June 14, 2013

The Bleeding Edge of Space

Now Playing: First Man Into Space (1959)

Pros: Effective use of stock footage for a semi-documentary feel; Above average, spooky black and white photography; Simple but effective monster
Cons: Obtuse technobabble will have you scratching your head; Somewhat implausible sibling rivalry

Ever since the first telling of the Icarus story in ancient Greece, couch potatoes the world over have found a thousand and one excuses for taking it easy, settling into that easy chair and letting some other fool take risks, test boundaries, and crash and burn in the process (and don't those crashes look awesome on our high definition 46 inch flatscreens!).

As couch potatoes have gotten ever lazier and ever larger, the vicarious lives they lead through television have also changed dramatically. Where once they were thrilled by images of soldiers storming beaches under heavy fire and "right stuff" astronauts blasting into space with thousands of pounds of highly combustible fuel under their keisters, now they thrill to the sights and sounds of celebrities blowing their routines on Dancing with the Stars and American Idol contestants not quite hitting their high notes.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) the tragic space shuttle accidents, piloted space flight no longer fires the collective imagination. Except for a small, dwindling number of space geeks, circling the earth at an altitude of a couple hundred miles does nothing more than elicit yawns. And proposals for actual human space exploration that might awaken at least some of us from our slumber -- going back to the moon, visiting an asteroid, making the long, arduous journey to Mars --  sputter around in the low atmosphere of our 24 hour news cycle and then unceremoniously crash like lead balloons.

It seems like the more we fiddle with our iPhones and tweet each other about the latest reality shows and misbehaving celebrities, the less able we are to think "big" or to take risks to accomplish something important (or even bother to cheer on other risk-takers). I won't go into details here on why I think piloted space exploration is important for humanity -- please see my post on the Czech space drama Ikarie XB-1 for more thoughts on the subject.  But if we're to thrive as a species, we've got to somehow challenge ourselves beyond figuring out how to use the latest smartphones.

NASA file photo - Test pilot Bill Dana standing in front of his X-15 rocketplane
NASA X-15 pilots like Bill Dana truly had the "right stuff."
I'm old enough to remember the huge, nationwide excitement as crack pilots stuffed into tiny "tin can" capsules lifted off on thundering rockets converted from military use. We all knew that we desperately needed to get our guys up there orbiting the earth (and planting the first flag on the moon), or sure as shootin' we'd all be speaking Russian in a few short years. Everyone was glued to their fuzzy, black and white console TVs as first Alan Shepard blasted off on a Redstone rocket for his short, 15 minute suborbital flight, then, more exciting still, All-American Marine Corps pilot John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Take that commies!

With all the attention on the "spam in a can" Mercury 7 astronauts, few Americans in the early '60s fully appreciated the contributions made by the fearless test pilots who first broke the sound barrier, then flew to the edge of space and beyond in their cool, dangerous rocket planes. Chuck Yeager, the decorated World War II fighter pilot and the first man to break the sound barrier, is still the best known test pilot from this period, immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff.  Virtually forgotten today are the jet jockeys who fired up the engines of the coolest rocket plane ever, the North-American X-15, and took it to heights never before seen from a cockpit. To this day, the X-15, built in the late '50s and retired in the late '60s, holds the official record for the fastest speed ever attained by a manned aircraft.

Several X-15 pilots earned astronauts' wings from the U.S. Air Force for exceeding heights of 80 km (50 miles). One, Joseph Walker, twice flew higher than 100 km (62 miles), qualifying as an astronaut by international definition.  Neil Armstrong, before he joined the NASA astronaut corps and eventually became the first to walk on the moon, donned the X-15 pressure suit and logged one of the fastest flights ever-- a dizzying 6,420 km/h (3,989 mph). And there was the inevitable tragedy. Major Michael J. Adams was killed on November 15, 1967 when his craft went into a hypersonic spin and the airframe broke up at an altitude of 18 km (60,0000 ft.). (Considering the ambitious missions designed for the X-15 it's fortunate that more pilots weren't killed during the program's nearly decade-long span.)

