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The Ultimate Invaders from Mars

by Glenn Erickson Dec 21, 2021
Sorry, this is not for a new disc. From 23 years ago, this was the first article that convinced me that there might be a real audience for my review page, then called DVD Savant. It’s about time that the illustrated essay was brought up to date and moved to CineSavant. It probes the ‘primitive sophistication’ and weird appeal of William Cameron Menzies’ most accomplished job of direction: the paranoid nightmare that haunted our childhood dreams. It’s slightly rewritten and has improved images. There’s so much to talk about:  Near-experimental visuals!  Strange editing choices!  The idea for the essay is the same as ever, to inspire somebody to properly remaster the show . . . it’s not like we’re going to live forever.

 

A two-part examination of a Sci-fi classic that, at least
in Savant’s opinion, should be showing in the Louvre.

Alas and alack!  As of 12.16.21, there is still no acceptable home video release for Invaders from Mars.
Here’s a link to the ancient DVD Savant review of what is still the best disc available.

Hold the phone!  As of 03.30.22, a full restoration and upcoming disc release has been announced for Invaders from Mars.
The preliminary CineSavant piece on this is at the CineSavant Column for 4.02.22
.

The modest 1953 science fiction film Invaders from Mars has been a fascination since childhood. I don’t think anyone has written about it in a way that really captures its genius; of all ’50s Sci-fi I think it is the most visually sophisticated, perhaps the most cinematic and a work worthy of the term ‘great art.’ If you hate writers that jam sub-Freudian meanings into movies, have no fear. My arguments are based on the movie we all can see, and don’t try to conform the film to fit some graduate-student agenda. On the other hand this article probably is more for confirmed Sci-fi aficionados than the general film fan. I thank both for their patience.

But if you want to hear some discussion about Invaders from Mars, this is the place. Invaders is rich in ideas and I by no means claim to have a handle on the whole subject. Part Two (below) is the actual essay and argument for the film as an overlooked masterpiece. Part One presents a lot of relevant but loosely organized background, production, and restoration information. It also discusses some editorial structures within the film that are needed as setup for the essay.

 

 

PART ONE: Background.

 

William Cameron Menzies

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the ’50s Sci-fi cycle when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. Optioned by one set of producers, a script by John Tucker Battle eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. His unique graphic sense elevated the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Kings Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by singlehandedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.

Menzies directed several earlier films, most notably the Science Fiction spectacle Things to Come. Partly due to post-release re-editing, that show gave Menzies the undeserved reputation of a director who couldn’t handle actors or block scenes. The haphazard slashing of that film from 110 to 96 minutes unfairly contributed to the denigration of Menzies’ talent. Another fantastic Menzies effort was The Man He Found, a thriller about a journalist who discovers a nest of Nazis in postwar Minnesota. After it was finished, RKO head Howard Hughes decreed that it be reworked to turn the Nazis into Communists experimenting with biological warfare weapons. The final title is The Whip Hand.

Synopsis (with spoilers)

Invaders tells the story of young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), who witnesses the 4 a.m. landing of a flying saucer from his bedroom window. Burrowing into a sand pit behind David’s house, the Martians trap his kindly father George (Leif Erickson) and plant a radio-activated control device in his neck. Now a zombie-agent, George MacLean spreads the Martians’ influence by luring others into the pit: David’s mother Mary (Hillary Brooke), army General Mayberry (William Forrest). The Martians are soon in control of the local police chief as well, Chief Barrows (Bert Freed).

Young David responds to the trauma of finding his parents transformed into inhuman automatons by confiding in his local astronomer friend, Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz). With the help of attractive public health nurse Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), they determine that the Martian invaders plan to use their radio-controlled human operatives to sabotage the atomic rocket being developed at Coral Bluffs, a secret government base nearby. Kelston informs the Army, which surrounds the sand pit. David and Pat are captured and taken into the buried Martian saucer, which they discover contains only one real Martian, a disembodied, tentacled head in a glass globe. It is in telepathic command of a crew of giant, bug-eyed, green Mutant slaves. Hard-bitten Army Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) launches a desperate rescue mission into the maze of Martian tunnels; David and Pat are freed before they can be implanted with control devices. The Army sets its demolition charges inside the eerie spaceship but the Mutants seal off the escape tunnels. Young David mans a Martian infrared Ray Gun to burn an exit tunnel to the surface, and the entire cast runs for cover. When the explosives finally detonate, David awakens: the entire adventure is revealed to have been but a dream. But was it? Once again, David is awakened by the sound of an approaching spacecraft…

 

The Production

Invaders from Mars was filmed in color, which automatically gave it an edge in the 1953 Hollywood independent market. Part of Menzies’ job as designer was to choose a color scheme that would look good in a now long-abandoned color process. Original prints of Invaders from Mars have an otherworldly color texture, with slimy greens and blues and vivid reds.  1  Despite persistent rumors and misinformation the movie was not filmed in 3-D. But Menzies’ depth-enhancing designs makes it look more three-dimensional than many bona fide 3-D features.

Almost the entire movie was filmed on carefully designed sets. One oft-repeated bit of trivia is that the bubbles lining the walls of the Martian tunnels were inflated condoms — clusters of ‘blisters’ can be seen wobbling as soldiers run by. Some sets were cleverly recycled. The lab of assassination target Dr. Wilson (Robert Shayne) is the same set as the forbidding Police station, redressed. Special effects man Jack Cosgrove executed a number of effective matte paintings that help stretch the budget. David’s house and telescopic views of the atomic rocket are both mattes. Clever glass paintings augment a number of saucer interiors, such as the dynamic angle down the glass tube above the Martian operating table.

The Infamous Zippered Aliens.

