‘I Think It Would Be Fun to Build a Spaceship’: H.G. Wells, Ray Harryhausen, and First Men in the Moon

The title of the 1964 film First Men in the Moon is something of a misnomer. It’s actually two guys plus a gal who blast off in a spaceship and land lunarside. The lady wasn’t in the original source material, a 1901 novel by H.G. Wells; she seems to have been added to the movie to supply what producers would term ‘romantic interest.’ One could do a lengthy book just on how film adaptations of resolutely masculine literary adventures manage to sneak in the required ‘romantic’ female—usually found waiting on the sidelines for the hero to take time off from whatever testosterone-addled activity he’s doing (chopping a path through the Amazon jungle, panning for gold in the Yukon, spreading Manifest Destiny out West) to cast a smoldering glance of passion her way now and then. Apparently producers felt a feminine presence would attract a feminine audience, on the principle of the more the merrier—at the box office, that is.

Certainly the feasibility of adding a female presence to what were originally male-centered stories can be debated. To take one example, a woman character was added to the story of The Sea Beast, a 1926 silent adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The original novel takes place on a small whaling ship with an all-male crew. We haven’t seen this particular movie version, but we do wonder how a woman comes to be involved at all in such a setting (according to the film’s review at IMDB, it’s basically done by throwing out the novel’s plot altogether).

Ladies First: heroine Katherine Callender’s figure (left) is prominently ‘figured’ in ads for ‘First Men in the Moon’

But sometimes the added woman can cast new light onto a novel’s narrative. For example, just about every one of the film adaptations of the novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde supplies Jekyll with a non-literary fiancée; but her cinematic presence gives the story a new twist—more accurately, their presence, as the adaptations usually slot in two women: one pure and demure, the other bold and brassy, and not above exposing a little skin (the latter’s most memorable incarnation is Miriam Hopkins’ Ivy in the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian version). The two women not only mirror the good/bad Jekyll/Hyde split, they also situate the story in a post-Freudian environment, in which libidinal urges and sexual repression underlie Jekyll’s physiological transformation. Literary purists might disagree with such emendations, but then purists are not obliged to fill movie theater seats.

A rather odd image from a French poster for the film: the two men are in spacesuits, but the woman is seen popping out of the sphere without aid of breathing apparatus

As with Melville and Stevenson, Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon also takes place in a celibate, male-centered domain. Both (male) protagonists—the narrator Bedford and his partner-in-exploration, Cavor, who invents an anti-gravity substance he calls Cavorite—are, as the Pirates of Penzance would say, single gentlemen. If you haven’t read TFMITM, we highly recommend it; it’s a terrific read. (We’re on something of an H.G. Wells kick here. One of our recent posts was on David Lean’s 1949 adaptation of Wells’ 1913 novel The Passionate Friends.) Wells had that marvelous knack, like other late-19th-century British novelists such as Rudyard Kipling or Arthur Conan Doyle, for fashioning an adventure yarn that you just can’t put down. And TFMITM is a page-turner. It’s swiftly plotted, with the kind of concrete detail that grounds its more implausible incidents in a believable milieu. Wells patterned his story on the classic adventure narrative, in which a character takes off for uncharted territory and returns to tell a fantastic tale. The plot follows the protagonists’ successful flight to the Moon—literally, as the title preposition indicates, in the Moon, as the two men plunge into its interior for some pretty amazing exploits—and their less-than-successful efforts to negotiate what they find. But there’s more than a tinge of juvenile daydreaming in this quest; both Cavor and Bedford take a giddily adolescent approach to their lunar journey. The naive Cavor sees the trip as “really only jumping off the world and back again”; while the opportunistic Bedford (a failed businessman) fancies himself an interplanetary capitalistic entrepreneur, dreaming of “the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres de luxe.” That a small boy, at novel’s end, steals their spaceship and then blasts off for regions unknown, can be seen as an apt symbol for the entire enterprise.

Boys Will Be Boys: Bedford (Edward Judd, left) and Cavor (Lionel Jefferies, right) discuss a trip to the Moon; between them is a bowl filled with Cavorite, used to coat the sphere.

