Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Some movies are favorites from our childhood. Even after we grow to adulthood there is something special about these films. Usually they are not technically the best films around. So many advances have been made in movie making that these beloved films might seem primitive or even corny, but they dont. One such film for me is earth versus the Flying Saucers. I remember watching it as a child on the old Million Dollar Movie on the family TV. Made almost 50 years ago it still stands in my mind as a classic. Typical of fifties Sci-Fi films it is short (88 minutes) in black and white, and possessing of a simple plot. Dr Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his new bride Carol (Joan Taylor) on their way to Project Skyhook, a project headed by Russell. The goal is to send up unmanned satellites, birds, to monitor the conditions of space. It seems that someone or something is knocking down the birds as soon as they are sent up. Behind it all is a fleet of flying saucers bent on preventing man from reaching for the stars. The ships try to contact Marvin but when he is unable to decipher the message until it is too late, they attack and destroy Skyhook. The climatic end of the film shows the battle between man and the aliens in Washington D.C. complete with the destruction of much of the city. There is a lot to understand about this film. First of all aliens often represented the main threat perceived in the 50s, communism. These films always demonstrated the ingenuity of Americans to overcome any force. This is not so much propaganda as it is a reflection of the times, the fears and hopes of the American people of that period. For many that have grown up always knowing that man has walked on the moon, where flights into space are routine, you have to remember that for those of us maturing back then space was something that invoked awe and wonder. Science was seen as the two edged sword of being the hope for a paradise future and the cause of unknown dangers. Saucers is a glimpse into this part of American history. Space was unknown but we had to conquer it, it was the new manifest destiny. In this film the heroes are good Americans, a general, a cop and a scientist. Carol is the faithful wife, devoted to her husband yet showing the start of independence. I just love this film. It is a reminder of my childhood, a time that was both simpler wrought with the unknown.
Many think that Marlowe made a career on playing the every man in fifties Sci-Fi flicks like this. Not so, he was in many excellent films like Seven Days in May, Twelve Oclock High and All About Eve. What made him such a sought after actor is there was a quality about him that made it easy for the audience to identify with him. For men, he is not physically imposing but he displays intelligence and resourcefulness men can admire. For the ladies, he is attractive, affectionate and stable in the unstable circumstances. His character of Dr. Marvin represents the hope of that time science will provide the solutions to new threats facing mankind. Taylor really demonstrates the woman of the fifties. Having gained more independence than ever during WWII she is able to take a more proactive role that ever in the world. Still, there are remnants of the old role about this character. When she wants a smoke she asks her husband for the light. Quick with a snack or coffee she still plays hostess in the direst of circumstances. Morris Ankrum plays General Hanley, military watchdog over Project Skyhook and father to Carol. If you look at this actors resume you will see a lot of military roles. The reason is simple he did them so well. Hanley was kidnapped and ultimately killed by the aliens but he always showed the determination and resolves to protect America that was the hallmark of this new peacetime army.
Director Fred F. Sears was more at home at the helm of a western. Here. In the special genre of Sci-Fi he brought that western style to play. The framing of the scenes reminded me of those old horse operas, the juxtaposition of good and evil, right and wrong without any compromise or confusion. The main force behind this classic is the father of modern special effects, Mr. Ray Harryhausen. This is the man that made the special effects wonders of today possible. His work was basically stop action photography where a model is moved slightly and filmed frame by frame. What made is work so special and lasting is he was able to instill in his monsters a pathos that could reach out and touch the audience. In Saucers the movement of the crafts reflected intelligence behind them. Notice how the upper and lower parts of the saucers revolve in different directions. Since his work predated computer animation by many decades you have to remember the time intensive work that went into each frame. As the films were often very low budget Harryhausen often doubled as set designer, which made for a seamless interaction between actors and miniature models. Sure most of the matte shots are very obvious, the effects crude by todays high standards but remember folks, it was in films like this not only gave the start to effects today but also inspired the directors of todays classics.
The disc is very well done Columbia did their job. The sound is in two-track mono but it is mastered at a respectable and comfortable level. The video is anamorphic 1.85:1. Consider the age of the material it held up but there are numerous little black and white specks throughout. For me it just harkened me back to my old TV. There only a few extras but they are worth it. There is a little featurette with Harryhausen and Joe Dante that goes into some of the tricks used in the film. Then there is one on the process called Dynamation and a trailer. In all this classic deserves a place on the shelves of all serious collectors.