It’s a battle of the sexes when an incompetent female pilot is chosen for political reasons to lead the first mission around the moon. The sexist script by Robert Heinlein for this 1953 film is not bettered by a limp cold war espionage angle. 1/10
Project Moon Base. 1953, USA. Directed by Richard Talmadge. Written by Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Seaman. Starring: Donna Martell, Ross Ford, Hayden Rorke, Larry Johns. Produced by Jack Seaman and for Galaxy Pictures and Lippert Pictures. IMDb: 3.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
I watched this 1953 film some years ago and didn’t like it. However, as the days went by I forgot exactly why. I seemed to remember it was fairly well produced for a low-budget movie and that it had some nifty miniature shots and cool effects of people on a space station walking in the ceiling. I do remember that I had a hard time believing Robert Heinlein wrote the script, because it was so bad, but I couldn’t quite recall why this little film had upset me so much. Then I rewatched it for this review and remembered. This is one of those films that has a script so bad that it physically takes a toll on you. The reason I never went back to it was probably that my body unconsciously remember the exhaustion.
Set in 1970, the Project Moonbase (sometimes titled Project Moon Base) follows the exploits of the US space force (thank you, Mr. Trump) as it prepares the to launch a craft in orbit around the moon in order to do location scouting for a military moon base. The assigned pilot, Major Moore (Ross Ford), is replaced at the last minute, on order by the president, by America’s most famous space pilot, Colonel Briteis. Moore is relegated to co-pilot, a job he almost refuses to do before being explicitly ordered by his superior General “Pappy” Greene (Hayden Rorke). The reason for his reluctance: Colonel Briteis is — A WOMAN!! The men in the space force don’t think very highly of Colonel Briteis (Donna Martell), whom they insist on calling “Bright-Eyes”, and consider her a propped-up symbol for women’s lib. Turns out they’re absolutely right, as Colonal Briteis is written as a mental five-year-old, throwing a childish temper tantrum when she hears Major Moore is to be her co-pilot, because “the big lug hates me! He’s jealous of me!” It’s only when “Pappy” threatens to — literally — “turn you over my knee and spank you” — that she agrees to the mission.
As mostly with Heinlein, space exploration is primarily a matter of national security, and just as he hinted in the script for Destination Moon (1950, review), the idea of building a base on the moon is to prevent the communists from building a missile base there — by building an American one first. Of course, the they aren’t called communists, but the “enemies of freedom” as per traditional cold war euphemisms. Briteis’ and Moore’s mission is to accompany a Dr. Wernher (Larry Johns), expert on cameras and optics, to the US space station orbiting the Earth, and from there continue with a lunar module around the moon, in order to take pictures of the “backside” of the moon.
But the “enemies of freedom” haven’t been idle. Their vast network of spies are savvy to the Americans’ plans, and decide to destroy the space station once and for all through a suicide mission, by ramming the lunar module into the station. Naturally, they have an exact body double for Dr. Wernher, whom they jump in his hotel room and replace with their asset. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts as a weight saving method, as well as the silliest of caps, the trio blast off for the space station, where people walk on both ceilings and walls, and where we find signs reading “PLEASE DO NOT WALK ON THE WALLS”. Here they switch to the lunar module, and take off for their mission. “Wernher” plans to ram the module into the station upon returning, but Major Moore smells a rat when the Brooklynite professor of photography doesn’t know anything about cameras nor the Brooklyn Dodgers. A fistfight breaks out, sending the module hurtling toward the moon. Moore subdues “Wernher” and Briteis proves her mettle by making a daring landing — becoming the first person to land on the moon.
Unfortunately, being on the flip-side of the moon, they can’t reach the space station with their radio, and they don’t have enough fuel for take-off. “Wernher” agrees to work together with Moore to set up a radio transmitter on one of the lunar mountains, but perishes during the mission. Back at the module, they are able to reach “Pappy”, who congratulates them on landing on their moon. But instead of sending help, the space force determine to make Briteis and Moore the first permanent residents on the moon, as they are to prepare work on the planned moon base. A small snag, though, is that “public opinion” about a man and a woman living together without being married and so forth … demands that the two bickering kids get married. As it turns out, the two actually like each other, but it’s just the “unnatural” situation of a woman outranking a man that is the problem. To set things right, Briteis demands that as a wedding present Moore is to be promoted, so that he can take his natural place as the head of the family. The ending of the film also explains why the president has been so keen on promoting Colonel Briteis, as the president turns out to be — A WOMAN!! (Ernestine Barrier).
