Friday Essay: The Manly Moonmen

There are spoilers in this essay for the 1950 Movie Destination Moon so if you care about spoilers for a seventy-year-old film, watch the movie first and then read the essay.

 

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Jim Barnes (top right), Gen. Thayer (top left), Joe Sweeny (bottom right) and Dr. Cosgraves (bottom left)

We live in an age where the majority of movies aggressively seek to suppress traditional notions of masculinity and male heroics. And no, male superheroes or male action heroes are not the sorts of masculine heroes of which I speak. Physical strength and combat skill are certainly historic traits associated with male heroes but these are not the sole qualities which make a male into a man. I was considering this question – where are the men in contemporary films? Not the “dudes” (I’m thinking of Starlord from Guardians of the Galaxy in particular and to some extent Poe Dameron from The Last Jedi), not the male characters, not the dead-beat father figures (Han Solo) – the men. Quite honestly, they are a rare find in movies today (the only real example I can think of from the last two decades is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and in a society plagued by fatherlessness, men in our movies and stories are needed more than ever to provide so many boys with positive examples of how men should act. But I think it’s obvious with the current cultural climate in Hollywood and the film industry, we won’t be seeing such characters for a long time.

The best way forward then, is to take a look back. There are plenty of older movies with positive male heroes but when I asked myself “What is movie have I seen that has the manliest men you could imagine?” I surprised myself by answering “George Pal’s Destination Moon.” Destination Moon, released in 1950, was the science fiction drama that ushered in the 50’s science fiction craze at the cinema. The writer of this iconic film was the legendary Robert A. Heinlein who took inspiration on several plot points from his book Rocketship Galileo (which is incidentally one of my favorite works of science fiction even if it is on the juvenile side).  And yet despite the cheesy and cheap productions to follow in its popularity, Destination Moon was not cheesy and presented a dedication to realism that quite honestly makes the movie something of a bore on a sheer entertainment level.

The plot is literally, “American corporations come together to put a rocket on the moon and they do.” Now, there is conflict, both from a nameless but presumably Soviet-backed opposition and from technical dangers that complicate their return voyage. Personally, I wish Heinlein would have borrowed more from Rocketship Galileo for his central conflict – in Rocketship, they encounter a hidden Nazi base on the moon – simply adapting the Nazis to perhaps be the Soviet opposition that the movie heavily implies but does not deliver on.  And yet, Destination Moon is a visual treat with all the fixtures soon to be classic sci-fi movie tropes such as the bullet-shaped rocket, a dry and cracked lunar surface and accordion-jointed space-suits.  But more importantly, Destination Moon features first three and then four of the manliest men I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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General Thayer pitches his idea to Jim Barnes

Let’s start with the three. First, we have the manliest of the bunch – Jim Barnes (John Archer) an industrialist manufacturer of aircraft and engines. Next, we have Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), an engineer extraordinaire. Last, we have General Thayer (Tom Powers), the former military man who’s dream starts the whole expedition. Each of these men displays great skill and intelligence in their fields, and enormous dedication to the vision once they commit. But their trust test of courage comes in two separate occasions.

The rocket is a privately funded project, with several companies coming together under Barnes’ leadership to make this expedition a reality. They are incentivized by the military potential of course, and also by a strong sense of patriotism (which goes back to the hints of Soviet opposition). However, when they request permission to test the atomic-energy engines on site (at White Sands, New Mexico) their request is denied unless they move testing to the South Pacific. Unwilling to spend more money they don’t really have, and also determined to push on with their mission, the three men make a bold decision to fly the rocket themselves rather than let the government (influenced by Soviet-manufactured public opinion against the testing) stop them. The decision is not reckless. They go in knowing full well the dangers of flying an untested ship, and ready to sacrifice their lives if need be. They have a courage not built on bravado or pride but on conviction.

The fourth man has an arc that takes him from boy to man. Enter Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), radio and radar technician from Brooklyn who is interesting solely in “beer, babes, and baseball”. Sweeny enters the four-man crew with seventeen hours to go after the original fourth man (a character we meet once) is taken sick with appendicitis (hinted at by the movie earlier) and Joe Sweeny is the only one left who is trained to use the equipment. Barnes and Thayer convince him only once he is assured the rocket will not blow up (and, in his mind, not even budge). Sweeny handles the challenges of the voyage less than gracefully and on the Moon, he is interested in frolicking and not in serious exploration.

