The Lost Missile (1958) *

There were three ways that filmmakers could capitalize on the Sputnik crisis: they could appeal to the issue through marketing without actually saying anything about it, as was the case with The War of the Satellites (1958) or Satan’s Satellite (1958); they could use the whole issue to scare the bejesus out of their viewers as Rocket Attack USA (1961) did in artless, sensationalist fashion; or they could address the viewers fears, pat them on the back and tell them that everything will be alright. Today’s film favors the latter approach, going so far as to dress the nature of the threat up in a thin veneer of sci-fi fantasy so the audience won’t get too frightened by it. So, instead of a Soviet missile on a collision course with New York we get a runaway alien spaceship leaving a trail of destruction in its wake as it flies over North America. Now, this is a much worse scenario, but it’s also at least highly unlikely, if not totally impossible and that goes some way towards assuaging the audience’s fears.

It all starts with a misunderstanding. An alien spaceship appears over Soviet skies, and they jump to the not completely indefensible view that it is an American nuclear missile. The notion that peaceful alien visitors would accidentally trigger World War III is such a perversely funny notion, and such a quintessentially Cold War idea that I’m amazed I haven’t run across it in a movie or episode of the Twilight Zone before. Fortunately, technology in the world of the film has advanced rather more quickly (or at least differently) than it has in the real world and the Soviets are in possession of at least one fully functional Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM). So instead of lobbing nukes at the USA, hoping to wipe out the Americans before they themselves are eradicated in turn, the Russians have a chance of shooting down the unidentified missile. The ABM the Soviets have is really something, not only do they manage to hit the interplanetary rocket, they even manage to cripple the ship. The alien missile careers out of control across the Artic Circle, heading for Canada and the United States. The spaceship is so damaged that it’s leaking whatever exotic fuel substance is powering it, and has turned into a giant fireball roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun. As it flies it devastates the countryside below it, leaving a scorch mark five miles wide in its wake. A quirk of fate puts it on a collision course with New York City.

In the United States, the people go about their daily lives oblivious to the doom hurtling towards them. The film is going to focus mainly on Dr. David Loring and his assistant Joan Woods who are trying to get married. Only problem is that Loring is insanely devoted to his job as a rocket scientist, and he is still in the process of putting the finishing touches on his latest weapon, a multistage ICBM code-named Jove. His fiancé is naturally frustrated when he keeps drifting back to work on what is supposed to be their wedding day. “All you can think about is your hydrogen warhead.” She complains, “Well then marry your hydrogen warhead.” She adds before storming off in a huff.

We don’t have much time for melodrama though, no matter how ridiculously written it may be. Pretty soon the Pentagon, through its radar pickets in the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, catches wind of the rouge missile. All attempts to shoot down the missile fail, as anything that gets close to the missile melts from the extreme heat. The DoD, in classic government bureaucracy fashion just keeps hurling jets and missiles at the thing without accomplishing anything for the remainder of the film. It’s only when they try to evacuate David and the other rocket scientists from New York that Loring is able to come up with a workable idea. For whatever reason the Jove missile that he’s been working on can withstand intense heat (my guess, they were planning to wage war against the Solar Communists). If they load it up with a small nuclear warhead they might just be able to destroy the rouge missile before it hits New York City. Spoiler alert: unlike Rocket Attack USA (1961) this one is going to have a happy ending.

In addition to having climaxes that hinge on the possible destruction of New York City, The Lost Missile suffers from many of the same problems as Rocket Attack USA (1961). It’s nearly entirely composed of stock footage, most provided from the Department of Defense. I’ll admit that there is some rather more exciting stock footage here than in the other film (some of the footage of the fighter jets are particularly impressive, aviation enthusiasts will be in love), but its still just stock footage that has been arranged into some semblance of a narrative and held together with a near constant voice over narration. The acting is marginally better than Rocket Attack USA (1961), as I’m willing to believe that most of the actors in this movie have appeared in films before, and do not seem to be actively reading their lines off of a carefully hidden script.

While it’s of a slightly higher quality than Rocket Attack USA (1961), The Lost Missile sacrifices everything that made Rocket Attack USA (1961) memorable. Rocket Attack USA (1961) ended in failure and destruction, of a sort so pessimistic that it was shocking even for inhabitants of our more cynical epoch. The Lost Missile instead follows a more traditional 1950s monster movie arch, with total destruction of a major urban center being averted at the last minute thanks to a new scientific discovery and a heroic sacrifice on the part of its inventor. It’s a variation of the same old theme that was used everywhere from Gojira (1954) to The Beginning of the End (1957). In a film as low quality as The Lost Missile such familiarity renders it completely forgettable. Going with a more comfortable ending certainly upholds the film’s primary objective to assure and assuaged a worried public, but it does nothing to help the film stand out from its more distinguished contemporaries.

From the start The Lost Missile is less a film and more a propaganda reel for the defense department. Indeed the film opens with a grateful dedication to the DoD and the various branches of the American military. Throughout the film’s proceedings the narrator takes great pains in detailing and explaining the various defense systems that the United States military has in place to protect its citizens in the event of nuclear war. From the Strategic Air Command, to the radar stations off the coast of Texas (which play no role in detecting or thwarting the titular missile), every piece of the defense apparatus is explained in detail. The Lost Missile resembles nothing so much as The Deadly Mantis (1957) in terms of its naïve patriotism and energetic enthusiasm for America’s military defenses.

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