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First Men in the Moon

Film buffs born after the "video revolution" don't know what it was like back in the day. We're talking back when, if you wanted to see a beloved old movie, you were stuck with whatever was scheduled on the three (four with PBS) network TV channels. Weekend afternoons were your best chance to catch a nifty sci-fi or monster flick. Perhaps, back in that antediluvian age B.D. (Before Digital), you were the kind of kid who hid Famous Monsters of Filmland under the mattress, and kept model dinosaurs in his room, or hand-painted in fastidious detail those Aurora plastic model kits of the Gill Man from the Black Lagoon (with "glow-in-the-dark skin!") and — the coolest — the Venusian Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth. If you were that kind of kid, you lived and died by the hope of catching a Ray Harryhausen flick. Saturday afternoon at two o'clock was never better than when Jason and his Argonauts were kicking an army of skeletons' noncorporeal asses. Afterward, you may not remember what the plot was about or what the girl looked like other than busty and cute, but by God you recalled every detail of the giant Talos's metal-on-metal creaking when battling a boatload of Greek warriors. No way could you forget the Cyclops wrestling that dragon, or the serpentine Medusa's snake-rattle slither, or the Ymir himself — grown to Kong-size — taking his final defiant stand atop the Roman Colosseum. If you were that kind of kid, for years and years you remembered the work and name of pioneering special effects master Ray Harryhausen. And once a month throughout the '70s (so it seemed), local television delivered some of Harryhausen's creepiest creations — the ant-like Selenites from 1964's First Men in the Moon. His only widescreen project, Harryhausen co-produced and fellow H.G. Wells enthusiast Nigel Neale (of the revered Quatermass films) wrote the lion's share of the screenplay.

The story opens with the first official lunar landing by a United Nations spaceship (this was five years before "the Eagle has landed"). On the moon's surface, the astronauts discover an English Union Jack and a scrap of paper claiming the moon for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, dated 1899. Back in London, clues lead the space agency to aged Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), who tells the tale of his adventures on the moon with his fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer) and Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) at the turn of the century. Bedford flashes us back to 1899, when he and Kate encounter his new neighbor, the eccentric scientist Cavor. After witnessing the calamitous results of Cavor's secret experiments, Bedford schemes to cash in on Cavorite — a metallic paste that, when applied to any surface, "screens out" the force of gravity. It's anti-gravity paint, and Cavor is completing the Sphere, a space capsule designed to take a man to the moon. Soon all three end up becoming the first humans to trod lunar soil.

The story's title comes from their adventures within the crystalline caverns of the Selentites, a rigidly stratified civilization of insectoid creatures. Cavor wants to foster peaceful relations with the natives. Bedford, however, enters with fists a-blazin', and before you can say "colonial zeal" the Earthlings are running for their lives, captured, probed... in short, they're treated like alien invaders. When Cavor reveals to the reigning Grand Lunar humans' propensity for making war, the ruler perceives a threat from Earth and decrees that the three can never leave. Of course, Bedford and Kate escape, but Cavor chooses to stay — with results that decades later the U.N. astronauts discover to everyone's surprise.

Based on his 1901 novel, there's a little more H.G. Wells in this Harryhausen adaptation than you'll find in George Pal's cinematic treatment of The War of the Worlds, though less than in The Time Machine. Here again Wells' social commentary is watered down to make room for an action-adventure fantasy among monstrous baddies, in this case Harryhausen's stop-motion-animated moon creatures. Indeed, with its unblushing whimsy and Disneyesque light-as-air approach, this is the Wells adaptation that most plays as preteen matinee fare. Jeffries is splendid and, like his turn in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, makes Cavor a dotty Wodehouse caricature, all fussy and bespectacled with waistcoat and cravat and "Absolutely imperial!" Most of the Selenites were played by children in rubber costumes, but when Harryhausen's "Dynamation" versions are on display you can't take your eyes off them. The gargantuan caterpillar "moon cow" is a fine roaring menace, and the Grand Lunar an eerie-voiced wonder within its wavery transparent sac. (There's even that Harryhausen signature, a walking skeleton.) Cavor's Sphere is an iron Everlasting Gobstopper evoking more the age of steam locomotives than space missions. The story takes a bit long to get going, and it's often wincingly silly, but the only real complaint here is that Harryhausen's work doesn't get more screen time.

Never mind how Cavorite works or whether jumping about on the moon (with wires visible) wearing only a diving suit and no gloves is really a good idea. And smile at the modern realization that bright, level-headed Kate is the best representative of humanity within a quarter-million miles. First Men in the Moon remains a delightful B-movie charmer, a fondly remembered Boy's Own adventure that's still endearing and entertaining. (And look for Peter Finch, who took a cameo role when the original actor failed to show.)

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Columbia TriStar gave First Men in the Moon, an addition to their "Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection," a respectful DVD treatment that's sure to impress fans old and new. The print has been digitally remastered in high definition, so it looks superb with deep, true "Lunacolor" hues, a must for the Selenite crystal city scenes. Returned to their original Panavision (2.35:1 anamorphic), the moonscape panoramas, alien caverns, and other vast sets can again spread out. It's beautifully clean, marred by only minor speckling. Likewise, the remastered Dolby Digital 4.0 audio fills the room with ambient sounds, lunar environmental effects, and Laurie Johnson's fine orchestral score.

The highlight extra is "The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles," Richard Schickel's hour-long 1997 documentary narrated by Leonard Nimoy. It features Harryhausen himself — along with lifelong pal Ray Bradbury, George Lucas, and others — in a tribute devoted to the master's life, work, inspirations, and ongoing influence. Also here are "This is Dynamation" (a short made to promote the special-effects process and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), a brief photo gallery, and trailers for First Men as well as the 7th and Golden voyages of Sinbad. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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