Home > Reviews > DESTINATION MOON – Leith Stevens



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer George Pal sought to start the decade of the 1950s with a well-made outer space drama. He adapted “Rocket Ship Galileo”, a novel by Robert Heinlein, for his project and installed Irving Pichel to direct. The story reveals humanity’s first effort to fly a spaceship to the Moon. Dr. Charles Cargraves and space exploration enthusiast General Thayer solicit aircraft executive Jim Barnes to join them in a collective effort to build Earth’s first nuclear powered spacecraft. Politics, public hysteria and regulations threaten to shutdown the project but are circumvented by a decision to pre-empt impending interference by launching early. They successfully launch and begin the epic trek, but are forced to make emergency repairs mid flight that includes a dramatic rescue of an un-tethered crewman. As they initiate lunar descent, miscalculation causes them to consume too much fuel during the landing. System check calculations indicate that they now have insufficient fuel reserves to successfully blast off and achieve lunar orbit with the full crew. They make desperate efforts to lighten the ship yet come up short by 110 pounds; meaning one of the crew must remain. With their launch window closing and crew anxiety building, they resolve to not only jettison the ship’s radio equipment, there-by losing contact with Earth, but also their sole remaining space suit. With time almost out the Luna safely blasts off from the Moon with all aboard and completes its epic voyage by returning to Earth. The film was a modest commercial success and earned two Academy Award nominations, winning one for Visual Effects.

Leith Stevens was hired to score the film and given the subject matter initially considered a modernist scoring approach. He however changed his mind after a full script review realizing that a classical thematic orchestral score would best support the film’s melodramatic narrative. He provided 47 minutes of music that was supplemented by cartoon music by Clarence Wheeler. For the score Stevens provided five themes and a motif. The first is the Exploration Theme, a horn propelled six-note construct first articulated on muted trumpets and then French horns, which speaks to the epic adventure of space exploration. The second is the Lunar Theme, which speaks to the desolate world, emoting a pensive lyricism announced by muted French horns and carried by strings and woodwinds. The Flight Theme offers a free-flowing line of gentile strings and woodwinds, which support the space flight of the Luna. The Space Walk Theme offers slow paced, triplet dance-like rhythm construct that supports space walking. The Earth Theme offers a warm repeating line of either woodwinds or strings, an organic sound that offers the crew a connection to the Earth. The Danger Motif is a simple repeating line by woodwinds and horns minaccioso that sow danger or heighten the drama.

“Main Title” opens the film to a bright crescent Moon that fills the screen. As the Moon fades out the music plays on as the opening credits roll in an upwards streaming fashion over a star field – could this have been John Lucas’ inspiration for “Star Wars”? The cue is a score highlight where Stevens showcases interplay of his two primary themes. We open dramatically with the four sharp repeating chords of the Danger Motif born by flute, clarinet and low register horns, which usher in the Exploration Theme. We segue into an extended rendering of the Lunar Theme, whose pensive aura provides a somber gravitas. We conclude dramatically with a coda of the Exploration Theme. Bravo! In “The Blockhouse” Dr. Cargraves and General Thayer observe from a blockhouse command center the launch and epic failure of their prototype rocket, whose crash will lose them government funding. We open with a somber fragment of the Lunar Theme that yields to a slow but dramatically building crescendo that achieves a shattering orchestral climax when the rocket launches. “Let’s Start Again” reveals the sobering aftermath of the rocket’s crash. Strings lamentoso are joined by mournful French horns to provide an almost elegiac aura as the men resolve to renew their efforts in the private sector. In “Barnes Inc.” we shift scenes to Barnes industries atop strings animato with supportive woodwinds and horn phrasing. Repeating statements of the Exploration Theme inform us that with the project’s loss of government funding, salvation lies with industrial magnate Jim Barnes.

The next four cues were composed by Clarence Wheeler, who wrote them to support Dr. Cargraves’ inventive, albeit humorous cartoon pitch by Woody Woodpecker, to a room full of venture capitalists. “Introducing Woody” reveals the star of the cartoon with silly exaggerated fan fare, followed by an ingenious comic percussive line whose cadence supports Woody’s footfalls as he travels across the stage. In “Woody Shoots Gun” Woody demonstrates pulsatile propulsion by repeatedly firing a shotgun, whose serial discharges lift him higher and higher, thus simulating rocket thrust. Comic woodwinds and silly strings usher in the line of horns blasts that support’s Woody’s flight. “Woody’s Rocket” reveals a simulated rocket lift-off from Earth, space flight and finally, the moon landing. The writing here is first rate with a lyrical main line of strings and woodwinds being accented with multiple instrument glissandi effects and horn accents. We segue seamlessly and conclude the cartoon with “Woody Come Home”, which reveals the rocket’s successful lunar lift-off and safe return to the Earth. Bubbling woodwinds usher in a lyrical string line that builds to a satisfying conclusion atop a horn flourish. Hooray! Wheeler’s music was perfectly attenuated to this cartoon narrative. Nicely done.