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Dr. Cosgraves (Blue) and  Jim Barnes (Orange) land on the Moon’s surface

The final test of their courage comes in the movie’s final conflict. The ship burned too much fuel in the landing attempt, and as a result, cannot pull free of the Moon without dropping a ton a weight, so the four astronauts strip the ship to the bare bones. Finally, they have only themselves, one space-suit (for entering the air-lock when airless) and their radio.  But they come up 110 pounds short. With no other recourse seemingly left to them, the three men debate over who will stay each making a case for why he should make the sacrifice. Finally, Sweeny, watching from the background and wearing the remaining space suit, suggests they match for the honor and as they are distracted he quietly leaves the ship, intending to make the sacrifice himself. He shrugs off his gesture with his usual slang and bravado – “Goodbye fellas! Remember to the gals- any gals” – but then Barnes realizes a way to lose the extra weight without one of the men sacrificing themselves. I’ll let you watch the movie to see how.

Sweeny grows from a dude to a man, becoming like these three men he looks up to. Sure, the movie itself has some yawning moments but these four men teach us some relevant lessons on manhood. They exhibit courage, conviction, and self-sacrifice but also wisdom, grit, ingenuity, and duty. Cargraves, the only married man among them, is devoted to his wife and two sons in what few glimpses we receive into his family life. And in the course of their journey, these four men become fast friends.

There are other movies out there with men of this caliber – I think again of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – but one can never have too many stories with admirable heroes so I wanted to dedicate some attention to Destination Moon and its portrayal of the manly Moonmen.

Thank you for reading this post! I welcome civil and thoughtful discussions, so please comment your thoughts below.  If you’d like to keep updated on blog posts, please subscribe and if you’d like to keep up to date of my book efforts, please follow me on Amazon. Thank you, and God bless!

 

Friday Essay: “Jekyll in Hyding”

This is an edited version of an essay I wrote at Reformation Bible College. This is the second in a series I’m developing of Friday Essays. Because the original footnote format is difficult to transfer to a blog format, I include parenthetical footnotes with the author’s last name and the page number; all referenced sources are included at the end of the essay.
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Richard Mansfield portrayed both Jekyll and Hyde in a stage adaptation(1887-88); this double-exposure photo shows him in both roles  c.1895

Thanks to Universal Studios sensationalized cinematic version of Stevenson’s classic story in 1931, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has yet to receive a fully faithful film adaptation. Too often Hollywood turns this fascinating look at the naked human soul into a Halloween freak show about monsters and mad scientists. I have, however, seen at least one interpretation which tries to capture the intent of the original story. Produced for television 2003 and starring John Hannah, this particular version deviates from the book’s plot in many ways but most importantly by removing the physical change from Hyde. Nonetheless, it drives home the reality that Jekyll and Hyde are in fact one person, not two. The story is often seen as a narrative look at the tension between the good and evil in man, but I believe we must be careful not to confuse Jekyll’s view (a view clearly laid out in his letter to Utterson) and Stevenson’s view of man. Jekyll holds explicitly to a dualistic view of man’s nature. By contrast, Stevenson, I want to argue, actually holds that good and evil are not two natures at war in man. Rather, good and evil are conflicting characteristics of the one nature. Hyde is Jekyll’s hidden sin.

Hyde’s name is key to understanding his relationship with Jekyll. In the story, Jekyll never tells us how Hyde received his name- did his other self simply come with a predetermined name or did Jekyll select one? To understand why the name “Hyde”, we have to look beyond Jekyll and back to the actual author, Stevenson, who clearly intends a double meaning with his name choice. In Chapter 2, Utterson in his quest to find the mysterious Mr. Hyde comments to himself, “If he be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek (10)”. Hyde is homophonous with the word “hide”, a word that characterizes Hyde’s entire existence. From sneaking into Jekyll’s house almost instantly after his unmasking to withdrawing into the laboratory and his eventual demise, Hyde remains cloaked in a shroud of silence. Even Jekyll’s final confession declines to divulge the full extent of the depravities committed by his other self. Edward Hyde then is a metaphor or symbol of Jekyll’s hidden sinful life. Stevenson’s purpose is to show the hidden Hyde that all men possess the potential to be if the restraints are removed. For Jekyll, and presumably Stevenson, the restraints are societal conventions or the desire to be respected. Jekyll’s barriers come crashing down when he becomes Hyde, a state induced by drugs. Jekyll ascribes a neutral power to the agent of change, so I believe Stevenson wants to avoid a “Hyde is Jekyll on drugs” (although that is technically true) concept. Rather, when Jekyll takes the potion, he is removing his reasons for morality and his sensitivity to those around him. It is the reasoning process that leads to the rationalization of our sin. In the end, however, Hyde becomes manifest without the aid of the drug. Sin becomes his norm, and in terror, Jekyll adopts the primary characteristic of Hyde by hiding himself from the world. At one point, as he engages in conversation with Mr. Utterson and Mr. Enfield during the final period of intense seclusion, he begins turning into Hyde. Eventually, Hyde consumes him to the point where Hyde becomes the norm. By depicting the slow replacement of Jekyll by Hyde, Stevenson describes the festering and toxic nature of hidden and unchecked sin. Jekyll seeks to redeem himself by suppressing Hyde, not through revealing him and seeking forgiveness. Granted, Stevenson himself as a non-believer would be less inclined toward the concept of repentance and offers little if any redemptive hope for Jekyll’s situation. I find it odd that while occasional references to God and heaven are made, the Church is practically nonexistent in this story. Jekyll’s best friends are a lawyer, a subtle but important reinforcement of his condemnation, and another doctor, who displays the inability of science to deal with human nature. Since science fails him and the law can only judge him, Jekyll has nowhere to turn and inch by inch he succumbs to the power of his own deceitful heart, a heart wherein hides Mr. Hyde.

