No discussion on the genre films of the 1950’s could be complete without bringing up the subject of alien life forms from outer space. Indeed, after the infamous Roswell incident in 1947, the country was damn near obsessed with flying saucers and men from Mars. The idea of visitors, both malevolent and benign, from beyond the stars took root in the imaginative (and not so imaginative minds) of Hollywood writers and producers, and before you knew it…POW, the silver screen was positively overflowing with space invaders. Of course, not all these films were of the same caliber, and more often than not, they were rather phoney. Crappy even. Still, we love them, right? However, before we get to the bad apples, let’s take a closer look at five of the better films to feature invaders from space…and invaders these guys definitely are. With one exception, each of these films features a visitor or visitors that did not look too kindly upon the primitive Humans they came across on this third rock from the sun…
Invaders From Mars (1953) – Martians land their flying saucer in a big stretch of sand, and then the ship promptly buries itself with nary a sign of its presence. They abduct any locals that happen to wander by, pull them underground to their ship and implant Martian doohickeys in the back of their necks, which allow them to be controlled. Sent back out into the populace, these mind-controlled slaves further the Martians’ plans for global subjugation. Sounds like the perfect plan, right? Well, it would have been if not for one young kid who saw the saucer land. What if his parents are the first ones taken over by the Martians? He’s not going to let something like that stop him from warning everyone in town of the threat from outer space. This film plays expertly upon the fears of a child in a world of adults. Despite his increasingly desperate efforts, no one takes the young David Mclean seriously. Eventually he does manage to convince someone and the fight is taken to the Martians themselves, led by the army! A frantic finale in the bowels of the earth as well as the alien ship ensues. Great color photography coupled with an eerie and memorable design for the Martians make this one a classic. The twist at the end will either have you smiling or groaning.
It Came From Outer Space (1953) – In a fiery explosion, a meteorite impacts the earth somewhere in the middle of the desert. Local yokel John Putnam does not believe it to be a naturally occurring incident. Indeed, it is his opinion that it is actually an alien spaceship that has crashed on our planet. It turns out the old boy is right, as funky creatures from outer space begin abducting the locals and then replacing them with lookalikes…in 3-D!! In spite of how things look, the aliens are not aggressive. They just need help repairing their spaceship, and knowing that their appearance would be considered hideous by us primitive Humans, and thus a reason to fear and distrust them, they went about acquiring that help through other means. In the end, things work out for everyone. This film is a definite classic of the decade. Directed by Jack Arnold, it uses the strange almost otherworldly vistas of the desert to its benefit, creating an atmosphere of mystery and fear. The 3-D effects seem almost an after thought and are only truly effective in a couple of instances. While not glimpsed for very long, the design of the aliens is quite good and very non-Human in appearance. The POV shots in several scenes, used in conjunction with other methods for presenting the extraterrestrials moving across the landscape, make for some riveting and downright creepy moments.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) – Operation Skyhook is a government organization that launches rockets into space in preparation for future space flights. The problem is, the rockets keep vanishing. This has Dr. Russell Marvin puzzled and quite annoyed. Then he and his new wife are buzzed by a flying saucer while driving through the desert. He just happens to be making a boring notation into a tape recorder at the time and later realizes the craft transmitted a message which was caught on tape, but only audible to Humans when it is slowed way down. Eventually he is captured by the aliens, who claim to herald from a dying planet (don’t they all?). After a brief moment when they appear to be somewhat friendly, they reveal themselves as the world conquerors they hope to be. Soon enough a fleet of flying saucers are laying waste to major cities around the world. Dr. Marvin must now race against the clock to devise a way to repel the invaders before the Human race is doomed. The highlight of this film is the stop-motion work by Ray Harryhausen, though it may not be quite as engaging as in other films, for here it brings flying saucers to life rather than living beings. The stiff jointed aliens stumble around in some funky armor and all seemingly speak with the voice of Paul Frees. They’re call to Humanity, “People of Earth…attention,” is a classic moment of 50’s genre cinema.
War of the Worlds (1953) – Based on H.G. Wells’ classic story, this one sees another meteorite crashing to Earth. This one conceals a vehicle from Mars, though at first no one realizes this, as it resembles a big glowing rock. The ship reveals itself and starts floating across the land, incinerating anything and everything in its path. Soon, hundreds more are landing all across the globe. The armies of the world throw everything they have against these invaders, in a war that will decide if the Human race lives or dies. Unfortunately, things look grim for mankind, as nothing can stop the Martian juggernaut, not even atomic weapons. Caught up in events are Dr. Clayton Forrester and Sylvia Van Buren. As city after city falls to rubble and with Humanity on the verge of defeat, the key to stopping the invaders may not be in weapons of mass destruction, but something much smaller. A classic of Science Fiction cinema, this film is a must see for any fans of the genre. Mixed into the epic scale of the story are some creepier moments, such as when Forrester and Sylvia are trapped in a house with a Martian. The look of the aliens is great and no doubt scared the crap out of more than one viewer. The FX are first rate for the time period and while it seems the invading Martians were a bit short-sighted for not having foreseen what kills them, the end is still uplifting.
The Thing From Another World (1951) – A group of scientists working at a remote installation in the Arctic track a downed aircraft of some kind. Air Force personal are called in to help investigate and the combined efforts uncover a flying saucer buried in the ice. Well, maybe “uncover’ is not the best word, as the gang manages to blow up the craft when trying to melt the ice. As a consolation prize, they discover the frozen body of the vehicle’s pilot. They take it back to their base where, after a few shortsighted mistakes, the alien is accidentally thawed out. It gets loose and begins to terrorize all those assembled. The trapped humans soon discover that the alien is a plant creature which nurtures its seedlings by feeding them blood from organic beings. As the base personal are the only food source around for hundreds of miles, the fight is on to kill the creature before it kills them. This is another classic from the 50’s and should not be overlooked. The dark, spooky corridors and chambers of the arctic base really help create an atmosphere of fear and dread. The rapid-fire dialog is sharp and witty, revealing layer upon layer of character development upon repeated viewings. The conflict between militarism and intellectualism that pops up in so many 50’s SciFi films isn’t as one sided. Each side, both Doctor Carrington’s pacifist, intellectual beliefs and Captain Hendry’s more militant, by the book reaction to alien, are both shown to be positive and negative in their approach. Both men are right in their views, yet both are wrong (though I admit, the film leans a little more towards Hendry’s side). This is a must see, plain and simple.
There you have it, five of the better efforts of 1950’s space invader flicks. I must confess that The Thing From Another World is my favorite film from the 50’s, period. I can watch it over and over again. In most cases, the aliens in these films were an allegory for the very real fears of Communism and the Soviet Union. The cold, logical and unfeeling approach by these space creatures represented the fear of becoming lost in a grand social quagmire, where the individual is lost and personal liberties are a thing of the past. While creatures from outer space have continued to threaten the Earth over the decades, what they represent in the minds of the audience has changed and evolved with the end of the cold war. Well, that’s it for now. Next time, we’ll look at some of the worst space invader epics from the 50’s.