the novel’s premise of an inhabited Moon with atmosphere and extensive plant life. Kneale’s screenplay got around this with a clever modern-day prologue and epilogue showing humanity’s supposed first landing on the Moon in a U.N. expedition, an idea that itself would get outdated only a few years later when a U.S. expedition made the first real landing. The U.N. astronauts make an astonishing find, a kind they didn’t expect: an old Union Jack flag and a written message. On Earth, research finds old Mr. Bedford in a rest home, where he tells the astonished U.N. members about how he and his friend Cavor voyaged to the lunar surface in 1899. At this point, the movie switches to Wells’s novel.
This prologue, by the way, is the only time in Ray Harryhausen’s ten color movies where the story occurs in the present. It’s a bit strange to see, but the veddy British sense of humor is charming, and it makes a perfect set-up for what follows.

As with The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, the screenplay for The First Men in the Moon had to lessen the extreme satire of the novel for a more family-friendly picture. Wells’s novel is a bitter analysis of British imperialism. Just as with The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, a romantic leading lady was added into the mix. Bedford’s fiancĂ©e Kate accompanies the men on their Moon adventure. Bedford is significantly softened from the parody of capitalist avarice and small-mindedness that Wells made him. In the film he’s more pragmatic than repulsive, and the presence of a love-interest sands off his edges.

However, the screenplay by Kneale and co-writer Jan Read is excellent at retaining the late-Victorian feel of the novel and contains some of the best dialogue ever for one of Harryhausen’s films. A huge assist comes from actor Lionel Jeffries, whose nutty scientist Joseph Cavor is a dead-perfect rendition of the character from the book. He might have burst his way right from the pages of The Strand.
Kneale and Read’s script follows the outline of the book closely, even with the inclusion of Kate as a third part of the Earth expedition, something that Columbia insisted on. The script also manages to retain elements of the bleak ending of Wells’s book, although it borrows an idea from The War of the Worlds to do it.

Despite Harryhausen’s difficulties with Panavision, the effects in The First Men in the Moon are predominantly marvelous. The scenes of the sphere traveling through space and landing on the Moon are among the best science-fiction FX of the day; this was a few years before 2001: A Space Odyssey would completely shift audience’s expectations for visual effects, especially anything have to do with the Moon. Harryhausen’s visuals remain striking even with this comparison, with some gorgeous vistas of the lunar landscape (one of the few places where the widescreen aspect ratio helps out). The effects are the weakest with the traveling mattes, which suffer because Harryhausen had to use a different process because of the limitations of Panavision.

There are only three stop-motion sequences. The best of these is Cavor and Bedford’s encounter with the “mooncalves,” enormous caterpillar creatures the Selenites raise for meat. The two other stop-motion segments disappoint: the scientist Selenites look appropriately alien but do very little, and the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Moon, is limited to sitting on his throne behind a rippling shield effect that obscures him. The other Selenites had to be achieved with costumes on children, and the outfits look clunky and obvious.
The film has a remarkable design, capturing a great British steampunk appearance, and the Selenite sets have both logic and weirdness to them. This is one the best photographed of all Schneer-Harryhausen films, filled with color and clever compositions, and it is unfortunate that the widescreen process ended up injuring the effects and purged a number of planned stop-motion effects—such as a giant wasp—from the script.

Bernard Herrmann scored Harryhausen and Schneer’s previous four films, but he had raised his asking price and was unavailable for The First Men in the Moon. The filmmakers turned to British composer Laurie Johnson, best known for his theme to the television show The Avengers. Johnson’s music can’t compete with Herrmann’s colorful orchestral creations, but it’s a solid score with a good main title. Even post-Herrmann, the Harryhausen-Schneer films managed to attract excellent film composers.

If you keep a close look out, you’ll notice Peter Finch in the small part of a bailiff’s assistant who serves a notice to Kate. Finch was already an established actor, but his part here wasn’t meant as a cameo; he simply was available on the next stage over at Shepperton during filming and stepped in when the original actor wasn’t able to play the part. File this under “Trivia.”
Even though it possesses some exceptional qualities, The First Men in the Moon is not one of Harryhausen’s better films. The script, performances, effects, and design don’t tally up to create actual excitement, and not until the end does the film start to generate suspense. The first animation sequence appears half an hour before the end, and the build toward the launch of the sphere goes on far too long. Harryhausen’s original intention for more stop-motion animation scenes would have made a wilder film, but sadly it was not to be. The end result retains a large amount of Wells’s novel and respect for its time period, but the satire is kept more underground than the Selenite’s empire.

The First Men in the Moon was not a large success on its initial release, and the next film Harryhausen did was a work-for-hire assignment, One Million Years B.C. He certainly made up for the lack of animation here with the copious amounts of dinosaurs there.