Conquest of Space is perhaps the most of obscure of major 1950s science-fiction films. Clearly intended as an apotheosis, both cinematically and thematically, of the series of films in the genre producer George Pal had been making since his production Destination Moon (1950) essentially kick-started the genre craze, Conquest of Space was however roundly rejected by critics and audiences of the time, and has remained poorly regarded ever since. Pal retreated into straight fantasy with tom thumb (1958) before returning to sci-fi with 1960’s The Time Machine, whilst he wouldn’t work again with his fittest directorial collaborator, Byron Haskin, until The Power (1968), when their moment had most definitely passed. What went wrong with the brand, and the film? Unlike the Technicolor sturm-und-drang of When Worlds Collide (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and The Naked Jungle (1954), with their feverish vistas of destruction and epic-scaled action, Conquest of Space followed Destination Moon in emphasising a realist approach to sci-fi spectacle. Pal and Haskin annexed two popular speculative non-fiction books by Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun as a basis for an attempt to create a believable portrait of what future space exploration might look like, and utilised the artist who had illustrated Ley’s book, Chesley Bonestell, to help create that portrait. One problem with Conquest of Space is that, in spite of its futuristic (to 1955) setting and more expansive ideas, it’s essentially the same film as Destination Moon, ending a gruelling journey across space with a big spaceship mock-up sitting around on a sound stage edition of an alien landscape, with astronauts milling around without anything much to do. SEE! the amazing trek of the heroes to collect rock samples! THRILL! as these pioneers of the stars collect…more rock samples!
Conquest of Space has more ambitions than only offering mere theoretical authenticity, and it anticipates a lot of subsequent spacefaring adventures, including, unavoidably, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with which it shares the desire to express awed fascination with the idea of life in the final frontier, rotating space stations, and deep space explorers, as well as Nebo Zovyot (1959), through to Sunshine (2007) and Gravity (2013). Considering that even the most basic manned space flight was still six years away when this movie was released, many of the images, particularly of the astronauts working in zero gravity and the paraphernalia of their work, culled from the pages of the source books and illustrations from a plethora of ‘50s magazine articles, reveal how most subsequent space technology was already blueprinted by this time. The special effects do show their age now, as the models are over-lit and bland-looking, and the matte work shows at the seams by comparison to the far more convincing but also more time-consuming front projection work Kubrick used on 2001. And yet there’s still an attractive, pictorial beauty and vividness to the visuals, particularly in the spaceship’s close encounter with an asteroid and landing on Mars. The fact that Pal and Haskin were able to get Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston to fight off bugs in The Naked Jungle but could only get third-string, competent but unexciting B-movie actors for their sci-fi endeavours says a lot about how ghettoised the genre was at the time, or at least how much of their relatively limited budgets was soaked up by the effects team. But the real problem with Conquest of Space lies in its inability to find a way to glean real excitement or dramatic capital from its storyline.
The film’s most interesting angle is its portrait of humankind struggling to deal with the fear of the infinite and the physical and psychological extremes of a new environment, anticipating the major theme of Alex Garland’s script for Sunshine, as a crewman goes mad and becomes determined to prevent a blasphemous encroachment on the universe. The setting is sometime in mid-1970s, on a space station manned by an international service with a quasi-military hierarchy. The station has been built partly to facilitate the construction of a large, recently-completed interplanetary spaceship. The space mission is led by Colonel Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke), an experienced leader whose John Ford-esque adjutant Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy) has been serving under him in “Korea, Africa, and China” (raising some intriguing, and disturbing, alternate-history possibilities), before directing the construction of the station. Also aboard is Merritt’s son Barney (Eric Fleming), who’s chafing at having been separated from his wife for a year in following his old man on this boondoggle venture, and, more subtly, from living in the shadow of a legendary father whose dedication came at the cost of his family’s happiness. Mahoney hero worships Merritt unabashedly with near-religious fervour whilst disdaining Barney. Whilst the station is manned by functionaries dressed in light brown overalls, the specialist team of space engineers intended for the spaceship’s moon mission dresses in blue. They’re mocked roundly by the others for their special diet of protein pills and strict regime. One of the team, Cooper (William Redfield), freezes up during an extravehicular mission and knows, to his chagrin, that he’s washed out when he’s given a proper meal at dinner time.
The others in their select unit include blue-collar Brooklynite electronics expert Jackie Seigel (Phil Foster), wry Japanese Imoto (Benson Fong), and Eastern European Andre Fodor (Ross Martin), who are asked by Merritt to accompany him when he is ordered to launch the spaceship not for the Moon but for Mars. Barney, on the verge of going home, tears up his transfer order and joins the team, but Merritt rejects Mahoney as too old. Mahoney nonetheless stows away aboard the spaceship, which has to dodge flaming meteors in its voyage to the red planet. The notion of international cooperation in an interstellar future has the clear ring of Star Trek’s idealism, and Conquest doesn’t belabour the point, except with an odd but interesting moment when Imoto makes a speech taking his own national history as cautionary example, suggesting that shortages of resources partly drove Japan to aggressive acts. He wants the mission to Mars to succeed as Earth’s resources are depleted and the possibility of exploiting other worlds will prevent future conflicts. The real problem with Conquest lies in its script, which is, apart from Imoto’s key scene, flatly and dully written, even passing silly at times, as when Seigel is outraged by his girlfriend Rosie (Joan Shawlee) appearing on a news report dolled up and bathing in his heroic spotlight whilst obviously seeing another beau. Apart from the study of Merritt as a crumbling paternal-authority figure reminiscent of John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in Red River (1948) and echoing back to Captain Ahab, the characterisations are stereotyped, and the acting styles and interpersonal relations are mostly pitched on the level of a low-budget war movie.
