Updated: Sep 17
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made the first human footprint on the lunar surface and proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It may be the most famous one-liner in human history, but it underscored a moment that until then had been pure imagination since the dawn of time. From cave drawings to cinema, visual storytellers tried to tell an imaginary tell of something they knew little about.
Pioneering film director Georges Méliès of France was inspired by Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. What Méliès produced on film in 1902 was a cannon-propelled space capsule filled with astronomers on a dancing, magical, snowy, dream-like, hand-colored Le Voyage dans la Luna (A Trip to the Moon). The film is still praised for its innovations in cinema. It is a 13-minute outer space Wizard of Oz, not Wernher von Braun.
The Moon offered imaginative storytellers a mysterious world, visible to all mankind. Who could blame them for taking advantage of the unknown until Neil Armstrong took that one small step. Before July 20, 1969, all bets were off when it came to the evils, wonders and strange creatures that awaited us on Earth’s nearest neighbor.
There could be Cat-Women of the Moon in 1953 and a remake in 1958 (Missile to the Moon) which threw-in some rock monsters for good measure. Both film prominently featured the deadly giant moon spiders.
There could be an international crew of 12…well, 9 after one member was lost in the moon quicksand, and two fell in love under the mind control of “The Great Coordinator of the Moon” and became a lunar zoo exhibit. The invaders from Earth were then ordered by the all-powerful underground Moon minds to take off immediately, but to leave their cats outside the front door of the moon cave. Apparently, “The Great Coordinator of the Moon” is also a “Crazy Cat Lady.”
H.G. Wells wrote about what might await us inside the Moon. His novel First Men in the Moon was made into a scientific romance film in 1964. According to Wells, the inside the Moon is much like the crawlspace under my house. It's bugs that await us below the lunar surface. It is inhabited by a sophisticated extraterrestrial civilization of insect-like creatures. Some have an intelligence far beyond that of earthlings, but others are just a giant "crawling up your leg" nuisance.
The only monsters in Project Moonbase (1953) are sexism and horrible costume design. The plot centers around Colonel Briteis, the first human to orbit the Earth. That accomplishment doesn’t stop her male sexist pig counterparts, which she outranks, from talking down to her. They bastardize her name Briteis into “Bright eyes” which they say to her face. Even her commanding officer threatens to put “Bright Eyes” over his knee and spank her if she doesn’t act right. That's way too high and mighty for dudes wearing uniforms from creepy private elementary school.
The 1958 film version of Julies Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, face real-life monsters from debt collection agencies. RKO went bankrupt during filming. The production budget was squashed like a moon spider, which meant any scenes that were to take place on the Moon were cut. RKO never saw the surface of the Moon or light of day again.
The Moon could also be the grooviest place in the universe if you came of age in the swing 1960s. Italian director Antonio Margheriti and screenwriters Renato Moretti and Ivan Reiner imaged life on the Moon and in space to be a thoroughly mod experience on a Wild, Wild Planet.
Just three months after the American flag was planted on the lunar surface, the British imaged the Moon turning into the Old West. Moon Zero Two (1969) was billed as the first “Moon Western.” Instead of Dodge City, the space cowboys are shooting it out in Moon City, and the saloon features the grooviest dancehall girls.
However, throughout the history of cinema there have been filmmakers who relied more on scientific facts than the fear of the unknown and some of them were spot-on considering the time the films were made. Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), the 1929 German silent science-fiction epic film by innovative legendary director Fritz Lang was the first successful attempt at creating a realistic cinematic voyage to the Moon. Its depiction of a multi-stage rocket and the effects of weightlessness proved to be amazingly accurate 50 years before humans actually walked on the Moon. The film also inspired a then 17-year old Wernher von Braun to dream of making a trip to the Moon a reality.
The 1936 Russian science fiction film Космический (English: Cosmic Voyage) is also one of the earliest, close to accurate depictions of spaceflight including hopping around the Moon with one-sixth the gravity of Earth.
The United States jumped into the real dangers of space travel and a trip to the Moon in 1950 with Destination Moon. It was a straightforward, no moon monsters or evil moon overlord movie. Director George Pal nailed the experience in beautiful Technicolor. It was a major U.S. science fiction big deal. It was the beginning of the Space Age and at the film's conclusion the traditional “The End” title card was replaced with “This is THE END…of the Beginning."
By 1967, the subject of why we were really going to the Moon was confronted in Countdown starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. It was the Russians! That’s why we were really going to the Moon and the Reds were already on their way, so let’s throw inexperienced civilian astronaut Jimmy Caan in a modified Gemini space capsule and launch him to the Moon now!
The film was directed by Robert Altman (at least in the credits). Altman would later explain that in an attempt to get the illusion of reality he was fired by studio executives for "overlapping dialogue." The actors were talking over each other’s lines, which later became a signature of Robert Altman films.
In following year of 1968, two events would change the way filmmakers and audiences thought of spaceflight and particularly the mystery of the Moon. First, Stanley Kubrick unleashed 2001: A Space Odyssey on the world with a giant leap into special effects that still hold up in today’s world of computer-generated filmmaking.
Second, Apollo 8 with three astronauts aboard became the first manned mission to reach the Moon. It was approximately 70 miles above the lunar surface and orbited the Moon 10 times. It beamed live television images to our homes back on Earth and astronaut Jim Lovell described what was once a great mystery as “Essentially gray, no color; looks like plaster of Paris.”
Our imagination had turned into cold gray reality and on July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin strolled the lunar landscape for the first time in human history, there were no reports of cat-women or rock monsters or insect creatures, no moon-beings living underground, and no word from The Great Coordinator of the Moon.