Rocketship X-M

Rocketship X-M. 1950. Dir. Kurt Neumann. Watched on YouTube, so you don’t have to.

Robert L Lippert presents… it says on the opening card, with the kind of loopy signature you practice on your homework book in case you ever get famous. The cast actually has people I’ve heard of. Lloyd Bridges. Noah Beery. Hmm. It’s also got Osa Massen, which is very satisfying to say quickly. The intro music is the usual ‘orchestra going crazy because they think they’ll get paid more if they play hard and fast’ – which may or may not be true. It makes you long for a harp (but this is the ONLY time that happens).

Kurt Neumann is listed as writer, producer AND director. So I’m guessing he’s either brilliant or a tightwad.

The film opens with a big sign: US Government Property. No Trespassing. It’d be great if the end credits played then and we all went away and did something else. I mean – you don’t want to break the law, do you? You do? Shit. Then let’s do it.

There’s a countdown going on. In a science-type room with machines with dials and knobs and men in suits wandering round with clipboards looking worried. One guy getting his blood pressure checked. (Possibly writer / director / producer Kurt Neumann).

There’s a woman getting her blood pressure, too – so I’m guessing this must be the crew. Smug guys zipping themselves into leather flight jackets. We cut back to the first guy. The doctor is still pumping up the cuff. The doctor looks so old and frail you kinda want to do HIS blood pressure instead. First guy looks impatient.

The doc tells him his blood pressure’s high but understandable under the circumstance. Lloyd Bridges nods to the woman and says ‘The weaker sex! The only one whose blood pressure’s normal.’ All the men laugh. For her sake I hope it’s not a long trip.

The guy puts his jacket on and says: ‘Thank you doctor. And goodnight.’ A strangely touching farewell. Off they go to the launchpad. (I originally typed ‘lunch pad’ – which would be more exciting at this point).

They walk off through a long corridor. No lights. You’d think if they can afford a rocket they can afford lights.

They enter a room filled with smoking journos. As in cigarettes, not talent. The tannoy says ‘X minus 16 minutes.’ If I was due to get blasted off in 16 minutes I’d want to be strapped in the chair already, not taking a seat for a press conference. Maybe that’s why I’ve never made it into space. I’m too punctual.

A serious guy in a suit – probably the Flight Director, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was writer / director / producer Kurt Neumann) – gives a long and serious talk to the press that goes on for a serious length of time but that does – eventually – reveal that XM stands for ‘expedition to the moon’. Thanks for that. You wouldn’t think they were due to leave in about five minutes. ‘Forever… man has dreamed of visiting our nearest heavenly bodies…’ He puts his hand in his pocket and leans on the desk. I mean – at this point I’d be out the door and sprinting down the dark corridor to the lunch pad.

He introduces the crew. First, (what sounds like) Dr Karl Excrement (but I think he means Eckstrom). Karl looks like a car salesman but is actually a brilliant physicist, apparently. Lisa Van Horn, doctor of chemistry. Colonel Floyd Graham (which is handy, because that’s Lloyd Bridges, so Floyd / Lloyd – really helpful, thanx); Harry Chamberlain, astronomer; Major William Corrigan, engineer (which is Noah Beery – engineery – thx again). The Flight Director asks Dr Eckstrom to outline the flight plan. I mean honestly – hasn’t anyone got a WATCH??

The tannoy says ‘X minus fourteen minutes’ as Karl stands at the blackboard. I’m guessing the tannoy is more directed at the audience, who – like me – must be getting anxious. We’ve paid to see rockets and aliens. This is like school (although we weren’t allowed to smoke in school, unless we were in detention, in which case we injected).

Jesus Christ. Karl draws a circle. The Earth? The moon? No – it’s the Earth. He draws another circle further away. Then tells us HOW much further away that is. Look – I don’t need to know, professor. I’m guessing you can’t just walk there. Please. I’m begging you. Get your spacesuit on. If you’re in too much of a hurry the zipper might jam.

