In 1950 two science fiction films sent cinemagoers venturing off into space, one was George Pal’s seminal classic Destination Moon and the other being Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M, but where George Pal’s film was attempting to depict a nuts and bolts representation of a trip to the Moon, with at least some attempt at scientific accuracy, Neumann, on the other hand, was more concerned with beating Pal’s film into theatres than in being anything approaching a realistic look at space travel.
George Pal’s high-profile release of Destination Moon was, at the time, heralded to the press as “Two years in the making” with a budget of $500,000 dollars, that’s roughly $6,00,000 in today’s dollars, and the American people were dying to get a peek at this promised science-fiction spectacular, unfortunately, they’d have to wait just a little longer. This was good news for Lippert Pictures as these production delays on Destination Moon allowed producers Robert L. Lippert and Kurt Neumann to put together their own rival space project in a matter of 18 days on a budget of just $94,000 dollars, which is impressive in anyone’s book, and thus Rocketship X-M landed in theatres twenty-five days before George Pal’s film was released.
The premise of Rocketship X-M was much like that of Destination Moon in that it dealt with a small group of intrepid explorers planning a trip to the Moon, but unlike the George Pal film, this crew would include a woman! Shocking, I know. The crew of RX-M consisted of Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Emery), physicist and designer of the RX-M and Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen), who came up with the rocket fuel formula that they’d be using on this flight, next we have pilot Colonel Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) and astronomer and navigator Harry Chamberlain (Hugh O’Brian) and finally, there is flight engineer Major William Corrigan (Noah Beery Jr.) who would be providing the film’s comic relief. The idea of a woman being part of this mission is handled with all the subtly of drunken frat boy and the first example of this comes when a reporter comments on the attractiveness of Lisa Van Horn and Graham responds, “If you don’t look like a chemical formula you haven’t a chance.” And how bad does this stuff get? Well, let’s just say that if the Rocketship had been powered by testosterone they wouldn’t have had those pesky fuel issues later on.
We do get one ray of hope that this movie won’t be a complete sexist piece crap when the next reporter asks “Is there a specific reason why one member of the crew should be a woman?” and Eckstrom replies “The reason Miss Van Horn is making this trip is because of her pioneering research with monoatomic hydrogen which enabled her to develop the first rocket fuel powerful and concentrated enough to make this flight possible.” Well, I hope she enjoyed that one brief moment of praise and acknowledgement because it will be her last because it’s all downhill from there. Once the ship gets into space one problem after another arises, first they are almost hit by their own jettisoned first-stage rocket booster, then a meteoroid storm threatens to destroy them – which Floyd calls “meteorites” despite that being the term for when it is travelling through the atmosphere and hitting the ground not while in space – but things really get tense when the engines inexplicably stop.
This leads to one of the most painful moments in the film when Lisa and Eckstrom argue over each of their own solutions to the fuel ratio problem. When she comes up with a different result than Eckstrom and he states “I have to say that you have made an error and to discard your figures. I’m sorry” and he insists they go with his work, but she doesn’t take this lying down and points out “You can’t be arbitrary about imposing your will when these people’s lives are at stake, don’t you realize that?” He then excuses her for becoming too emotional and when she apologizes, for no reason that I can see, he responds with this classic line “For what, for momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable, Miss Van Horn.”
Not only is her worth as a scientist belittled by her colleague she also has to constantly deal with Floyd’s caveman mentality about where a woman in society truly belongs, as personified by this following exchange. While on route to the Moon Floyd asks her “I’ve been wondering, how did a girl like you get mixed up in a thing like this in the first place” so she, in turn, asks “I suppose you think that women should only cook and sew and bear children?” which Floyd responds with the jaw-droppingly terrible line “Isn’t that enough?” Thank god they end up flying widely out of control and ending up on Mars because any more of that and I’d have felt obligated to punch myself in the groin. And why exactly did the ship careen past the Moon into deep space, could it be because Professor Asshat was wrong? The screenplay doesn’t lay the blame at Eckstrom’s feet but it’s clear to me that this mission was doomed by misplaced male arrogance.
It’s at this point when things get a little more visually interesting as the sequences on Mars were tinted red so as to impart a sense of the alien Red Planet into this otherwise black-and-white film, and I must say, it was a rather effective technique and a nice cost-cutting method to trump the more lavish production values of George Pal’s film and Death Valley National Park was a more than an adequate location to portray the barren Martian landscape, but what really stands out is the sequence showing the consequences of atomic war on Mars, with ruined buildings poking out of irradiated sands. It should be notated that this was one of the first times a movie had shown the dangers of atomic war and later we get Eckstrom waxing on poetically that their discovery here could prevent the same fate befalling mankind, but I doubt even the most obtuse person in the 50s thought that nuclear war was ever a good idea.
• In this outing the Brooklyn stereotype is substituted for that of a Texan and it does not improve the comedy all that much.
• They hold a press conference a mere twelve minutes before launch and it is there that they announce that their plan is to go to the Moon, that’s what I call a last-minute bombshell.
• This is a rare 50s space adventure film that utilizes the idea of a multi-stage rocket but then they screw it up by having the jettisoned section still firing its rockets and almost running into them.
• Weightlessness appears to only affect random objects and not people, this film doesn’t even bother to provide us with those silly magnetic boots.
• Eckstrom states they’d use less fuel landing on a planet with atmosphere than they would be landing on an arid moon, of course, in reality, this is quite the opposite. Are we sure this guy is an actual scientist?
• When leaving their ship the crew members are outfitted with overalls and aviator’s leather jackets which would not be ideal for wandering around a hostile planet like Mars.
For its limited budget, Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M looks surprisingly well, I actually find the interior of the Rocketship to be better than what we see in Destination Moon, but the blatant sexism and overall treatment of Dr. Lisa Van Horn was beyond the pale terrible and every cringe-inducing line of dialogue looked to be an attempt to set the Woman’s Movement back a generation, yet when the film does eventually get to Mars and our heroes are fleeing the primitive Martian descendants, who somehow survived their atomic holocaust and prove that bringing guns into space is a good idea, the movie steps into the silly space adventure tropes of the 50s which one can’t help but enjoy and laugh at. Overall, this is a time capsule as to how media was portraying the battle of the sexes at the time and it was clear whose side Hollywood was on.
Spoiler Warning: What is truly surprising is that no one survives this film. Eckstrom and Corrigan are killed by the Martian savages while the rest of the crew perish when their powerless ship, which had predictably run out of fuel, crashes into Nova Scotia, which is a rather dark and unexpected ending to a movie about the excitement of space travel.
Rocketship X-M (1950)
Movie Rank - 4.5/10
One can claim that Rocketship X-M was simply a “product of its time” but the overt sexism in this film is practically off the charts and I’d consider it to be fairly unforgivable in that category, but at least the Martian stuff was cool, right?