Eager fans sometimes enjoy heckling maladroit Sci-fi and Invaders from Mars gives casual monster movie bashers a big target. Most often derided are the plush velour jumpsuits used to represent the Martian slaves. The green velour mutants always remind Savant of the Winkie Guards from The Wizard of Oz. It’s something about their plastic noses, and their slavish stupidity.

Writers Robert Skotak and Scot Holton report that in the absence of a better budget a friend of the producers jumped on her Singer sewing machine and whipped up the suits practically overnight. This accounts for the legendary famous zippers running up the spines, as they are pretty obvious. But is what we see perhaps meant to be clothing and not the mutants’ actual skin?  Should that be the case, the Earth is being invaded by big lugs wearing comfy pajamas.

The bug-eyed Martian faces were achieved with a simple plastic eye-nose-mouth combo mask worn like sunglasses. In stills, the Martian slaves remind us of a scene in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. A studio costumer tries to push some moth-eaten Cat suits on the producer played by Kirk Douglas. Not the most convincing Aliens concocted for the screen… point granted.

 

 

The Sand Pit Hill Set.

Menzies appears to have invested the majority of his art department’s resources in one extravagant set, the hill behind David’s house that leads to the treacherous Sand Pit. It is a truly remarkable design for a number of reasons. A slightly curved path winds up the hill between some leafless black tree trunks. The path is paralleled by a broad plank fence, a favorite design motif of Mr. Menzies: they can be seen throughout Gone With the Wind and Kings Row.

Atop the hill, the blackened fence dips out of sight into the largely unseen Sand Pit beyond. We’re always trying to see ‘more’ of the Sand Pit; a pair of trees center screen sometimes blocks our view.

 

The hill is ‘deceptively artificial.’ On first impression it seems to echo the design concept of a shot in the famed 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Caligari that depicts a bridge over which Cesare the Somnambulist kidnaps a female victim. The Invaders hill appears to be a similar diorama-like design. Its perspective is flattened out; until the last-act battle it is always presented in nearly the same locked-off, static angle. It looks just strange enough to resemble a painted backdrop, but when an actor walks up the path, all sense of perspective goes haywire. When three-dimensional people walk into what looks like a two-dimensional image, they diminish in size. The effect is a subtle contradiction of visual logic.

It’s a ‘reverse forced-perspective’ optical illusion: a deep set is purposely made to appear shallow. George and Mary seem to get smaller than they should as they reach the top of the hill, and they take a lot of steps to get there. But the trees at the rear of the set don’t give the right ‘perspective clues’ so it almost looks as if the couple is shrinking as they walk. The subtle effect is much more apparent on a large screen.

Stock Footage Orgy.

Whether by necessity or by design producer Edward Alperson shamelessly padded his movie with stock footage. To represent the regiments Colonel Fielding has summoned to surround the Sand Pit, large sections of a WW2 training film on how to transport tanks by rail have been spliced in. A small independent outfit like Alperson’s could not hope to get the free cooperation of the National Guard, as did the studios that produced The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The footage of tanks pulling into position amid the greenery around the Pit is presumably stock footage from earlier productions, some of it displaying rather non-American looking tanks.

Possible evidence of padding is also seen earlier, when David and Doctor Kelston realign the telescope. Long, uninterrupted takes of the Observatory’s rotating cupola bring the movie to a dead stop. These are probably not stock footage, but pickup shots filmed at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park observatory.

 


The Strange Repetition of shots.

But the biggest invitation to nitpickers in Invaders from Mars is the constant and obvious repetition of shots. When those aforementioned tanks begin firing a handful of angles are reused over and over. One specific image of a shell blast is seen at least four times just by itself. It is from another movie filmed in CineColor, 1949’s Canadian Pacific.

Not just stock footage is repeated. In the Martians’ underground lair, many shots of shuffling Martian Mutants and running soldiers are recycled. There seem to have been at most five actual camera positions in the Martian tunnel set. The same four velour-suited Martians shambling past, repeated three times, become twelve Martian slaves. These angles have also been flopped left-to-right, and the flopped versions repeated too! If you look at the back wall of the tunnel in these shots, the same three-bubble pattern can be seen repeated ad infinitum, often back-to-back. Likewise, when David’s parents flee the army, there are only two shots of the chase. Both shots are flopped horizontally, and shown again.

The practice of repeating shots is too persistent to be anything but a conscious device to create a dreamlike mood. More two- and three- shot sequences are repeated during the underground fighting. Inside the saucer Sgt. Rinaldi (Max Wagner) drags David out of the Martian operation room and down the stairs to the next level below. A few moments later, David breaks free and dashes back upstairs — and the same exact shots are reused to show Sgt. Rinaldi dragging David out and down a second time. When a group of soldiers shoots down a Mutant (“Blast him!”), the fallen alien gets back up again, seemingly unharmed. The soldiers doggedly open fire a second time. The entire sequence of them shooting, and the Mutant toppling, is repeated exactly as shown only seconds before. Our reaction is, “I’ve had dreams like that.”

Crazy Suspense Editing.

In the final battle Invaders from Mars uses a ‘deadline’ tension device to raise the excitement level. The soldiers find that their escape exit is delayed, and have only a couple of minutes to dig their way out before their own demolition charges go off. A huge close-up of the time-delay readout of the bomb is intercut with fleeing soldiers and the surface of the Sand Pit as the saucer attempts to take off. In the service of suspense, film editors usually cheat these kinds of sequences a little, stretching the material to last longer than it should, to distend time. A good comparison is the time-stretched atom bomb countdown at Fort Knox in the 007 thriller Goldfinger. Here in Invaders the bomb’s second-hand defies all logic, passing the same markers on its dial again and again. Also repeated is the saucer’s initial emergence from the Sand Pit. Surely nobody expected anyone over the age of six to accept this sequence at face value. It’s of course a subjective effect, as in a dream. We also recognize the effect in tense situations. In a car accident, time can seem to expand or contract depending on how we are affected by what is happening.