To our mind, what Katherine Callender, or Kate, as she’s called, brings to the story is a welcome dose of maturity. One of the attractions for men in taking off for uncharted territory (and you can’t get territory more uncharted than the Moon) is that it’s free of the customary restraints imposed by civilized society—which usually means female company. Woman is the civilizing factor in many an adventure tale; she has the unenviable task of acting as the adult in the room. The guy may be outdoors having a whale of a time doing guy things, but it’s the woman who’s at home cooking soup stock or hanging curtains. She also makes sure her man wipes his boots before he steps onto the floors she’s just spent an hour scrubbing. Not important? Just wait until you’ve come in from a great day tracking through uncharted territory, only to find that supper’s not cooked, nosy neighbors are peeking through bare windows, and you’ve just stepped on something soft and sticky. Civilization may have its discontents, but it beats having to munch raw turnips for dinner. And unwashed raw turnips at that.

Civilizing Graces: A sphere-enclosed Bedford, Kate, and Cavor say grace over dinner

Thus does Ms. Callender add the civilizing, grown-up touch to FMITM’s narrative. While the men anticipate their Moon voyage the way small boys might a trip to Disneyland (“but it’s only for a few weeks,” pleads Bedford), Kate, as Bedford’s fiancée, has more down-to-earth concerns. She sees the journey not in terms of high-flying deeds, but in more practical ones of health and safety. Only Kate thinks of packing live chickens to provide fresh food and eggs for the trip; tinned food, she maintains, is unhealthy (she even thinks of packing chicken feed for the fowls). And it’s Kate who packs the elephant gun. “Madam,” an exasperated Cavor fumes, “the chances of bagging an elephant on the Moon are remote”—but the clumsy firearm comes in mighty useful for the Moon-trapped trio’s escape. Kate doesn’t think about the needs of science, but about the needs of the humans under her care: while Cavor rages when Kate leaves the greenhouse door open during an experiment and allowing its temperature to drop, she worries that the poor fellow will catch cold scampering about in the cool night air (a concern that has later implications in the film). Even during the space flight, Kate adds the gentle touch, covering the sleeping Cavor with a blanket. It’s a small gesture but a humanizing one—and it’s just what a woman would do.

Kate With Crate: Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) confronts Cavor (Lionel Jefferies, back to camera) with a crate of chickens and an elephant gun

We like that the film extends this homey touch to many of the novel’s elements, particularly the Cavorite-coated spaceship-sphere. In the novel the sphere’s interior is enclosed with glass; it’s an efficient vehicle of transport, nothing more. In the movie, however, it’s a Victorian parlor, lined with green velvet plush and oak paneling (perhaps influenced by George Pal’s delightful Victorian barber-chair of the 1960 The Time Machine, another Wells’ adaptation)—a little bit of England whizzing through the vast empyrean of space. Indeed, the film’s reveling in its Victorian quaintness (note the rattling ‘electric carriage’ that Kate drives) is quite endearing. As is Lionel Jefferies’ lovely performance as the eccentric Cavor, who’s always dashing off after his latest enthusiasm, and who shoots off into the stratosphere clad in tweeds and a slouch hat. (For fans of quirky English character actors, there’s also adorable Miles Malleson blustering to perfection in a comic bit.) Not to be outdone are Edward Judd, who manages to turn the unscrupulous Bedford into a likable fellow with a deft blend of comic timing and virile heroics; and Martha Hyer, who gives us a spunky and attractive Kate. Their characters may not be what a Wellsian purist would have in mind, but they enhance the film with a distinct, individual charm.

An Englishman’s Castle: Cavor relaxes in his home-from-home, his lunar-voyaging sphere. Note the green velvet plush on the walls.

British Cameos: 1) Miles Malleson steals a scene as a blustering clerk; 2) Can you guess the actor? That’s Peter Finch under the bowler, unbilled in a scene with Martha Hyer.

Mr. Wells was himself, it seems, a bit of a purist about his works. Although interested in movies as an education medium, he did not care for cinematic versions of his writings. (Reportedly, Wells deeply disliked Island of Lost Souls, Paramount’s 1932 adaptation of his 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau—no doubt, the vivid presence of the Panther Woman, a decidedly Hollywood addition, contributed to his displeasure.) FMITM had already been adapted as silent films; it was partly the inspiration behind Georges Méliès’ charming 1902 classic La Voyage dans la Lune. Yet though the 1964 film version keeps much of Wells’ story, Wells, had he been able to see it, may not have liked it either, although his reaction may have been based more on what the film’s contemporary reviewers noted: that, while keeping the adventure, it ignored, or, at best, skimmed over, the novel’s political and philosophical concerns. In the many ways that the novel TFMITM may be interpreted, one surely is as a satirical allegory of British colonialism. Bedford clearly views his Moon venture as one of conquest and wealth, in which “planetary rights of pre-emption” are pre-eminent: “I recalled the old Spanish monopoly in American gold,” he says. And Wells’ pessimism about the human social order is seen in his portrait of the dystopian community of the Moon people, or Selenites as Cavor dubs them, whose ‘managed’ society of intellectuals, administrators, and slaves mirrored the stratified class structure of post-Industrial Victorian England.