Project Moonbase has a bit of a convoluted history. According to film historian and critic Bill Warren, it all began as producer Jack Seaman approached the noted SF author Robert Heinlein in 1952, asking him to write scripts for an independently produced TV series called The World Beyond. Heinlein agreed to write a few scripts for the first season, along with Seaman, but tried to get the team to approach other authors for second season scripts. Little headway was made, according to Warren, as Seaman was overworked, and Heinlein suggested they could adapt some of his older stories for the series, and offered write a couple of new episodes. In this fashion 13 episodes were fleshed out as ideas or even as finished scripts by Heinlein. The pilot episode was called Ring Around the Moon and was one of the episodes written in full by Heinlein. According to Dwayne A. Day at Space Reviews, the cast and crew were in the middle of filming said pilot, when they were told that the TV show had been cancelled, and that they were now making a full-length feature film called Project Moonbase. Donna Martell is quoted as saying that she never received a full script of the film, but was handed additional pages of dialogue during filming. For one reason or the other, the TV show deal fell through, and Seaman decided to instead flesh out the pilot into B-movie duration (the finished movie is 66 minutes long). In an attempt at cutting costs, Seaman collaborated with the producers of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review) on sets and costumes. The two movies were filmed back-to-back, using the same space suits, rocket cockpit interior and lunar sets and backdrops. The two films opened on the same day. Heinlein disowned the finished film, and it marked the beginning of his troubled relationship with Hollywood. Between Project Moonbase and Heinlein’s death in 1988, not a single film officially based on his books or stories was released — for a number of reasons, which I’ll get back to further down the post.
Once you’re aware this is a TV project, you see it: the production is entirely studio-bound, the sets occasionally very cramped and the miniatures look very much like toys, plus there are rather few visual effects. The lighting is TV flat and the cinematography on the whole dull, with the exception of the fun miniature shots and space station effects. On the other hand, it is better produced than a lot of no-budget movies churned out in Hollywood at the same time. It is certainly better-looking than its sister movie, Cat-Women of the Moon. The latter was filmed in six days, while Project Moonbase had a 10-day filming period. The visual effects that are present are simple, but serviceable. The split-screen scenes of people walking past each other on the floor and ceilings in the space station is quite impressive in their simplicity, as is a scene where Moore and Briteis are briefed on their mission while sitting on the wall. However, I do’t think that these kind of meetings would be ergonomically sound in the long run — it looks like it would really take a toll on everyone’s necks. And despite the toyish look of the space station, rockets and lunar module, they are fairly well designed and handled. This is no surprise, as the models for the film were created by the later mythologised futurist and engineer Jacque Fresco. The scene in which the rocket docks with the space station is slow and deliberate, filmed in a single shot, and you can almost here Strauss‘ “The Blue Danube” playing in the background. Stanley Kubrick famously watched dozens upon dozens of SF movies while preparing for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there is no doubt that the space station scenes in Project Moonbase served as inspiration.
The cockpit of the rocket is cheap-looking but reasonably well designed, even if some of the walls seem to be constructed out of corrugated fibreglass roofing panels, and one wonders what the function of the two dozen blinking lights on one of the walls are. Plus, it seems to be a bit of a design flaw in the lunar module to have the “crash into the lunar surface” lever unprotected in the middle of the cockpit. The film suffers from the usual improbabilities of the fifties space films, such as the impossibly roomy cockpits, but this, of course, was a concession to the limitations of cinematography at the time. The uniforms that Briteis, Moore and “Wernher” are required to wear during their space mission are absolutely ridiculous, but are of course designed to showcase Donna Martell’s female attributes. However, I don’t understand the purpose of the silly caps. The script justifies the shorts and t-shirts with the need to minimise weight, but that’s quite absurd if you look at the size of the rocket. In reality a fully fuelled moon rocket weighs around 3,000 tons, so an extra pair of trousers isn’t going to make much difference. Plus, on this mission they have an extra passenger, but that doesn’t seem to affect the weight ratio.
