Monday, December 21, 2009

A Trip to the Moon (Egypt, 1959)

I hope to one day establish that every nation on Earth at one time or another made a film whose title could roughly be translated as "A Trip to the Moon". So far, in addition to Georges Melies' famous 1902 effort, we have the Indian Trip to Moon and now this Egyptian made film from 1959. Of course, the opening credits of the film itself translate the title as "A Journey to the Moon", but, seeing as the currently available DVD bears the Trip to the Moon name -- and is a crisp-looking release with English subs that is well worth owning -- I don't want to create any unnecessary obstacles for those wanting to seek it out.

A Trip to the Moon presents few cultural hurdles for an American viewer such as myself. In fact, if you've seen films like Abbott and Costello Go to Mars or The Three Stooges in Orbit, you're half way to having seen it already. Popular star Ismail Yasin had been appearing in tailor-made screen comedies for decades by the time of making it, and A Trip to the Moon -- as those aforementioned, roughly contemporaneous American films did for their respective stars -- represents his patented comedic take on the space race, not to mention the science fiction genre as a whole. The film even includes topical references such as a shout-out by its star to Laika, Russia's first canine cosmonaut.

Here Ismail plays "Ismail", a driver for an Egyptian newspaper who longs to be a photojournalist himself. As the film opens, he is chauffeuring a news team to an observatory where the launch of a space rocket built by German scientist Mr. Sharvin (you know that he's German by the way he constantly exclaims "wunderbar!" and "fantastisch!") is about to take place. Once they arrive at the site, Ismail begins wandering around taking pictures of his own and is soon mistaken for a spy. Fleeing from security guards, he hides inside the rocket, where Sharvin is busy giving a tour to observatory representative Mr. Roushdy -- who is played by handsome actor Roushdy Abara, here essentially serving as the non-singing Dean Martin to Ismail's Jerry Lewis.

Predictably, a subsequent scuffle between Sharvin and Ismail results in the rocket being prematurely launched, and the scientist and his two reluctant passengers are hurtled into space, where they quickly face all of those standard perils that astronauts in 50s sci-fi films seem obliged to endure: meteor showers, zero gravity, oxygen leaks, etc. Complicating matters further, Ismail quickly finds the spaceship's well-stocked liquor cabinet and starts hitting the sauce with gusto. Drunk and homesick, he then dons a spacesuit and attempts to make the long walk back to Earth, resulting in Roushdy having to go outside and retrieve him. Finally -- and perhaps a full fifteen minutes since their leaving Earth -- a shortage of fuel requires the hapless crew to make a forced landing on the moon.

Once they have landed, the surface of the moon reveals itself to be a vast desert that more resembles the mental image of Egypt that most of us entertain than it does any extraterrestrial landscape. In fact, it's easy to imagine the Sphinx and the great pyramids lying just out of frame in many of the shots. But, hey, you work with what you got; while Hollywood had Bronson Canyon, Egypt had the Sahara. In any case, it is not long before a delightful cardboard box robot by the name of Otto (he even gets his own credit at the film's opening) lumbers along and hypnotizes our space travelers, leading them back to the underground bunker of a character called Mr. Cosmos.

Mr Cosmos explains to the gang that he is among the last survivors of a devastating atomic war that cleared the Moon's surface of all life. (Um, okay.) Along with his young daughter Stella (Sophy Sarwat), he has managed to shield a few others within his sealed compound, and, true to the template, these all turn out to be, like Stella, pulchritudinous young women in tiny skirts and leotards. Ismail proceeds to use Cosmos' super telescope to give the girls a visual tour of his home country, finally focusing in on his own house, where he is surprised to see his wife making out on the veranda with a handsome stranger. D'oh! Roushdy responds to Ismail's resulting lamentations with dismay, saying he's crazy to bellyache about the old trouble-n'-strife when there's all this fresh moon lady tail to chase (though not exactly in those words).

And so, as Ismail seeks solace in the booze (it doesn't take long to figure out that Ismail Yasin's brand of funny is the kind that comes in a bottle), Roushdy gets busy making with the Captain Kirk on Stella, explaining to her all of our quaint Earth customs like kissing and acting like married people. Whenever I see one of these scenes, I can't help speculating upon what an actual, real-life douchebag (rather than a fictional one like Roushdy) would do if put in this situation. I imagine that his confabulations about the standard form of greeting between humans would include some things far less chaste than kissing, and there would probably be something in there about how roofies are the one source for all essential vitamins and minerals.

Anyway, eventually, in order to facilitate the Earthling's safe journey home, Mr. Cosmos directs them toward a stockpile of atomic fuel used during the war that has been stashed in a cave on the Moon's dark side. After making the expedition, the group finds the fuel guarded over by a group of horribly maimed and scarred soldiers, many of whom appear to be portrayed by real-life amputees. As you might imagine, it's a sequence that's pretty short on chuckles, and is the one point where A Trip to the Moon veers very markedly away in style from the more innocuous types of American space spoofs I referenced earlier. Finally, a uniformed officer -- even more scarred than the rest, and obviously driven to the brink of insanity by his plight -- tells the Earth people that, if their planet has discovered "the atom... then their destiny will be like ours". He then describes how his forces pursued victory at all costs, and directs his visitors to behold what remains of his "heroic officers". And then they all give Hitler salutes.