Lunar Cheesecake: Melies’ ‘A Trip to the Moon’ included ample vistas of bare-legged feminine pulchritude

By the early 1960s, though, interest in bringing the novel to the big screen would have been calculated on interest in actual space travel. Not only machines but also men had by then been launched into space to orbit the earth. What had been Wells’ theoretical speculations about lunar travel was now a reachable goal; five years after the film’s release a man would walk on the Moon. The adaptation by the producer, Charles Schneer, and his scenarists, Nigel Keale and Jan Read, and director, Nathan Juran, reflects this updating by adding a modern-day prologue and epilogue about a Moon landing in progress. A United Nations-sponsored mission with a multi-national crew (we see an American, a Russian, and an Englishman on board) lands on the lunar surface, only to find—a tiny Union Jack stuck into Selenian soil, punched through a piece of paper declaring the Moon claimed in the name of Queen Victoria in the year 1899! (“Well, I didn’t put it there!” the British astronaut protests.) The space agency traces the note to Bedford, now an aged man living in a nursing home, who then tells his amazing story through an extended flashback that makes up the bulk of the film.

Fly Me To The Moon: The Cavorite-coated sphere heads toward the Moon

Once in the flashback, the film sticks more closely to the novel, its first half taking a light-hearted tone as Bedford and Cavor meet, stir up a batch of Cavorite (with some comical mishaps along the way), and blast off on their space trip (Kate taken aboard as an accidental tourist, as it were). But once on (or in) the Moon, where the insect-like Selenites take our trio prisoner, the story takes a more serious turn. As in the novel, the movie here sets up the major conflict between Cavor, who genuinely wants communication with the Selenites (“such a marvelous opportunity,” he cries, “the meeting of two worlds”), and Bedford, who thinks only of escape, and who attacks the Selenites with what Cavor laments as a “taste of human violence.” The film darkens in its storytelling without becoming didactic; and its characters assume this burden of gravitas without losing credibility.

Cavor is surrounded by Selenites (actually extras dressed in costumes) with whom he tries to communicate

Instead of communicating, Bedford battles the Selenites as he tries to rescue Cavor

The one big change from the novel that we do regret is the depiction of the Moon itself. Wells gave his Moon an atmosphere, and thus a vibrantly alive surface. One of the novel’s most brilliant passages describes the dawn of a lunar day and Cavor and Bedford’s observation of the miraculous sprouting of plant life, in which “buds swelled and strained and opened with a jerk, thrusting out a coronet of red sharp tips, spreading a whorl of tiny, spiky, brownish leaves, that lengthened rapidly, lengthened visibly even as we watched.” The effect, as Keith Williams in his book on Wells and the movies noted, is astonishingly cinematic; Wells’ writing foreshadows speeded-up motion picture cinematography. It would have made a fabulous scene. However, the film opts for a more ‘realistic,’ airless Moon look, creating immense, daunting vistas of cratered landscapes, disrupted by jagged towers of rock:

Cavor gazes at the Moon from inside the sphere. The special effects were adapted for anamorphic widescreen.

Bedford and Cavor, dressed in diving suits, contemplate an arid Moonscape; note Earth rising over the horizon

The Moon’s interiors are also an impressive construction of huge, shadowy caverns and gleaming shards of crystal (reminiscent of the set designs from the 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth). It’s here we meet the ant-shaped Selenites and also the giant, carnivorous Moon-calves:

Cavor and Bedford descend into the Moon’s interior

An insect-like Selenite, one of the few of them animated by Harryhausen’s stop-motion techniques

Ah, yes, those Moon-calves. They, along with the Selenites and the Moonscapes, are brought to life courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, the film’s associate producer and Creator of Special Visual Effects. By now, we can hear the Harryhausen fans banging their forks on the table, demanding we serve up a hefty helping of their hero. Roy Frumkes has noted that Harryhausen films “have never been known for their style d’auteur,” and FMITM is today thought of as a Harryhausen, not a director’s, film. Ray Harryhausen, of course, is a movie-special-effects legend, his stop-motion animation delighting audiences since the late 1940s. What first comes to mind when we think of such movies as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Twenty Million Miles to Earth, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, and the wonderfully entertaining The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, are Harryhausen’s marvelous creations—his teeming, manufactured menagerie of fantastic animals, tentacled monsters, fighting skeletons, and walking myths that often seem so much more lifelike than the human actors surrounding them.

