Director: Byron Haskin
Tagline: “See how it will happen—in your lifetime!”
Plot: As the breathless opening narration informs us, “This is a story of tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow!” (Presumably in post, the filmmakers edited out “Or maybe the following week! Definitely by Friday. Or March? Well, we’ve got that thing with our family in March, and then spring is so busy with the kids finishing school, and there’s the annual budget due at work, and summer is a total wash—but it will happen! As some point, post-tomorrow, maybe next fall-ish, but we’re not really committing to anything in writing!”)
In the not-too-distant future, the combined forces of Earth’s best and brightest (most of whom speak English, and with a couple exceptions, are hella white) have built the Wheel, an orbiting space station with internal gravity, and a dedicated, slightly nutty crew. Walter Brooke rules over his men with an iron fist, driving them toward one goal: the construction of a spacecraft that will take mankind to the Moon. To this aim, he and the Supreme International Space Authority have selected a group of brilliant technicians and scientists to put together and presumably pilot a ship to the stars. This team of übermenschen is trained separately from the others on the space station, causing a wee bit of friction:
Some things to note: 1) The super-group eats with the rest of the crew, but are only allowed pills, that classic science-fiction future-food staple. 2) The pills are ridiculously precise, from “Roast Beef” to “Chicken Pie” to actual “Cream” and “Sugar” for the “Coffee” pills. Three, competition to remain on the pill-eating group is fierce, and when one member washes out (after getting a quick case of “space fatigue”), Brooke tells this incredibly stressed, strung-out guy that he’s failed by sending him a full meal of real food in front of everyone else in the ship. The failure is never seen again, most likely because he exited through the nearest airlock after choking down a few bites of steak and shame-sauce.
When the message comes from headquarters that it’s time for the ship to take flight, it’s as much a relief as it is a new source of anxiety. But the moon is no longer the goal. Since Brooke is the only man who could possibly lead the expedition, and since he’s getting on in years, the SISA has decided to forego the lunar-landing test stage and jump straight for the big prize: Mars.
Key scenes: Brooke hems and haws, but finally agrees to lead the new mission. His son, Eric Fleming, volunteers as well, despite having put in for a transfer back to Earth. Then we get the inevitable volunteer sequence, which reaches its peak when Benson Fong gives the following speech explaining why interplanetary travel is crucial if mankind wants to be able to keep reaching the top shelf (literally):
The final roster for the crew of the U.S.S. Probably Gonna Die Screaming is Brooke, Fleming, Fong, medic Ross Martin, and Phil Foster, a.k.a. “The Brooklyn Guy,” one of the earliest examples of that most loathsome of all genre types, the broadly accented comic relief who makes up for what he lacks in book-smarts with a whole lot of heart. (Or, in this case, Brooke says, “I don’t think there’s a man on the Wheel with less formal education than you possess,” but apparently that doesn’t stop Foster from being a genius with electronics.) Foster’s mugging is egregious and curiously mis-timed, like a man used to the stage who can’t get over the absence of applause.
No time is spared in preparations—the mission is scheduled to leave at 11:46 the next morning, in order to coincide precisely with Mars’ orbit. The launch into deep space goes off without a hitch, but almost immediately, the men discover they have a stowaway aboard: Mickey Shaughnessy, the sergeant responsible for training the specialized group. He’s deeply in love with Brooke—well, all right, he’s deeply loyal to Brooke, but by the end of the film, his commitment to his commanding officer (with whom he’s served most of his military career) resembles the kind of dare-not-speak-its-name obsession that got edited out of Spartacus.
Shaughnessy’s blinkered acceptance of Brooke’s will turns out to be a problem when Brooke loses touch with reality. “Space fatigue” leads him to question whether Man’s journey into the cosmos isn’t some kind of blasphemy, a suspicion that turns into a near certainty when Martin is killing by an asteroid while doing repairs outside the ship. Brooke delivers a Bible-laden (and strangely affecting) eulogy before sending Martin’s body out into the void:
Brooke just gets worse from there, convinced the expedition is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. He tries to stop the ship from landing, and then, when Fleming averts a crash at the last minute, opens up their fuel and water tanks to dump on the Martian soil. Fleming gets in his way, Brooke pulls a gun, and a struggle ensues, which ends with Brooke shooting himself in the chest and dying. Shaughnessy watches from the sidelines, but in spite of the clear-cut self-defense nature of the struggle, and Brooke’s inarguable insanity, the sergeant declares it was murder, and gives his fervent hope that Fleming will be hung after a court-martial, once the ship returns to Earth.
Can easily be distinguished by: There’s a whole lot of ugly in Conquest, physically and conversationally. The character conflicts can be explained by overheated writing, but the abundance of paunchy, misshapen mugs leers out of the screen with nightmarish inexplicability. Sometimes it just seems like the cinematographer failed to account for the effects of Technicolor, even though it had been around for more than 30 years. The actors themselves should be passable, but the vibrant hues and unflattering lighting makes even the square-jawed Fleming appear queasily over-realized.
Nobody gets it worse than Foster, like in this scene where he says goodbye to his earthbound girlfriend:
Sign it was made in 1955: There are no women on the Wheel, not even in the background serving coffee or wearing glasses. The only female presence in the film is relegated to the televised farewell, where it’s either Martin’s weeping mother, or Foster’s two-timing “Rosie McCann.” There are no African-Americans, except in the background.
On the positive side, while Brooke’s religious agony is a clear sign of his descent into madness, the basic question of how the divine factors into space travel is treated with as much straight-faced seriousness as anything else in the movie. The men wonder if they’re cursed, but through Fleming’s leadership and quick thinking, they manage to prove Mars is capable of supporting life, and make it safely back home. Even Shaughnessy eventually comes around to Fleming’s side. The sudden snowstorm that saves everyone’s life is, as miracles go, a little on-the-nose, but Conquest deals with the mortal terror that the vast universe inspires in the sort of direct, earnest fashion that doesn’t get a lot of play in modern science fiction. It’s also direct in its efforts to convince the audience about the necessity of exploring the galaxy; when’s the last time a movie tried to convince anyone of that?
Timeless message: If God didn’t want Man to conquer space, he wouldn’t have given the Japanese chopsticks.
Memorable quotes: Foster, on the perils of romance. “He built a face for an ugly dame once that turned out to be so beautiful he fell in love with her. So off she went with the garbage collector!”
Shaughnessy, getting a little too personal about his relationship with Brooke: “For 30 years, me and the colonel have been banging around together.”
Brooke, using the hard sell to win over volunteers: “It’s my personal conviction that no one but an idiot would volunteer. And I should strongly suspect the sanity of anyone who does.”
And, finally, Brooke’s words to live by: “We’ll have no unnecessary floating aboard this ship!”