The scenario was written by a battery of writers who had impressive experience in writing fantastic tales, including Them! author George Worthing Yates, and former Val Lewton collaborator Barré Lyndon, but the screenplay, actually written by James O’Hanlon, is so heavy-footed it would make Godzilla on a bender seem twinkle-toed. Conquest anticipates much later special effects-based cinema with frightening alacrity in that regard, the time and effort spent on those effects unmatched by the dramatic level and engagement with the human level. And yet Conquest isn’t hollow, as it offers a study in the potentially overwhelming nature of space travel and confrontation with the infinite, and with more care might easily have been another Pal and Haskin classic, indeed perhaps even their best work. By touching on an early version of generation gap angst that the era’s teenagers would have understood intuitively and soon would become a basic cultural given, the film sets in play a father-son conflict that binds with the theme of exploration as a process of divestment as well as achievement, threat of loss as well as discovery. Old, patriarchal religious sensibilities and certainties clash with modernity’s revisionist urges and arrogant, all-conquering spirit, raising the spectre of minds and philosophies that haven’t moved fast enough to cope with such extremes. Pal’s sci-fi productions tended to emphasise a brand of safe, pious sentiment agreeable to his mid-’50s audience, particular in The War of Worlds where that element contradicted H.G. Wells’ pitiless logic and yet also helped power the film’s feverishly poetic apocalypse. Merritt, who’s hiding the effects of “space fatigue,” a malady that has already washed out Cooper, begins to unravel when confronted by deep space and new, strange horizons. The death of Fodor in a shower of fiery meteor fragments lays the seeds for Merritt’s complete disintegration.
Merritt devolves into a religious mania, convinced they’re committing an act of sacrilege by invading a domain not prescribed for human use as per Biblical instruction, and eventually becomes determined to prevent the mission landing. He almost foils the touchdown, and then attempts to sabotage the ship once on the Martian surface, even firing bullets at Barney to stop him, leading to a tussle which results in the older man’s death. Mahoney, who arrives during the fight, is appalled and, with his blind loyalty to Merritt, swears to make sure Barney will be court-marshalled and hung for the killing. The flavour of this moral drama is appropriately bald and Oedipal, fit for the founding of new worlds and myths, but the film lacks the authorial snap to make it truly momentous. Conquest does to a certain extent see the atavistic import behind a seemingly super-modern act and interrogates how we might respond to such widened vistas: indeed Conquest works as a parable of relevance to the modern world as so many, faced with new ways of understanding the universe and our place in it, retreat into older ways and a kind of wilful blindness that reaffirms we humans as the centre of things. But Conquest also counterbalances the theme of future shock by offering up visions of transcendental grace in unexpected environs – a funeral in space that sends a body floating off into the blazing light of the galaxy, a cross assembled from junk on the blasted Martian surface, a tiny sprout from a plant on the Martian surface appearing out of a grave, and a seemingly miraculous Yuletide snow falling from the red planet’s sky.
Such fragments of marvel arrive thanks to Haskin’s direction, with his quietly baroque visual sensibility and gift for wrangling cramped budgets to conjure films that seemed somehow vast and visionary, offering frames cut into geometric forms by the curlicues of his set design and adroit camera placement, and expressive use of colour in creating a vivid pictorial sense of otherworldly extremes. Nicholas Meyer acknowledged the debt owed to the funeral sequence for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Paul Verhoeven, fan of The War of the Worlds, may well have remembered this for another similar scene in Starship Troopers (1997). The film’s moments of corporeal suffering still have a surprising punch, like Fodor’s wide-open mouth as a red-hot rock shoots through his suit and body, flash cuts to the faces of the crew during the emergency take-off from Mars, each man with blood flowing from his face as they’re pummelled by G-force, and the sight of Fodor’s dead body, tethered to the spaceship whilst drifting, has a haunting sense of vulnerability and pathos in the face of an inimical universe that anticipates where Kubrick, Cuaron, and others would aim for. Where Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were cleverer in their take was in finding a way to dramatize the deistic fantasies and fears of engaging with the cosmos whilst maintaining a rigorous approach to the microcosmic detail. By contrast Conquest quells its dramatic conflicts too early and leads to the same anticlimax that has dogged real space exploration for the past forty years: after you’ve landed on some big ball of rock in the void, what then? Haskin returned to Mars for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), a semi-sequel that leapt from Melville to Defoe for inspiration and expanded on this film's hints of desolate beauty.