If the acting is occasionally atrocious, the actors themselves are not to blame, but rather the script, Jack Seaman’s production and Richard Talmadge’s direction. German-born Talmadge, real name Sylvester Ricardo Metzetti, originally came to the US as a boy in the 1910s as part of a famous acrobat troupe, and etched out a name for himself as one of the top stuntmen in Hollywood, mainly as Douglas Fairbanks’ stunt double. He then became an actor, but hampered by his German accent, moved behind the camera as assistant director, stunt coordinator and director. Of the handful of films he directed almost all are low-budget westerns, where he was able to capitalise on his knack for action scenes. There’s little chance for this in Project Moonbase, and Talmadge must have felt like a fish out of water. Apparently he wasn’t very good at character direction, as all actors seem to walk around the film feeling a bit unsure of themselves. One especially funny scene is the one in which Hayden Rorke as General Pappy explains the science behind the space station and the lunar expedition to a gossip journalist, Polly Prattles (Barbara Morrison). If he isn’t reading off cue cards, you can clearly see Rorke straining to remember the lines, as he lines up one word after the other in a staccato-like fashion, and when he comes to the end of the monologue, his face lights up with relief. I wonder how many takes the scene required. Having Martell play Colonel Briteis as — literally — a pouting 5-year-old is a terrible decision, and undermines any sense of realism or seriousness that the film might strive for. Sure, the film was aimed at kids, but no-one went to see a space movie in order to watch a grown woman supposed to be a star astronaut act like a toddler. Ross Ford as Major Moore isn’t bad, but mainly seems incredulous throughout the film. Herb Jacobs playing what seems to be the leader of the US branch of the “enemies of freedom” is sinister enough in his small role, and Larry Johns as “Wernher” does what he can with the flat role as the villain.
Project Moonbase opened to almost unanimously negative reviews. Motion Picture Exhibitor noted the “comic strip approach to science fiction”, but at least projected that “the kids should go for it”. The Hollywood Reporter didn’t hold even that much hope for it, writing that “its complete ineptitude will make it an object of derision even from the Saturday matinee kid audience”. The paper continued by calling it “a depressing combination of inane story, atrocious acting and amateurish direction”. Other outlets were equally harsh. Variety wrote: “Character development upsets any semblance of credibility”, and Boxoffice also foresaw that “even the juveniles will not be hysterical about this offering”.
The film has gathered some bad movie fame over the past decades, as it was featured on the TV shows Canned Film Festival in 1987 and MST3K in 1990, although in one of the latter show’s less popular episodes. Kevin Murphy at MST3K called it “openly and condescendingly hostile toward women as a gender”. Today Project Moonbase has a poor 3.2/10 rating at IMDb and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. AllMovie gives it 1.5/5 stars, with Hal Erickson writing: “Though the sets and special effects are impressive, the storyline is rather infantile”. TV Guide calls it “a shoddy project”; “Lifelessly directed […] with a plot which is impossible to take seriously”.
On the whole, online critics seem to be more forgiving of the film’s sexism, for example in his 2/5 star review, Mitch Lovell at The Video Vacuum doesn’t even bring the subject up. Richard Scheib at Moria writes that “Heinlein tries to add is a touch of feminism, or at least to portray feminine equality in the male military environment […] but much of the cod-feminism collapses into embarrassing sexism”. Still, Scheib awards Project Moonbase a half-decent 2/5 stars. French site DevilDead also notes the prevailing sexism, but concludes that the film is “a pleasant surprise, despite its many flaws”. Bea Soila at Flickers in Time enjoys it as a “good bad film”. But not all are willing to forgive the hostility toward women. Half of Mark David Welsh’s review is taken up by the sexism, but he also notes that it is a “desperately dull ‘prophetic’ science fiction”. And Kevin Lyons at EOFFTV writes: “Hampered by stiff performances, a plot that loses its way surprisingly quickly and its – to modern eyes – uncomfortable attitudes, Project Moon Base is one of the lesser films of the 1950s American science fiction boom and rightly so”.
I personally do like some of the touches in the film. Heinlein was one of the most scientifically and technologically savvy of the fifties SF authors, and great detail has gone into making future space exploration as scientifically plausible as possible. I applaud Heinlein’s social foresight, predicting equality in the US military and the realistic possibility of a female POTUS, even if the US doesn’t seem to be quite ready for full equality even 50 years on from the date in which the film is supposed to take place. However, Heinlein’s sort-of attempt at feminism is so awkwardly backhanded that it — quite intentionally — backfires, and instead becomes misogynist. Now, most fifties SF movies reflected the prevailing (male) view on women’s role in society, and by this point I’m usually prepared to overlook the occasional casual sexism, as well as the blinding whiteness of most casts in these films. But the sexism in Project Moonbase isn’t casual or offhand, the movie is, as stated above “openly hostile toward women as a gender”. It’s not only the way Colonel Briteis is portrayed. The movie features two other female characters, the socialite reporter Polly Prattles and the president. Just her name will tell you what sort of character Polly Prattles is — the kind of airheaded, fussy and annoying female gossip journalist that Hollywood liked to portray. And of course, her being overweight, the male characters make fatty remarks in her face, to which the audience is supposed to chuckle along. The fact that the president is a woman isn’t to be taken as an endorsement, but rather as a last-minute shocker, and as an explanation for the “equality” in the military. The film constantly reminds us that Colonel Briteis is just a “spoiled brat” propped up by the president and “public opinion”, rather than a good pilot. And this so-called “equality” is explained in the end: Of course, it’s the stupid idea of a woman president.
