The classic era of Hollywood science fiction begins here.
There were science fiction from the very birth of the medium. One of the earliest narrative films ever made was Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), and the silent era saw science-fiction masterworks like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
In the 1930s, sci-fi ranged from the Saturday-matinee action of Flash Gordon to the serious-minded speculations of Things to Come (1936).
During World War II, sci-fi all but disappeared from movie screens. (Although it always flourished in the pulp magazines no matter what Hollywood was doing.) But the 1950s were an incredible time for cinematic sci-fi, and that era started with Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon (1950).
Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M came out just a month earlier than producer George Pal’s Destination Moon, which was a lavish and much anticipated Technicolor extravaganza. Rocketship X-M, on the other hand, was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which was how it was able to beat Pal’s production into theaters. (Apparently the similarity of the two films led Lippert Pictures to include the disclaimer “This is not ‘Destination Moon'” in the promotional material they sent to distributors.)
Just like Destination Moon, this film takes many elements from Robert A. Heinlein’s “boys’ adventure” novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which was published in 1947. Unlike Destination Moon, it’s not an official adaptation, which might account for the decision to have unforeseen circumstances lead to the crew of the Rocketship X-M (which stands for “expedition moon”) badly overshooting the mark and winding up on Mars.
The equipment seen in the film was provided by the Allied Aircraft Company of North Hollywood, so it doesn’t look particularly cheap or overly “fake,” but you’ll run out of fingers if you start counting all the inaccuracies in Rocketship X-M — the crew give a press conference with less than 15 minutes to go until launch, meteoroids fly in a tight cluster and smash into the ship at one point, there is sound in space, and so on.
Some of the scientific inaccuracies can be chalked up to the low budget. The film acknowledges that weightlessness is a part of space travel, but only partway. Small objects float up into the air and enormous fuel tanks are easy for the crew members to lift and maneuver, but their bodies all stay firmly in place.
Despite the budgetary limitations and scientific inaccuracies, I thought Rocketship X-M was a phenomenal sci-fi movie. All the things that money can’t buy — good performances, exciting story, crisp dialogue, imaginative use of earthbound locations to suggest other planets — are up there on screen.
The script for Rocketship X-M was mostly written by the great Dalton Trumbo. Because he was blacklisted, Trumbo’s name doesn’t appear in the credits. The sharply drawn characters, the believable dialogue, and the progressive politics are all Trumbo trademarks. Several of the male characters in the film say and do sexist things, but the script itself is not sexist. For instance, after the crew has had their medical examinations, Col. Floyd Graham (Lloyd Bridges) points to Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen) and wryly says, “The ‘weaker sex.’ The only one whose blood pressure is normal.” Later in the film, a male scientist confidently tells her to recheck her calculations because they don’t jibe with his and she apologizes — but it turns out later that hers are correct, and his insistence that he is right has dire consequences for the mission.
Most significantly, the film imagines a Mars devastated by a long-ago nuclear war. The possibly cataclysmic consequences of atomic war is a science-fiction concept that can be found in E.C. Comics (specifically Weird Fantasy #13) published around the same time that Rocketship X-M was released, and even earlier in a radio show written by Arch Oboler, but it was a new concept for a Hollywood film.
The 1950s would see plenty of politically reactionary sci-fi movies in which square-jawed American he-men faced alien menaces and came out on top, but there were a fair number of ’50s sci-fi movies that took a dimmer view of America’s growing nuclear arsenal and burgeoning militarism, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Rocketship X-M was the first of these type of sci-fi movies, and it still stands up as superior entertainment.