If a filmmaker shoots twenty minutes of film stock, and makes a ten-minute movie out of it, the movie is said to have a 2 to 1 shooting ratio. The joke to Invaders is that the completed film has so many repeated shots, its shooting ratio is 1 to 2 !

A Bizarre Montage like No Other.

At a certain point in the action finale this classic alien invasion movie goes Wholly Radical. For some it becomes an editorial tour-de-force, and for others a cinematic joke. The simultaneous actions of ticking bomb, escaping saucer and fleeing troops overlap to a point at which rational time progression ceases altogether. It’s as if Einstein or Stephen Hawking had zapped the movie camera. The detonator will never hit the Zero mark. David will never reach the bottom of the hill and the saucer will never break free of the Sand Pit. We’re stuck in the grammatical Present Progressive.

David runs for his life in an unending close-up as a prolonged optical montage begins, transforming the film’s cutting rhythm and tone. Striking images and violent action from earlier scenes are recapitulated, superimposed over David’s running face. All are intercut with that same repeated shell blast. The music downshifts out of its martial frenzy into a previously unheard ethereal theme, not unlike the final movement of Holst’s The Planets.

Just as we begin to accept that David’s running is locked into a non-progressing limbo, a new series of superimposed images begins, now playing in reverse. The scenes chosen this time are non-violent but eerily disturbing. David leaps from the embrace of his parents. The zombie Chief Barrows puts on his hat. These odd visions eventually dissolve into a star-scape of planets receding, retreating away. A whole Philip K. Dickian universe is receding from us, going to sleep.

Concurrent with a clap of thunder, a final explosion ‘breaks’ the montage and restores David to his bedroom. The ‘dream’ part of Invaders from Mars is over. For some viewers the experience is a meaningless joke. In a series screening at UCLA long ago, this scene elicited an enthusiastic response even as it remained a mystery. I haven’t yet read anything about Invaders that satisfactorily addresses the meaning behind Menzies and editor Arthur Roberts’ crazy quilt editing of these last reels. I offer this as my interpretation.

A Victim of Versions Manipulation.

As weird as it is, Invaders from Mars is the work of practical filmmakers trying to make their show acceptable to the Production Code and marketable overseas. The American cut is about 78 minutes long. A few months after it was completed, Arthur Franz, Helena Carter and young Jimmy Hunt were rehired to film new footage to enable the film to clear foreign censors. For reasons that are unclear England apparently nixed the dream story structure outright — the same structure used in The Wizard of Oz. The new conclusion that was filmed replaces most of the final ‘nightmare montage,’ resolving David’s mind-bending dilemma and eliminating all that is unique about Menzies’ original conclusion. Inexpressive angles were filmed of the three actors reaching the bottom of the hill and ducking behind an Army vehicle. The effects animation of the saucer landing was reversed to make it look as if it were taking off, with an added animated flash to show it being destroyed by the Army bomb. One of the prop trees tips over, lamely. Pat glibly announces that David’s parents are now safe, because the control source has been destroyed,. Then there is a dissolve to David sleeping, and a tight angle on Drs. Kelston and Blake standing at his bedroom doorway cooing, ‘He’ll be safe now.” End of show. UK viewers must have thought the movie incoherent, idiotic.

Collector and music producer Bruce Kimmel once possessed an uncut 35mm print of just this reshot sequence. In 1998 I borrowed it to make a tape transfer and resynchronize its audio — a defect that probably enabled the print to survive to become part of Kimmel’s collection. Four years later it was used as an extra on the Special Edition Laserdisc of Invaders from Mars from Image. As can be expected, they did not fix the audio flaw.

As stated, the original English ending skips almost all of the weird montage finale. Pasting this cop-out ending onto the film meant losing a couple of minutes of running time. To make up for it, and whatever else the Brit censors may have cut out, a second new scene was filmed with the same three actors. The new footage kicks in in the observatory, just when the trio is discussing the likelihood of living beings on Mars. Jimmy Hunt’s neck has grown at least an inch and his haircut changes. Dr. Kelston takes his two visitors to a new corner of the Observatory to view a conveniently displayed photo album with news clippings of flying saucer sightings. He then opens a cabinet and produces big models of three ‘typical’ saucer shapes. David is already familiar with these exhibits. After several minutes of pointless discussion, an impressed Pat accompanies the two UFO experts back to the desk, where they resume their seated positions so the film can pick up where it left off.

Until the late ’70s this alternate English version was just a rumor here in the U.S.. But then television prints began to circulate that incorporated some of the reshoot material in odd ways. Savant knows of four versions of Invaders from Mars:

1) The original cut. This is viewable once again on the 2002 DVD. In Los Angeles the original cut played on television in B&W throughout the 1960s, suddenly appeared in color in about 1971 and disappeared in the mid- ’70s.

2) The English cut. It drops the montage finale and adds the observatory scene and the lame no-dream conclusion. The B.B.F.C. clocks this cut at just under 82 minutes. That observatory scene drags on quite a while. It’s on the 2002 DVD as well.

3) A television cut Savant first saw in 1979. The same as the original cut, except for a number of annoying alterations, using only pieces of the footage shot for England. The heroes run to safety and the saucer is seen exploding, yet most of the final montage is intact and the story still resolves as a dream as in the original. Some dialogue lines have been deleted. Informed that the escape tunnel is hopelessly blocked, a soldier no longer shouts, “Keep digging you guys!”   In addition, minor editorial lifts were made all the way through the picture to (reportedly) pick up the pace.

4) A TV version taped in 1989, time-expanded to make the film fit a two hour time slot with commercials. Some TV distributor with video editing toys must have gotten very creative with this one. This version has the original ending, but includes the full observatory reshoot scene as well. It’s difficult to watch: it plays in quasi- slow-motion, as if one were on drugs.