I have a horrible feeling he’s not drawing the earth and the moon with points of takeoff and whatnot, but a rude picture. This is not the kind of behaviour you expect from an astronaut – and especially not when you’ve got about FIVE MINUTES TILL LIFT OFF.

He slides a panel of the board back to reveal a pre-drawn picture of the rocket, dangerously phallic, of course. This Karl…. he acts all stiff and formal but he’s actually filthy.

The talk goes on. The press corps are all asleep or on fire after falling on their cigarettes.

‘A few more details which might interest you,’ says Karl, pointing to the cabin, which apparently has enough oxygen, although I’m not sure about the press room. ‘Any questions?’ says Karl. Everyone leaves.

A few of the press stay behind, though. One asks the astronomer Harry if he has any family (what do they know about this trip?). ‘No – I’ve been living on mountain tops’ says Harry. Okay. Yep. At T-Minus GET THE FUCK OUTTA THERE.

‘Have you ever done any flying?’ says the reporter, holding his notepad ready. ‘Only as a passenger,’ says Harry. I’m guessing he really is only along for the astronomy, then. I’m slightly worried at the direction the reporter is taking. ‘But – you’re the navigator!’ he says. Harry starts to explain why an astronomer is better navigating in space than a REAL navigator, but the camera cuts away to Bill Corrigan, also answering questions. (I used to love Noah Beery in The Rockford Files. I refuse to say anything mean about Noah Beery). He gives a warm and delightful little monologue about his wife and how proud she was when he said to her ‘Honey? I’m going to the moon! She says what for? They ain’t got nothing there we ain’t got plenty of in Texas!’ Bashful. Warm. Filled with charismatic humanity. Classic Beery.

And I won’t say anything snippy about Floyd / Lloyd Bridges, either. The reporters interview him – he gives great, smouldering answers, ‘I’ve flown a hundred missions’ etc. Amazing. I don’t care the rocket’s about to take off without ‘em. I could do this press conference all day. (Which is just as well, the way things are going).

Although… he gestures towards Lisa Van Horn and says ‘this is the hottest crew I’ve ever worked with – especially in the brains department.’ Oof. Although to be fair, he didn’t write the script, and an actor’s gotta eat.

‘Unless you look like a test tube or a chemical formula, you haven’t got a chance,’ says Floyd. Mind you, if he took off his clothes and held his hands straight down by his sides… (maybe he’ll do just that, later. It is Lloyd Bridges, after all).

The Flight Director strides onto the stage again. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen – we are pressed for time…’ No shit.

The crew go back down the dark corridor. The WHOLE corridor – sauntering, not striding. I mean – the rocket and all that…? The film is an hour and forty five. So far we’ve had fifteen minutes of blood pressure monitoring, blackboard illustrations and sauntering. I mean – jeez.

They saunter outside and meet with a bunch of guys in white lab coats. There’s a rocket in the background, a bit like an airstream mobile home but upended and the end sharpened. ‘X minus seven minutes,’ says the tannoy. No one seems at all bothered. SEVEN MINUTES!

The lab guys reassure the crew that ‘everything’s in order’ – they’ve checked the oil, made sure there were magazines in the rack &c. ‘I can’t think of anything we’ve overlooked,’ says Karl. I can. YOU HAVEN’T GOTTEN ON BOARD YET.

The rocket is right there but for some reason they take a taxi. They’ve got six minutes. I hope they don’t take the freeway. This time a’ night, mac. Sheesh.

Back in the control room. I love the instruments they had back then. Very high spec. One of them looks like a spinning wheel. The reporters are all in there, smoking. The Flight Director runs in to watch through the window. His boots sound enormous, like they’re made of lead. Nobody takes any notice. He’s probably famous for it.

They’ve got less than five minutes before the rocket takes off, and still they find time to admire the view from the gantry.

