Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 26, 2017
To view First Man Into Space click here.
This has to be one of the firsts in movie studio history: A script is rejected by AIP (American International Pictures) only to be later picked up by MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). If you’re familiar with both studios, then you know how odd it is that 1) AIP would ever turn down a script in the first place and 2) MGM would say, “AIP turned down a script?! Let’s snatch that up, pronto!” The result is First Man Into Space (1959) and, no, it isn’t about Yuri Gagarin, who wouldn’t make that achievement until two years later. It’s a sci-fi/horror movie that works surprisingly well despite its low budget and illuminates just how many good, exciting and entertaining premises come in sparsely marketed packages.
First Man Into Space started out with the working title Satellite of Blood, a title I so dearly wish they had kept. While the final title sounds like a would be documentary or a generic retread of Destination Moon (1950), Satellite of Blood sounds a little bit more of what we’re in store for, even if there isn’t actually a satellite filled with blood anywhere in the movie. As it is, First Man Into Space does indeed concern just that, the first successful manned space flight, and since almost every space first in the movies is accompanied by some form of unmitigated disaster, it doesn’t go too well for the astronaut.
The astronaut in question is Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), a rough and tumble type, brash and cocky and reckless. He pilots the first rocket plane we see, the Y-12, into the ionosphere but disobeys orders when he runs into difficulties and ends up crash landing. No one knows where he landed and when his brother, Commander Charles “Chuck” Prescott (Marshall Thompson), finds that Dan ditched the plane, and the protocol, and crashed his girlfriend’s pad instead, he’s furious. Nonetheless, Dan gets another chance and this time goes even higher in the Y-13, disobeys orders once again (I swear, this guy), goes up to 250 miles, and officially becomes the first man in space. Oh, and there’s this weird cloud of space stuff that covers his ship, and gets inside too. That pretty much ruins his life because it turns him into a monster. Exploration of space be damned, they have to get the plot moving so this guy has to be a monster. Specifically, he gets covered in a kind of crusty shell that keeps him pressurized which depletes oxygen in his blood which makes him land back on earth and start killing people and cows for blood. Especially cows.
Now here’s the thing with a movie like this: Get decent to good actors, give them dialogue that sounds roughly natural and ordinary, don’t go overboard with bad effects, and play the whole thing straight and, by gum, it’ll work. Marshall Thompson and Marla Landi, as Dan’s girlfriend, Tia, do most of the heavy lifting for the movie and play their scenes together so quietly that it’s a kind of marvel at times. One scene, late in the movie, has Tia pouring him a cup of coffee and talking about how tired he is and what they can do to find his brother and her boyfriend, and it’s a well-played, affecting moment.
Then there’s the effects. Since they were operating on a small budget, even for MGM, rather than come up with a lot of space scenes of rockets on wires, they mainly shoot Edwards in closeup in the cockpit and use actual footage of test flights, including the famous Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager piloted past the sound barrier. The stock footage is roughly the same quality black and white stock as the movie (a minor miracle in and of itself if you’ve ever seen bad stock footage inserts) and grounds the movie more than would a collection of questionable effects done on the fly (no pun intended). There’s also some interesting parallels to extraterrestrial legends that would become prominent decades later, like cattle mutilations, which had been around long enough for Charles Fort to make a lot of wild assumptions about them in the early 20th century but not long enough to enter the public consciousness like it would by the 1970s.
Of course, since it was done in 1959, before anyone named Gagarin or Shepard ever ventured into space, there are some true howlers when it comes to accuracy, but that’s to be expected. Speaking as a space race buff myself, consuming everything Mercury, Gemini or Apollo related there is to consume, including just recently watching yet another documentary on Apollo 13, comparing it to the movie, I winced more than a few times at the opening scenes. Just days after watching Gene Krantz complain that he objected to Ed Harris raising his voice in Apollo 13 because no one in mission control ever lost their cool once, here’s the two Prescott brothers yelling, panicking and all-around freaking out during the entire mission. At one point, Astronaut Prescott is so tripped out by weightlessness that he starts screaming at the doctor at ground control, “Tell me what to do, doc!!! Tell me what to do!!!” Oh yeah, and there’s also this thing called the “controllability barrier,” just around the ionosphere, where reaction times slow down and it’s not guaranteed the astronaut will survive going through it. This is an actual thing in supersonic flight and the scene was most likely derived from the trouble that Yeager had with the flight controls as he approached the speed of sound but in a rocket, there is no controllability barrier in the atmosphere because you’re hurtling into space until the rocket fuel exhausts. In the movie, the space ascent is very slowed and controlled, which is also a tad strange.
In the end, AIP missed out by not picking up this script. The film made its budget back six times over and holds up fairly well today. Sure, there are some parts that don’t work as well, most notably French actor Barry Shawzin as the Mexican farmer, doing a pretty appalling job as an obviously not Mexican native. And Bill Edwards had to redo his lines in post production because he had a hard time doing an American accent. The result is that his dialogue sounds quite different than everyone else, at a slightly different volume and often stilted, a natural result of having to do your lines over while making them match up with your lip movements on screen. But the story itself, as silly as it is, works. It works because they play it straight, keep the effects to a minimum, and know when to roll the credits. At just over an hour long, First Man Into Space speeds along to its inevitably tragic conclusion and manages to wrap up the whole enterprise by restating the title of the film. That’s not just entertainment, that’s efficiency in action. And First Man Into Space is well worth the ride.
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