The Jeffersonian Rocketship: Heinlein’s American Ethos in Destination Moon


With today’s review of Destination Moon, we begin a three-part look at three of the most important science fiction movies of the 1950s, films that have had an immense impact on  genre cinema since their release, and are also united by their conservative political leanings, either explicitly stated or in the form of subtextual undercurrents. And just to make it clear, the approach I take to film criticism is one of strict formalism; in other words, I do not care a wit as to what the politics expressed in a film are, or the politics of the artists involved are, as long as the final product is good. Unfortunately, such an approach is not shared by many left-leaning critics who feel it is their imperative to knock a film either down a peg or several notches for not adhering to their progressive ideology, or reflecting attitudes of the day that seem regrettable in hindsight, while in turn ridiculously overpraising any movie that does conform to leftist bromides. These reviews are an attempt to redress that imbalance, and provide intellectual criticism of fantastic cinema that is politically provocative while avoiding demagoguery.


Produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel, Destination Moon is usually regarded as the movie that instigated the SF movie boom of the 1950s, although it wasn’t first, having been beaten to the punch by the cheaply-made (and quite awful) Rocketship X-M, the same year. Moreover, the two major SF films from the following year, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World, would both prove to be just as if not more influential over the coming decade as well as those to come. As Bill Warren has noted in his outstanding book on 50s science fiction movies, Keep Watching the Skies! , it’s very easy to overrate or underrate the film, both in terms of quality and influence. The name of Robert A. Heinlein on the script means that many literary SF fans will overrate it, and still others will underrate it, given his polarizing nature among the science fiction community. The explicit pro-capitalist message of the film means, of course, that many of those on the left will unfairly excoriate it while an equal number of those on the right will praise it somewhat more than they should. Sensible viewers across the political spectrum, however, will try to evaluate fairly based on whether or not it succeeds as a movie and how successfully it manages to get its message across, whether the viewer agrees with it or not, and from that perspective, one may cautiously consider Destination Moon a success.


When you try to look at it with an unbiased eye as possible, Destination Moon is a good film, not a great one, but still consistently intelligent and interesting in its ideas even if it doesn’t quite manage to maintain that consistency in its execution. With a single exception, the acting is fine, the seeming lack of energy or enthusiasm among its capable and well-seasoned cast is more due to the failure of the script to provide adequate characterization than any fault in the performances. Although Irving Pichel had a more memorable career as an actor than as a director, and the film does suffer some problems in pacing, he does manage to direct the space and moon scenes with a genuine sense of wonder. The film’s greatest flaw is that it suffers from a very obvious three-act play structure, and each act is progressively weaker and less interesting than the next, when they should develop and grow stronger. Certainly, the first act is the most interesting as a reflection of not just the political thought of the day, but Heinlein’s own political thought, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.


The film opens with the disastrous testing of a government rocket. Scientist Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) suspects sabotage, given that four years of research and evaluation meant that the test should have been flawless, but as General Thayer (Tom Powers), who initiated and guided the project solemnly, tells him, they won’t have a chance to find out. “Things like this mean military cuts, boy. Research is going back to the laboratories.” Nonplussed, Cargraves simply replies that he is as well. We then cut to industrialist Jim Barnes (John Archer) returning to his civilian job at his self-owned eponymous aircraft company. When General Thayer drops in for a visit, he wastes no time getting to the point: It is absolutely essential that the United States not just get to space first, but be the first to land on the Moon, whether it be by atomic or chemical-fueled rockets. At first, Barnes displays the expected skepticism: “I’m just a plane manufacturer, not the Department of Defense. The answer’s no. N-O no.” But he suddenly shows interest when Thayer describes the new atomic engine Cargraves has been working on. When he asks why the government hasn’t tried to take it over, Thayer gives him a straight answer, and it is here that the main political message of the film is most forcefully expressed: “It’s peacetime Jim. The government isn’t making that kind of appropriations. When it needs the rocket one of these days, and it’s not ready, then government will do the job. And they’ll turn to you, to private industry, to do it! Government always does that when it gets in a jam, it has to! This time, I figured we might be ready for the government. Preparedness…isn’t all military Jim.” The problem, as Thayer sees it, isn’t the lack of money, but the lack of brains, a need to pool research and resources to meet the challenge. “But combined American industry, sparked by Jim Barnes,” he says “could put America on the Moon within a year.”