FINALLY – they climb through the hatch into the rocket control room. It looks pretty fancy. A bit steampunk, like someone was fixing to shoot a chemical works into space. There’s a row of clipboards hanging above one of the consoles. I find them reassuring. Probably tick lists. BURNER check. MAGAZINES check SEXISM check &c

When Floyd comes on deck he takes his jacket off and throws it in a corner. Has anyone told him about weightlessness? That jacket’s comin’ back.

Van Horn gives the guys a quick lesson in fuel technology. It’s like she’s hypnotised. Three minutes to go and no-one’s strapped in. I’m the twitchiest one out of all of them, and this happened seventy years ago.

They all get into bunks and buckle up. For some reason Karl has to help Van Horn do her buckle up. He doesn’t help the guys. I hope Van Horn is more competent with fuel technology than she is with buckles.

A series of tense cuts between the faces of the astronauts lying in their bunks, to the people waiting in the control room, to the dial counting down the seconds – which everyone is FINALLY paying attention to. At zero, you get a close up of a gas burner, like someone’s going to put on some water for pasta.

I can’t believe it! The rocket takes off!

Van Horn gets a headache. Karl licks his moustache. Bill the engineer puts his hands over his ears (Classic Beery).

Everyone in the control room watches it go up. One guy even has a telescope (he must’ve brought it with him). Suddenly the Flight Director says: ‘Now if you’d follow me we’ll try to make radio contact with the ship’. They all do. All journalists are like this, btw. Basically clueless.

Now they’re in space, the crew get out of their bunks. They’re all a little shaken up. ‘I feel like I just tossed off a spooky bronc’ says Bill. They all look at him uneasily. Classic Beery.

They get busy with the clipboards, turning dials &c. The ship makes a sound like the radiators need bleeding, but they don’t seem worried. Van Horn stares out the window, at the Earth disappearing. She calls Harry over. She knows he likes looking at things at distance. It’s his creepy super power. They share a moment, together at the window. ‘Stand by to turn’ says Karl, ominously.

They turn. I REALLY don’t think anyone’s told them about weightlessness. They all lean.

Time passes. They orbit the earth picking up speed to slingshot to the moon. The Flight Director clumps around the increasingly smoky control room in his special boots, more anxious than he was before lift off. They could use those boots in space (although it doesn’t look as if there’s any weightlessness, so…)

Bill turns some dials and gets nostalgic about Texas. I don’t actually think he’s from Texas. I think he’s from Poughkeepsie. He jettisons the tail section by pulling a great big lever. Very satisfying. You don’t get the same kick from buttons.

Seconds later they almost get whacked by the tail section coming back. I’m still worried about Floyd’s jacket, btw.

Back in the control centre, the Flight Director hands out press releases to the journalists. I’m guessing not with any details of the ship almost getting whacked five seconds after jettisoning the tail section.

Back on the ship, they finally get to have some lunch. Some of the most commonly asked questions of astronauts (and I should know; I am one), are: what do you eat? how do you poo? how do you hang up your jackets so they don’t fly around the place and cause a problem? Well – now we know the answer to the first question. They eat ham sandwiches. Bill eats one whilst wandering around the flight deck, one hand in his pocket, reminiscing about Texas.

OMG! Floyd’s jacket starts rising up! They’re becoming weightless! (I KNEW IT) Only it turns out it’s not Floyd’s jacket but Harry’s. Still – close enough.

Floyds starts flirting with Van Horn. I like Lloyd Bridges, but this scene makes you want to slam the laptop shut and throw yourself out the window (even if you are only on the ground floor). They’re ten minutes into a mission to the moon and already he’s saying she should be back in the kitchen bearing children or something. Whilst nibbling his sandwich suggestively. Oof.

The scene is mercifully interrupted by a noise from the engines like a pigeon just flew in a duct. Although – that far in space? Maybe an intergalactic space swan.

Floyd and Bill crawl down into the engine compartment to see what’s wrong. I get the feeling they know about as much about rocket engines as I know about car engines, because they do exactly the same thing, which is aimlessly jiggle things, and look around, and wonder whether it might help emptying the ashtray.