While the plot of Project Moonbase might sound reasonably interesting on paper, the fact is that most of the film is simply people in rooms talking, and about half of all that talk is Moore and Briteis bitching about each other either between themselves or to “Pappy”. And the sexism isn’t just offensive, it is downright inane. Unfortunately the only way for a halfway decent human being to deal with all the misogyny is to either laugh at the movie or throw things at the screen. I wasn’t able to do either, and instead clenched my fists and jaw for the entire 66 minutes of the ordeal, which left me little chance of enjoying the rest of the movie. Which is a bloody shame, because had Heinlein and Seaman just dialed down the battle of the sexes a few notches, Project Moonbase might have stood a chance of becoming a moderately good B sci-fi film.
From the point of view of movie history, however, Project Moonbase is actually of quite some interest. Not only is it the first movie to feature a space station orbiting the Earth — it is also one of the first movies to feature a female president of the United States. In fact the Smithsonian Magazine even promotes it as the very first movie to feature a woman as the US president. This, however, is poppycock. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two earlier films with female American presidents. The first is the the 1924 silent movie The Last Man on Earth (review), and the second is the Austrian propaganda vehicle April 1, 2000 (1952, review). In the first, we see the female POTUS as an ineffective cat lady — unfortunately the actress is uncredited. In the latter we have a “President of North America”, which technically isn’t the POTUS, but I’d say it’s close enough to qualify. Here, the president is played by Hilde Krahl as a competent but rather cold-hearted judge on the future of then Allied-occupied Austria.
The woman president in Project Moonbase is a sign of the times: although Ernestine Barrier portrays the first female POTUS, matriarchs and Amazons and queens of outer space were all the rage in Hollywood in the fifties. During WWII, American women had taken their place on the job market on an unprecedented scale, not just as unskilled, but as skilled labourers, experts and even managers in traditionally male fields, in particular in building new planes for the US army. Some 1,800 women were even recruited as US army pilots (although they didn’t get US army personnel status until 1977). The drive to compensate for the sudden labour shortage created by a generation of young men doing military service at a time production needed to be increased required new approach to gender issues. This gave rise to the “We Can Do It” mentality, as women were urged to apply for traditionally male jobs, eroding the pre-war notion that women were not capable of handling a man’s job. As a result a new generation of women grew up that suddenly had an unprecedented freedom and power over their own lives, thanks to the fact that they were able to earn their own paychecks in traditionally male-dominated fields. Winds of change were also blowing in both politics and academia, which were strengthened by the war labour drive and the changing attitudes toward women’s competence as workers, experts and decision-makers. Another factor giving women an unheard level of freedom was the rapidly growing middle-class that was born out of the post-war economic boom. Higher salaries, rising automation, TV dinners and time-saving household appliances gave many middle-class women something they had never had: leisure time.
But of course, not all men were thrilled by these developments. Not only were they now competing against women on the labour market, they had also lost their strongest tool of control over women: money. This gave rise to a backlash that we today refer to as “traditional family values” or “fifties values”. When society could no longer argue that women couldn’t do a man’s job, it instead started arguing that they shouldn’t. The forties’ progression of women’s economic freedom was met in the fifties by a cultural regression to pre-flapper, almost Victorian ideals of a woman’s place in society. A happy woman was a married woman who took great personal joy in keeping the house clean and her husband satisfied. No longer was she forced out of her natural element between the stove and the vacuum cleaner onto the labour market, but could live her life according to her feminine nature — sheltered under the hand of her providing and protecting husband, free from worrying about decision-making and money troubles. The notion was born that while a woman could most certainly function like a man if needed, this suppressed her feminine sensibilities — she had to choose between being a worker and a woman. This is why you get the almost obligatory debate in every fifties movie about a female scientist or astronaut “suppressing her femininity” by being an astronaut or scientist. The other obligatory scene is when the female member of a crew has an emotional outburst and apologises, like in in Project Moonbase, for “going all female” on her colleagues.
