‘WARNING! TAKE COVER’:
EARTH vs THE
‘EARTH vs THE FLYING SAUCERS’
Director: Fred F Sears. With Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor.
Original Release: Columbia Pictures, June 1956.
DVD, January 2017. 80-minutes.
‘Since Biblical times man has witnessed and recorded
strange manifestations in the sky, and speculated on
the possibilities of… visitors from another world’
– Documentary-style voice-over
The pre-credit sequence is loaded with gravitas. An FS-057 US jet is buzzed by a Flying Saucer. UFOs are glimpsed above the fields of Kansas, and the rice paddies of the Orient. While, to the airlines of the world, there have been sightings of ‘unidentified flying objects’… what we have come to know as ‘Flying Saucers’. In Dayton, Ohio – investigations carried out by the ‘Air Intelligence Command Headquarters’ show that ninety-seven percent of sightings prove to be of natural origin, but that leaves a teasing three-percent listed as ‘unknown’. ‘The Hemispheric Defense Command Headquarters’ in Colorado Springs issues orders to fire on sight when encountering unidentifiable flying objects. But will our technology be sufficient to repel hostile extraterrestrial visitors…?
This is serious stuff. It was a strange time. Although the Soviet ‘Sputnik One’ would not happen until October 1957, sending shockwaves around the world, the idea of artificial satellites was not only in the air, but above the atmosphere too. With the superpower Cold War gathering momentum bringing the constant threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, there was also a nervy fascination with UFO phenomenon. A writer called George Adamski enjoyed huge commercial success with his 1953 book ‘Flying Saucers Have Landed’ and its 1955 sequel ‘Inside The Space-Ships’, graphically describing his own encounters with creatures from other worlds. Most people dismissed the idea of what was termed the great Flying Saucer mystery, but there was just that three-percent possibility that there might just be something out there that we don’t understand.
So this movie arrived exactly at the correct nexus of concerns. When it comes to interplanetary invasion most fans of movie Sci-Fi would nominate George Pal’s adaptation of HG Wells’ ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1953) with its vivid use of Chesley Bonestell’s luminous matte paintings. But this low-budget production has the benefit of Ray Harryhausen’s effects, which are simply as good as animation gets until the advent of digital technology. You see those Flying Saucers spinning in formation across the city skyline. For a kid in short trousers up-close in the cheap seats at the local fleapit, or the teens at the Drive-In Movie Theatre alike, this was a spectacular vision snatched direct from all our wildest imaginings. There were other cheapo black-&-white shockers with nasty aliens lurking in ships conveniently hidden in the forest where all you get to see is the glowing airlock portal, or else they’re buried beneath the sandpit where the nasties lie in wait to snare unwary abductees. Here, no detail is hidden. It’s all clearly out in the open, and it’s there from the opening sequence.
A single moving car on a vast desert road. Inside are newly-married rocket-scientist Dr Russell (Hugh Marlowe) and wife of two hours Carol Marvin (Joan Taylor), she drives as he talks and fiddles with a tape-recorder, dictating his report. ‘I thought intellectual giants were supposed to be backwards and shy’ she teases, claiming that without her ‘inspiration and untiring criticism this report could never have been written!’ It’s then that they’re buzzed by a UFO. They pull in to watch as it speeds away into the sky. ‘We saw what appeared to be a Flying Saucer’ Russell concedes cautiously to her, as he pulls out a crumpled cigarette pack, ‘that’s all we can say.’
They continue their interrupted drive to ‘the project’ where he has ‘a hot date with a three-stage rocket.’ The sign says ‘You Are Approaching Operation Sky Hook, Restricted Area, Department Of Defense’. There are impressive spliced-in footage of tense rocket-launch sequences and solar photography, as they prepare to launch the eleventh of twelve automatic observation stations into orbit, what they term satellites, or moons… or ‘birds’. It’s twenty minutes to launch when General Hanley (Morris Ankrum), who happens to be Carol’s father, returns from a trip to Panama to report the burned-out remains of satellite seven have been discovered there. Numbers one and three fell over Africa. Number five at the North Pole. Nine and ten along the Andes. The rest were lost at sea. Each satellite had blown up in outer space, despite there being no explosive content. Dastardly deeds were obviously afoot.
As a jobbing actor Philadelphia-born Hugh Marlowe – real name Hugh Hipple, had roles in ‘All About Eve’ (1950) as well as playing the suspicious ‘Tom Stevens’ who betrays Klaatu to the authorities in the original classic version of ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (1951). Joan Taylor had an even more luminous career, working her way through a series of Western movies, then going on to appear in ‘Twenty Million Miles To Earth’ (1957) where she combats another Ray Harryhausen-animated extraterrestrial threat. She appeared in just about every TV Western series, from ‘Wagon Train’ to ‘Gunsmoke’, but found greater success as a writer and a power behind the ‘Hawaii Five-O’ franchise inherited from her late husband. They prove to be an engagingly adequate lead duo, with some screen chemistry… but it’s the special effects that are the movie’s real star.