Sometime in the 1970s Invaders from Mars became the property of film collector Wade Williams. Hailing from Kansas City, Williams announced that he had acquired rights to a number of Science Fiction films including favorites Rocketship X-M and Kronos. Williams began the dicey practice of altering prints of the films, perhaps as Rohauer had once done to the classics of Buster Keaton as a way of re-registering them under new copyrights.

Williams’ changes to some of the films were documented in fan magazines like Starlog. The original Rocketship X-M had used pretty crummy V-2 rocket stock footage that didn’t match models seen elsewhere in the show. Williams hired some Cascade effects alumni, including cameraman Dennis Muren, to film replacement footage featuring a proper-looking rocket model. For quite a while this was the version that appeared on television and early home video: VHS tapes and Laserdiscs. The original unaltered 1950 Rocketship X-M did not return until Williams put the film on DVD. It’s hard to tell if it’s really fully original.

Wade Williams reissued Invaders from Mars to theaters in the middle ’70s, with the changes listed above in versions 3 and 4. Fans assumed that the dialogue lines were excised because audiences laughed at them. This puts Williams in the company of earlier film importers that cut scenes from The Mysterians, Reptilicus, Gorath, and Varan the Unbelievable because screening audiences ‘laughed in the wrong places.’

This ’70s film student rented several beautiful-looking 16mm prints of this show, and also once saw a perfect 35mm Invaders trailer on a giant screen at Filmex that knocked my eyes out. A 1993 Image laserdisc has a wonderful selection of extras and posters, cut scenes and even a comic book, but its copy of the film is an appalling mishmash cobbled together from a number of wildly divergent sources. The presentation jumps from patches of excellent quality to ones that look like a bad color photocopy. Clearly, they were trying to reconstruct the film from bits and pieces. Wade Williams’ name appears nowhere on the laserdisc, which carries the legend, ‘Richard I. Rosenfeld presents a film from the Johnar Library.’ Was there a question about Wade Williams’ copyright claim?  Has he the only decent copies of the film?  We have heard different stories about the status of the film’s original negative, that it is lost, that it is somewhere in England, that it is fully intact.

As we continue to the second half of The Ultimate Invaders From Mars be assured that the show once looked sensational, and could be fully restored. I believe that pristine original prints or elements still exist because the clips seen on a TCM documentary (included on DVDs and Blu-rays of Forbidden Planet) look far better than any full copy yet released on video.

 

 



 

 

PART TWO: Essay.

 

 

We continue the two-part examination of William Cameron Menzies’ Sci-fi classic.

The little boy has anxiety issues.

The talented child actor Jimmy Hunt carries the show in Invaders from Mars. A full five years earlier, at age six or seven, Jimmy appeared in Andre de Toth’s excellent film noir Pitfall. Jimmy plays the cute son of the disenchanted insurance agent played by Dick Powell, who is nearing middle age and can’t understand why his loving wife and good job don’t satisfy him.

The most telling scene in Pitfall happens when little Jimmy wakes from a nightmare. Something was threatening him at his window. Jimmy’s mother (Jane Wyatt, later of Father Knows Best) can’t understand what could disturb a boy living in such a perfect suburban situation, in a secure peacetime. Dad thinks he finds the answer when he picks up a stack of — what else — ‘trashy’ comics:

“Now it’s comic books. Where does he get this stuff?”

It’s only 1948 and already scapegoats are being sought for the lack of values and direction in American life. Some un-nameable fear is disturbing both little Jimmy and his father… there is something different about the times themselves, an uneasiness, and no one seems able to identify the cause.

In Invaders from Mars David MacLean has a BIG nightmare, and once again his parents blame it on ‘those trashy comic books he’s been reading.’     Think of Invaders as a post-modern version of The Wizard of Oz. In Dorothy’s circa-1900 world of dull rural sameness, a dream is a chance to escape into a magical realm. Her adventure explains in strange but logical ways how her real world works. Authority figures are without substance. One’s peace and safety is at the whim of representatives of Good and Bad engaged in struggles that ordinary people can hardly relate to. If she is brave and virtuous, an innocent can find her way home and perhaps discover a few truths about herself in the process.

Dorothy’s Kansas world may have been dull but it had one quality David MacLean’s sorely lacks: a sense of security. David’s frantic dream is a symptom of the pressures of his daily life, not an escape from it. It’s not a magical place Over the Rainbow that one can enter like a Tex Avery cartoon character (‘Technicolor Begins Here’). David’s dream is an alternate reality so close to his real world he doesn’t even know he’s left it. Like Dorothy’s Oz, David’s dream is populated by people he knows, but changed into sinister doppelgängers of their ‘real’ selves.

Most of the criticism of Invaders from Mars stems from director William Cameron Menzies’ decision not to identify David MacLean’s adventure as a nightmare visualized literally from David’s own point of view. With certain exceptions like 1946’s Dead of Night, adults tend to consider tales that turn out to ‘all be a dream’ to be cheating, breaking their own rules. One might have to explain to a five-year-old that Dorothy really didn’t go to a place called Oz, but adults aren’t going to be fooled. David MacLean’s nightmare is a cheat that isn’t revealed until the end, after 75 minutes of ludicrous illogical characters and plot. Illogical to an adult mindset, that is.

Invaders from Mars has a reputation for scaring the hell out of children because it’s that rare film engineered around primal adolescent fears. The nightmare is shown from little David’s point of view and carefully restricted to his frame of reference and his experiences. In Pitfall, Dick Powell’s disenchantment is shown to have a subtle psychological effect on his son, who perhaps worries that his father doesn’t love him. By the time of Invaders, the Cold War conflict has reignited new shooting wars. If the pressures of 1953 are making adults paranoid, what effects are being transmitted to their children?