The other trope born out of this battle of the sexes was the “Amazon Society”. Of course, this was not new, as I pointed out in my review of Cat-Women of the Moon, but the fifties saw an unprecedented upturn in the number of movies dealing with either matriarchies and/or all-female societies, as well as movies that featured a female leader of of one type or the other, most often in a villainous capacity. This trope was usually designed to do two things. First, show that while women could theoretically run society, it was actually against their true nature to do so. And secondly, it was to show that a society run by women was certainly not a healthy and functioning society. Jackie Mansky writes in the Smithsonian Magazine: “Project Moon Base has not aged well. While the film can imagine a woman as president, it cannot imagine a woman taking charge of a mission. […] Though a female officer is actually in charge of the mission, she repeatedly turns to her male subordinate at the first signs of trouble. [The] juxtaposition of having a woman president alongside a woman who can’t imagine being in a higher position than her husband reflects the market forces of the decade.”
From gender politics to space stations. The other notable detail of Project Moonbase is its inclusion of a space station. This was probably the first space station seen in a feature film. The idea had been mentioned in a few movies, though. A hypothetical future space station functions as a MacGuffin in the British movie Spaceways (1953, review), and there is mention of an existing space station in Robot Monster (1953, review), but Project Moonbase is the first to actually show one. The idea was not new. Way back in 1869 and 1870 Edward Everett Hale wrote about an (accidentally) inhabited satellite in his novellas The Brick Moon and Life in the Brick Moon. In the extraordinary 1897 novel Two Planets German author Kurd Lasswitz describes a Martian space station orbiting the Earth. The first thoroughly scientific treatment of the idea was published in Russian rocket scientist and author Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s 1920 novel Beyond the Planet Earth. But it wasn’t until the idea of conquering space became a scientifically feasible idea in the forties that space stations slowly started gaining traction in popular culture. George O. Smith and Robert Heinlein wrote novels with stations in the forties, and one of the most important works was Americanised German rocket engineer Willy Ley’s popular science book The Conquest of Space, which was published in 1949. From 1950 onward, space stations started appearing with regular frequency in comic books, pulp stories and novels. Worthy of mention is at least Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky (1952) and Jeffrey Lloyd Castle’s Satellite E One (1954).
Space stations in fiction, however, rarely resembled the actual stations that started emerging in the early seventies, beginning with the Soviet Salyut stations and US Skylab. Often they were depicted as massive, self-contained cities, or at least blocks, with artificial gravity, hotels, restaurants, shops, dry docks for space liners, warehouses, etc — or as multi-storied research and military complexes. Authors envisioned a future where space flight was as common as airplane trips were to become in the sixties. In a way, this was logical. They grew up at a time when flight was still almost a daredevil affair, or at least a luxury afforded only to the a wealthy few. WWII saw a massive jump for military airplane technology, and after the war, a huge surplus of military airplanes were leased to civil airlines and new flagship planes were based on the spearheading design of cargo planes and bombers. 1949 saw the birth of the jet airliner. During a few short decades air travel had gone from a daredevil and military use and catering for the rich to becoming increasingly available to the middle-class. In theory, once the technology was developed, there was no reason why space flight might not follow the same pattern, and that in, say, 1990, one could take the PanAm shuttle to the moon and check in at the local Holiday Inn in Lunar City. Of course, what free market libertarians like Heinlein often failed to take into account in their dreams of space tourism was that the cost of not only building and sending up space shuttles, but also creating an infrastructure for space tourism, massively outweighs the potential revenue, even from costly elite tourism. Today private space entrepreneurs like SpaceX are kept alive through government contracts for developing technology and services for commercially unfavourable causes such as transporting scientists to the ISS.
