Regarded as one of the fathers of the literary genre which would come to be known as science fiction, his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) having inspired one of the earliest science fiction films, Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) of 1902, despite bearing the title Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon director Don Sharp’s 1967 version is a somewhat tenuous adaptation of the original work, perhaps explaining why it was released in other territories under titles such as Those Fantastic Flying Fools and Blast Off.
As much inspired by the success of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines with which it shares its comedy style and two cast members, Gert Fröbe and Terry-Thomas here playing German explosives expert Professor Siegfried von Bulow and the dastardly and duplicitous financier Captain Sir Harry Washington-Smythe, they are joined by Burl Ives as the legendary showman Phineas T Barnum, proponent of the scheme to send a rocket to the Moon, and Lionel Jeffries as engineer Sir Charles Dillworthy, no stranger to space exploration having starred in First Men in the Moon three years previously.
Solidifying international appeal, Troy Donahue stars as aviator Gaylord Sullivan, chosen to pilot the capsule to the Moon although as a projectile little work will be required after blast off, the principle problems the construction of the capsule and the cannon which will launch it, a pit dug on top of a mountain in Wales, Cairflywte, preceded by the raising of the capital, complicated by Washington-Smythe’s realisation that he can benefit more by wagering against a successful launch then sabotaging the enterprise.
A celebration of eccentrics and ingenuity in the age of Empire in resplendent Victoriana with sufficient voluminous gowns and parasols to shade a Seurat exhibition, the launch attended by Her Majesty in the person of Joan Sterndale-Bennett, handing out medals just for the asking, Rocket to the Moon in some ways feels more like a farce of the less scientifically literate period in which it is set rather than when it was made, the endeavour seemingly driven more by determination than mathematical calculation.
Modesty Blaise embracing modernity and Barbarella looking to the future around the same time that Sharp’s inventors and entrepreneurs in top hats and monocles were bickering and behaving snobbishly, the result is somewhat blunted despite the efforts of the ensemble to wrestle the unwieldy production into submission, somewhat akin to the film itself, more focused on giving the international stars adequate screen time than achieving the task for which they have been assembled, overloaded with subplots and diversions.
Restored from the original camera negative for StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range, Rocket to the Moon also carries film historian Matthew Sweet’s fascinating insight into the career and character of producer Harry Alan Towers, as colourful and full of dishonesty and dodgy deals as the film itself, and critic Kim Newman’s appraisal of Jules Verne and “Victorian contraption cinema” as well as brief silent black and white archive footage from the location shooting in the mountains of Wales.