Here we are again with another entry in my “Alien Invasion Films of the 50’s” series, this time covering a classic from 1956 called EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS! This is an interesting film in that has a typical 50’s fun feel to it made all the better by the amazing special effects by animation master Ray Harryhausen! This is actually the first time Harryhausen animated something other than a living creature showing how creative and versatile he was.
This movie was influenced by a book written by Major Donald E. Keyhoe called “Flying Saucers From Outer Space.” A newly married scientist, Russel Marvin (Hugh Marlowe), and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are heading to work when a flying saucer appears right behind their car for a short period of time and then flies straight up out of sight. Unknown to both people the noise they hear from the saucer is actually a message meant for Marvin, that is inadvertently recorded at the wrong speed onto a tape recorder in the car. Marvin works for Project Skyhook, a space program in charge of sending research satellites into space. Many of the satellites have been destroyed and no one seems to know who by.
Next we are introduced to General Hanley, played by Morris Ankrun, who is also the father of Carol. During a get-together the three discuss why 10 of the 11 rockets launching the satellites into space were destroyed and Marvin cites flying saucers as being a possibility, especially in lieu of his earlier encounter. Soon after the wreckage of rocket 11 is seen burning up in the atmosphere. During preparations to launch rocket #12, a flying saucer appears and lands at the facility. Three robotic creatures come out of the craft and are met with hostility from our military, killing one of the creatures. In retaliation the saucer destroys the rocket before it can be launched and to add good measure, kidnap General Hanley.
The Marvins end up being trapped underground and in playing back their tape recorder, with the batteries running out, realize that the sound recorded of the flying saucer from the previous day was actually a message to Dr. Marvin from the aliens wanting to set up a peaceful meeting. This is where the plot gets shaky. Though Marvin is forbidden by the military to contact the aliens, he does it anyway. Instead of trying to explain our error, he just accepts the aliens’ threats of world domination as the way it now has to be. Shouldn’t he at least try to reason with them? An ultimatum is given: we have two months to surrender, allowing the alien race to rule the planet.
Once back in Washington Dr. Marvin figures out a possible weapon that could help them defeat the aliens. It ends up working better than expected as a flying saucer shows up and they test it out, driving the craft away. This attack prompts the aliens to make an announcement, that if earth doesn’t surrender in eight days, then they are going to do something to the sun, causing severe weather patterns to develop. Of course we do nothing and the attack begins.
What follows is a series of incredible special effects sequences as the saucers attack and destroy landmarks throughout Washington while at the same time, we destroy the saucers with Dr. Marvin’s weapon. These sequences will go down in movie history as some of the best ever put to film and Ray Harryhausen really deserves a round of applause for his work on this film. Harryhausen always gave life to his creations and the saucers here are no different. Though we do actually get to see the invading aliens, it is the saucers themselves that are the star of the show. In fact, the saucer design is so perfect, Tim Burton emulated them in his 1996 film MARS ATTACKS!
I have been keeping my fingers crossed that this, and many other 50’s era science fiction films, will get the Blu-ray releases they so justly deserve. Currently this title is available on DVD and features a colorized version of this film but to be honest, black and white is the way to go here. The picture quality on this release is actually pretty good so it will definitely be a great addition to your movie collection!
Next up: INVASION OF THE SAUCER-MEN
3 thoughts on “ALIEN INVASION FILMS OF THE 50’S: “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” (1956)”
Despite some obvious flaws in the plot and dialogue, it’s Hugh Marlowe’s intensity and Harryhausen’s amazing effects that save this picture.
A lot of people were critical of Marlowe’s performance, but I felt he was more than solid in the role. He was serious – yet perplexed – as to why so many rockets were being destroyed and the way Marlowe plays the character, his mounting frustration and impotence is a major reason why he’s so good as Dr. Marvin. He’s a bit older than the typical scientist-hero and thus a bit more believable as a newlywed; clearly Russell Marvin put work first and left romance behind during his “wild oat” years.
Much has been said about Harryhausen’s flying saucer work – but still not enough. Even as a child in the 60’s, when I saw this picture on television, I could not understand why more modern films had such shoddy special effects, when I knew that slightly older movies had remarkable sights and sounds (The Day the Earth Stood Still/1951, War of the Worlds/1953, Forbidden Planet/1956, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers)/1956). The trouble is, Harryhausen’s attention to detail and craftsmanship ruined me for less-quality efforts. Even as a kid I realized that once quality work could be done, everything else paled in comparison.
Certain scenes still stand out… the overhead beach shot at night with the enormous flying
saucer, the initial sequence in the movie in which the saucer is first seen as the newly married couple speed down the highway, and of course the destruction of famous Washington D.C. landmarks. All are classics and even those not familiar with this movie have witnessed these scenes and filed them away in their memory banks.
Still, there are problems here, and they keep this movie from being the great sci-fi film it could have been. The dialogue shifts into Ed Wood territory at times, as when Dr. Marvin is talking to his father-in-law prior to the late-night barbecue when he states “Trust me, General, when we shoot up a rocket it should stay up there a long time.”
There is also a lack of real science in the picture, and there’s no excuse for it. Access to an encyclopedia would do it. Are we to assume these satellites enter orbit? Dr. Marvin insists they are simply “rockets” – and it would seem they’re destroyed well below obtaining an orbiting altitude. How do they not know where they land and how/why is is such a secret? The General informs Marvin of exactly where they landed (most in the ocean) – a piece of info that Dr. Marvin would clearly be aware of, well before a military recovery mission.
When Rocket Number 12 is set to launch (in five minutes no less) the pad is still full of technicians mulling about. Sure, it’s stock footage, but the script could have said something like “clear the pad to prepare for launch”. C’mon guys, match it up!
Then there’s silly plot devices. The General isn’t upset that his daughter married Dr. Marvin on a lark? The old military vet doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d take to that arrangement lightly – no matter how much he likes Russell. Why make them newlyweds? Why not a long-term married couple or a working team?
Then there’s the overkill of the twin Bofors 40 mm anti aircraft guns used to hit the aliens once they emerge from under the protective cylinder of the saucers. These are pretty big guns (and are still in use today). All the aliens do is fall down. They’d be reduced to molecules!
Silly speech, plot holes and bad science, though, aren’t nearly enough to kill my desire to see this movie now-and-again, and with pretty solid acting, great special effects and a decent budget, I’ll ve revisiting this one again and again.
I’m just a bit sad it still wasn’t what it really could have been.
More amazing insights, Mark! Thanks so much for taking the time to illuminate us with your incredible knowledge (and please feel free to guest write for us any time…seriously! Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again for your insights, Mark! They really add a lot to the review!!!!