16 April 2021

THE ROCKET THAT BOMBED

Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon. Don Sharp, director. Studiocanal 2021.

Originally released in 1967, this is a new restoration of Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon. Taking enormous liberties with Verne’s original 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, it is set in Victorian England, where a series of scenes of British efforts at pushing the frontiers of science are shown to be comically incompetent.
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At a lecture Professor Siegfried Von Bulow (Gert Frobe) outlines his plans to fire a projectile to the Moon from a huge cannon using a new type of explosive he has invented. At the lecture is showman Phineas T. Barnum (Burl Ives) who has arrived in Britain, with Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe), from the USA after his ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ has burnt down.

A committee is put together with Bulow producing the propellent for doddery Sir Charles Dilworthy’s (Lionel Jefferies) space capsule. Tom Thumb is ‘volunteered’ to be the Neil Armstrong of his age, and Harry Washington-Smythe, played by the expert on depicting shady characters, Terry Thomas, is assigned as the treasurer.

As might be expected things do not go smoothly. When it is discovered Dilworthy’s design does not include a return journey and the funds have been siphoned off by Smythe, an alternative project is put together.

In their attempt to sabotage the launch of the rocket, Dilworthy and Smythe, accidentally end up being fired to the Moon. As with the rest of the film’s inventions this goes disastrously wrong and they end up pulling their crashed spacecraft along a country road. As they march at the head of a gang of slaves, they argue whether they are in Russia or on the Moon. Perhaps this could be a warning that if we do not take space travel seriously this how we might all end up, but that is too profound a thought for something that can only deliver a few gentle laughs.

It was meant to be a gag-filled adventure, capitalising on the success of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965) and Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines but despite the strong cast it failed at the box office. This is probably because the story is slow moving (a bloated running time of 119 minutes) and episodic, without much space adventure.

Much of its failure, besides the muddled script, is that it depended on multi-national investors who had different audiences and expectations. This is made clear by the interviews with film historian Matthew Sweet and film critic Kim Newman that are included as DVD extras.

In the end, a historical footnote that tried to hitch a ride on the soaring interest in space exploration, but dithered and crashed like its own film characters. -- Nigel Watson

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