Nevertheless, they enjoy a family barbeque with Dad until they spot two electrical spheres hovering in the sky, and the falling star that is the hurtling remnants of number eleven. But they also discover that the tape recorder Russell was using in the car has inadvertently picked up distortion white-noise from the UFO encounter. The next and final launch will be equipped with TV pick-up, in more stock-footage sequences of technical preparation. Before a Flying Saucer arrives to interrupt proceedings. It hovers over the base. The first clash of interplanetary war is about to commence. In full Ray Harryhausen detail a column extends from beneath the hovering saucer and – protected by a wavering electronic screen, three metallic figures emerge. A squad of soldiers open fire and one of the aliens is felled, with massive retaliation. Soldiers with mortars are vapourised. The rocketship is felled and blows up. The robotic figures fire beams of flame that proceed to destroy the project.
The only two left alive, Carol and Russell find shelter in the bunker as the air turns toxic, and she’s scared of the dark. But as the power fails the tape that Marvin had recorded in the car, slows as it plays, revealing the gibberish to be a voice-message played at accelerated speed. Then, as the UFO ascends above the scrubby desert, General Hanley wakes to discover that he’s been snatched, and is inside the saucer itself – the interstellar conveyance, with a single screen and a white floating translating device. There’s an x-ray mind-control effect that envelops his head, so his brain becomes briefly visible. The voice demands to know why their message to Dr Marvin was not heeded… the message that the power outage is only now revealing.
‘Sky Hook Wiped Out’ announces the Los Angeles Times headline, as the Federal Government convenes and the rescued duo are flown to the Pentagon Internal Security Commission. They play the time-adjusted tape, and Russell pleads to be allowed to make radio contact with ‘whoever they are’, but his audience is skeptical. Assigned a security guard called Frank and Hotel Room 312, Russell goes ahead and uses his own radio to answer the alien’s message on their own wavelength. They arrange a meeting at Chesapeake Bay ‘where the north beach road reaches the sea’ – conveniently using 11:00am GMT. He socks Frank and makes off at speed to meet the rendezvous deadline, hotly pursued first by Frank and Carol, then by a Highway motorcycle Traffic Cop too alerted by their excessive speed.
They arrive at the shore and set out along the beach to where the UFO is waiting. ‘Please come in’ says the alien voice as the saucer ascends sufficiently to reveal the column. The party of four find themselves in the chamber where the General woke earlier, with cosmic scenes on the screen. ‘We generate a magnetic field stronger than the gravitational field of your Earth’ the alien helpfully – but perhaps unwisely explains, ‘this is the principle by which we move through space.’ As the speeded-up tape indicates, they operate in a very different time-reference. Human pulses are suspended, all that happens within the ship is time-adjusted between the ticks of their watch, or the beats of their heart. ‘We are the survivors of a disintegrated solar system’ the alien voice reveals, and they’d assumed the Sky Hook missile launches were weapons directed against them, which is why they destroyed them.
The aliens have the means of accumulating information through their Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank. To test it out the cop asks which team won the World Series. When it correctly answers ‘the New York Yankees’, Carol recognizes the voice it is using. Yes, it’s Daddy Hanley, who emerges in an automaton-like state, all knowledge from his brain having been transferred to their machines. The outraged cop shoots, and in retaliation is subject to the same brain-revealing scan.
But Dr Marvin and his companions are mistaken in assuming that friendly coexistence is on offer, instead the aliens demand a meeting with world leaders in Washington DC to negotiate Earth’s surrender terms, within fifty-six days. The UFO fleet is shown circling the globe. In a famous sequence there are saucers flying in formation over New York, over Westminster, and over Paris with the Eiffel Tower as a recognition factor. The Navy destroyer ‘Franklin Eddison’ opens fire on a saucer, and is vapourised by a single energy-beam projected from the saucer’s underside. Of course, with such weaponry they could invade Earth, but could not control a large hostile population. As the alien says, they would be masters of a ‘wrecked and hungry planet.’
‘Look to your sun for a warning’ comes a radio message broadcast to the people of Earth. People listen across the world. There’s a tremendous explosion on the solar surface, setting off nine days of meteorological disturbances, with storms and floods crippling the world.
