Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon is a Sixties caper comedy in the same vein as The Great Race (1965), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and its sequel Monte Carlo or Bust (1969), built on the skeletal fragments of Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon. American distributors were so anxious about drawing a connection to that genre that they even renamed the film "Those Fantastic Flying Fools" (and some gave it yet another title, "Blast Off"). Though not considered a minor classic like Great Race or Magnificent Men, it does dispense with some of the dated elements of those films, making it a more pleasurable experience to watch.
Though set in the Victorian-Edwardian Era, these comedies were always products of their time. As a consequence, they can make a viewer squeamish at points. In addition to being just too long, Blake Edwards' riffs on women's liberation are awkward for a person who was born after 1975. It's not a very resonant form of humour. Nor are Magnificent Men's racial stereotypes, delivered with a total absence of subtlety. Rocket to the Moon is tauter than its predecessors and relies more on its situation and characters than contemporary issues, allowing it to go down a little more smoothly.
The story has been altered substantially from Verne's novel. In this version, Phineas T. Barnum (played by Burl Ives) is on the run from creditors and happens across a scientific demonstration with lunar implications. He forms a consortium with a German explosives expert (Gert Fröbe of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), the Duke of Barset (David Price), an engineer who builds bridges but doesn't expect them to stay up (Lionel Jefferies of First Men in the Moon) and the conniving cheat and gambler Captain Sir Harry Washington-Smythe as treasurer (Terry-Thomas of Magnificent Men). Original plans called for a smallish man about the size of General Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe) to go up, but he would have none of it once he found out about it. It didn't help that Jefferies' engineer Sir Charles Dillworthy created a rocket model that intended to get a man to the moon but not to bring him back. THe project is put in more jeopardy when Washington-Smythe is exposed as an embezzling bounder. Thankfully Gaylord Sullivan (Troy Donahue) arrives with blueprints for a functional shuttle. Washington-Smythe and Dillworthy conspire to wreck the launch, but there is also an Agent of the Tsar lurking about the area.
Despite radical changes to the story, Rocket to the Moon is still the truest adaptation of it in tone and spirit. From the Earth to the Moon is a satire of American society and the zeal for technological progress that is worthy of Mark Twain, but that biting comedy is often lost amidst Verne's reputation as a futurist. The 1958 adaptation dispensed entirely with the humour, creating a ponderous, joyless meditation on atomic power. This lighthearted romp flashes it out at the camera.