The stories of Jules Verne have been adapted into films from some of the earliest days of cinema, with Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune (or A Trip To The Moon) being perhaps one of the best known early examples. In the 1950s and 1960s, Verne’s works proved once more to be a source of inspiration for filmmakers, such as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, as well as 1958’s From The Earth To The Moon, and the 1962 release of Five Weeks In A Balloon, which was directed by Irwin Allen.
Around that time came something of a short-lived trend for big name ensemble romps, which began with 1965’s Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, followed up by The Great Race and Monte Carlo Or Bust! During that same period, the public’s fascination with the ongoing Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was ending up being reflected in various media, such as TV sitcoms like I Dream Of Jeannie, which starred Larry Hagman as a member of the US Astronaut corps.
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It took canny would-be mogul and entrepreneur Harry Alan Towers to read the public mood and combine all the popular trends of the time into a single project: Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon. Released in 1967, it latched onto the push to put a man on the Moon before the decade was out, as well as taking a Verne novel as its basis, and bringing together a raft of movie stars from around the globe, some of whom – such as Terry-Thomas and Gert Fröbe – had already appeared in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (as well as later turning up in Monte Carlo Or Bust!).
Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon is very loosely based on Verne’s 1865 novel From The Earth To The Moon, and sees famous showman Phineas T. Barnum (Burl Ives) becoming involved with efforts by scientist Professor Von Bulow (Gert Fröbe) to fire a projectile to the lunar surface, making use of the powerful new explosive Von Bulow has devised. Having had his design for a capsule rejected, Sir Charles Dillworthy (Lionel Jeffries) joins forces with his brother-in-law, Harry Washington-Smythe (Terry-Thomas), in an attempt to try and sabotage the project.
The script – by one of Benny Hill’s writers at the time, Dave Freeman – takes sizeable liberties with the source material, transplanting the launching site from Tampa, Florida, to a rather more budget-friendly setting of Wales (although the film was actually shot in Ireland); P.T. Barnum also plays no part in Verne’s original novel, and one might speculate that Harry Alan Towers may have influenced Barnum’s inclusion, seeing something of the showman in himself, and thereby – whether intentionally or not – making Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon almost semi-autobiographical.
Towers is actually a fascinating, larger-than-life character in his own right, and we get to learn more about his background and life thanks to two short featurettes included on the disc, with journalist and cultural historian Matthew Sweet, along with writer and film critic Kim Newman, giving us an insight into who Towers was. You can always rely on both Sweet and Newman to be totally engaging and informative in whatever capacity they appear (Sweet, for example, provides in-depth interviews with stars from Doctor Who for the BBC’s current Blu-ray collections), and their contributions to this disc are no exception.
The film itself is undoubtedly charming, but it moves along at something of a leisurely pace, and feels almost languid or sluggish at times; this lack of pace or urgency is probably not helped by the fact that, as part of Towers’ drive to obtain as much funding as he could for the production from different international sources, he had to expand the script in order to accommodate those countries’ stars, by giving all of them as much screen time as possible, and expanding their parts. As a result, the balance feels uneven throughout, with too many parts and not enough material to sustain them all.
Although released in some parts of the US under the title of Those Fantastic Flying Fools, in an effort to try and cash in on the popularity of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, there was also a cut-down version that trimmed nearly 25 minutes from the film; this much shorter edit was put out as Blast-Off in other parts of America, but it proved not to be any more successful. It seems an awful shame that this alternate version has not been included here, as it would help to see whether or not the pacing would be improved by trimming away some of the fat.
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While the film is hampered by some stultifying turns, such as Troy Donahue and Daliah Lavi as the obligatory – and rather extraneous – love interest in the story, thankfully the piece is carried along by some lovely performances from Jeffries, Fröbe (perhaps best known as the villain in Goldfinger), and – in particular – Terry-Thomas, who delivers us here his best archetypal rotter and scoundrel, with the delightful glee that automatically elevated any movie he was involved in. In fact, his interplay with Jeffries throughout the film is perhaps the saving grace of Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon.
The restoration work done on the picture is top notch stuff, with the print looking so sharp and vivid that you would be hard pressed to believe it was filmed nearly six decades ago. Whilst perhaps not the greatest show on – or, indeed, off – Earth, Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon is most certainly a sedate, entertaining diversion, and a welcome throwback to a much gentler, more innocent era of filmmaking.
Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon is out on Blu-ray on 12th April from Studiocanal.