There’s a tense scene where Van Horn is sitting at a desk next to Karl, both of them filling out a customer questionnaire form, or something. Bill takes out a harmonica. It floats around him just exactly as if it was on strings. He plays catch and release with it a while. Then starts to play. ‘If you don’t mind…’ says Karl, tetchily. I’m not convinced Bill was such a good choice for this trip, Beery or no Beery.

Van Horn and Karl argue over some bullshit maths. They get different answers. Van Horn gets upset – but then apologises. ‘For what?’ says Karl. ‘For being a woman?’ Yeech.

Cut to a gigantic knob. Actually it’s a telescope back on earth, turning up to look at the rocket or something. Patriotic brass section on the score. A full half of this movie seems to be stock footage. So writer / director / producer Kurt Neumann didn’t just save money on the cast list, then.

Turns out, the telescope is Mount Palomar Observatory. A professorial type guy in round specs like someone put paint on the view finders calls the Flight Director to say that very little has changed. Thanks, for that. Thanks a lot.

Back on the rocket, Floyd is staring out the window quoting Kipling, which makes complete sense.

Karl has fallen asleep on the very clipboard Van Horn needs. Floyd sneaks the clipboard out from under his arm and gives it to her (after first telling her a long and unnecessary anecdote about one christmas when he knocked over the tree).

They give up on the calculations and both go to the window to look some more at the earth. ‘You know it’s funny,’ says Van Horn. ‘One never thinks of the earth that way, as a dying planet with nothing to give out but reflected light’. Which seems harsh, and maybe why her specialty’s chemistry. But Floyd points to the moon. Apparently he’s done some of his best work by moonlight…’ Yeech.

Van Horn talks about a romantic stroll she once took around Lake Lucerne, comparing most of it to cold coffee with ice cream chips. Floyd smoulders. Says daydreaming’s good for you once in a while. I swear his chest hair is growing out of his shirt. Probably the effect of the moon.

The romantic scene is interrupted by meteorites. They fly by like chocolate breakfast cereal being tipped into a bowl (I’m sounding like Van Horn). After they’ve gone, Harry says he wished one of them had wiped them out. At least it would’ve been quick. I’m with Harry on this one.

Karl and Van Horn figure out the fuel problem and show us what they propose doing on a chart. I don’t care. I just want someone to fly the thing to the moon, or Poughkeepsie, or any damned where.

God help us, but Floyd and Bill go back down to the engine room to rearrange the engines.

Back on the bridge, they pull some levers. Everyone falls about – including Karl onto Floyd, who releases the lever and bad stuff happens. They’re all unconscious now. The orchestra sounds like that bit at the end of A Day in the Life on Sergeant Pepper. The dials go crazy…

Cut to: the Flight Director on the phone to the comedy professor from Mount Palomar – who gives him the bad news. ‘Are you sure?’ says the FD – then slowly puts the phone down and says in his best Boris Karloff voice that the rocket is heading at incredible velocity into limitless space – which doesn’t sound promising (although actually … I don’t know… ).

Back on the rocket, they’re still unconscious. Van Horn is the first to wake up. She reaches down from her bunk to give Floyd a good slap – something she should’ve done a while ago. His nose is bleeding (wow! that WAS a slap). He gets up and turns the oxygen up a bit, which is smart (for him). Van Horn goes over to Karl and gives HIM a slap, too (Go, girl!)

They check all the instruments to figure out where they are in the script. Karl has the bright idea of looking out the window. Mars! That’s why he’s leader!

‘Mars! Well whaddya know!’ says Bill. (Classic Beery)

Floyd still has a bloody nose. Someone should tell him.

They get ready to land on Mars, which means tapping dials with pencils, drawing diagrams and shouting out random numbers.

Another countdown – and no-one’s getting buckled up. I mean, am I just being overly safety conscious?

