In the midst of the Hollywood blacklist, and almost a year before the infamous McCarthy hearings, Invaders From Mars presents a surreal and paranoid tale of a boy who cried aliens, and is surprisingly listened to by authority figures.
Invaders from Mars is a simple film, from a simpler time. It presents itself as an alien invasion story, as told through the eyes of a young boy, while providing the subtext of deeper societal fears and paranoia. It also helped step up the “alien invasion” sub-genre of sci-fi film in the early 50s, providing future ideas for generations of films to come.
A young boy sees aliens land near his house and he watches them “capture innocent people” as a man is sucked into a sand pit. The narrator tells us his father is turned against him, and we get a view of a number of characters with blank expressions on their face, as if they’re possessed. The super-titles keep asking “Why?” Local military, police and even the boy’s parents become killers and saboteurs! Why? There are some spooky shots of aliens grabbing kids/people and sliding into some Martian tube back to the ship! Why? The narrator informs the viewer that the Martians are doing this to stop mankind from fulfilling their dream of “conquering the universe!” Finally, the super-titles tell the viewer that this is all possible, and that it could happen tomorrow! Let’s hope not!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Invaders from Mars seems like a simple film, and for most purposes it is. But the underlying messages pull from the anxiety of America in the 50s and provide inspiration and fodder for many future sci-fi films. After a narrator explains that the great, unknown mysteries of the cosmos are being worked on by scientists of all ages, we see young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) awoken by a thunderstorm. He spies a green-glowing flying saucer descending into a sand pit over the rise of a nearby hill. Telling his parents results in them putting him back to bed.
But David’s father, George (Leif Erickson), a local scientist, thinks twice about the boys claim and goes off to investigate. When he returns the next morning, his speech has become monotone and he’s more aggressive. David notice’s a small red scar on the back of his neck. Soon the two police officers sent to look for George, and a local girl, also start exhibiting the same creepy behavior. Reporting to the police station, David realizes too late that the Chief is also “infected” or altered, and he is put in a jail cell until his parents can collect him.
Concerned for David’s health, the desk sergeant calls Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) to check him out. Surprisingly she listens to David’s tale of flying saucers and mind control, and protects him from being abducted by his now possessed mother (Hillary Brooke). Dr. Blake takes David to see Dr. Stuart Kelston, an astronomer and mutual friend of both, to discuss the plausibility of what he had witnessed. Dr. Kelston explains some theories on alien visitations and the types of flying craft they use to Dr. Carter and David, and David points out the one he saw. Kelston notifies the military, and the Pentagon mobilizes troops to the small town of Coral Bluffs.
The leader of the mobilization is Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) who also uncovers a plot by the mind-controlled humans to sabotage the local atomic rocket ship project. The two police officers and General Mayberry all perish during attempted sabotage events. Fielding realizes they don’t have much time left if they’re to save David’s parents (who attempt an assassination of a scientist, but fail). He concentrates his men towards investigating the sand pit for access to the Martian ship.
The army finds a way in, but only after Dr. Blake and David are captured by the aliens. The two are taken before a small alien in a glass sphere that appears to be mostly a head; the “ultimate intelligence.” This small alien is carted around by two larger green humanoid “mutants” that enact its will by some form of telepathy. Colonel Fielding reaches Dr. Blake and David just before one of the mind control transmitters can be implanted in her neck. The group sets a bomb, and escapes the alien craft, avoiding many mutants with infrared blasters.
David and the soldiers run from the sand pit as the countdown continues. He has flashbacks of the varied parts of the entire tale while racing from the doomed ship. The alien craft departs and is quickly caught up in the explosion. Suddenly, David is back in his bed and awakened by a crash of thunder. He runs in to tell his parents and they tell him he must have had a bad dream. Returning to bed, David spies a green-glowing flying saucer descending into a sand pit over the rise of a nearby hill.
“Please God, let them find Mom and Dad before something bad happens. I don’t want them to die too.” – David MacLean
History in the Making
Invaders from Mars was one of a handful of invasion films from 1953, as well as one of the first films to capitalize on the public’s interest in the red planet Mars. Abbott & Costello Go To Mars was released about 2 weeks prior to this one, while the more famous 1953 invasion film The War of the Worlds would come out about 4 months after Invaders From Mars. Presumably the interest in invasion style sci-fi films stems from the cold war and post WW2 concerns on the encroach of communism. The Korean War was winding down and America was feeling overly prosperous in the early 1950s. The previous year Eisenhower was elected President in a landslide, while atomic testing continued in the Marshall Islands with the detonation of the first Hydrogen bomb.
