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Friday, November 23, 2007

Invaders From Mars

While a B-movie in many ways, Invaders from Mars (IFM) is one of the top 10 classics of 50s sci-fi. One of the strengths of B-films was how quickly they could be produced. This allowed them to react quickly to news. IFM is a good example of this. Word was out about George Pal working on his epic War of the Worlds which he planned to release in late summer 1953. Producer Edward Alperson and director William Cameron Menzies were able to whip together IFM and release it in April, beating Pal to the punch and taking advantage of the Mars buzz Pal was generating. Rare for an early 50s B-film, it was shot in color.

IFM was written in 1950 and is one of the foundational movies which painted Mars as the hostile invader planet. IFM's martians invade on a very small scale (better for B-movie budgets). Nonetheless, Menzies puts together a captivating and erie tale which made a lasting impression on audiences and set the bar very high for B-movies. Few have met that standard since.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Young David, son of a rocket program scientist, sees a glowing green saucer land in the sand pits near his house. Soon his parents and other adult authority figures are acting strangely, or zombie-like. David surmises that they martians have taken them over to do their bidding, but no one will believe him. David finally convinces a social worker doctor and her astronomer boyfriend. Soon the military are properly alerted to the martians' subterfuge. Since the secret rocket project is so important, they react strongly. Trainloads of tanks and troops are brought in to surround the sand pits. For awhile, David and Dr. Blake are captured by the martian and his Mutant (pron.: Mew-tant) henchmen. The army breeches the tunnels place explosives aboard the ship. Everyone gets out just in time. David wakes up, as if it were all a dream, but he then sees a green light land in the sand pit, just like it had at the start of his "dream." Was his dream was prophetic?

Why is this movie fun?
Menzies did an amazing job with the limited budget he had. The stage sets have a surreal quality to them. Forced perspectives, angles or exaggerated proportions, such as the police station, keeps the mood edgy. The sets are reminiscent of the "art" sets of Russian Constructivism (Aelita's Mars) and German Expressionism (Metropolis). This is much more art than a B-film usually gets. See how much the sets defy normal proportions.

The effect of people being swallowed up by holes in the sand, accompanied by the atonal chorus is marvelous. The whole possessed-loved-one theme was striking and powerful. It showed up first in the obscure 1951 B-film The Man From Planet X but this film had too little exposure to make a lasting impression. IFM really kicked off the plot device of people being "taken over" by hostile aliens. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) would make this famous, but IFM had it first -- and very effectively.

Cold War Angle
The Russians aren't cited specifically, but the general angst over infiltration and invasion are dominant themes. Another subtle indicator of Cold War angst is the ample quantities of US military footage set with proud martial music. Morris Ankrum, playing Colonel Fielding sums up the American pride in it's military when he sees all the tanks surrounding the sand pit. "Tanks. Is there a more beautiful sight?" This is an upbeat aspect of Cold War feelings.

Unrealistic? -- Some reviews of IFM harp on unrealistic plot elements, but they usually miss the point of the film. It's told from young David's point of view. Yes, it's another one of those "it's all a dream" tricks, but since it's a 9 year old boy's dream, it would be unrealistic. The possession of David's parents, the police chief, etc. destroy the authority figures which make David's world secure. He's alone to face the frightening world. David finds a pair of ultra-caring surrogate parents in Dr. Blake and Stu. Stu's monologue about the 'theory' that the martians live in mother ships, created semi-human Mutants to serve them, and fear the earth rocket programs as threatening their status quo, is totally bizarre if it were intended as a serious bit of plot dialogue. But, since Stu becomes David's replacement male authority figure, he was expected to have everything all figured out. A boy's idolizing view of authority figures.

Stock Footage -- Many B-films make extensive use of stock footage -- often military footage. IFM is no different, but may have shot it's footage fresh instead of recycling. It's in the same color as the rest of the movie. The scenes of tanks rumbling by, or trucks of troops racing past the camera seem to go on and on, far beyond anything the plot required. Once again, however, keep in mind the perspective of a young boy's dream. All those tanks and troops symbolize the forces of Good preparing to take on the forces of Evil. Wallowing in the good-guys' heroic entrance is a natural.

They're After Our Women -- IFM has a scene of the iconic They're-After-Our-Women type, as it shows on the poster. One of the Mutants carries the unconscious Dr. Blake through the tunnels to the ship. (although she wears white, not red) In keeping with the icon, her suit jacket is torn at the shoulder -- part of the abducted & ravaged element -- even though the Mutants are just baggage handlers with no interest in anything. The image is there deliberately.

Cheap Ending? -- Some people feel cheated with the "dream" ending of IFM, though they may have missed the prophetic angle (or time loop angle). There were actually a two different endings. The American release had its all-a-dream, but then not, ending. The UK distributor didn't like the unresolved (and somewhat depressing) end of the original, so had an alternate ending produced, in which the dream angle was eliminated. The martians are simply destroyed in the end. The earth lives happily ever after. It's interesting that John Tucker Battle's original screenplay was between the two. In Battle's ending, the ship is destroyed but two Mutants and the martian escape through a tunnel and hide in the field until the army leaves. That night, another ship comes down to get them. David sees this and watches them fly away uttering his typical "Gee whiz." This may be what Menzies was striving for. The ship David sees at the end MIGHT have been the 'rescue' ship Battle wrote about, but without supporting scenes to let us know that the martian and mutants escaped, the ending has its prophetic time-repeat quality.

Bottom line? IFM is one of the decade's classics. Anyone making even a brief sampling of 50s sci-fi should include it on their viewing list.


Anonymous said...

The British version also included additional footage in the planetarium scene. It's noteworthy because it was shot later and Jimmy Hunt has grown since the original footage was shot.

I was also surprised there was no mention of the remake, although it is pretty forgetable.

Nightowl said...

What did the additional planetarium footage include, or add to the plot?

Yes, there is the 1986 remake. It suffered, as many later remakes did, from too much attention special effects. That, and the later movie industry's fascination with grossness and gore. The story seems to get lost amid the "updated" style, IMHO.

The remake seems to have as many fans as detractors.

Darci said...

William Cameron Menzies was well-known for his art direction and set design. His films always looked distinctive. Another you may be interested in is The Maze (also 1953).
Hope this helps!

Unknown said...

Howdy theatre popcorn munchers,

First off, as a kid I saw the U.S. version - scared the willies out of me.

As an adult I prefer the British version with a "final" ending.

The story line, even with a few holes, was excellent.

The acting was superb.

Helena Carter was a doll.

Hillary Brooke was a classic beauty.

Arthur Franz and Morris Ankrum are two of my favorite actors.

The special effects are fine, especially the sound effects for the opening sand.

The atmosphere and sets are superb.

The police station with the huge front desk, and nothing else but the wall clock about a mile off the floor, really are a visual delight.

I am glad I did not have to wind it.

Near the end, where they are hiding behind the military personnel carrier, where the fake tree blows over - what a hoot.

A must see classic film.

See you at the movies,


Unknown said...

Howdy again,

I forgot to mention in my earlier post that to me, the remake was a mere shadow of the original.

It used shock factor to no avail.

Keep your dvd's handy,