What do we know about the ‘real’ David MacLean?   He is a precocious astronomy buff that lives with his loving parents. His father might not talk much about what he does for a living; it might indeed be government work. Back then we all assumed our dads were doing important work. David might have a neighbor friend named Kathy Wilson (Janine Perreau) whose father might work at the same place David’s father works.  2

That’s about all we are told regarding David’s ‘reality.’ Everything in his nightmare is a distortion of his waking world, and not to be trusted. There are no reassuring ‘winks’ to the audience, no lovable Scarecrow who resembles a farmhand back home. David wishes he had an astronomer for a friend, so his dream gives him one, a best pal, in fact. David seems to have a good idea of the woman he wants in his life as well — sexy Pat Blake (Helena Carter).

Older reference books dismiss Invaders from Mars as a jumbled juvenile fantasy, not realizing how completely it expresses juvenile anxieties. The best fantasy stories present us with crazy-mirror visions of our everyday world, and we often relate to fantasy because of its relevance to real life. Back in 1985 we saw a matinee of Wolfgang Peterson’s The NeverEnding Story. When that film’s terrifying ‘Nothing’ is explained, we heard ‘Ahhs’ of audience approval: a fairy tale is acknowledging the Unknowns of real life that parents and children must face with courage.

But David MacLean is insecure, therefore his dream parents ‘aren’t really his parents.’ ‘Those trashy comic books’ have populated his daydreams with flying saucers and sinister aliens. Authority figures are remote and disinclined to believe him. Beyond those observations most reviewers can’t fathom anything else in the film, let alone the weird continuity anomalies detailed earlier in this article.

But all the ‘weirdness’ of Invaders does make sophisticated visual and thematic sense. It isn’t convincing to an adult sensibility because a ten year-old, David himself, is ‘writing the script’ and ‘painting the scenery.’ Invaders paints a surreal landscape of dialogue non-sequiturs, plot illogic and crazy character behavior. To an impressionable child of 1953 comic book flying saucers and aliens have a credibility equal to headlines about atom bombs, brainwashing and foreign conspiracies.

Invaders from Mars’ weird fantasy is practically a psychological study of the new postwar American kid, bombarded on all sides by a world filled with new technological terrors. The film played to audiences insufficiently hip to realize that a ‘silly kid’s film’ could possibly be worthy of serious consideration. Taken literally Invaders is incoherent. Regarded in the same way as Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, it’s a mother lode of engrossing ideas.

Breaking Down the Pulp.

 

Titles:     The martial marching music behind the main titles blends with an eerie suspense theme as planets and moons drift by… in 1953, outer space is Big Science, and Big Science is Military Science. The music’s real theme heralds a Brave New Future of aggression. War is expanding into the ‘vast heavens.’

 

Norman Rockwell Opening:     In a few brief scenes Menzies and writer Richard Blake sketch a happy family in their modest home just as succinctly as would the famous Saturday Evening Post illustrator. David and his father’s 3 a.m. telescope fun is as wholesome as a fishing trip. The only odd notes are the weird green-bluish colors, and Menzies’ precise use of gigantic choker close-ups. Mary and George MacLean are nurturing and sweet-hearted even when awakened in the middle of the night. As parents they are almost too perfect to be true.

 

Saucer Landing:     Our first darkened view makes The Hill look like a flat storybook illustration. When the Saucer lands at 4:41 a.m., David doesn’t shrink in fear, he wonders out loud: “Gee whiz!” He’s the first of the Cinefantastique sense-of-wonder boys, Spielberg’s inspiration for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

 

Dream-Logic Visuals.     At sunrise we see Menzies’ minimalist art direction at its most uncanny. The sets are simple one- or two-wall rooms. The view out David’s back door shows just a tree and an almost empty horizon. Shots alternate between wide, flattish domestic masters and intense choker close-ups, usually accompanied by blasts of strange music. There is no action montage per se; only tableaux and obsessive details. The huge shoulder of a policeman looms above little David, who strains to see something on the back of his neck. Director-designer Menzies is noted for shots in which the main subject is squeezed into a corner of the frame, threatened by the a visual composition that blocks out much of the screen.

 

Discontinuity of Angles.     In the earlier part of the story The Hill is always seen in wide angle from a single viewpoint. It’s a dream image, the kind of oneiric repeated image that never changes. When George or Mary leave their porch and step into The Hill set they seem to enter a different world. The action on the hill remains limited to several obsessive angles: a close-up of a character in danger, a funnel of sinking sand forming in the Pit, and back to the ultra-wide unchanging Hill, as if It were alive and responsible.

 

Bizarre Music:     We’re told that credited composer Raoul Kraushaar may not actually have composed the marvelous music for Invaders. The jolting, schizophrenic score invests that weird Hill and its grasping Sand Pit with a living dimension. An eerie, stomach-twisting vocal effect is an inversion of a stock ‘heavenly chorus.’ This incredibly creepy collection of slippery tones will grab the attention of any child. It sounds like a nightmare. It’s far more disturbing than a Theremin, if only because of that instrument’s overuse.

We assume that the chorus is part of the musical score until the scene in which Sgt. Rinaldi crawls up to the Sand Pit. David suddenly blurts out, “That noise!” acknowledging that he hears it too. If the weird chorus is really audible, does it mean that the Martians sing as they suck victims into their sand trap?  Or is David hearing the soundtrack of his own dream?  Later on, both David and Pat hear the ‘Martian chorus’ just before they are captured. And the entire cast reacts similarly to a choral burst as the saucer prepares to lift off. The logic of David’s dream fully enlists the soundtrack in its surrealism.