During the fifties, however, much of the talk around space stations revolved around their military use, explicitly as potential launch platforms for nuclear weapons. Tech-savvy Heinlein realised the technical and physical problems involved in this, and instead saw the moon as the perfect spot for a military station. But he wasn’t averse to wild speculation, either. For example, in his juvenile Between Planets (1951), his “Circum Terra” is a station of the “space city” type, in The Puppet Masters (1951), he envisioned a future with several large stations dotting the solar system, and in Waldo (1942), he imagines a space station designed as habitation for people with muscular atrophy, the idea being that without gravity they wouldn’t be greatly impaired by their lack of physical strength. The latter is, oddly enough, perhaps the most realistic of Heinlein’s space station depictions, confined as it is to a few rooms without artificial gravity. The story showcases how thoroughly Heinlein had contemplated what a habitation designed for weightlessness would actually look like. For example, there would be no need for straight vertical lines as in traditional architecture, primarily a result of the simplest way of counteracting gravity, nor horizontal lines, as there would be little need for placing things horizontally on a plane surface. The sparse furniture would have no need for legs or other features providing “rugged strength”, only the flimsiest of partitions and fastenings. Even the fact that there would be need for soft, diffused lighting, as one’s eyes could come to rest on any place in a room, as there would be no “up” or “down”. Unsurprisingly, Heinlein failed to foresee the astronaut’s best friend, Velcro (or rather, had not heard of it yet. It was invented in 1941 by a Swiss engineer).
An idea that pops up in a lot of fifties science fiction is that a mission to the moon would be preceded by the building of a space station, which would function as a launch platform for a lunar module, a docking station for shuttles, and in the case of Project Moonbase, as a sort of command station for the US military. The idea here being, partly, that a direct moon landing would be too risky and difficult to attempt dry and unassisted. And certainly, a moon landing would probably be easier from some points of view, if one could eliminate the launch phase from Earth. On the other hand, I’m not sure that launching a space station into orbit is an easier undertaking than a moon mission — in particular a station the size of the one featured in Project Moonbase. And for the sake of the space race, it doesn’t seem particularly tactical to send the hundreds of rockets carrying labour and material to build the US space station before trying to establish any presence on the moon. “The enemies of freedom” would probably just zip by with their own rocket and land on Luna.
The space station in Project Moonbase is the coolest thing in the film, and probably also the most improbable. Designed as a circular, clam-shaped disc. Judging by the comparison to the size of the one-stage rockets used in the movie, the station seems to at least 100 meters or well over 300 feet in diameter. The undertaking the build the thing must have been EPIC. We see very little of the interior, though, nothing more than the earlier mentioned corridor in which people walk upside down, and the anonymous room in which Moore and Briteis get their briefing. An interesting detail is that the miniatures of the film, including the rockets and space station, were designed by Jacque Fresco, a self-taught futurist and engineer who had no apparent connection to the film industry, but might very well have been recommended for the project by Heinlein himself. A radical maverick with no formal schooling, Fresco however worked as a aerospace designer, construction engineer, and in various capacities of industrial design. Many of his (failed) projects were aimed at bettering the world through “social engineering”, such as low-cost housing, energy efficient living, and so forth. In later years, he became known for his utopia, the Venus Project, outlining in detail the plans for a future self-sustaining and eco-friendly city.
Robert Heinlein is as beloved an author as he is contested. Few challenge his place at the Pantheon of SF innovators and storyteller, however many find some of his books difficult to stomach because of the world view they are interpreted as promoting. I’m not enough of an expert on Heinlein to give a satisfying answer to the questions surrounding his views on race, authority or gender, but as a very general observation, he is not endeared to leftists or feminists. Paul Verhoeven, who satirised Heinlein in his “adaptation” of Starship Troopers in 1997, called the source novel “fascistic”. On the other hand, Heinlein once identified as a socialist and he was one of the first male SF authors to write female protagonists that could do all the things their male counterparts did. But, then again, they were also the kind of characters that would jump into bed with the first man who came along, and were generally depicted as secretly dreaming about a life as a housewife. Some have argued, as I perhaps did when I first saw Project Moonbase, that the inane sexism must be Seaman’s, rather than Heinlein’s fault. But while Seaman and Talmadge might have played up Colonel Briteis’ childlike portrayal, the underlying sexism is well in line with much else that Heinlein wrote. The juxtaposition between the theoretical equality and the “social reality” in which women are still happiest between the kitchen and the bed chamber, is also pure Heinlein. Heinlein probably saw himself as a progressive, perhaps ahead of his time, and would often insert “radical” social ideas, that, when analysed a bit deeper, were based on rather conservative values.
