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Special effects artist Ray Harryhausen has become legendary for his clever vivification of dinosaurs, aliens and mythological creatures in such films as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). He learned the craft of stop-motion animation under George Pal (the Puppetoon series) and Willis O'Brien (King Kong, 1933) but quickly innovated complex techniques of his own.
In 1956, Harryhausen faced an unusual challenge when producer Charles Schneer asked him to focus his talents not on living creatures but on inanimate objects. In Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), it was Harryhausen's task to somehow invest extraterrestrial spacecraft with a sense of motion and life.
Hugh Marlowe stars as Dr. Russell A. Marvin, newly wed to Carol Marvin (Joan Taylor) when their car is "buzzed" by a flying saucer. A tape player within their car records the sounds of the spacecraft, which later reveals the emulation of a human voice, laying down its demands for a peaceful meeting. The benevolence of the aliens proves questionable when they abduct Carol's father, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum), and subject him to a horrific form of mind control (later unceremoniously dumping his body from a high altitude). At the same time, the Earthlings seize the body of one of the aliens, and use it to unlock the secrets of their would-be conquerors. By analyzing the suit (and being briefly abducted himself) Marvin quickly conceives a radical new weapon with which to combat the invading hordes, at the very moment that saucers begin descending upon Washington, DC, to assume control of the defenseless planet.
Just as the screenplay was "suggested by" a non-fiction account of flying saucers by Donald Keyhoe, Harryhausen based the look of his spacecraft upon actual descriptions given by people who claimed to have had close encounters of the first kind. Keyhoe, a former rocket scientist, Naval aviator and pulp fiction writer, began investigating UFOs in 1949 and quickly became convinced of their authenticity. Over the course of 23 years, he published at least four book-length studies of the phenomenon and was appointed director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP).
In the visual lexicon of the classic sci-fi film, the smooth grey, spinning discs of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers have become the definitive UFO, imitated in a host of alien invasion movies. Few, however, have matched Harryhausen's handling of the sleek disc. "You've got to make it look interesting and vary it so that in every scene it doesn't do exactly the same thing," Harryhausen said, "We even tried to get a variety in the ray gun, by having it go in and out." The surfaces of Harryhausen's saucers are covered with rotating panels that keep the spacecraft in perpetual motion, even when hovering in one spot. Harryhausen's saucers float, dart, dive and somehow manage to convey personality, as they stealthily stalk their prey, intimidate the earthlings with shows of aeronautical bravado, swerve and reel when disabled by the electrical interference, or defiantly land on the lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to stake their claim to the planet Earth.
The aliens themselves were played by actors in particularly clumsy costumes, and would have clearly benefited from Harryhausen's touch. In some scenes, the same could be said of the human characters. In his book Keep Watching the Skies!, Bill Warren remarks that, "There's a sequence in a forest fire in which the saucers seem both more alive and more real than the actors, who lurch unconvincingly on a treadmill in front of a rear-projected burning forest, while the humming saucers flit purposefully through the trees."
During the film's taut 82-minute running time, little attention was paid to crafting a unique narrative or establishing an engaging cast of characters. These were little more than cinematic threads required to sew all the flying saucer and ray gun scenes together. Rather than a shortcoming, this overemphasis upon special effects was the very nature of the science fiction picture. "Character takes time to develop," Harryhausen explained, "And when you're trying to tell a tale such as we do in the saucer picture, you either spend time trying to develop characterization, or you spend time developing the destruction, which is what these pictures are all about."
Because little freedom was granted to screenwriters George Worthing Yates and Raymond T. Marcus (a pseudonym of Bernard Gordon, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era), producer Charles Schneer and director Fred Sears cultivated a sense of realism by employing a wealth of stock footage of rocket tests and military installations. The opening sequence was overlaid with the voice of a stern, authoritative narrator (Paul Frees), which gives the atmosphere-establishing scenes the same authenticity as an army training film or high school educational short.
While some films of the same era (such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, and It Came From Outer Space, 1953) used the saucer invasion premise as a plea for galactic peace, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers paid little mind to the peaceful messages with which its interstellar visitors greeted us Americans. As one general remarks, while mobilizing his forces, "When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol we don't meet it with tea and cookies."
Shortly thereafter begins a colossal display of fifties-era "money shots," as saucers annihilate military and industrial targets in dazzling demonstrations of special effects artistry. Harryhausen brilliantly combined the animated spacecraft with stock footage of airplane crackups for the thrilling aerial combat scenes, then employed detailed miniatures in order to show the toppling of the Washington Monument and the decapitation of the Capitol Building.
As was common in the invasion film of the fifties, the secret to human survival lay not in superior firepower but brainpower. Peter Biskind writes, "Scientists and soldiers were first thrown together in a big way during the war, the Manhattan Project, and the romance that blossomed then reached its climax at Hiroshima." The spectacle of weaponry beyond all imagining provided the climax to many sci-fi thrillers, even as it haunted the dreams of the Cold War American children who viewed them.
Director: Fred F. Sears
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates and Raymond T. Marcus
Based on a story by Curt Siodmak
Suggested by "Flying Saucers from Outer Space" by Maj. Donald E. Keyhoe
Cinematography: Fred Jackman, Jr.
Production Design: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Hugh Marlowe (Dr. Russell Marvin), Joan Taylor (Carol Marvin), Morris Ankrum (Gen. Hanley), Donald Curtis (Maj. Huglin), John Zaremba (Prof. Kanter).
BW-83m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood