Rocketship X-M (1950) is the first of several science fiction films that worked in Death Valley. The location became as famous as a home for a variety of science fiction and apocalyptic movies as it ever was for westerns.
Most film fans know that for two decades from 1950 to 1970 science fiction films were extremely popular in the United States. They were often cheaply made, unscientific in principle, and formulaic, but they said something to the audiences about their fears, hopes for technology and desire to escape the humdrum everyday lives of conformity they were living.
Two space travel films stand at the beginning of this film craze: Destination Moon (1950) and Rocketship XM. Moon was an expensive, George Pal production that was to be the flagship of the genre. Rocketship came in as the cheaply made imitation. Ironically, it was this film that grabbed the public's attention and kicked-off their fascination with science fiction and fantasy.
Rocketship was a classic 1950's technological film as our country got onto the possibilities of space travel. But it also featured a story that was really apocalyptic in nature. The ruins of a civilization on Mars that had been destroyed by the inhabitants, reducing them to cavemen, was actually a powerful anxiety producer in the audiences of time. Now the audiences take for granted such prediction because of all the threats being promulgated by politics, the media or imaginative writers. That it was on Mars helped connect it to Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio success that was still remembered.
The desolation of Death Valley landscapes work very well in the film to represent Mars, as it would in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) fourteen years later.
Like so many of its fellow films released in the 1950s, Rocketship X-M seems quite quaint. Students today roll their eyes at the naiveté of the set designers and the struggle of script writers to understand what travel in space might be like. If the audience can suspend disbelief the way we did as a kid, then the film works pretty well. It is when the rocketship lands on Mars that the true surprise of the journey awaits the travelers.
Although in the script for Rocketship, the name of the rocket itself announced this experimental expedition was going to the Moon, the people making Destination Moon forced the director and producers to change the destination of the rocket in Rocketship. That is why they are forced, by accident, to land not on the moon but on Mars. Plot changes were written into the script to have them forced off course.
The cast of Rocketship was quite good although most had only B film credits. Lloyd Bridges was in space before he was underwater. Hugh O'Brian stepped on the surface of Mars before he stepped into Wyatt Earp's boots. Noah Beery Jr. put on a space suit after he had worked in Lone Pine in several westerns. Osa Massen played Dr. Lisa Van Horn, and although she was a scientist, she was reduced to a typical 1950's woman's role. John Emery played Dr. Karl Eckstrom, the final member of the crew.
Up front, there are continuity problems. Much is made of weightlessness in space, but while the harmonica being played by Beery floats around, several other items including a sandwich seem well weighted down by gravity. V8 rocket stock footage is used in the landing on Mars, just in reverse and you briefly glimpse the launch tower. That is part of the fun of many of these films today.
The footage on Mars (Death Valley) was originally tinted red in an otherwise black and white film for dramatic effect. Many times on television the film was shown without this effect, but it has now been restored on available DVD copies. Except for the detective work of a dedicated film buff named Wade Williams, the film would probably be lost today and we would not be worrying about tinting.
Kurt Neuman had come to Lippert in the late forties with the idea to produce a serious science fiction film. "He had a story outline and a budget of under $95,000. The flying saucer scare was well under way and the constant threat of atomic war was forever looming over a public that was ready for escapism on the screen." Lippert led him to Kurt Neuman's son who had additional information on the making of the film. He reported that instead of the film being a just a quick knock off of Destination Moon, his Dad had written the treatment long before Moon went into production.
"Up until that time, science fiction was thought of in the same league as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. It was never taken seriously by major film makers." Neuman Sr.'s idea was rejected constantly. Finally, Lippert had agreed to produce, and the film went on to significant financial success. Williams states, "The movie had all the elements of good science fiction. It challenged the imagination. Destination Moon was so technically perfect that it could have been used as a training film. The human element was just not there, however."
"It [Rocketship XM] used all the known space technology of the time and actually predicted, with some accuracy, the advent of space travel. It used a multi-staged rocket and the distance and travel time were exact. The Martian landscapes, compared to the recent photos sent back by the Viking Lander were incredibly similar. The dynamic special effects by Jack Rabin and the matte work of Theabold Hollsopple added to the overall quality of the film."
In the film, the astronauts, after landing on the planet Mars, make an enormous discovery which played into the 1950's anxieties the way germs and bird flu symptoms do for us today. The film's music composer and the use of a brand new musical instrument, the theremin, in the creation of the incidental music were very significant for future science fiction films.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is the next movie of science fiction made in Death Valley that concerns us. When scriptwriter Ib Melchior visited Death Valley, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars director Byron Haskin returned again and again, it was easy to find Martian landscapes for the film. On the commentary "extra" released with the DVD, both men describe their enthusiastic search for locations to match the script.
From the treatment purchased by the studio, many changes happened to the script in the development process. Haskins notes that the original conception had lots of fantasy monsters, removing the film from science fiction almost entirely. Melchior worked very hard to be as realistic as possible in his creation and refining of the details of the plot. First of all, the film was to be an extended roadshow with an intermission, running to more than three hours. This concept was dropped but still the film was budgeted at well over one million dollars.
The description by Melchior in the script shows how ready-made the Death Valley landscape was for the film. Robert Skotak in his Melchior biography Ibn Melchior: Man of Imagination quotes the script, "Robin stops...and looks solemnly out
the Martian Landscape.... The alien land lies before him in all
its weirdly wondrous beauty; the distant sun is setting in a riot of deep red and purple colors, the dark shadows are long on the sand.... He looks up into the sky, then slowly bows his head...."
Exploration and scientific evaluation of the actual Martian landscape later proved that the conditions were much more harsh than Melchior or the film pictured, but
his reference to running water has been supported by evidence of water erosion on the surface of the planet.
Skotak opined however, "The overall tone of Melchior's 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' is more 'Seventh Voyage of Sinbad' meets NASA than '2001.' Its themes and fantasy, though, presented within the context of a scientifically accurate trip to another planet, were more important to Melchior than too faithful an adherence to dry reality."
Melchior insisted "...for 'Robinson Crusoe' every location was selected by myself, described and pinpointed as to location in the shooting script in order to achieve the look I wanted." Haskins on his commentary states he picked out a lot of the locations himself. He explains that the hundreds (sic) of westerns that worked there shot on the valley floor and he found locations on the hills, crests and cliffs that were totally devoid of plants. The film bears this out.
Work had continued in preproduction of the film in fall of 1963 with the script being trimmed, and producer Aubrey Schenck and Director Haskin visiting Death Valley. Skotak reports, "In early December, Haskins and Schenck began scouting Death Valley locations indicated in the script. Locations like Stovepipe Wells, Devil's Golf Course, Mammary Mound, Sandy Swale and Ubehebe Crater. Places more Mars-like than terrestrial."
Cinematographer Winton Hoch was brought on to the picture to work closely with the director and his knowledge of geologic forces were very useful. Haskin has stated "He was helpful in divining which of those funny-looking stripes in Death Valley were made by water erosion, telltale signs of Earth, which we were trying to avoid. We could accept wind erosion, but not water erosion. He could quickly tell us what the strata of rock were caused by and so forth." Shooting began within weeks.
Skotak describes the work in Death Valley where the crew cleared the land of flora, something that would not be allowed by film companies today. "Haskin's entourage clambered their way up into Suicide Ridge, having to manually dig out the roads, widening them for the heavy vehicles. Block and tackle and thousands of feet of rope helped in hauling tons of camera equipment up cliff sides. Eventually, even the trucks became useless. All along the way the crew stripped out all the weeds in sight. This was Mars as envisioned by Haskin: Nothing alive was to be seen. Cold. Dead. Mars on Earth."
The red skies were a challenge once they had been decided on. The director decided to use the skies above Death Valley as a blue screen to produce mattes back in the studio later. "The deep blue winter skies provided their own mattes into which orange and red-hued skyscapes would be inserted later by Lawrence Butler's optical printer. A dozen years later, Viking Lander photos revealed the accuracy of this aesthetic choice."
Skotak writes that particularly tough location was Ubehebe Crater. This was the location for where Robin and Friday emerge from the inner volcanic regions of Mars. "For these scenes the crew descended into the great crater itself where thick, powdery ash aggravated climbing and made camera maintenance a hopeless task. Working from within the abyss, the mechanical effects crew planted powerful red-hued smoke pots in and around the crater. On cue, a hellish wall of smoke was instantly created, synthesizing the spoutings of an active volcano."
The difficulty of the shoot only went to remind everyone in the cast and crew how challenging survival on the surface of Mars would actually be. The results were well received by audiences and critics alike and the film remains one of the best science fiction films of that era.