The weird choral music creates a subliminally disturbing atmosphere. A good example of a similar effect is Christopher Komeda’s score for Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. Runner up: Robert Montgomery’s The Gallant Hours, where the only music heard are Roger Wagner’s choral effects. They make it seem as if the story of Admiral Halsey is happening in a weird museum of memories.

 

‘Overplayed’ Villainy.     Because David is orchestrating the Dream Logic, his parents behave like simplistic baddies from the comic books he reads. If this were a realistic photoplay, his father’s sudden personality change to sullen menace and explosive anger would send Mary MacLean into a panic; she’s run to the neighbors for help. George MacLean’s sinister invitation to show Mary something in the Sand Pit plays like a come-on line for Bluto in a Popeye cartoon. And after she too is possessed they huddle to exchange crazed stage-whisper conspiratorial asides, like a humor-challenged Boris and Natasha. They’re so obvious, even Forrest Gump would be dialing the F.B.I..

 

Some of the characters directly address the camera — the audience, us. When the ‘alien Quisling’ Mary hugs her son at the Police Station she raises an eyebrow, which is as good as saying, “Yes, I’m possessed.” The faces of all of the zombified humans mirror the emotionless-but-intense facial expression of the as-yet unseen Martian Intelligence controlling them.

Bert Freed’s poker-faced Police Chief Barrows similarly stares down the camera, conveying a chilly alien attitude:“‘Yeah, I’m one of ’em too. Got a problem with that?”  Menzies makes the Chief’s weirdness all the more apparent by shooting his signature close-up in reverse. Filming Freed in reverse was probably a practical aid: by starting on his precise mark he’d be perfectly framed and in focus, before stepping back away from the camera. The moment comes off as bizarrely pre-Lynchian. . . those motions just aren’t natural. . .

 

A Kafka Collection of Characters:     One thing David MacLean fully understands is his own lack of credibility and power as a child. Protected, sheltered and ignorant of anything beyond their Davy Crockett coonskin caps, most 1950s kids weren’t the streetwise, assertive, economy-driving consumers we know today, kids that aren’t afraid to shout at adults. Nobody takes David seriously, not Mrs. Wilson (Fay Baker), nor the gas-station attendant Jim, who instantly betrays David’s confidence. Even benevolent Police Desk Sergeant Finley (Walter Sande) isn’t going to understand David’s predicament.

The uncredited gas station attendant Jim is actor Todd Karns, familiar as Harry Bailey, George Bailey’s war hero younger brother in the heartwarming classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  His previous role surely had no part in his casting here yet it now adds to the aura of subversion: jeez, you can’t even trust a Bailey. . .

 

Most movie kids David’s age are still playing with Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs and wondering which sugary breakfast cereal is their favorite. Their family situations are so stable that trouble at home seems impossible. David instead finds himself in a dark corner darker than that of the most luckless film noir protagonist, a psychological Hell. His pleas fall on deaf ears. His parents have become unfeeling monsters, part of a vast conspiracy to conquer the Earth: ‘Only you know the awful truth, but nobody will even listen to you. You’re just a kid.”

 

A Sex Life for David MacLean:     In his insightful, funny article about teen films of the ‘fifties, Richard Staehling wrote that before James Dean and Rock ‘n’ Roll, teenagers really didn’t exist as a cultural concept. Invaders from Mars shows what a 10 year-old of 1953 really has on his mind. David probably isn’t getting any peeks at the first issue of Playboy but he knows how to tell Virginia Mayo from Aunt Virginia. David’s Mom comes right from the glamour girl mold herself. Insecure boys (and men) find beautiful women intimidating, I’m told. For initial viewers of Invaders Hillary Brooke may already have carried a mild taint of villainy. One of her familiar TV roles was as Gale Storm’s troublemaking co-worker on the television show My Little Margie.)

 

David’s playmate Kathy Wilson (Janine Perreau) is seen only in her ‘zombie’ state. She shares the same unfocused stare with the MacLeans and Chief Barrows. The knowing, sneaky, creepy look of triumph in Kathy’s giant close-ups has a hint of the boyhood sexual distrust of girls, one that society still doesn’t know how to acknowledge. Little girls back then were smarter and better behaved than little boys of the same age. Adults tended to trust and believe them more than us unpredictable boys. Some girls had actually been given facts about sex, a subject that was ‘none of our business.’ When hanky-panky occurred it quite often was girl-initiated. 1950s culture tightly coded proper little girl behavior, making Kathy’s ‘knowing’ smile seem sexually precocious, dangerous. Next stop, Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed.

 

But the big burner in David’s dreamland love life is the incredibly sexy health nurse Dr. Pat Blake. She wears two-tone high heels and (we eagerly imagine) an intoxicating perfume. A crimson handkerchief sticks fashionably, daringly out of her designer nurse’s uniform. Pat is as tender as David’s mother yet also takes him seriously, accepting him as an adult in all matters. Pat Blake is a gal one can trust. She doesn’t leave David’s side from the moment she finds him. Forget stuffy astronomer Kelston. It’s David and Pat all the way.

 

When she’s manhandled by the Martian slaves Pat’s oh-so perfect uniform is torn at the shoulder just so, in the same way every heroine in action movies seem to have their dresses torn at the shoulder, from Joanne Dru (Red River) to Virginia Mayo to Maureen O’Hara. Those foolish censors probably thought an exposed bra strap would be too sexy, but its absence is the exact opposite: if Pat doesn’t dress like Mom, what is (or isn’t!) she wearing underneath? Invaders from Mars isn’t repeating this cliché, it’s revealing its source as a little boy sex-thing. Naked woman aren’t a part of David’s psyche yet… but he’s getting there.

