Friday, May 15, 2015

First Men in the Moon: History Repeats

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essay 3 of 5 blog entries

Part One:  Titanic Similarities

A drawing is discovered in a safe deep below the ocean in Titanic (1997).

A team of scientific explorers discover a surprising artifact.  Who did it belong to?  Could the owner possibly still be alive?  “But (s)he’d be at least 90 years old now!”  However, the owner is alive.  And the owner has a tale to share.  Now listen closely.  “Once upon a time…”

Arnold Bedford examines the
British flag found on the moon
in First Men in the Moon (1964).
In First Men in the Moon (1964), explorers discover a British flag on the moon, along with a note claiming the moon in the name of Queen Victoria.  Old Arnold Bedford is discovered in a nursing home and he relates his tale of adventure and romance.

In Titanic (1997), explorers discover a drawing of a nude woman locked inside a safe inside the submerged wreck of the Titanic.  An elderly woman comes forward claiming that the picture is of her.  She relates her tale of adventure and romance.

Coincidence?  Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that writer-director James Cameron cribbed from established science fiction authors… or from Ray Harryhausen movies, for that matter.  Maybe I should let Cameron confess:

“The creations in my movies are really Ray’s illegitimate grandchildren.  The Terminator owes its roots to the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, which I saw when I was seven years old.  It blew my mind and I wanted to do that, whatever ‘that’ was.”
James Cameron
Testimonial from the book jacket of
Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life

If Cameron was six for Jason, he would have been seven for First Men in the Moon and my guess is that he was already furiously scribbling notes for future screenplays.

In all fairness, Nigel Kneale’s flashback plot structure for First Men in the Moon IS ingenious and Cameron deserves credit for borrowing from the best.  The plot device works very well in Titanic.  And Cameron’s stripped-down Terminator T-800 Model 101 was a nice twist on Harryhausen’s fighting skeletons, too.

As the famous paraphrase of Isaac Newton states:

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Old Bedford in First Men in the Moon and old Rose in Titanic
examine their documents.

Part Two:  The Unintended Metaphor

Bedford on the attack, swinging his gun, in First Men in the Moon.

I could play off James Cameron with this next observation, too, by suggesting that the plot of Cameron’s Avatar (2009) expands on a central metaphor in First Men in the Moon.  But I really don’t think that’s the case, not even subconsciously.

In fact, I don’t think the particular metaphor that I'd like to discuss was ever intentionally placed into First Men in the Moon.  It was just an unplanned accident of plot.  But once you see it, it’s hard to ignore.

Kate Calender (Martha Hyer) brings
a gun to the moon despite Cavor's
dismissal of the idea: "Madam,
the chances of bagging an elephant
on the moon are remote."  But the
gun is ultimately used by both Kate
and Arnold Beckford (Edward Judd)
as they threaten and shoot at
the moon's native inhabitants.
The movie First Men in the Moon functions as a frighteningly plausible metaphor for the European settlement of the Americas.  Arnold Bedford, well played by Edward Judd, represents the European explorer/soldier.  His ethics are highly suspect, he’s prone to violence, and his primary incentive to explore is the promise of gold.  Cavor, magnificently played by Lionel Jeffries, is the scientist/technician who unwittingly makes the invasion possible.

But there’s only one Bedford against a whole civilization of Selenites.  How can a single Bedford possibly win in this battle for empire?  Unfortunately, the answer is simple on both sides of the metaphor.  Carried from a distant land, disease wipes out the civilization.  The Europeans can now move in with relative ease, planting their flag of conquest.

The disease angle was not in the original H. G. Wells novel, and I seriously doubt that screenwriter Nigel Kneale considered the potential historic parallels when he borrowed the idea from Wells’ The War of the Worlds.  But it unexpectedly hooked into the existing imperialist satire that really was lying dormant in Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon, accidentally creating a scenario that is eerily resonant.

Wells’ novel is surprisingly complex and nuanced.  As in the movie, the character of Bedford (who provides first-hand narration for most of the book) is presented as the typical adventure hero.  His acknowledged faults of avarice and violent temper are minimized and/or justified.  But then, in a very surprising twist late in the book, Cavor’s communications from the moon are presented intact and they paint a very different picture of Bedford:

“On the moon his (Bedford’s) character seemed to deteriorate.  He became impulsive, rash, and quarrelsome…

“We came to a difficult passage with them (the Selenites), and Bedford mistaking certain gestures of theirs… gave way to a panic violence.  He ran amuck, killed three, and perforce I had to flee with him after the outrage.”

Apparently, Bedford has been an unreliable narrator all along, suggesting that Wells’ novel was never intended as a simple science romance for boys.  We’ve received the heroic adventure story from the viewpoint of the villain.

Cavor's cry of despair as he realizes that Bedford
is indiscriminately killing Selenites in
First Men in the Moon.
The screenplay—sometimes jarringly—retains the nastier elements of Bedford’s personality.  Under the veneer of Victorian charm, we see Cavor’s ever-increasing distress at Bedford’s actions, with Cavor finally screaming in despair that Bedford is ruining everything.  Personally, I think the resulting dissonance between the promise of a light-hearted space romp and Cavor’s heartfelt pain may have been behind the movie’s financial failure.  Ultimately, First Men in the Moon doesn’t deliver on the feel-good vibe that’s promised.

When Wells’ theme of European imperialism collides with the disease subplot, the resulting implications are depressingly familiar.  The Selenites are the Native Americans.  Just sixty years after the first ship arrives, their world is in ruins.  As Bedford says at the close of the movie, “Poor Cavor!  He did have such a terrible cold.”  The flag has been planted and the moon will now belong to the Earth.  The aliens have invaded.

The British flag on the moon in First Men in the Moon.

Reference Sources
Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray
Film Fantasy Scrapbook by Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

... and a special thank you to the hosts of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon: Ferdy on FilmsThis Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark.


© 2015 Lee Price

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