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The third entry in the very popular Quatermass series was released in the United States under the title Five Million Years to Earth (1968). The intriguing premise - a Martian spacecraft is uncovered during some excavation work beneath the London subway - toyed with philosophical issues of history and evolution while still giving audiences a horrific jolt or two. In one of the more interesting plot developments, the investigating scientists discover that Martians arrived on Earth centuries ago and experimented on ancient apes, trying to breed them as subservient slaves.
Five Million Years to Earth introduces themes which would be explored in more depth in another British production the same year, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Scottish actor Andrew Keir stars as Professor Quatermass, taking over the role from Brian Donlevy (Song of Scheherazade), who had portrayed Quatermass in both of the previous flicks. Keir was no stranger to playing the good guy for Hammer films: he was Father Sandor in their 1966 Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Professor Julian Fuchs in the 1971 Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), James Donald (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and Barbara Shelley, Keir's co-star in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, round out the primary cast.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the script came directly from Quatermass originator Nigel Kneale. Kneale considers himself a dramatic writer who uses science fiction as a vehicle for his many plays and series, and the staying power of his characters testifies to his writing talent. The Quatermass character from his teleplays has spawned three television series, four movies, and a more recent radio play. When the original radio plays premiered, they had the same effect as Orson Wells' War of the Worlds, sending people chaotically running through the streets to warn of the impending danger of alien invasion. More recently, director Alex Proyas (The Crow)) has been developing a remake of Five Million Years to Earth, and the British theatre company Creation Productions successfully staged a live version of the movie in 1997.
Kneale talked about the success of his original Quatermass plays and movies in the context of current sci-fi: "I think now we've got a much lazier audience, certainly an audience that demands, and has been given by every Spielberg epic, high-gloss definition without, very often, much content...The Quatermass stories were written...with very little dependence on special effects. The stories are told through the characters and the action...now that is one area where an awful lot of science-fiction stuff, so far as I've seen, collapses...construction of the story is often rotten and is waiting to be saved by the special effects...All too often nowadays, expensive films do depend on them and that's why we have this increasingly dry, hugely expensive stuff coming out of Hollywood."
He's got a point about the cost of things. After all, special effects assistant Ian Scoones remembers improvising a perfectly good cheap alternative for the Martian bodies in Five Million Years to Earth. "We based it on football games in pubs, where you get a line of plastic players stuck on a metal rod. We had loads and loads of locusts: there was an awful smell in the studio."
The final climax of the film, in which a Satanic entity looms large over the city of London, is still effective today and you can see an uncanny connection between a scene of an unearthed Martian corpse and a similar scene in Alien (1979).
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Editor: Spencer Reeve
Music: Tristram Cary
Cast: James Donald (Dr. Mathew Roney), Andrew Keir (Professor Bernard Quatermass), Barbara Shelley (Barbara Judd), Julian Glover (Colonel Breen).
by Scott McGee and Lang Thompson