A successful pitch is made at a gathering of potential financial backers, with the aid of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining the physics of rocketry (which clearly influenced David Koepp and Steven Spielberg when they used a “Mr. DNA” cartoon the explain the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park). Once Thayer establishes that the first nation to make a foothold on the Moon will be the first to be able to use it for military purposes, all arguments are settled, and the attending parties agree to finance the construction of the ship and the planned expedition. The ensuing montage of research and manufacturing, leading to the construction of the completed rocket, is halted when a predictably pesky fly lands in the ointment: the government announces it is blocking the scheduled rocket launch on grounds of safety concerns. They sneak by this simply advancing the rocket launch ahead of schedule. When their radio operator is felled by a bout of appendicitis, mechanic Sweeney (Dick Wesson), who has already been trained in the use of the equipment, is hurriedly assigned as his replacement. Even after the launch, not all goes smoothly, as mishaps both during the voyage and after the landing threaten both the success of the mission and the lives of the crew.


You may have noticed that the plot synopsis of the film concentrates mainly on the first act and that each subsequent act gets less and less discussion and description. This is not accidental; even though the first act of the film is relatively brief, it’s also the most interesting, and it’s also the section that’s the most decidedly Heinleinesque, featuring dialogue and themes redolent of Heinlein’s previous stories. It’s fascinating to watch the interactions between scientist-engineer Cargraves, industrialist-entrepreneur Barnes and military veteran Thayer, who together represent the classical Heinlein Trivium of Science and Technology, Business and Industry and The Armed Forces, whose collaborative efforts are not only necessary for a Moon mission, but for the survival of civilization (a similar message is made in the even more classic The Thing from Another World where the military and science must overcome differences to work together to save the world from a common menace-in this case, a deadly space alien). Of course, conservatives and libertarians will likely appreciate the film’s ideas and approaches more than most left-of-center audience members, but even they will still hopefully enjoy the fact that this is the rare science fiction film to even engage in such provocative discussions. Destination Moon is one of the most avowedly pro-capitalist films ever made, remarkable for its optimistic view of the eventual triumph of the American Way of science and industry at a time when the national mood, still shaken by the Atomic Bomb, tended towards skepticism on the issue. Government is viewed not as a collaborator in Destination Moon but as a roadblock to technological and entrepreneurial progress; the best thing it can do to help the Space Race is get out of the way and let the Big Brains and Hard Workers do what they must to get the job done. Nor can even “The People” be trusted as shown when public protests over the alleged safety of the rockets threaten the program; one is reminded of the protests over the Cassini-Huygens space probe which threatened an invaluable scientific research project but fortunately failed. Although a collaborative effort, the success of the Moon project is shown to ultimately depends on the individual initiative and efforts of its members, and rigid collectivism is depicted as a roadblock to progress.


Additionally, Destination Moon takes the Jeffersonian or Whig stance of viewing the free market and other American institutions as intimately bound to science and technology. Ten years before Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of the supposed emergence of the “military-industrial-science complex,” Destination Moon postulates such a convergence as a not entirely undesirable outcome of social and economic evolution. As Barnes tells the gathered businessmen, “To stay in business, we have to build this ship.” His words are certain to send shivers down the spines of both advocates of an entrepreneurial approach to space exploration and ideological purists lamenting the intrusion of the free market into the same, for completely different reasons. When someone interrupts to ask why the government doesn’t take charge of such an important and expensive project, he explains: “The vast amount of brains, talent, skills and research facilities necessary for this project are not found in the government. Nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job, and American industry must get to work now, like it did in the last War.” When someone points out that government footed the bill for World War II (part of Heinlein’s genius lay not only in letting views opposing his own a fair hearing, but in demonstrating those instances when they were equally sensible), Barnes replies “And they’ll foot this bill too, if we’re successful!” The argument it makes for the free market taking initiative in space exploration is not only an eloquent one, but seems to reverberate even stronger in these days of massive NASA cutbacks. Today’s Republican party might do well to study the rhetoric of this film to see how they might win back the votes of the nation’s scientists and technical professionals.


Ironically, although it helped to instigate the science fiction boom of the Fifties, Destination Moon’s most notable descendants aren’t science fiction at all. Both The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) may be dramatizations of real-life events but they owe as much if not more to Destination Moon as any science fiction film that has followed. The Right Stuff, needless to say, does a far better job of depicting the details and nuances of the real-life drama and politics of the actual Space Program in its three-hour running time (and I admit to a bias here, as it is one of my all time favorite films), but Destination Moon still manages to do a fascinating job at portraying the inner dynamics of a potential space science research team (as did Arthur C. Clarke’s underrated novel Prelude to Space). In Apollo 13, which starred real-life Heinlein fan Tom Hanks, much of the suspense and drama comes not from the question of “will they make it home?”-we already know the answer-but watching the intellectual drama of technical problem-solving unfold, and seeing sparks fly as friction develops between extremely bright people in a highly tense, life-threatening situation with the entire world watching. A similar drama takes place in Destination Moon; in both movies, some of the most thrilling scenes come not from watching the heroes drift about helplessly in the void, but carefully whittling out math problems with the use of a side rule and comparing their results. The crises in Destination Moon are not solved through brute force but rationalism and resourcefulness, and in both films, these are traits that shown to be not just human virtues, but American values, ones which Heinlein extolled throughout his work, particularly his juvenile novels.