A tense control room
Cmdr. Prescott (Marshall Thompson) and Dr. Von Essen (Carl Jaffe)
are worried that hot shot test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards)
is not following the flight plan.
First Man Into Space was released by MGM (yes, that MGM) in early 1959, several months before the first X-15 took flight, and a full two years before Yuri Gagarin became the first real man in space. First Man tells the tale of two brothers, one, a Navy commander in charge of a rocket plane program very similar to the real-life X-15 (Cmdr. Charles Prescott, played by Marshall Thompson), and the other, a glory-seeking, hot-shot test pilot who is itching to be acclaimed as the first man into space (Lt. Dan Prescott, played by Bill Edwards). The film opens with a test flight of the Y-12 rocket plane piloted by Dan Prescott. Big brother Chuck, along with space medicine specialist Dr. Von Essen (Carl Jaffe), is in the control room, sweating every tense second of the flight.

We gather that the rocket plane program is a rehearsal for the day that they shoot a man into outer space for real -- the limits of man and machine need to be tested at extreme high altitude, data gathered and analyzed, and so on. Charles and Von Essen are relieved when Dan passes what they call the "controllability barrier" (presumably the altitude at which the rocket plane becomes difficult if not impossible to control), but the flight isn't over, and there's still a lot that can go wrong.

At an altitude of almost 100 miles, Dan the man can see the curvature of the earth, and he becomes giddy. (Okay, so the first actual American in space, Alan Shepard, only flew to an altitude of 116 statute miles in his Mercury capsule, and the ‪Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‬ defines the limit of space at 100 kilometers / 62 miles, but we'll set all that aside for now.) He loses control of the craft, it starts to spin out of control, and he passes out. Fortunately, the unflappable Dr. Von Essen gets the pilot's attention over the radio and talks him down. "First, control yourself," he tells Dan (which come to think of it, is pretty good advice for anyone, at any time of crisis).

Dan crashes his rocket plane in the New Mexico desert (which looks more like a quiet forest in, oh, I don't know, the English countryside maybe… more on that later...), but emerges unscathed. As the Commander investigates the crash site, he notices a sort of shiny dust on the plane wreckage, but then doesn't think anything more about it. (Uh-oh… cue the ominous music.)

Bill Edwards as test pilot Dan Prescott
Dan is positively giddy at the prospect of being
the first man into space.
Rather than getting debriefed or working with the space medicine staff or his brother to prepare for the next flight, Dan does what any self-respecting hot shot test pilot who flirts with death on a daily basis would do -- he hops in the sack with a beautiful woman. In this case, it's the sultry, exotic Tia Francesca (Marla Landi), an assistant to Dr. Von Essen in the space medicine lab. He tells Tia of the rush he got flying to the edge of space, but he wants more: "Who's going to forget the first man in space?" he asks.

Dan's straight-arrow, duty-bound brother tracks him to Tia's apartment. He is beyond outraged: "You just wrecked $10 million in equipment and I find you lolligagging around here!" (I think Dan was doing more than lolligagging, but we'll set that too aside for now.) It's hard to believe Chuck and Dan are brothers -- Chuck is all business, and Dan is 100% all-American hot dog. Later, Chuck complains to the good doctor Von Essen, "How can I make him understand that even though he's up there in space alone, he still has to obey orders?"

In spite of Chuck's reservations, the military brass select Dan for the next test flight because of all the favorable publicity generated from the previous record-setting flight. When he gets to the altitude limit set for the mission, Dan keeps going. An exasperated Chuck orders him to keep to the flight plan, but he demurs: "No sir, I'm going straight up -- first man into space!" ("Top of the world ma!!") He fires his emergency boosters and the craft rockets to an altitude of 250 miles!  In the control room, the somber Commander tells Von Essen, "he'll either hit the moon or orbit the earth for the rest of his life."

Unbeknownst to Chuck, there is a third possibility. A blizzard of meteor (?) dust hits the rocket plane. Dan separates the nose cone/cockpit from the booster, and down he goes. Back on earth, the recovery team finds the nose cone completely encrusted with a strange, silvery material. There is no sign of the fame-hungry test pilot who wanted to be the first man into space. Chuck eulogizes his brother: "Even as a kid, he was always climbing the highest tree…"

Marla Landi as space medicine assistant Tia Francesca
Tia (Marla Landi) reacts somewhat negatively to the shiny
new coat of space dust that her boyfriend is wearing.
Back at the base, the lab guys find out that the layer of space dust on the nose cone is so strong and dense that even X-rays can't penetrate it. While Chuck and Von Essen ponder the mysteries of the new substance and what might have happened to Dan's body, the police get reports of strange occurrences near the crash site. Cattle are being mutilated and drained of their blood. Inexplicably, an encrusted portion of Dan's oxygen mask and hose are found under a dead cow. Then comes the report of the horrible murder of a nurse at a nearby blood bank. The nurse's wounds are eerily similar to those found on the cattle and strange silvery flecks are found on the body. Baffled, the police call in Commander Prescott to help investigate. Little do they know that soon the horrible, tragic answer to the mystery will show up at the space medicine lab…