Floyd is back on the levers, reducing power and everything. After last time…?

They scuff the landing, of course. Despite the gravitas with which Karl delivers his instructions, a lot of thrust and tonnes and whatnot, I’m not convinced he’s got the slightest idea what he’s doing. But still – probably a little more than Bill.

Flashes of lightning outside. A Martian storm! Bill’s excited – not by the storm, but by the prospect of putting on a helmet. (Classic Beery).

However, Karl says they won’t need suits because Mars has atmosphere. (Really, Karl?) ‘We can accomplish so much more, unencumbered’ says Karl. (writer / director / producer Kurt Neumann must have snickered when he wrote that line – and then nodded to his accountant – although, come to think of it, no doubt he did the books, too).

Well. We get a spooky distance shot of the rocket parked on Mars and tiny figures walking out. Theremins play, natch. The crew are dressed in army fatigues and wearing little oxygen masks. Karl is wearing binoculars round his neck and carrying a walking stick. Oh Karl.

Apart from the red sky, it looks uncannily like the desert we’ve seen in the last few films. There’s a VERY long shot of the crew walking through it. They do a lot of walking, for astronauts

They stop for a while so Karl can admire the incredible mineral deposits through his binoculars. Then they carry on walking.

If this was a cult hit, the audience would walk around the auditorium for about an hour at this point. Stop. Point at nothing at all. Carry on walking.

‘Sand and rock. Rock and sand,’ says Bill. ‘I wonder when we’re going to run across some of these Martians? From what I’ve read, they’ve got pale faces and pinheads and fishy eyes…’ (Definitely Poughkeepsie).

Actually – aside from the movie for a minute – this scene encapsulates what I often think about the prospect of a trip to Mars. You spend two years getting there, hop out, walk around a whole lot of nothing, then get back in and it’s another two years back. It reminds me of the time when I took my girlfriend’s grandma to Stonehenge. It was a three hour car trip, she got out, stood and looked at the stones, said ‘I’ve seen enough’ and got back in the car.

At last! They come across a ruined building. Van Horn takes a picture. ‘I’ve seen enough’ she says. Gets back in the rocket. (I’m kidding).

They find the head of a statue in the sand. Looks kinda grumpy. A bit like how I imagine Kurt Neumann to look when he sees the rushes.

The geiger counter’s going nuts. ‘Radioactivity is at a danger level’ says Karl. He thinks it was war that wiped out life on Mars. Harry thinks they should head back to the rocket – maybe things are getting too close-up for his liking. Karl thinks they should carry on exploring. They’ve got plenty of supplies, he says – although the ham sandwiches will be a bit curly by now.

‘Are there any survivors?’ asks Van Horn. Karl makes a speech about mutations & deformities, so hopefully…

They go to sleep in a cave, with Harry keeping watch (ever the watcher). And thank God for that – because he sees some Martians creeping up. They disappear when he yells at them. The crew wake up. They all go chasing after the Martians.

Bill and Karl go on ahead to see if they can find the Martians. The others stay behind.

One of the Martians trips and falls down the slope. Bill and Karl hurry over. Turns out it’s a starlet on contract, dressed in a primitive skin bathing suit. We get a close up of her face. Her eyebrows are beautifully manicured – but unfortunately she’s blind (we know this becuase she puts her hands out in front of her when she moves, like it only just happened). She screams! Bill and Karl hurry away again. Two lunkish guys in primitive skin swimming trunks come and take her away – for legal advice or acting lessons or something, I’m not sure.

‘Atomic age … to stone age,’ says Karl. I don’t know. I think the tailoring on that bathing suit was pretty impressive.

The Martians hurl boulders at them. They don’t like the implication of his speech.

Bill is killed – presumably. Karl doesn’t hang around long enough to properly check.

Karl fires randomly at the Martians, who wave their sticks in reply. We get a close-up of one Martian’s back, which is horribly made-up. He goes to throw something spiky at Karl.