 

The killer close-up of Pat shows her resting peacefully on the Martians’ glass operating table with that one shoulder bared — and a diamond-like needle pulsing slowly toward the back of her neck. This penetration image is charged with concepts of sex and rape, innocence and violation. Perhaps the ‘real’ David MacLean has a crush on his school nurse, who is sweet to him. Adolescent guilt, confusion and angst arrive when a boy realizes that the older women to whom he’s attracted are going to be ‘gotten’ by males other than himself. The threat of the Martians taking David’s girl away overrides even his anxiety about his parents’ fate.

 

Weird irrational expository dialogue.     Anyone doubting that the text of Invaders comes directly from the mind of adolescent David MacLean needs to study the film’s absurd espository dialogue. Several passages of crazy conversaton have already floored us. The craziest comes when George MacLean — the High Security government employee — blabs to his wife Mary about his secret work at the Coral Bluffs plant. When she inquires further her husband chuckles condescendingly: “Honey, you know I can’t talk about that.”

That exact turn of speech gets big laughs in 1980’s Airplane!, in the ‘Raid on Macho Grande’ flashback sequence. Chalk up Sci-fi fan Airplane! producer Jon Davison for that one, we bet.

 

The king of expository nonsequiturs, that Wacky Dr. Kelston.     It’s time for a closer look at the pipe-smoking nutcase that is kindly Dr. Stuart Kelston, Phd. (Arthur Franz). Junior scientist David has a screwy idea of what real scientists do. His imagined best friend Dr. Kelston works in an observatory and smokes a pipe. He also comes up with the darnedest, most ridiculous theories out of thin air, just to prepare the audience for the Martians that will soon be making their first appearance. All logic breaks down: Kelston offers story exposition that he can’t possibly know is relevant to the problem at hand. If he were being tape-recorded, any investigator would conclude that Kelston must be in league with the aliens. He lays out a rapid series of illogical, baseless statements: The Martians are visiting the Earth in Motherships. They live underground on Mars and have bred a race of synthetic humans called Mutants as their slaves!  David chimes in with cheery support, as if they’ve previously discussed and accepted these theories. Pat’s polite objection to this baloney is met with the arrogant “I’m a scientist” retort made hilarious years later in Ghostbusters.

Apparently, a scientist’s work is to invent absurd theories out of thin air and then persist in believing them until they’re disproven. Pat has the gall to follow up with more mild questions, which are dismissed with patronizing allusions to public skepticism of the airplane. George MacLean may have a loose concept of national security, but Kelston is a madman. He spills the beans to David and Pat about the entire secret Coral Bluffs rocket project, which, naturally, is military in nature.

This militarist mindset fits right in with the hawkish Cold War pitch of most early ’50s sci-fi thrillers. Dr. Kelston arrogantly states that once nuclear weapons can be ‘anchored’ in space, any country that “dares attack us can be wiped off the face of the Earth in a matter of minutes.” Swell. Hollywood’s first serious Sci-fi film was 1950’s Destination Moon. The deal-making argument that clinches funding for a private moon rocket is the stern warning that if America doesn’t use the moon as a nuclear weapons base, its enemies will.

The science / military collusion seems complete when Dr. Kelston phones his Coral Bluffs Army contact Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) to recommend an immediate security alert. They’re close associates — Fielding initiates a massive troop and materiel movement just on Dr. Kelston’s say-so. There’s no hint of ideological conflict between scientist and soldier here, not even the token sympathy given Dr. Carrington of The Thing from Another World. David’s adolescent view is clearly right-wing… no peaceniks welcome on this bus.

 

A real General wouldn’t say that.”     The soldiers are led by the Gung-Ho Colonel Fielding, who behaves as if his life has been spent waiting at full readiness for a cue to start fighting Martians. Perpetually worried and stressed, Fielding leaps into action. His phone calls set in motion the barrage of stock footage padding detailed earlier in this article. More evidence of the David dream-logic of events: Fielding and his staff personally call on the family of poor dead Kathy Wilson, and then climb atop David’s roof to observe the Sand Pit. As in a dream the view of the Pit from the roof is exactly the same as when one is standing on the ground below. Everybody climbs on the roof. That they look so ridiculous perched up there among the gables can only be because the visual is David’s dream notion of what being on the roof is like — when he’s never been up there!

 

U.S. Troops: Ultimate Heroes.     When postwar films are written up it’s not often acknowledged that a great many of the young adult men on view are fresh out of uniform. Most of these non-career civilian soldiers had an entirely different attitude to war and fighting than today’s glamorized gladiators. Veteran James Whitmore in Them! is the prime example of the sane & humane ideal of the American warrior circa 1954: decency personified, there to protect and serve America’s future, its children. This militant thread is seen in other genres too. The horde of police that raids the oil refinery at the end of White Heat evokes a vision of an America that is an army. David MacLean shares this reverence for military might and authority. The soldiers in his dream are perfectly disciplined, whether following ridiculous orders or totally ignoring the presence of dishy dame Pat Blake.

The army engineers share Dr. Kelston’s scientific clairvoyance. Captain Roth (Milburn Stone) somehow knows all about infrared Ray Guns that can melt tunnels in the earth. With little more than a glance, he diagnoses the control device retrieved from the late Kathy Wilson’s skull. A couple of minutes later, he’s got it rewired as a divining rod to locate the Martian tunnels. Roth has perhaps Invaders’ best, most insane dialogue line: “Don’t worry son. They aren’t going to use a complicated device like this just to kill people.”

Captain Roth gives David a reassuring pat on the head; a detail that contrasts with the bit in The Day the Earth Stood Still when a soldier gives a similar pat to a kid that tells him that fugitive spaceman Klaatu went thataway in a taxicab. Audiences boo and hiss the little Judas in Day, a film with an exceptional non-military attitude. Most ’50s Sci-fi idolizes the armed forces the same way David and Col. Fielding appreciate the brave Sgt. Rinaldi. The determined soldier charges single-handedly up The Hill like John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima.

