Wednesday, September 8, 2010


The moon, as Robert A. Heinlein so poetically put it, is a harsh mistress, but the crashed crew of his Project Moon Base (1953) doesn't seem to have it that bad. They're marooned until help arrives, certainly, but the two surviving astronauts are, despite their earlier, thoroughly contrived differences, deeply in love, and their Communist antagonist is better dead than red, so we know that everything will turn out all right in the end. Besides, one of them (Donna Martell) is even called Bright Eyes. (That's Colonel Briteis to you, soldier.) It may be one small step, but it's a step nonetheless.

Project originated as an unsold television series called Ring Around the Moon, but was reworked by producer Jack Seaman for theatrical distribution instead, making it Heinlein's second cinematic effort after Irving Pichel's superior Destination Moon (1950). This time, alas, there's no color, and Destination's outlandish carnival-balloon costumes have been replaced by Jack Miller's tee-shirt-and-gym-shorts outfits, complete with skullcaps; these decidedly Devo-esque uniforms cry out for, at the very least, Cinecolor. The actors look absurd, of course, but Ms. Martell is rather charming in her spacegirl getup, plus the film is a merciful sixty-three minutes. It's a politically-incorrect time capsule, but one definitely worth opening.

Project is set in the then-far-off year of 1970, when the United States Space Force's General "Pappy" Greene (Hayden Rorke, the long-suffering Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeanie) assigns the Colonel (promoted from Captain after making the first orbital flight) and Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford) to survey the appropriate site for a lunar landing. The government already maintains a space station, which the third member of the team, Doctor Wernher (Larry Johns) schemes to sabotage. Wernher, you see, is actually an impostor; the true Doctor is being held by the Enemies of Freedom. Major Moore realizes his fellow astronaut's a fake when the double doesn't get a reference to the Brooklyn Dodgers (a downright un-American gaffe); the two men duke it out in slow motion and, in the ensuing mini-chaos, their orbit's destabilized and their Magellan craft is forced to make an emergency landing on the dark side of the moon. The anti-Wernher subsequently switches sides (a distinctly atypical action, as his suicidal mission was to crash the Magellan into the station) and ventures with Moore to set up a radio relay on a mountain ridge several miles away. This allows the astronauts to reestablish contact with Earth, but the impostor conveniently falls to his death and Moore barely manages to make it back to the ship before exhausting his air supply. Spacecom's a little late with the news that Wernher's a saboteur, and, as it will be months before a rescue craft can reach them, General Greene proposes that the couple marry immediately for publicity purposes; after all, the Brave New World of 1970 can't take a chance on the impropriety of sin-living astronauts, now can it? People might talk.

The picture is packed to the oxygen tanks with militaristic propaganda, courtesy of novelist Heinlein, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Democratic entrant in the 1938 race for the California State Assembly. Heinlein, not completely surprisingly, had a socialist skeleton in his closet: he once edited Upton Sinclair's EPIC News, but turned right during the Cold War; in fact, Thomas M. Disch observes of this amazing American Original in his superb survey, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, that "no hawk could boast sharper talons." (Heinlein championed nuclear deterrence in several newspaper advertisements in the late Fifties, advocating "Patrick Henry Leagues" to this end and even proposing a tax increase to support them.) General Greene, who's never without his sidearm, frankly admits that "if we hadn't played the science angle" of the circumlunar mission (the excuse for the civilian Wernher's participation), "we wouldn't have gotten the authorization--nor the money." He furthermore boasts to reporter Polly Prattles (Barbara Morrison) that "the most important thing in the world to me is the security of the United States, and I'm not in the least bit apologetic for my attitude." Like his predecessors in Destination, Greene understands that the first country to reach the moon can control the Earth with missiles. The General's a bombastic wheeler-dealer, and Rorke plays him with gusto.

Project's treatment of women, on the other hand, is as comically dated as it was in Kurt Neumann's Rocketship X-M three years earlier. General Greene informs Briteis that it was only her small frame that facilitated her orbital accomplishment, pointing out that "if [Moore] weighed ninety pounds instead of a hundred and eighty, he'd be a Colonel and a public hero--and you'd still be a Captain." When she balks at going on a mission with the "jealous" Moore ("The big lug hates me"), Greene actually threatens to spank her (and he looks as if he'd do it, too, the bounder). Meanwhile, the flirtatious, horizontally-challenged Prattles is fascinated to learn from Greene that the space station is currently in freefall: "It would be so lovely to weigh nothing at all," she exclaims wistfully. Briteis' gender is awkwardly withheld from viewers until her first appearance, and, in the picture's biggest "surprise," the President, who congratulates the newlyweds via monitor, turns out to be a woman (Ernestine Barrier) as well. Significantly, Briteis agrees to the marriage only after Greene promotes Major Moore to Brigadier General of Moon Base Number One, because being married to an inferior officer just won't cut it. (She earlier apologizes to Moore, after panicking upon realizing the extent of their predicament, for "going female on you"; it's a safe bet this film's not one of Ursula K. LeGuin's favorites, and even Heinlein disowned the picture.) Perhaps the author's most endearing quality is his ability to be all over the map sociopolitically: while his authoritarian space operas were incensing leftist critics, his libertarian consciousness fueled large segments of the neopagan counterculture, most notably Oberon Zell-Ravenheart's Church of All Worlds (but not, contrary to popular mythology, Charles Manson).

Director Richard Talmadge, a former actor and stuntman, does what he can with this material, but the real amusements are to be found in Jack R. Glass' low-budget special effects and William C. Thompson's (Ed Wood's cinematographer, no less) compositions of space station staff walking in magnetic shoes on ceilings and walls; these latter trick shots predate a similar sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The station's interiors are usually photographed at a forty-five-degree angle, as if the cameraman had one too many before reporting to the set. There's also a hilarious gaffe--one worthy of the infamous Wood--when Major Moore communicates via the Magellan's giant television monitor with General Greene at the space station: when Moore stands, he inadvertently casts his shadow on Greene because the monitor is simply a large hole in the wall. Take-offs, too, are a regular riot, with the men sweating profusely, their distorted faces ululating like the souls of the damned. (Briteis, on the contrary, seems positively orgasmic as g-forces accentuate her bullet-bra torso.) Herschel Burke Gilbert's delightful score is heavy on the theremin, and the Magellan's interiors were economically reused by Arthur Hilton for his same-year 3-D camp classic Cat Women of the Moon. It's also worth noting that the Eagle landed a mere year before the events in this film; Heinlein was impressively prescient.

Image's 2000 fullscreen DVD is another entry in the label's outstanding Wade Williams Collection. The print is in excellent shape, minus a brief line or two, and the disc offers a dozen chapter stops, as well as the film's original trailer. Project Moon Base (there is no compound word in the onscreen title) is also available as part of Image's four-disc "Weird Worlds" set, which additionally contains Destination Moon, William Marshall's The Phantom Planet (1961), and the abbreviated U.S. cut of Kurt Maetzig's First Spaceship on Venus (1959).


Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Doherty, Brian. "Robert Heinlein at 100." Reason (August/September 2007).