Movie Review: “First Men in the Moon”

50 years

men in moon2

Just returned from a pleasant hiatus in Scotland.  Scotland isn’t the Moon, but the hobbits and elves made it exotic nonetheless, and I’ll be writing about Middle Earth soon. But I want to at least offer a nod to Apollo 11. I feel a kinship with moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin.

Armstrong lived only nine miles from our place here in Ohio, and I briefly attended college with his son, Rick, who hosted a campus radio show. (He played a lot of…what else?…progressive rock.) And Aldrin was born in the same town as me: Glen Ridge, New Jersey. In fact, we were born in the same hospital, 28 years apart. I’ve been called “Buzz” myself, though probably for reasons other than Aldrin.

Others know more about space exploration than me, so I’ll stick with what I know and offer a short review of a favorite Moon-related movie. I saw it with my dad when I was six years old, the first flick I ever saw at the theatre…not long before Mary Poppins. It’s a cinema version of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic, First Men in the Moon.

Year of release: 1964
Country: United Kingdom
Director: Nathan Juran
Starring: Lionel Jeffries, Edward Judd, Martha Hyer
Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen

Partial Plot: an international crew lands on the Moon and discovers a tattered Union Jack flag. A handwritten note with the flag says the Moon was claimed for Queen Victoria in 1899 in honor of Katherine Callender (Martha Hyer). The world press rushes to England to locate Callender. Although dead, her husband Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) lives in a nursing home. The staff at the home say that Bedford is crazy, since for years he’s been raving about being on the Moon. He then relates to the press his actual experience traveling to the Moon 65 years earlier with Katherine and an eccentric inventor named Professor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). This reminiscence provides a flashback for the bulk of the movie (which I won’t give away).

Aside from being my first theatre movie, this flick is special for many reasons:

  1. The storyline is adapted from Wells’ 1901 novel, so the source material is impeccable
  2. Features Oscar-winner Harryhausen’s stop-motion “DynaMation” effects for the Moon monsters. Harryhausen had recently become famous for his work in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts
  3. Enhanced by gorgeous Technicolor and imaginative set designs for the Victorian cottage scenes
  4. Lionel Jeffries, a well-regarded English comic actor, is hilarious as the frenetic, absent-minded Prof. Cavor
  5. American actress Martha Hyer is gorgeous in a somewhat offbeat role for her
  6. Released during the Gemini program and just after President Kennedy’s vow to get to the Moon by the end of the 1960s
  7. Peter Finch makes an uncredited cameo appearance as a bailiff. He was visiting the  set, and the original actor had failed to show up
  8. There are some great lines, such as the conversation about war between Cavor and the Selenite ruler, and Cavor’s remark to Callender, after she brings a rifle onboard the ship: “Madam, the chances of bagging an elephant on the Moon are remote.” And the last line of the movie is a gem.

This film was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies to honor the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, so it may be awhile before it returns. But if you have NetFlix or other, check out this under-appreciated film, enjoyable for both children and adults.


Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Translation: “That’s one small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind.”  Did the Selenites understand his verbal gaffe?


23 thoughts on “Movie Review: “First Men in the Moon”

    • Oh my! This movie isn’t “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but it’s a far cry from Edward D. Wood Jr. I put it up there with “Forbidden Planet” or “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” The H.G. Wells connection alone gives it credibility. Besides outer space, the only thing this movie shares with “Plan 9” is humor…one intended, one unintended!

  1. Peter welcome home from Scotland. It’s on my bucket list to return to the site of our honeymoon 46 years ago. Back then taking a 3 week vacation didn’t seem so hard!
    Glad your dad took you to the movies as a youngster. Especially this one. Not sure I see the verbal gaffe you refer to. Is this a PC charge against gender bias? I see the first ‘man’ referring to the biological species, ie., humans. The second ‘mankind’ is pointing to human culture and civilization. What did you mean?

    • Yeah, I’m glad my dad took me to see this. He was more of a “Red River” kinda guy, but even he may have enjoyed it.

      Armstrong’s verbal “gaffe” has been discussed before, and I’m surprised you don’t know about it. There’s no PC issue here. He intended to refer to a single “man” (one person) taking one step, and human civilization (or biological species) as taking the giant leap. But he needed the article “a” in front of “man” to make this distinction. In other words, unless the article is used, “man” is synonymous with “mankind,” so his (very significant) pronouncement is gobbledygook! In a 2006 interview with Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes,” Armstrong himself admitted he probably “goofed up.”

      Hope this helps. I’m a grammar geek, so I couldn’t help drawing attention to this.

      • It worked for me too, Phil, until I got older and someone pointed it out to me. At first, it bothered me: “How could he screw up such a significant moment?” Then I realized modern English is one of hundreds of languages on our sphere, going back to the caveman, and modern English is constantly changing, anyway. Also, his mistake merely shows how fallible man is (“man” as a species). We’re using the moon as a junkyard, now, which underscores that point.

      • Actually , fifty years later, Armstrong’s supposed gaffe has protected the moon landing from the gender bias critics who would have complained that it was a man’s small step as opposed to a more generic person’s small step. Of course, the prosaic values of the PC version leave a lot to be desired.

      • Not sure if you saw “CBS Sunday Morning” last week, Phil. But the program felt compelled to get something (anything) in there to honor women. So they had a segment on the women seamstresses that sewed the special Apollo 11 spacesuits. What a wonderful world.

  2. They had also profiled one of the many women mathematicians who wrote the original code at MIT. Did not see any references to the Betsy Ross flag being displayed moon side however.

  3. Time for a revisit. I ate up all this stuff when i was kid. I knew Harryhausen’s work long before I knew he was behind it. Talk about leaving images in a young mind. I just read ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘Time Machine’ recently so your right about the source material.
    The Gal and I are half way through ‘Chasing The Moon’ a PBS program. Very good.

  4. A good excuse to put on First Men in the Moon (1964) with all the 50th anniversary celebrations going on. The movie seems to have left quite the impression on you,thanks for the recommendation. By sheer coincidence, I rewatched the first film I ever saw at the theatre, An American Tail (1986) this month as it was leaving Netflix.

    • “An American Tail”? I detect a slight age difference in us! 🙂

      I didn’t grade “First Men in the Moon” in my review, but I would give it a solid 3 out of 4 stars on the Leonard Maltin scale. Nothing earth-shattering (pardon the pun), and the Selenite monster getups were primitive by today’s high-tech standards, but it was nonetheless a fun movie, without a lot of the blockbuster movie clichés one sees today. I especially liked the irony of Victorian England and science-fiction, and the flick is similar to the American-made “The Time Machine” (1960) in that regard. Both H.G. Wells stories translate well to film, in my opinion.


  5. Pete –
    Although we have relocated South, taxes… 🙂 Sunday mornings find me with our tough to find Northern screed – The NY Times.

    Enclosed a safe link to the Times – an article about Armstrong’s two sons who are auctioning off their fathers memorabilia.
    Its a good read – rob

      • OK, I read it. It’s disconcerting to read that his sons are selling his stuff rather than donating to archives. Also, the medical malpractice suit. What some people will do for money. But his second wife, Carol, sounds like she has a lot of integrity…just like Neil.

        By the way, I transferred from that school I attended with his son, after freshman year. No regrets.

  6. Very interesting. I had heard of the movie before and assumed it was something quite different. I will add it to my list of movies recommended by you.

    I’m sure Scotland was a beautiful, fun, and inspiring trip.

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