Even if one wishes the three primary characters in Destination Moon were better developed, they still have distinct and recognizable personalities that make them appealingly human; this is another characteristic of Heinlein’s writing that likely managed to survive the studio’s subsequent revisions. Unfortunately, we have that fourth character to worry about, and it is here that the rockets start to sputter. Seemingly intended as an everyman persona whom audiences would supposedly identify with when the need for a technical explanation arose, the cliched character of Sweeney instead winds up being abrasive, even insulting at times. Depicted as a stereotypical blue-collar Brooklynite obsessed with beer, baseball and hot dogs, Sweeney is played by Dick Wesson, who hailed from Boston, not Brooklyn, and sounds like it. As a result, he comes off as Milton Berle doing a bad imitation of Humphrey Bogart, and although it’s more the fault of the script, he’s a character that most audience members will react negatively towards instead of viewing as sympathetic. I suspect most New Yorkers will find this character as endearing as most Southerners find their similarly condescending depictions throughout much of the media.


The other three actors, John Archer (father of actress Amy Archer), Tom Powers (forever immortalized as Barbara Stanwyck’s ill-fated husband in Double Indemnity) and Warner Anderson fare much better in their parts, especially considering the conditions under which they laboured. Of course, they have the advantage of also having more likeable and interesting characters, and despite the criticism levied against the film for their lack of dimension, there’s more depth to them than one might realize. It is clear at the gathering of investors, for instance, that Barnes has more scientifically pure motivations for embarking on this venture than providing another notch on his financial portfolio. “I want to do this because it’s never been done. It’s research. It’s pioneering! What’s the Moon, another North Pole?” One wonders if he was Richard Branson’s hero growing up. Cargraves is one of the most realistic early scientist characters on the screen outside of biopics; he’s a family man at heart who has the most reluctance to go up on this mission, because it means leaving behind his wife (fifth-billed Erin O’Connor, who has about two minutes of screen time) and kids who he barely gets to see enough of as is. Most fascinating of all is General Thayer, the Prime Mover behind the Moon project. He’s the most clearly Heinlenesque of all the characters in the film, the archetypical “Old Man” who turns up as a motif throughout Heinlein’s stories who encourages competent individuals to turn their intellectual talents to tasks and achievements which will have long-lasting social good. At times, his semi-poetic musings are reminiscent of Rhysling, the bard of “The Green Hills of Earth.” It’s easy to understand why Cargraves and Barnes insist that he be one of those allowed to return to Earth even though he reasonably insists that as the oldest he should be left behind; it’s his soaring rhetoric that convinced them to go to the Moon in the first place and will convince others to return. Powers gives by far the best performance in the film; he plays his part with dignity but without pretension, so that his character comes off as inspiring and reasonable in his motives instead of strident or overbearing.


Once we get to the Moon itself, we start to see where the contributions of Heinlein ended, and those of other writers began. It’s not that the subsequent two acts are badly written in any way, but they are far less interesting given that the provocative political drama of the first act all but disappears for the rest of the movie. The astronauts actually do very little of dramatic interest during their trip, other than the soon-to-be cliched scene of a mid-flight crisis where one character starts to drift away helplessly while trying to repair a carelessly-greased radio antenna (it’s not surprising to find out this was one of the movies Arthur C. Clarke screened for Stanley Kubrick while they were writing 2001: A Space Odyssey), and even less once they reach the moon, besides the overlong climax where they find they don’t have enough fuel left and must lighten the load if they are to ever get home. Although the sets and backdrops are primitive by today’s standards, Chesley Bonestall’s matte paintings have lost none of their Sense of Wonder and the Moon landing itself is hauntingly photographed by Lionel Lindon (who would later win an Oscar for Around the World in Eighty Days and whose other genre credits include Pal’s Conquest of Space, The Black Scorpion, and episodes of Thriller and Night Gallery). There’s even some effective stop-motion animation used in the scenes of the astronauts walking on the exterior of the ship. Pal would make up for the lack of garish spectacle in this film with his subsequent films When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and continue over the next two decades to produce some of the most memorable films in the science fiction and fantasy genres.


For the most part, scholarly analysis of Destination Moon has, like much writing on science fiction cinema of the 1950s, focused on the Cold War background of the film. With the recent shift in the space industry from public to private investment, it’s time for a reassessment of the film’s relevance to current events, as well as its other often-overlooked virtues. In spite of numerous flaws, the film is intelligent enough and assertive enough in conveying its message to merit serious attention from thoughtful audience members, and may also serve as a useful starting point for discussion on the roles both government and private enterprise have to play in the next step in The Space Age.

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