While Hyde cloaks the desires of Jekyll on the one hand, on the other he ultimately reveals those same desires. By the end of the book, Jekyll hates Hyde but only after Hyde ruins him. Even then, he writes in his confession:

But his love of me is wonderful; I go further: I who sicken and freeze at the mere thought of him, when I recall the abjection and passion of his attachment, and when I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him (43).

Despite all the horrors committed and the tragedy caused by Hyde, Jekyll cannot fully hate him. From the beginning, Jekyll wanted Hyde, but he also wanted the perks and privileges which attended his status as a respected doctor. Through his identity as Hyde, Jekyll indulges his inner lusts and while shocked at the deeds done in this state, he only truly renounces the activities and appropriation of Hyde after the murder of Sir Danvers. Jekyll is not the good side of the same being to Hyde’s evil part, or else he would have long before sought to destroy him. Even the doctor himself admits that Hyde “was wholly evil” and Jekyll “was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had learned to despair (37)”. If the theory espoused is one of two natures, this requires Hyde to be pure evil and Jekyll to become pure good. Hyde is depraved in every fiber of his being, but he is not the totality of Jekyll’s depravity because Jekyll retains his own sinfulness. Hyde merely serves to exposes the true Jekyll.

Although Jekyll speaks of Hyde as a separate person who shares his consciousness, his denial flows out of a visceral reaction to Hyde and refusal to accept any deeper connection rather than a coherent and logical deduction. Far from being another individual, Hyde and Jekyll are clearly one and the guilt of Hyde is the guilt of Jekyll. As the final hours of Jekyll’s physical existence draw to a close, the bachelor describes Hyde as “knit closer to him than a wife” (43). If man is a duality as Jekyll believes then why are Jekyll and Hyde still one person, not two separate beings? Let us assume Jekyll’s theory for the sake of argument. Essentially, Jekyll believes man is not one but two, and the two can be “housed in separate identities” (35). If man is actually a union of a good and evil personality engaged in an internal war and Jekyll can extract the animalistic evil into its own personified state, then Jekyll ought to be without any evil or any negative characteristics. If we push even further, Jekyll and his evil alter-ego should not share the same consciousness. In the book, Hyde is never without Jekyll in some sense, nor Jekyll without Hyde. Hyde’s gradual ascent to primacy is not a removal of Jekyll but an unmasking. In using this analogy, Stevenson paints a bleak picture of man as but a savage dressed in fancy clothes and conventions to keep him from killing his neighbor. When the conventions cease to bind the conscience, the savage acts in accordance with his basest of desires. Despite his passionate insistence that he only shares a consciousness with Hyde, in his heart of hearts I believe even Henry Jekyll realizes Hyde is indeed part of him.

As a tale born out of a nightmare, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems better suited at first glance to provide horror material than a philosophical look into the nature of man (Balfour, 15). Yet Stevenson’s work has proven a significant literary voice in the question of good and evil in man. Stevenson is essentially Hobbesian in his view of man unrestrained, but he also shares some concepts with Scripture. While Stevenson was not a Christian, he nonetheless lived in age familiar with Biblical concepts and was himself raised in a Scottish Presbyterian home. Regarding a minister of the Church of Scotland in his lineage, Stevenson commented:

Now I often wonder what I have inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them (Memories and Portraits, 112-113).

Scripture and Stevenson agree that all are prone to evil and that evil touches every aspect of our being (Rom. 3:10-23), that the heart possesses a deceptive nature (Jer. 17:9) and that sin is corrupting and consuming (e.g. Job 15:17-35; Ps. 38:5-8; Jn 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:22). James 1:14-15 provides an especially sobering and relevant commentary that applies to Stevenson’s story:

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death. (ESV)

Of course, Stevenson departs from Scripture in his lack of redemption offered. The gospel of Christ is not beyond any sinner, not even Edward Hyde. But all truth is God’s truth and Stevenson gives us insights that are worth thinking on regarding sin and its effects. And the most haunting truth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is this: The sins of Hyde consumes Jeykll because the sins of Jekyll feeds Hyde and we can easily see that Hyde is nothing less than Jekyll in hiding.

 

Sources:

Balfour, Graham. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Wisehouse Classics Edition). N.p.: Wisehouse Classics, 2015.

————————-.  Memories and Portraits. London: Chatto and Windus, 1906