Karl staggers back to the others. ‘Where’s Bill?’ shouts Floyd. Karl looks confused, then falls forward, the spiky thing in his back (well – just to the side of his backpack, so respect to the accuracy of the Martian, there).

‘They’re crazed, despairing wretches. Pity them,’ says Karl. ‘Get back to Earth. Tell them what we found. Maybe this will…’ then he dies.

The three remaining crew run back to the ship pursued by the Martians. I have to say – for people who have grown up on Mars, the Martians don’t run very confidently about the place. They hobble like me walking barefoot on a pebbly beach.

Floyd trips, then gets squashed by a big ass boulder thrown by a Martian. But the others help him up and they all stagger on to the rocket. It’d take more than a boulder. Although he probably has a nosebleed.

Next thing you know, the rocket is taking off again. We’re back on the flight deck. Actually – turns out it was Harry who got squashed by the rock. It’s hard to tell with those oxygen masks. Anyway – without Harry it’s difficult to navigate, apparently. At least Van Horn has changed into a black polo neck shirt, which sets off her eyes nicely – oh my God – I’m turning into Floyd.

‘I see a woman sweet, gentle and beautiful,’ says Floyd. Turn the ship around, Van Horn! Take your chances with the Martians!

For some reason they’re almost back at Earth. It’s obviously quicker on the way back, probably a tail wind or something. ‘Speeds increasing! Shut off the fuel…’ says Floyd. But Van Horn can see they have no fuel left. They’ll simply crash on reentry. Mournful violins play (although crashing cymbals might be more illustrative).

Floyd calls the control centre to let them know how things stood on Mars before they smash into the Earth at uncontrollable speed and that sort of thing. The Flight Director marches down the corridor in his enormous boots. He has a go on the radio, too. Goes through a range of expressions that make him well worth the fifty dollars he got for the part. And no repeat fees.

Extreme close up on the Flight Director’s face when he learns that Karl didn’t make it. The sweat on his forehead is superb. Honestly, this is Oscar winning stuff (if there was no-one else that year to give it to). The orchestra goes into full scale romantic meltdown. It makes me re-evaluate the relationship between Karl and the Flight Director. It seems to make more sense now. Why they built the rocket in the first place. Why they delayed taking off. He clumps off to a corner of the office. We see only his shadow on the wall. A shadow of his former self. Congrats all round. Honestly – the best.

Back on the rocket, Van Horn looks out the window again. Floyd joins her. ‘Floyd! Hold me! Hold me tight!’ she says. He does. He says some comforting stuff, such as ‘there’s not much difference between the future and the past…’ neglecting to mention the present, which is very much about ploughing into the earth at a thousand miles a second. Van Horn says she’s not afraid. There’s a great wave bearing them up, or something. Then the screen goes white and they crash. Gulp!

Cut to: The Flight Director looking out of HIS window. Someone tells him the news syndicate are waiting. They all come in. One of them says they’ve received reports of a strange craft plummeting into Nova Scotia. Another – presumably a nephew of Kurt Neumann, because he struggles to deliver his single line with anything LIKE normality – says that he’s been hearing the same thing, too.

The Flight Director confirms it. Flight RXM was lost. When the newsmen describe it as a failure, the Flight Director disagrees. ‘It has supplied us with information that may well mean the salvation of our own world.’ He tells them they are to begin construction of RXM 2… and we watch as he walks sadly out to the empty lunch pad. Slowly.

And that’s it!
So what’ve I learned?

  1. It’s not actually that far to Mars. And you can pretty much walk to the moon.
  2. Throwing boulders is surprisingly effective. And more eco.
  3. Noah Beery is lovely, even in this stinker. Lloyd – not so much. (Although his smoulder is enhanced by a dark polo neck).
  4. It helps to have a little fuel left for the brakes on re-entry.
  5. Don’t get too hung up on countdowns. Three minutes is plenty – so long as there isn’t too much of a queue at the taxi rank.

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