As inherently hilarious as cuckoldry, chronic alcoholism, fascism, and the ravages of nuclear war may be, I found very little to really laugh at in A Trip to the Moon. Still, I found it immensely entertaining. This is in part due to the sheer novelty of seeing an Egyptian popular film from its era, but also because there is just something undeniably cozy about the way the picture so dutifully trots out all of the hokiest tropes of 50s space travel movies. Even the heavy-handed moralizing, which is only out of place by virtue of the film being an ostensible yuck-fest, seems practically plucked of a piece from cautionary, Eisenhower era space operas like World Without End. It is a cheap film, but also a professionally made one, with a few instances of imaginative and resourceful special effects. (Ismail and Roushdy's spacewalk is especially nice, even if there are moments when you can see their shadows cast against the space backdrop.) And to top if off, the whole thing clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes, meaning that it's over long before it overstays its welcome.

I understand that Ismail Yasin also starred in a film that follows closely in the footsteps of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which pretty much guarantees that, DVD gods providing, he will someday in the not-too-distant future be making a return appearance at 4DK . Skoal!


Prof. Grewbeard said...

so, i can get this from Amazon?...

the Egyptian A&C meet Frankenstein you mention is available from Sinister Cinema, by the way. haven't seen it myself, but the clip on Youtube(if it's still there)looks pretty awesome.

sunil said...

A crisp 90 minutes? I maybe wrong but I think the reason, *our* movies are so long is simply because our traditional plays were meant to be played the *whole night*. The model was very simple - villagers comes to town to transact bazaar business (esp at harvest times), and instead of going back home by nightfall, or getting him to sleep the night in a strange bed(where in all possibility he will get robbed of his new money), tempt him to while the night hours with a nightlong play. When films first started, you don't want such a customer to feel completely cheated. :)

Samuel Wilson said...

This is a wonderful discovery for exactly the reasons you mention, apart from the film's actual quality. It's a relic of a more civilized time when a booze cabinet was considered a necessity for space travel, and perhaps a more innocent time around the world as well.

Todd said...

Sunil: Thanks for your insight. I want to say that there's no special reason why one should make a qualitative comparison between Indian and Egyptian films, but, looking back over this review, it would be hard for me to argue that I wasn't doing exactly that with my reference to this film's length. That's more reflective of my personal viewing habits than anything else -- of the fact that it comes as a nice and infrequent break when I don't have to set aside 2+ to 3 hours out of my day to watch a film (and India's not the only filmmaking country that lays those kind of a claims on my personal time; The Thai and Filipino peoples, for instance, are equally capable of reeling out a pretty exhausting cinematic narrative).

But it's also reflective of the surprising extent to which watching A Trip to the Moon was as profoundly unchallenging as watching one of the 1950s B sci-fi movies I grew up watching on American TV. Experience has lead me to approach pop films from non-Western countries with the expectation that I will have to do at least a little recalibrating of my ingrained, Hollywood fed expectations of what a piece of filmed entertainment should be. When that turns out to be as much not the case as it was here, it's like a lazy and unexpected little vacation for my brain. Bollywood's still my girlfriend, though. A Trip to the Moon was just a one night fling!

Prof; I got the DVD from Fine Art FIlm in the UK (, but I see it's also available from some secondary sellers on Amazon.

Samuel: Hear hear! And I should probably also mention that the drink of choice aboard this particular spaceship appeared to be Cognac.

sunil said...

Don't get me wrong, I just needed a handle to frame a comment on. OF COURSE I want to float down the Nile and see some exotic Egyptian Snake charmers and belly dancers for a change.
I love the fact that you are so curious about the cultural offerings of different lands.
But for me and most south asians that curiosity is limited to the "blue" films from Europe and martial arts movies from hong kong. :)

sunil said...

And I especially made the comment because I mentally nodded in appreciation of the insight you gave me when you said, the special effects were never meant to be taken seriously. I have personally seen the fag end of a night long traditional play where they enacted Ravana flying thru' the air by having him stand on a bench. How awesome is that?

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Thank you for the giant picture of Otto at the end. I wanted one as soon as I saw the first one.

I spent most of this morning reading about ancient Egyptian cultural topics, and this is an awesome chaser. Let's see if I can find a way to work it into my children's activities in our Egypt gallery....

Todd said...

Sunil: Kung Fu films and dirty European movies are a classic entry point into world cinema. Hey, it worked for me!

And, yeah, that play does sound awesome. I think that James Cameron's next movie should feature flying effects that involve people standing on desk chairs out of frame like the styrofoam-winged girl in Shaitani Dracula. That would very satisfyingly bring things full circle, I think.

Beth: Yes! Introducing American schoolchildren to the hard drinking comedy of Ismail Yasin is a branch of Egyptology that I could really get behind.

sunil said...

Kinda sad to see a cinema that gave the world someone as awesome as Omar Sharif being nearly destroyed by its own government.

Cam Eleon said...

Very nice review. Looks like it could be worth a track down.

You're probably right about most countries having a variant on this theme. Susie Arabia's blog has a 'review' of a 1959 Chinese take on the subject, though an English translation of the title has yet to surface. Ever hear of this one?:

Cam Eleon said...

To fix above link, add .html to the end of the numbers.

Todd said...

Thanks, Cam. Wow, it's all there, isn't it? Robots, flying saucers, moonwalks, sexy space ladies, etc. I have no idea what the English title might be, but, in keeping with my convictions, I'll throw out "A Trip to the Moon" as a wild guess.

Todd said...

Update: Durian Dave over at Soft Film informs me that that Chinese space travel movie is actually called Riots in Outer Space. He also thoughtfully provided me with a link to that film's entry on the Honk Kong Movie Database site:

Todd said...

Of course, I meant Hong Kong Movie Database. And, also, that link doesn't appear to work, so just paste the url into your browser.

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