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The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl

01/07/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 in the USA - or Buy The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 in the UK

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pub: McFarland. 361 page illustrated indexed softcover. Price: ú43.50 (UK), $50.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4267-6.

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Author Gary Westfahl in his introduction to 'The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969' explains why Hollywood doesn't like spacesuits because the helmets obscure the actors faces. The same applies to scuba gear and super-heroes, if you think about it, and probably why the latter lose their masks so much. However, in space, you would have serious problems without the necessary life support and encouraged by Hugo Gernsback who nudged SF writers to be as accurate as possible insisted on reasonably credible spacesuits which seeped into the movie industry.

Saying that, the first films featuring spacesuits weren't American but German, 'Frau im Monde' ('Woman In The Moon') directed by Friz Lang in 1929 and 'Kosmicheskiy Reys' (The Space Voyage) directed by Vasili Zhuravlev in Russia. It wasn't until 1950, that the Irving Pichel directed 'Destination Moon' off a story co-written by Robert A. Heinlein, that America entered this rather specialised SF market at the time. Oh, 'Rocketship X-M' directed by Kurt Neumann was filmed first but 'Destination Moon' was released first I should point out these early films were aimed more at space colonisation or at least get to the Moon than purely as Science Fiction and giving a depiction of what it would be like. When you consider that the first real space launch wasn't until 1957 and getting a man into orbit until 1961, a lot of it, let alone the technology, was pure speculation and if anything, latter films brought in domestic issues to give the film-goer something more to relate to. Oh, for the record, the first British spacesuit film 'Spaceways' in 1953 from Hammer Films and was directed by Terrance Fisher. Going back to Heinlein, he has the distinction of co-writing the second American film, 'Project Moon Base', in the same year.

Apart from Heinlein, other SF author worthies who wrote screenplays includes Charles Beaumont, John Brunner, Jerome Bixby and Jerry Sohl, even if the latter got drastically re-written.

Oddly, you would have expected Westfahl to have stayed in chronological progression, instead he breaks into chapters relating to themes of adventure and humour, interspersed with TV shows. Whether this was to make it easier for the reader or not is debatable but it misses out on showing a decent path as some spacesuits were re-used in different films, even if he points out where. There is an inkling in the final chapter that Westfahl was being worn out by all the research he was doing but the immense detail he gives does make for an immense read.

I should point out that all films have a combined synopsis and analysis of each film and indeed, significant TV series episodes, which often borrowed their spacesuits from the films as well. It does seem odd to stop at 1969 and although the chronological release at the back lists films missed in this period and the significant ones up to the present if you want to pursue any further.

Oddly, I found a lot of firsts amongst the foreign films. In 1958, the Italian film, 'La Morte Viene Dallo Spazio' ('The Day The Sky Exploded') appears to be the first natural disaster in space. If you thought the HAL 9000 was the first deranged computer, think again. The 1960 Italian film 'Space Men' did it first and considering that Kubrick researched other films before '2001', had to have seen it. The Germans had their own version of 'Star Trek' with the 1966 series 'Raumpatrouille: Die Phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion' but I'll settle for the translated title, 'Space Patrol', the third series with such a name incidentally. For those with a taste for it, there's even a Perry Rhodan film., '...4...3...2...1...Morte' (Mission Stardust') in 1967. From the looks of things the first space battle n space was in 1959 with the Japanese film 'Uchȗ Daisens˘' (Battle In Outer Space'). The first public relations film and one I've never seen is the 1968 American film, 'Countdown', for getting civilians on the Moon without accidentally getting on-board.

Did you know that three spacesuit films won Oscars for their special effects: 'Destination Moon', '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'Marooned'. Speaking of '2001', Westfahl does a good analysis even if he does touch on its sequel, '2010'. Probably the biggest mistake in the entire book is with the photo caption of Gary Lockwood, whre he calls him 'David Poole'. As it's the only mistake that I really spotted, I think we can forgive him that one.

It's inevitable with books of this sort that any SF fan will rake their brains for any film or TV series left out. Considering how extensive Westfhal researched across the world and even as far as sit-coms, I'm surprised he missed out on the Century 21 shows, especially as spacesuits were worn on 'Thunderbirds' and 'Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons', both of which would have fallen under his remit. He does acknowledge 'Space: 1999' but barely 'UFO', which kept close to proper EVA procedures throughout. The 1963 Roberta Leigh puppet series 'Space Patrol' (US title: Planet Patrol), unlike 'Fireball XL5', the galasphere crew wore space helmets cleverly made to allow the strings through and still have an aspect that looked realistic.

Having said that, this book is a treat for its research in areas that I hadn't previously known about in foreign films and if you have any interest in the early films that are determined to show what space travel was like in a realistic context, then this one is a must. The contrast prior to the first real space travel in the early 1960s and when it was known what to wear after creates a strong dividing line and shows how much we accept things as we seen them in many films today. A great research book.

GF Willmetts
June 2012

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