Journey to the Seventh Planet

Sidney Pink insisted to the end of his life that Journey to the Seventh Planet is a great science-fiction film, and it is. The theme is nothing less than the fall of man, conceived as an apologia for the scientific mind. “Justify our leaving home”, André Breton says, in the tone of Orphée’s public, étonnez-nous.

The apple, the instantaneous garden of Eden, the created females, the omniscient mind and the serpent are all in evidence. They all make sense, in a way, but the plants are rootless, the girls are imaginary, the planet is ashen.

No heroic explorer, certainly no scientist, could settle for this state of affairs. Our astronauts blast off back to Earth, where conflict has raged over this film since its release. Melchior says Pink botched it, Pink says Arkoff botched it. The truth is Arkoff played a hunch, one should think, and shaped the thing according to his lights. Possibly much was lost, principally on the Danish production end in special effects, but the stylish mind of Arkoff is not to be underestimated. What remains is to discuss the dilemma of style.

It’s principally addressed by Aage Wiltrup’s cinematography, mainly keyed to primary colors, with a secondary component of complementaries. His in-camera effects are capital, as when golden light is made to “fall” on Ingrid in her first appearance (a first appearance of the Zhivago effect), ending in a close-up suffused with pink light as the astronauts leave her presence. There is generally much play with colored gels on the famously minuscule sets.

The erotic symbolism that leads the explorers on includes the miniature of their rocket ship passing globular planets against a painted backdrop. The interpolated giant spider is on the order of a found object or readymade, and the film-scratches representing ray-gun blasts remind the viewer, as Godard says of scratchy prints in general, that he is watching a film.

One can read every conceivable bit of criticism directed at Journey to the Seventh Planet, from carping at its low-budget mysteries, which are profound, to sneers at the girls, who are beautiful, to gibes at the astronauts’ admiration of them...

The idea of an environment prepared for Earthlings appears at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as also that of a supermind, which comes from Godard’s Alphaville, with antecedents in this film and Strock’s Gog, among others. There are certainly a lot of precedents for the girls from outer space, from Cunha’s Missile to the Moon and White’s Outer Space Jitters to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari.

What this note is trying to suggest is, almost impossibly, a film with stylistic difficulties for the casual observer which reflect a deep perturbation of content. Arkoff recognized, it may be, the sheer amusement value of the successive MacGuffins, such as the mysterious hole in the forest that strips a stick bare, and he kept an even keel of suspense before the awful mystery of the conclusion, when the giant brain with its single eye is confronted by the astronauts, a scene which develops both horns of its dilemma to an intensity allowing the grand sublimations of Godard and Kubrick.

“I asked the editor,” says Gordon Douglas, “How does it look? And he said: Fine. I said: Does it look honest? He said: As honest as twelve foot ants can look.” Every step of Journey to the Seventh Planet is designed to lead from image to image as such. This is exactly how King Kong is constructed, and with persistence of vision will suffice for a definition of cinema.


Finger on the Trigger

End of the Civil War, Confederates hold Fort Grant in Oklahoma, demobilized Union cavalrymen pass through on their way to New Mexico.

Cf. Hawks’ Rio Lobo, Guillermin’s El Condor, Boetticher’s Westbound, McLaglen’s The Shadow Riders.

“I’ve seen dead men before. I’ve just been through a war.” The golden horseshoe. The Confederate treasury. A bank in Southernville. Indian territory (cp. Two Flags West, dir. Robert Wise). A charming miprision leads the cavalrymen, some of them, to believe the fort still in U.S. hands (cp. Night Boat to Dublin, dir. Lawrence Huntington).

Thus the masterful screenplay, by the author of Julio Coll’s Pyro. The structure pivots on this misprision.

“How I know you come back?”

“Because I’m a thief. I couldn’t resist that much gold.”

“Wait. We talk more.”

“You should have been a lawyer.” Blue skies, Spanish badlands for the filming.

“I feel like I’m trapped in a bank vault.”

“What a way for a Scotsman to die!”

And then it’s a question of “what Confederacy,” the balls of St. Nicholas. Pink is especially good at conveying the swift ferocity of an Indian attack with an antique flavor of the primitive, the combination of symbols and metaphors at the climax might have suggested Sherin’s Valdez Is Coming. The defense is not made at the fort but in the sacked and ruined town.

Techniscope, Technicolor, wardrobe by “the incomparable Vicky.”