Archive for July 19th, 2016


By Roderick Heath

The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his names with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons, starting off working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power. After he moved to the US and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943, before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project, extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like, and turned them into a movie, arriving under the title Destination Moon. Not the best of the sci-fi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stable-mate Cecil B. DeMille as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre with When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953). His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard sci-fi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prognosticative.


Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to sci-fi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells after War of the Worlds, taking on the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than propulsive narratives. Pal had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.


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