In “Let’s Get to Work” General Thayer concludes the presentation with a strong-armed warning; invest or watch as the Russians succeed and “control the Earth.” French horns dramatico usher in an ominous string line from which rises the Danger Motif, thus perfectly supporting the tension of this pivotal scene. “Building Montage” features a montage of the rocket ship Luna’s construction. This cue is a fabulous score highlight with just exceptional writing! A prelude of violas and celli usher in the Danger Motif on growling bass, which is soon joined by the Exploration Theme on sharply plucked pizzicato strings. We then bear witness to sterling interplay of these two themes that culminate in a wonderful crescendo triumphanti as we at last see the Luna standing on its launch pad. Bravo! In “Planning The Trip” Luna’s nuclear powered engines have frightened the public and elicited threats of shutting down the project by the government. A redoubtable Barnes therefore orders an early launch of the untested ship and not fully trained crew. Stevens sows palpable tension atop foreboding strings, which are joined by sharp repeating statements of the Danger Motif.

“Goodbye” reveals a race to board and launch the ship ahead of a court order that will shut down the project. As we see the crew heading to the elevator Barnes bids a tender farewell to his wife. He then joins his crew in a rushed ascent to board the rocket. This standout cue offers some outstanding writing as Stevens sows urgency and tension with pizzicato strings, woodwinds and French horns. An interlude by strings doloroso supports Barnes’ farewell and we finish to a novel descending line of strings and harp glissandi, which play counter intuitively against the crew’s ascent to board the rocket. “Countdown” was not used in the film. Stevens uses the Danger Motif as an ingenious ticking clock effect led by pizzicato strings to emote the tension of the launch. This is nicely conceived. “On The Trip” reveals the Luna traveling through space with a parting view of Earth. This fine cue creates the prefect soundscape and features interplay of the Exploration Theme and Lunar Theme, which are joined by the Flight Theme.

In “Out In Space” the crew dons spacesuits for a mission to repair the damaged piloting radar. This cue offers testimony to Stevens’ compositional gift as he creates a wondrous ethereal soundscape for space with celeste, bells, xylophone, flute and harp glissandi. Within this sonic milieu are heard statements of the Danger Motif and Lunar Theme, which support the image of the Moon. At 1:33 Stevens introduces his Earth Theme as the Earth is viewed from space. We close with brief quote of the Exploration Theme by ambient strings. The synergy of music and imagery here is just superb! “Adrift in Space” reveals Cargraves traversing the Luna’s hull aft wards, stumbling, and being set adrift. The cue features an extended rendering of the Space Walk Theme, which unfolds led first by woodwinds before transitioning to strings. The severing of the melodic line by an alarm of horns informs us of Cargraves’ misstep. The music clearly transcends the film’s imagery here. “The Rescue” is the score’s action apogee and a standout cue where we see the crew fail in their attempts to lasso and rescue Cargraves. Sharp staccato rhythms, horns bellicoso entwine with the Danger Motif and strings agitato to create a dramatic and desperate soundscape. Wow!

“They’re Safe” offers another exciting well-written cue, which reveals Cargraves’ ingenious rescue by Barnes using an oxygen tank for a thruster. The complexity of this cue is superb as we hear a collision by the sharp dramatic horn strikes of the Danger Motif and the softer Space Walk Theme, which interplay masterfully! In “Preparing To Land” the Luna descends from lunar orbit and prepares to land. We are treated to interplay of the Exploration and Lunar Themes, and a clever descending line of strings that support the Luna’s descent. Nicely done! “We’re On The Moon” reveals the Luna, safe and secure on the lunar surface. Stevens understands the story and so eschews a triumphant statement, instead using strings doloroso to create feelings, which convey that despite outward appearances, all is not well.

In “On the Moon” the crew disembarks, stepping foot on the lunar surface. Stevens weaves an eerie, otherworldly ambiance for the inhospitable moonscape with strings mysterioso. From out of this effect rises the Lunar Theme that is provided a wonderful extended statement, one that later entwines with the Exploration Theme. “Fun On The Moon” reveal the men playing on the lunar surface with Sweeney effortlessly tossing Cargraves up and down, empowered by the miniscule lunar gravity. Pizzicato strings and woodwinds mysterioso join to establish the soundscape, which is augmented by an entwining of the Danger and Exploration Themes. I must say that the use of woodwind glissandi and trills to support the imagery of Cargraves rising upwards and then falling downwards is first rate! In “Adventure On The Moon” Cargraves and Sweeney carry a camera across the surface. Muted French horns open the Lunar Theme, which plays as the men move across the surface. We close with a line of sight change that reveals a now distant Earth beckoning over the horizon, which is supported by a rendering to the Earth Theme.