A Selenite examines a Harryhausen skeleton: Kate’s own ‘interior’ is viewed through a Selenite scanner

Our own feeling, though, is that FMITM’s Harryhausen inventions are not his most memorable. Only a few Selenites are animated by his stop-motion techniques; most were actually child extras dressed up in Selenite costumes. Per Harryhausen, the film’s widescreen anamorphic process (his first film made as such) was a problem: the special lenses required “squeezed and distorted the images,” so that more traveling mattes and less rear projection had to be used. But at least the roaring Moon calf who pursues our heroes is pure Harryhausen. Unlike the novel’s placid, cud-chewing critters, the cinematic embodiment is a huge, hungry, caterpillar-like monster with snapping mandibles, on the look-out for dinner—and it’s taken a fancy to an Earthman diet:

A Moon calf seeks its dinner: Cavor and Bedford encounter one of Ray Harryhausen’s best Dynamation creations in the film

Below is a clip of the Bedford-Cavor meeting with the Moon calf (“probably a harmless vegetarian,” Cavor surmises, incorrectly). The color unfortunately is washed out and doesn’t convey the film’s spectacular widescreen look, but the clip does give you a sense that a Moon calf is something you wouldn’t care to meet in a narrow alley on a dark night: 

Harryhausen’s most spectacular set piece is for the movie’s climax, Cavor’s audience with the Selenite leader, the Grand Lunar, for which he designed a gigantic golden staircase, stretching on seemingly for miles (he based it on the giant stairs in the Kor palace from the 1935 Merian C. Cooper production of She, a film he greatly admires). The Grand Lunar creature itself is an eerily otherworldly being, a stick-like figure enclosed within a glowing, faceted crystal; its interview with Cavor is punctuated by the latter’s very human coughs and sniffles—from the cold he caught on Earth (and warned about by Kate)! Cavor’s illness will have ironic consequences at film’s end (which we won’t reveal here, as that would spoil it for viewers-to-be):

Cavor stands at the bottom of the grand staircase; the Grand Lunar resides at the top

The Grand Lunar enclosed in his (its?) globe of crystal

But what, for us, makes FMITM is not Harryhausen but the humans. It’s not the bellowing Moon-calves that stand out as it’s Cavor bellowing his assistant’s name “GIBBS!” whenever there’s a glitch in the works. Or it’s Cavor, in a sweetly funny scene, freeing his pet geese before take-off: “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he announces with comic hauteur, “Liberty is at hand!” Or it’s Bedford’s astonishment at experiencing Cavorite via a levitating chair (which he happens to be sitting on). Or it’s Cavor, Bedford, and Kate in the flying sphere sitting down to a formal dinner, complete with plates and napkins (though only sardines are served, Cavor still properly says grace). These scenes stick in the memory; the characters may be caught up in the midst of the most unbelievable escapades, but they still behave in believably human ways. Sci-fi and fantasy films may give us a speculative glimpse at imaginative renderings of out-of-this-world beings or inventions; but FMITM delights us with plain old human idiosyncrasy. And that we find reassuring—that human beings can still be the most fantastic creatures amongst us.

The Moon Was His Home: an elderly, earthbound Bedford views the Moon through a telescope


Costa, Richard Hauer, H.G. Wells Revised Edition, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985

Frumkes, Roy, “Animation on Laser,” Films in Review, May/June 1992, Vol. 43, Issue #5/6

Renzi, Thomas C., H.G. Wells: Six Scientific Romances Adapted for Film, Metuchen, NJ and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1992

Smith, Don G., H.G. Wells on Film: The Utopian Nightmare, Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002

Wells, H.G., The First Men in the Moon (1901), in H.G. Wells: Seven Novels, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2006, 2009

Williams, Keith, H.G. Wells: Modernity and the Movies, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007

BONUS CLIP: The Shape of Things to Come — here’s the trailer for First Men in the Moon. For some reason the Moon calves are called “Gastropods” (because it sounds more menacing? Although to our ears it sounds as if they’re afflicted with a digestive disorder). “An Empire Beyond Imagination!”:

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