First Man Into Space is a taut, well-crafted B sci-fi horror thriller. It uses stock U.S. military footage to good effect, lending an air of authenticity to the test flight scenes. And the monster is simple and well done. It's all the more poignant, given that it was once a human being, and not some strange invader from space whose motivations are a complete mystery. The cattle mutilations are a nice touch as well, and prophetic, given that cattle mutilations attributed to UFOs didn't hit the headlines until the late '60s.  Marshall Thompson, an actor of limited range, is just right for the part of the stoic, by-the-book commander. And Italian beauty Marla Landi shines at the climax when she finds out what has happened to her lover (considering that she hardly knew English at the time, it's a very good performance). 

In addition to portraying the pre-crusty test pilot, actor Bill Edwards suited up as the monster
Back at the lab, Cmdr. Prescott spends a poignant moment with
what's left of his brother in an experimental pressure chamber.
Where First Man breaks down, dissipating the suspense somewhat, are the scenes between Chuck and Von Essen as they investigate the mysterious crusty space dust and try to piece together the mystery. The technobabble flies fast and furious as Von Essen first tries to explain the properties of the dust, how it actually shielded the craft (and presumably its occupant) from deadly cosmic rays, and then goes completely around the bend, speculating that some intelligent agency put the dust there as protection against cosmic radiation. (?!!??)  Even though he's an M.D. specializing in space medicine, he also seems to be an expert physicist and engineer -- a space age renaissance man.

Von Essen's dry explanations and screwy speculations serve only to confuse the poor viewer, and should have been cut back drastically (the film never follows up on the idea that the dust was put there by intelligent design). A possible explanation for the nonsensical dialog can be found in the accompanying short documentary "Making Space" on the Criterion Collection DVD. Director Robert Day, who confesses he was never a fan of the sci-fi genre, also confesses that he and the producer were constantly rewriting the script on the set. I have strong doubts that they made it better.

The Horror Hits of Richard Gordon [book], Bear Manor Media, 2011
Tom Weaver's book-length interview with Gordon
was published in 2011 by Bear Manor Media.
First Man is one of a string of B sci-fi and horror hits put together by executive producer and UK native Richard Gordon. A lifelong movie fan, Gordon emigrated with his brother Alex to the United States in the 1940s. He eventually started his own production company, Gordon Films, to distribute British and other foreign films in the states. He was very busy from the late '50s to the mid-'60s setting up low-budget productions shot in the UK and featuring big name stars like Boris Karloff, or Americans like Marshall Thompson (if you couldn't get Boris, a familiar American face like Thompson's helped sell the films in the U.S.) In 1958 alone, he introduced the world to The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood (both starring Karloff), and set the Fiend Without a Face (also with Marshall Thompson) loose in U.S. theaters. [Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers: Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup, McFarland, 1988.]

While the UK shooting locations weren't normally problematic, Gordon told Weaver that there was something of a glitch at the U.S. premiere of First Man into Space:
"The funny thing was that when we eventually delivered the picture to MGM, they turned it over to their distribution department, which of course had no idea what the background of the picture was-- they were just presented with the finished film and told to release it. Someone in the publicity department looked at it and said, 'It would be a great idea if we had the world premiere in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because that's where the film was shot.' So they staged an opening in New Mexico and it got a somewhat sarcastic reception [laughs], because the people recognized immediately it wasn't shot there!" [Ibid.]
If you're not a native New Mexican and can overlook that the southwest desert looks like a sleepy English forest, and, like me you happen to be a fan of piloted space exploration (fictional or otherwise), you might just want to take a 77 minute joyride with the First Man Into Space.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD


"Can science prepare him for what no man has experienced before?"


  1. I have this on the Criterion collection,which I mainly acquired for the Karloff movies,but I really had a WTF moment when I saw the New Mexico Naval Research Lab....that and when the state troopers tangle with the errant astronaut in one of our many swampy forests (?)...New Mexico is the 5th largest state,but unfortunately no ocean front or swamps

    1. Yep, if you're gonna try to pass off the boggy forests of ye olde England as New Mexico, you sure don't want to have your world premiere in Albuquerque, where they know what their own state looks like! :)