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12 To The Moon – A Very Strange Film, Indeed!

12 to the Moon is a very odd film; get the DVD, and see for yourself.

Since I’m in a David Bradley mood, I might as well post on his extremely peculiar science fiction film, 12 to the Moon (1959), just to let you know it’s out there. Most sources date the production as 1960, but in fact “according to an October 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Columbia purchased the independent production in August 1959, intending to rush it into release to capitalize on the topicality of a space launch,” and the film itself bears a 1959 copyright date, though it was released in June, 1960.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes on the Turner Classic Movies website, “while mankind continued to see competition in space exploration between American and the Soviet Union for years to come, this film instead proposes an inaugural lunar expedition aboard the Lunar Eagle comprised of an international team of a dozen astronauts from the United States, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, France, Brazil, Britain, Turkey, and Nigeria.

Needless to say, their harmonious intentions run into a few speed bumps along the way as basic human territorial behavior comes into play (though not surprisingly, the American played by TV actor Ken Clark remains the most composed of the bunch). Caverns filled with air pockets, mysterious ice walls, and startling alien messages are just a few of the surprises in store, while the crew’s additional animal passengers (pairs of cats, monkeys and canines) also come into play before the end after they’ve already dodged other menaces including a meteor shower.

Extremely strange and unpredictable, 12 to the Moon has the usual budget-deprived look of many second-tier science fiction films of the period, along with the expected avalanche of dubious science and plot holes larger than the moon’s craters. One big surprise for movie buffs arrives in the opening scene with the entire setup for the plot delivered to the audience by Hollywood’s first bona fide movie star, Francis X. Bushman, here playing “Secretary General of the International Space Order” (the kind of role normally given to an actor like Basil Rathbone).

Shot in just over a week for a reported $150,000, 12 to the Moon was released by Columbia in June of 1960 on a double bill with Ishirô Honda’s Battle in Outer Space. The lack of a reasonable budget or star power doomed many science fiction films to obscurity after their initial runs, though this film managed to stay alive thanks to frequent television screenings.

Some of the more familiar cast members for eagle-eyed movie buffs include Japanese-American actress Michi Kobi (best known for the Jeffrey Hunter/David Janssen war film, Hell to Eternity, 1960), Norwegian TV actress Anna-Lisa, and Robert Montgomery, Jr. (College Confidential, 1960), son of Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and brother of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, and Tom Conway, a regular in numerous Val Lewton horror classics such as Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943). The Lewton connection continues to this film’s screenwriter, DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote both of the two latter films as well as 1962’s Billy Budd.

However, the most surprising member of 12 to the Moon’s personnel is undoubtedly its cinematographer, John Alton, an innovative Hungarian-born iconoclast who earned an Academy Award in 1952 for An American in Paris (1951). His demanding personality resulted in a patchwork career alternating between big studio films (Father of the Bride [1950], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Elmer Gantry [1960]) and small programmers, though his work on the latter still produced remarkable results such as I, the Jury (1953), The Amazing Mr. X (1948) and The Big Combo (1955) — proving that for some artists, no project is too big or too small.”

Yes, it’s a very odd film; the French scientist, for example, who gets far too many closeups for no apparent reason for most of the film, suddenly reveals that he has secret pro-Soviet leanings, and urges the Russian member of the team to use the rocket ship they all inhabit to take over the earth with the use of some sort of atomic device; while the aliens who populate the moon take an unlikely interest in two cats brought along on the expedition, and demand that they be left for research purposes – why, we have no idea.

As if that isn’t enough, the German scientist on board has a Nazi father who murdered another crew member’s father during the era of the Third Reich, and yet the two manage to become boon companions; two other crew members become romantically involved, and are then trapped in a solid block of ice almost as a sort of punishment; another scientist is sucked under in the moon’s “quicksand” and also perishes. All of this happens in a flat, sort of matter of fact way; no one gets too excited, and the remaining members of the group are left to soldier on.

The moon aliens – who are never seen, incidentally – communicate with the group using a series of indecipherable hieroglyphics, which are nevertheless easily read by the Japanese member of the crew, and alternately issue threats and messages of peace, but not before the aliens succeed in freezing the entire earth and all its inhabitants with some sort of mysterious ray, which is in turn counteracted by the scientists by improvising an atomic bomb, and launching it from the ship into an active volcano, thereby generating enough heat to warm up the planet, during which two more members of the crew forfeit their lives. Whew!

Sound strange? It is, and despite the many obvious shortcuts used in the production, and the curious lack of motivation or even some semblance of logic in the film, it lingers in my memory, at least, as an warped but sincere attempt to create an international sense of purpose, in which all the nations of the earth combine to claim the moon jointly, rather than scrambling to be first. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a good film, but it’s a decidedly odd one, which never does what you expect it to, and goes careening off in any direction it feels like, with no regard for audience expectations. The film is readily available in an excellent transfer from Warner Archive, and at a running time of a mere 75 minutes, is certainly worth a look.

All in all, a very odd film indeed.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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