“Cargraves Takes a Picture” is a playful cue that supports the imagery of Sweeney posing as Atlas supporting the Earth atop his shoulders. We open with a splendid rendering of the Earth Theme, whose lyrical flow is briefly interrupted by the comic pose. The theme returns until severed by the Danger Motif, which sounds the alarm, ushering in a spirited woodwind accelerando as we see the men rushing back towards the ship to alert them that they have detected radiation. “Bad News” is really a fine cue with sterling thematic interplay. We are informed that the Luna lacks sufficient fuel reserves to launch at its current weight, which leads to palpable tension among the men. Somber clarinets and later lush strings emote the Earth Theme that entwines with the Lunar Theme emoted by solo cello doloroso. Stevens uses pizzicato strings to create a ticking clock effect as the men toss excess clothing into the hatch. Strings and celeste create a glissandi effect as we see the clothes fall to the lunar surface. “Lightening The Ship” reveal the men desperately trying to lighten the ship’s payload as the launch window approaches. We hear a kaleidoscope of themes including the Exploration, Earth, Space Walk and Danger, all sowing tension and despair.

“It Looks Hopeless” is a finely crafted and well-conceived cue! We are informed that the ship remains 110 pounds heavy with few remaining options save a crewmember. Stevens speaks to the tension and mounting despair with interplay of the Earth and Lunar Themes, thus capturing the crew’s interplanetary dilemma. Somber strings, and harp serve to create a ticking clock effect, reminding us that the approaching launch window demands a solution. “The Dilemma” is a score highlight. We see the crew resolve that one of them must remain on the Moon as a sacrifice to save the mission. Steven’s plays against the pathos of the scene by offering a sublime rendering of the Earth Theme, in all its lyrical beauty. Bravo! In “Sweeney’s Sacrifice” Sweeney volunteer’s to remain behind. Stevens reprises material from earlier cues, which he synthesizes into a cogent statement. He sows palpable tension atop foreboding strings, which are joined by sharp repeating statements of the Danger Motif. Soon somber clarinets and later lush strings emote the Earth Theme that entwines with the Lunar Theme emoted by solo cello doloroso. We close with dire renderings of the Earth Theme and Danger Motif.

“Escape from the Moon” offers another fine cue as we see the crew purging the ship of its radio console, hatch door and their last space suit, which lightens them enough to launch with all crewmembers. A string ostinato simulates the sawing off of the hatch, with woodwind descents simulating the purged items falling from the ship. Stevens uses his Earth Theme to animate this crucial scene, and what could be more fitting. In “End Title” the score culminates in grand fashion! We see the Luna blast off, journey home with a closing screen message “This is the End, of the Beginning.” We bear witness to horns bravura sounding the Lunar Theme that yields to and then entwines with the Exploration Theme. We end fittingly atop the Earth Theme with the aforementioned quote resounding atop a coda.

Allow me to thank David Schecter, Kathleen Mayne and Monstrous Movie Music for issuing the complete score for “Destination Moon”. This seminal score helped launch the Science Fiction craze of the 1950’s and has been long sought by collectors like myself. My readers are advised that the score’s restoration is not pristine and that there are several instances of break-up and distortion that may prove off-putting to sonic purists. I however, am quite pleased to at last have this rare treasure, which offers exemplary thematic writing by Leith Stevens. Should you view the film, you quickly discern that his music both propels and enhances the film’s narrative, dramatic arc and imagery, thus offering enduring testimony to his compositional skills. Folks, if you enjoy Wagnerian leitmotifs, rich thematic interplay and Science Fiction yarns, I recommend you take the road less traveled and explore this vintage score.

Buy the Destination Moon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:43)
  • The Blockhouse (1:07)
  • Let’s Start Again (1:41)
  • Barnes Inc. (1:15)
  • Introducing Woody (0:35)
  • Woody Shoots Gun (1:07)
  • Woody’s Rocket (1:32)
  • Woody Come Home (0:55)
  • Let’s Get to Work (0:44)
  • Building Montage (2:13)
  • Planning the Trip (2:00)
  • Dead Serious (0:09)
  • Goodbye (2:01)
  • Countdown (1:02)
  • On the Trip (1:06)
  • The Harmonica Solo (0:29)
  • Out in Space (2:06)
  • Adrift in Space (2:00)
  • The Rescue (1:55)
  • They’re Safe (2:12)
  • Preparing to Land (1:28)
  • Landing on the Moon (0:10)
  • We’re on the Moon (0:30)
  • On the Moon (4:18)
  • Fun on the Moon (0:58)
  • Adventure on the Moon (0:35)
  • Cargraves Takes a Picture (2:11)
  • Bad News (2:33)
  • Lightening the Ship (2:32)
  • It Looks Hopeless (1:47)
  • The Dilemma (2:37)
  • Sweeney’s Sacrifice (3:22)
  • Escape from the Moon (2:56)
  • End Title (1:35)
  • Harmonic Glissando [BONUS] (1:09)

Running Time: 56 minutes 33 seconds

Monstrous Movie Music MMM-1967 (1967/2012)

Music composed and conducted by Leith Stevens. Orchestrations by Dave Torbett. Additional music by Clarence Wheeler. Album produced by David Schechter and Kathleen Mayne.

  1. October 27, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Good info. Lucky me I recently found your website by
    chance (stumbleupon). I’ve saved as a favorite for later!

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