As Mark Gatiss and David Miller point out in their authoritative ‘They Came From Outer Space!’ (Visual Imagination, 1996), this movie features ‘without doubt, some of the best flying-saucer model work ever seen in the movies,’ UFOs which ‘dart and dip about the screen, crash spectacularly into several famous landmarks in Washington (and further afield) and generally behave exactly as we hope real flying saucers will behave.’ Harryhausen had studied George Adamski’s books, as well as ‘Flying Saucers From Outer Space’ (1953) by Major Donald Keyhoe, upon which the script supposedly derived its authenticity, in order to model and animate his spinning saucers. Producer Charles H Scheer had called the technique ‘Dyamation’ when they’d collaborated on the earlier creature-feature ‘It Came From Beneath The Sea’ (1955). The animation still look remarkably impressive, and the attacking aliens of Tim Burton’s ‘Mars Attacks’ (1996) knowingly spoof these flying saucers, with their retractable underside heat-beams.
Returned to the Commission the leaders debate their response. ‘We don’t meet them with tea and cookies, we fight back!’ demands one General. ‘To use nuclear power when they land would destroy our own cities’ suggests another. While Russell himself has an idea for ‘a new kind of weapon’ based on alien technology. His ultrasonic gun detonates a block of concrete, but requires much higher wave-frequency to be efficient. Instead, a scientist in New Delhi suggests taking advantage of information the alien’s had earlier rather foolishly revealed, by interrupting the magnetic field that is the saucer’s motive power. Trains and planes bring supplies as scientists work with slide-rules and blueprints in the concealed Belmont Labs, where they transmit flickering coils of energy in arcs through the air. Finally the weapon is ‘a functioning reality’, as a newer and stronger Interference Machine is being speeded from Aberdeen, but they’ve been observed by a hovering luminous sphere. A Major shoots and destroys it, but as they set out for Washington, a saucer is observing them.
They give the gun its first real trial when the UFO lands and three robotic UFOnauts emerge. The beam oscillates as they fire. There’s an aerial battle, the UFO shoots down a Foo-Fighter attack-plane then torches the Lab centre, setting up forest fires as the three make their escape. The saucer dumps two human bodies… the motorcycle cop, and Carol’s father, but one of the alien’s has also been shot. They rip off its ‘solidified electricity’ helmet, to reveal the ancient humanoid beneath, the suit replacing its atrophied flesh and muscle. Russell tries the helmet on, to discover that it amplifies the senses. While they adapt the translating device within the helmet, analyzing the alien language with the aid of banks of mechanical calculators. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’ says Carol as a test of its ability.
The scene is set for the final confrontation. Russell and Carol share a romantic parting in their hotel room, she’s supposed to go to Palm Springs as part of a general evacuation. Troops move into place, in incorporated stock-footage. Guns rise menacingly aloft. Planes take off – only to be vapourised. Rockets are launched, striking the saucers harmlessly. A fleet of saucers spin over Washington, causing panic. Russell scrambles into position and a saucer crashes into the Potomac. Carol dashes across the lawns and down a flight of stairs as soldiers circle the half-submerged saucer. She has stayed behind, as the real devastation begins. Flying saucers land on the White House lawn. Buildings are torched. Russell and Carol run as buildings collapse around them, as the fight-back uses the projector. Hit by the beam the saucers oscillate, crippled UFOs crash into city blocks and always take care to famously spin into iconic landmarks, snapping the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, and spectacularly smashing them in a recognizably Harryhausen way.
Once the ‘present danger’ is ended, Russell and Carol frolic on the beach. The Sky Hook project is to be resumed. ‘Will they come back again?’ asks Carol pensively. ‘Not on such a nice day’ he jokes, as they skip hand-in-hand into the waves.
Of course, it’s a feel-good movie. The aliens are convincingly believably threatening, but their sinister plans are defeated by a combination of ingenuity and pluck. Earth is in danger, but is saved. Although, over half-a-century later, the fear of alien abduction and interference in human affairs has never completely gone away.
‘FLYING SAUCERS ATTACK!’
‘EARTH vs THE FLYING SAUCERS’ aka ‘Invasion Of The Flying Saucers’ or ‘Flying Saucers From Outer Space’ (June 1956, Columbia Pictures) Director: Fred F Sears. Producer: Charles H Schneer. Executive Producer: Sam Katzman. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates, Bernard Gordon (credited as ‘Raymond T Marcus’), suggested by the non-fiction best-selling book ‘Flying Saucers From Outer Space’ (1953) by Major Donald Keyhoe. Technical stop-motion animation effects: Ray Harryhausen. With Hugh Marlowe (as Dr Russell A Marvin), Joan Taylor (as Carol Marvin), Donald Curtis (as Major Huglin), Morris Ankrum (as Brigadier General John Hanley), John Zaremba (as Professor Kanter), Thomas Browne Henry (as Vice-Admiral Enright), Grandon Rhodes (as General Edmunds), Larry J Blake (as Motorcycle Policeman), Charles Evans (as Dr Alberts), Harry Lauter (as Cutting, Kanter’s technician), Paul Frees (the uncredited voice of the Aliens). 84-minutes. DVD Sony, Universal, includes colourised and original black-&-white versions, 2008