Ib Melchior liked the results except that "Haskins should have used Death Valley much more."
A Death Star demonstrates its fierce power of destruction against a peaceful planet and The Force registers a million voices crying out and then silenced.
The evolved Jedi have brought justice and maintained stability in the universe but now the totalitarian military force of the Empire, will conquer and destroy the Republic and freedom, reminiscent of the Nazis and the Roman Legion.
Everywhere among peaceful and evolved systems the Dark Side is taking over.
The apocalyptic vision of director/writer George Lucas is at work in what would become one of the great movie trilogies and now an epic story told in nine films. The final three originally dreamed of by Lucas are coming off the drawing boards as you read this.
As Lucas himself admits, it is difficult to be shocked or amazed by the images and events now that burst across the screen in 1977 when the film Star Wars (now re-titled A New Hope) changed so much about modern filmmaking and science fiction movies.
Lucas has described how he was influenced by the Saturday serials for the film's structure and how he dipped into mythology and archetypes in the creation of his epic. The trials and challenges of budget, shooting on location in Tunisia, the creative task of bringing to life an entire world from long, long ago are legend and well known to most fans today. If the youngest members of the audience haven't gone back to the film that started it all, they must be led by caring elders to do that.
It is still wonderful if you are a fan to go out to Death Valley and stand where R2-D2 or the Sand People, a Bantha or a Jawa scurried across the alien sands of Tatooine. Flash floods and the always fluid nature of that landscape make the search for locations a little more challenging, but with pictures, hints and a reviewing of "Star Wars" and "Return of the Jedi," the thrill is still available.
George Lucas recounts, both on the "enhanced collectors DVD commentary of Star Wars" and in the book The Making of 'Star Wars' by J.W. Rinzler, the difficulties of filming in Tunisia. We have learned that such difficulties seem part and parcel of going on location in the desert. It is also what makes the power of the landscape captured on the screen so worth all the effort.
Filming actually got underway on March 22, 1976 in Nefta, Tunisia. Two weeks later a truck carrying robots for the Homestead had burned, the rains had turned the hardpan to slippery mud in which most of the trucks got stuck and winds one night had torn apart the Sandcrawler set and rolled parts of it three miles. Lucas states by the time they were ready (or forced by circumstance) to return to the studio in London, they had only gotten about half of what they intended. They always thought they would do the elephant scenes as "pick ups" (later shots to pick up details for the edit of the major scenes) but the landspeeder was so much trouble that also was relegated to "pick-ups." Then Lucas knew he would have to do additional filming for what he hadn't gotten during this first unit shoot in Africa.
Luckily, it turned out Desolation Canyon, Artist's Palette and lake beds in Death Valley matched the Tunisian desert and rock canyons very well. 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the film, would only go ten million for the entire movie. Lucas said they gave accountants a budget of $9,999,999.99 before setting out. They knew, however, it would end up thirteen million, which it did. Many people, even Lucas' friends, did not understand his vision for the film. Certainly the studio didn't either.
Location and production problems continued when they came to our deserts to shoot the sandcrawler that the scavenger Jawas used, the landspeeder, the giant Banthas and the Tusken Raiders. A second unit group took the miniature of the sandcrawler out to deserts around Randsburg four times and made six trips back to the desert to get what they needed. The Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) group was made up of Grant McCune, Lorne Peterson, Joe Johnston, and others. Johnston has commented on the experience. "I think there were six trips made to the desert. Four were made just to shoot the sandcrawler; on two others they took the landspeeder along for canyon shots."
Rinzler records Johnston telling of the difficulties. "The sandcrawler was constantly breaking down: the tracks would jam, the tread would come off. The sandcrawler probably ended up costing more per second than anything else in the film, because it involved taking that model, a camera, and a crew of six guys out to the desert where they usually had to spend the night. We left the model in a van once, and it got cold that night. We were in a motor home twenty yards away, but we could hear the pieces of the styrene popping and cracking on the model."
He catalogs the problems: the sandcrawler's inner light bulbs broke and they hadn't brought a replacement; the second time it was too windy and cloudy; the third time the lighting exposure was done incorrectly; finally, the fourth time everything was perfect.
Read Part II of "From Jayhawkers To Jawa."
This is an excerpt of the book "From Jayhawkers To Jawa," by Chris Langely. Check in next week for another installment that reveals more about the filming of Star Wars in Death Valley.
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