Dream tension.      The furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes outlined above. Dialogue lines are also repeated. Young David’s “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!” is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. As we took pains to point out, these repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways.

First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. ‘Running in place but not getting anywhere,’ is a classic anxiety dream situation that Invaders perfectly captures. Second, the repetitions force us to fixate on the images that keep re-playing, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over: “Same as it ever was.”

In the dyslexic dream logic of Invaders effect can precede cause, and explanation frequently precedes observation. The ‘surprises’ found in the underground Martian nest are not surprises at all, having been perfectly described earlier by Dr. Kelston and Captain Roth. “Mutants!” shouts David upon first seeing the huge green Martian slaves. Zombie Sgt. Rinaldi’s verbal intro for the Martian Intelligence is wholly redundant. David pummels the Martian fishbowl as if having always known that the tentacled sphinx inside is fully in charge. The most illogical, dreamlike event in the tunnels is David’s ability to recognize and operate the clarinet-like Infrared tunneling Ray Gun. Nobody, including David, has seen the Gun’s full function, yet David takes charge and leaps into action, an instant expert in alien technology. David MacLean’s dream may be a mirror for his anxieties, but there’s plenty of room within to cast himself as the know-it-all hero.

David MacLean’s dream-confusion between wish fulfillment and dread becomes complete as the climax draws near. The ending montage has several dynamic up-tempo changes. The music kicks into high gear when the tanks fire to begin the assault on the underground tunnels. At the height of the tension, when David is running in place during the escape and retreat, time-progression suddenly comes to a standstill. The rising arc of tension breaks, with a music change (a harp arpeggio) and the addition of those superimposed bits of visuals from before. The music score becomes more ethereal, cueing David’s dream to fold in upon itself, laying itself to rest, even with David still running, still unreleased from his nightmare. The eerie reverse-action scenes that conclude the montage become mirage memories fading into themselves, those striking dream images that disappear when one tries try to remember them.

Were this a normal dream, in the morning David would have a burst of memory, a sudden consciousness of an entire dream storyline populated with details and events. But only some dreams fully resolve in the light of day. Most evaporate in the act of being recalled, leaving behind a random image or two laden with mysterious significance. Every so often the strongest of these may surface back into normal consciousness. They may bring back a memory of the dream, or just remain mysteries. Invaders from Mars captures the quality of a half-remembered dream. The outlines are unforgettable, but the details are weird absurdities.

William Cameron Menzies’ direction and images make Invaders the most expressive nightmare film in the science fiction genre. The topography of its dreamscape is as vivid as the art film dreams of Fellini and Bergman. The nightmare sums up the shared anxieties and subconscious wishes underlying the sheltered, secure ’50s childhoods of David MacLean and millions of American boys like him. It’s as if it were pulled from the minds of males born between, say, 1942 and 1956. Does the dream world of Invaders from Mars ‘speak’ to younger audiences? Does its surreal logic still appeal, still seem valid? Or is it hopelessly dated, an artifact for the appreciation of Sci-fi fans and graphic artists? Savant would like to know.

By Glenn Erickson

 

 


Footnotes:

1  Invaders from Mars release prints were not in original standard Cinecolor, a two-color system used by productions looking for an alternative to the more expensive (and sometimes big-studio controlled) labs. It was much like the long-abandoned two-strip Technicolor, but employed opposite hues. An excellent example of original Cinecolor can be seen at my reviews of Olive Films’ Blu-ray of producer Walter Mirisch’s Flat Top and KL Studio Classics’ disc of the western Canadian Pacific.

Invaders actually came out in improved Super Cinecolor, a 3-color printing-only process that more closely approximated a full spectrum. Blues were blue and whites were white instead of shades of cyan and orange. The cameras still shot normal Eastman negative, the point being to circumvent Technicolor patents. Cinecolor prints had two emulsions, each adhered to opposing sides of the film base. See the Cinecolor explanation on the informative Widescreen Museum site. (note: help with this information came from correspondent Paul Samuels.)

2  Janine Perreau was a popular child performer in the early 1950s. Savant met her in 1997 when her actress sister Gigi Perreau was directing a play at my daughter’s school — a play that also featured the teenage Meghan Markle.

Janine remembered Mr. Menzies being ‘nice.’ She was directed to pick flowers and drop through a trap door on the hill, where a stagehand caught her. She said that she was proud of her ‘zombie’ close-ups, and thought it was great when I told her that she was probably the first ‘possessed’ child on an American movie screen, years before The Innocents, Village of the Damned and The Exorcist.

 


 

Research source:  Staehling, Richard, From Rock Around the Clock to The Trip: The Truth about Teen Movies, in Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System: An Anthology of Film History and Criticism, A. Dutton 1975 NYC, Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn.

Research source: Liner notes from the 1992 Image Laserdisc, itself referenced to an article in Fantascene magazine #4, written by Robert Skotak and Scot Holton.

Thanks to Larry Tuczynski for help with this article.

December 17, 2021
(6633inva)

 




The Ultimate Invaders from Mars
CineSavant Essay
First Posted 1999
1953 / Color (Super Cinecolor)/ 1:37 Academy / 78 min.
Starring: Jimmy Hunt, Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Morris Ankrum, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brooke, Max Wagner, Milburn Stone, Walter Sande, Bert Freed, Douglas Kennedy, Janine Perreau, William Phipps.
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Director: Boris Leven
Set Decoration: Edward G. Boyle
Special Effects: Jack Cosgrove, Irving Block, Howard Lydecker, Jack Rabin
Film Editor: Arthur Roberts
Original Music: Raoul Kraushaar
Written by Richard Blake story by John Tucker Battle
Produced by Edward L. Alperson
Production Designed and Directed by
William Cameron Menzies

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.