As mentioned earlier, between Project Moonbase and The Puppet Masters in 1994, not a single film officially based on the works of Robert Heinlein was made. Some have seen this as a sign that Heinlein’s ideology is ill suited for Hollywood movies, and that Heinlein in this way has been made Pariah. But in fact, if you look at the major SF authors of the fifties, almost all have suffered the same fate. The only major films based on the works of Isaac Asimov are Bicentennial Man (1999) and I, Robot (2004). Apart from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) there are no major Hollywood movies based on the works of Arthur C. Clarke. Ray Bradbury here seems to be the exception to the rule. I personally don’t think that Heinlein’s ideology would be an insurmountable hindrance if someone wanted to turn, for example, one of his juveniles into a film. There are any number of films churned out in Hollywood the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era featuring the stort of gung-ho pro-military, patriotic ideas that Heinlein promoted, complete with Heinleinesque bright-eyed, idealistic and entrepreneurial heroes, frowning on governmental red tape and socialism and fighting for individualism, loyalty and freedom. The spirit of Heinlein is alive and well in Independence Day (1996), even if he probably wouldn’t have made the president the hero.
Heinlein’s first brush with Hollywood was George Pal’s seminal moon flight film Destination Moon in 1950. While nominally based on his book Rocketship Galileo, the novel and film have nothing in common, except for the fact that both feature a moon flight. But Heinlein did write much of the script. A few of his stories were turned into TV episodes on the shows Out There (1951) and X Minus One (1955). And also in 1950, his influential juvenile novel Space Cadet (1948) served as the basis for the successful kiddie show Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, which ran for four seasons. The last TV or film production based on his work (although unofficially) was Roger Corman’s American International Pictures’ The Brain Eaters (1958). Heinlein sued the 26,000 dollar film for 1,2 millions as it was clearly based on his novel The Puppet Masters. Corman and Heinlein settled out of court, and Corman later said that Heinlein was very nice about it, and the two even discussed making a movie together.
So why did Hollywood stop adapting Heinlein after 1958? Well, it wasn’t for lack of interest, from either parties. According to Dwayne A. Day’s article in The Space Review, several of Heinlein’s books were optioned for TV, and Heinlein was personally involved in pre-production of a couple of TV shows and TV movies in the fifties and early sixties. But as fate would have it, all of them fell through. It probably wasn’t one specific thing, either, but a number of factors that obviously also affected the other pioneering SF authors of the early fifties. One was that after the fifties, anthology shows fell out of favour — these had been well-suited for adapting SF books, and was the only medium that featured adult SF. After his experiences with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Project Moonbase, Heinlein was wary of giving up work for adaptation for long-running TV shows or movies in which he wasn’t in control of the material. Plus, argues Heinlein biographer Bill Patterson, after his enormous success with the counterculture phenomenon Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961, he was selling so many books that he didn’t need the Hollywood money.
Apparently his widow Virginia was more allowing when she inherited the rights to his books in 1988: the same year saw the release of the Japanese animated mini-series Uchû no senshi (Starship Troopers) and in 1994 the US animated mini-series Red Planet, as well as a loose adaptation of The Puppet Masters, starring Donald Sutherland. Then of course, there’s the contested adaptation of Starship Troopers from 1997 that Heinlein fans love to hate, the much better liked TV series Roughnecks in 1999 and the animated film Starship Troopers: Invasion in 2012. Since 2003, the rights to Heinlein’s work passed to the Heinlein Prize Trust, and since then we’ve seen the release of Predestination (2014), based on Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies, which is generally regarded as the best Heinlein adaptation to date. A modest Japanese adaptation of The Door into Summer was released in early 2021. At the moment of writing in March, 2021, there are at least five Heinlein project in development in Hollywood, but precious little seems to be happening. For some reason, there was a renewed interest in Heinlein projects in 2016, when we got rumour of a new adaptation of Starship Troopers, a Syfy TV show based on Stranger in a Strange Land and an adaptation of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by the team behind the little-known animation Quantum Quest (2012). Bryan Singer was attached to 20th Century-Fox’s announced adaptation of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, retitled Uprising, but currently the film seems to be sans director and stuck in Development Hell. And in 2017 Alex Proyas said to be working on a film based on The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag with producer Mike Medavoy, a claim that he stuck to in 2020, although no further information about the project has been released. Rumours about an upcoming remake of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as a TV series resurfaced in 2020, and both the film’s lead actors Casper van Dien and Jake Busey claimed interest in reprising their roles. However (see a a pattern?) no further information on the status of the project as been released.
