Conquest of Space is a 1955 American Technicolor science fiction film from Paramount Pictures, produced by George Pal, directed by Byron Haskin, and starring Walter Brooke, Eric Fleming and Mickey Shaughnessy.
Mankind has achieved the capability of space flight and built "The Wheel", a space station in orbit 1,075 miles above Earth. The station is commanded by its designer, Colonel Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke). His son, Barney (Eric Fleming), a Captain, wants to return to Earth having been aboard for a year.
The space station's personnel have been building a giant spaceship in a nearby orbit. An inspector arrives from Earth by shuttle with new orders: Not only is Merritt being promoted to General, but the new spaceship is being sent to Mars under his command. As General Merritt considers which three enlisted men and one officer will go with him, his close friend, Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy) volunteers. The general, however, turns him down for being 20 years too old (Mahoney is actually three months younger, but a general's rank brings certain privileges). Hearing that Mars is the destination, Barney Merritt changes his mind about leave and volunteers to be the mission's second officer.
After crew members watch a TV broadcast featuring their family and friends, the mission blasts off for the Red Planet. By this time, however, the general's hidden and growing space fatigue is beginning to seriously affect his judgement: Reading his Bible frequently is causing him serious doubts about the righteousness of their mission. Sgt. Mahoney is then discovered having stowed away aboard in one of the crew's spacesuits. En route to Mars, something goes wrong with their piloting radar antenna, so two crew members go on a space walk to make repairs. They manage to get the antenna working just as television monitors show a glowing planetoid, 20 times larger than their spaceship, coming at them from astern. Thanks to the general, they barely manage to avoid a collision, but the planetoid's fast-orbiting debris punctures the spacesuit of Sgt. Fodor (Ross Martin), killing him. After a religious service in space by the general, Fodor's body is cast adrift.
Eight months later, the general has become increasingly mentally unbalanced, focusing on Sgt. Fodor's loss as God's judgement. On final landing approach, he attempts to crash their spaceship into Mars, convinced their mission violates the laws of God. Barney wrests control away from his father, landing the large flying wing glider-rocket safely. Later, as the crew takes their first steps on the Red Planet, they look up and see a stream of water pouring down from the now vertical return rocket. Barney quickly discovers the leak is sabotage caused by his father, who threatens his son with a .45 automatic. The two struggle and the pistol discharges, killing the general. Sgt. Mahoney, who observed only the last stages of the struggle, wants Barney confined to quarters under arrest, but cooler heads prevail, and Barney becomes the mission's ranking officer.
The crew discovers that Mars is quite inhospitable. With their now limited water supply, it will be a severe struggle to survive the year it will take for the Earth to reach the precise orbital position needed for a return trip. Despite the absence of water on Mars, Japanese crew member Sgt. Imoto (Benson Fong) plants a single seed in the Martian soil.
The crew is glumly celebrating their first Christmas on Mars when a sudden snowstorm blows in, allowing them to replenish their dwindling water supply. In due course, as their launch window arrives, they see the seed Imoto planted has sprouted into a tiny flower. Their joy is short-lived when the crew hears low rumbling sounds and then see rocks falling and feel the ground shaking. The ground level shifts because of this violent Marsquake. Their spaceship is now leaning at a precarious angle that is far too dangerous for them to make an emergency blastoff. The crew decides to right the spaceship using the rocket engines' powerful thrust to shift the ground under the landing legs. The attempt works and they blastoff, the spaceship rising as the Martian surface completely collapses.
Once in space, Barney and Mahoney reconcile. Impressed with Barney's heroism and leadership during their time on Mars, Mahoney concludes that a court-martial would likely impugn the general's reputation, tarnishing what previously had been a spotless career. Better that "the man who conquered space" died in the line of duty, sacrificing himself to save his crew.
Walter Brooke as General Samuel T. Merritt
Eric Fleming as Captain Barney Merritt
Mickey Shaughnessy as Sgt. Mahoney
Phil Foster as Sgt. Jackie Seigel
William Redfield as Roy Cooper
William Hopper as Dr. George Fenton
Benson Fong as Sgt. Imoto
Ross Martin as Sgt. Andre Fodor
Vito Scotti as Sanella
John Dennis as Donkersgoed
Michael Fox as Elsbach
Joan Shawlee as Rosie
Iphigenie Catiglioni as Mrs. Fodor
The science and technology portrayed in Conquest of Space were intended to be as realistic as possible in depicting the first voyage to Mars. The film's theatrical release poster tagline reads: "See how it will happen in your lifetime!
Conquest of Space is based on The Conquest of Space, a 1949 non-fiction book written by Willy Ley and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell. Bonestell is noted for his photo-realistic paintings showing views from outer space; he worked on the space matte paintings used in the film.
The production also incorporated material from Wernher von Braun's 1952 book The Mars Project. Both books feature text that is straight popular science with no fictional characters or story line.
Had Producer George Pal followed either book as written, he would have produced a speculative futuristic documentary, much like of the trio of 1955 Tomorrowland-set (Walt Disney's) Disneyland television episodes: Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond. The final screenplay by James O'Hanlon, from an adaptation by Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon and George Worthing Yates, instead creates a fictional story from whole cloth.
Judgments on the quality of the film's special effects have varied. Modern audiences are apt to notice the presence of matte lines. Reviewer Glenn Erickson said that "the ambitious special effects were some of the first to garner jeers for their lack of realism." Paul Brenner said "Pal pulls out all stops in the special effects department, creating 'The Wheel', rocket launches into space, and a breathtaking near collision with an asteroid." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction said "The special effects are quite ambitious but clumsily executed, in particular the matte work." Paul Corupe said that often "the overall image on screen that inspires awe: the Martian landscape, the general's high-tech office and the vastness of the cosmos. The film's budget is certainly up on screen for your entertainment, but it's just spectacle for spectacle's sake." He too complains of matte lines but acknowledges that "the composites are convincing enough for the time the film was made."
Upon the film's release, reviewer Oscar A. Godbout in his review for The New York Times praised the effects, but was disparaging of the storyline, noting "... as plots go...it is not offensive." The public was even less kind: Erickson called the film "a flop that seriously hindered George Pal's career as a producer." Corupe described it as the "first big flop in Pal's career. It was a major setback that saw him abandon science fiction filmmaking for five years, including a planned sequel to When Worlds Collide." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction remarks "A truly awful film, The Conquest of Space is probably George Pal's worst production."