Back to Project Moonbase: A fun aspect of these kinds of movies is always watching how filmmakers envision the future. Of course the technology is often front and center in sci-fi. However, apart from the spacecrafts, there is not much ”new” technology on display in the film. One thing the film does predict correctly is the use of cordless phones. This wasn’t a huge leap of imagination, as radio phones had been in use for years, and the theory of mobile phones was already being developed. The first handheld mobile phone was unveiled in 1973, so the timeline is not that far off. But the phones in the film still look like ordinary desk phones of the fifties, only with the cords replaced by hilarious antennae. In a way, they have more in common with the so-called car phones first developed by Nokia in the early eighties. There’s also the fact that people still use big, clunky desk-radios for communication – with silly Flash Gordon-styled antennae placed on top of them to make them look futuristic.
Another interesting aspect of futuristic films is that they often highlight the times they were made in more than predict the future, in a stylistic sense. For example, anyone watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in 2001 had the distinct feeling of watching a perfect concentrate of 1968 in clothing, design and hairstyle. In the same way The Fifth Element (1997) today feels like an elongated techno music video from the nineties. Even a very timeless movie like Alien (1979) is clearly given away by the hairstyles of some of the characters, as well as the tight-fitting, high-waisted coveralls used in the movie, and the fact that people smoke everywhere.
Oftentimes, though, especially in B movies like Project Moon Base, there is a strange clash of styles. Most people in the movie wear the exact same kinds of clothes popular in the early fifties, the only distinction being the (as mentioned above) ridiculous space outfits. But even the T-shirts and even skull caps have a very distinctive fifties look to them.
Lead actress Donna Martell was a popular B movie star, who played leads in a number of B westerns and crime dramas, and according to herself, a lot of studios were out to sign her when she first appeared in Hollywood in the late forties. In Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies she recalls that she chose Universal because of its acting school. Career-wise this wasn’t the best idea, since Universal wouldn’t loan her to other studios, which means a lot of good roles passed her by. In the early fifties she transitioned into TV, where she continued to work up until the early sixties, when she retired, according to her interview with Bill Warren, because of pressure from her then-husband (whom she later divorced: ”he just couldn’t handle me – bless his heart.”).
In Paul Martell’s and Charles P. Mitchell’s book Screen Sirens Scream! Martell remembers she had a lot of fun doing the movie, even though she often had to learn a lot of re-writes the morning before shooting a particular scene. She says Heinlein was very much into the TV series, before it got turned into a film, and despite the hokey story, she thought the movie got a lot of things technically right about space travel. In the 21st century, Martell says, she has discovered what she calls the ”collectors’ shows”, or fan events and conferences, which she enjoys profoundly. ”It’s a boost, it’s a shot in the arm. It’s like giving back, because you’re out there and you’re talking with the people and you’re on the panels /…/ The interaction, they just love it. And guess what? So do I!”
Hayden Rorke as General Pappy is probably the actor best known to a broad audience, thanks to his recurring role as the NASA doctor Bellows in the TV sitcom I Dream of Jeannie (1967-1970). He also had a small role in When Worlds Collide.
A mention should go to noted composer Herschel Burke Gilbert, whose score really is one of the few things on the movie that is actually up to feature film standards, even above average. The atmospheric orchestral score features electrical strings, harp and theremin, the latter played by Hollywood’s number one (only?) theremin player of the fifties, Samuel Hoffman, who has appeared on the score of every single film with a theremin I have reviewed thus far. Gilbert doesn’t over-emphasise the strangeness of space or the theremin, as many composers did, but creates an eerie feeling when required, but also handles the rest of the more traditional orchestral score perfectly. Gilbert was a prominent industry figure, active within the Hollywood composer’s union and with music preservation, and really made his name doing scores for TV series, such as Rifleman and Burke’s Law. Cinematographer William C. Thompson is best known for shooting most of Ed Wood’s most famous films, including Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
Project Moon Base. 1953, USA. Directed by Richard Talmadge. Written by Robert A. Heinlein and Jack Seaman. Starring: Donna Martell, Ross Ford, Hayden Rorke, Larry Johns, Herb Jacobs, Barbara Morrison, Ernestine Barrier, James Craven, John Hedloe, Peter Adams, Robert Karnes, John Straub, Charles Keane, John Tomecko, Robert Paltz. Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert. Cinematography: William C. Thompson. Editing: Roland Gross. Art direction: Jerome Pycha Jr. Makeup artist: Harry Thomas. Sound: Joel Moss, William Randall. Special effects: Jacque Fresco. Visual effects: Jacque Fresco, Jack R. Glass, Howard Weeks. Wardrobe: Jack E. Miller. Produced by Jack Seaman and for Galaxy Pictures and Lippert Pictures.