The rise of interest in science fiction films in general seemed to peak in 1953 as well, with at least 20 films in the genre getting release while 1952 only had a measly eight sci-fi movies. While Invaders makes use of plot elements that had been in use in fiction previously, the film is considerably small, focusing only on a small town with one Martian ship and a handful of aliens terrorizing the population. Months later, the superior The War of the Worlds would depict the Martian invasion as a global epidemic, raising the stakes for generations to come. However, Invaders from Mars would get one element in the record books, and that is with the first representation of a Martian on screen. At least a representation of a Martian that audiences would be able to identify as such: a little green man from another planet.
Another element unique to this film is the use of the dream-not-a-dream ending. Fantasy films had made use of such a device before, most famously depicted in the 1939 MGM blockbuster, The Wizard of Oz. Creating an ambiguous, or dream ending was something rather cutting edge for a Hollywood film in 1953. A case can be made for either aspect of the film, dream-vs-reality, based on elements from the film, which is also a surprising tactic for a film that is only slightly above a low budget B-film. I will discuss this further below. Additionally, to compound the nature of the film potentially being a dream in David’s head, is the fact that an alternate version of the film, with a new ending, was created for British audiences, leading to the potential that two people would argue about the version they saw, not knowing an alternate version existed. The British version had some additional scenes with Dr. Kelston and David discussing types of UFO’s and science related information. But the biggest change was the ending, which is changed completely. After the explosion of the Martian vessel, David is tucked back into bed by his new surrogate parents, Dr. Blake and Dr. Kelston. No dream. No further story. The end!
Finally the film made use of some interesting filming techniques that add to a surreal quality in the film, as well as just making it look more interesting. Of all the films reviewed on Sci-Fi Saturdays so far, none have really pushed the envelope of cinematography in filmmaking in any notable way. Invaders provides some great imagery, by its use of clever angles, and camera movement. Director William Cameron Menzies was no stranger to either of these things having directed the 1936 sci-fi film Things to Come, as well as being an Oscar winning production designer for Gone With The Wind (1939). Scenes inside the Martian ship have some strange and interesting angles used to photograph the space. There are a couple shots from “the roof,” looking down at the set from a super high angle. The camera looks through some girders or support structures as the Martians drag Dr. Blake into the room for her “surgery.” The surgery scene also makes use of an interesting “under the table” angle in which a glass table was used to get a view of Helena Carter as she lays face-down on the table.
Surrealism is not a foreign concept to sci-fi films. Lots of films have made use of strange effects, camera angles or movement, and editing to convey a sense of that something is not “normal.” Invaders From Mars also uses its set design to produce an abnormal quality to the film, that is only realized when the film is over. It can be argued that if the events of the film are David’s dream, then scenes, such as the ones in the police station, are shot in a way to help depict that dreamlike quality. The police station set is stark, with literally nothing on the super-tall walls. It’s a long set, that may also be forced-perspective, which makes David seem even smaller, and therefore powerless. This contrasts form the sets for the location of David’s home which are colorful, warm and more confined. Coupled with higher-than-normal or lower-than-normal camera angles, Menzies heightens tension and anxiety in the viewer.
One thing viewers shouldn’t be surprised by, at least today, is the strong sci-fi roots this film lays out. There are spaceships and aliens, ray beams and mind control, and even a touch of low-budget awkwardness in the later half of the film. Many science fiction films, from any time period, but especially the 50s, were made on a low budget. The term B-movie comes from the less expensive second film in a double-feature being made on a lower budget. In the case of Invaders, whether this apparent lack of quality was due to budgetary constraints, or a conscious decision by the filmmakers to heighten the dreamlike quality of the story is unknown. The last half to third of the film, which involves lots of scenes with the army mobilizing and with the action sequences involving explosions and chases, is composed of many pieces of stock photography and shots that repeated in the editing but flopped left-to-right. It becomes somewhat monotonous and repetitive to see the same three or four shots in a row, but reversed, that it seems like it was a conscious choice.
A final element that seems like it could be bad filmmaking, come earlier in the film, and may not be noticed by viewers, but again could be a conscious choice to inject some surrealism and “throw off” the audience. After initially seeing the his parents abducted into the spaceship, David races to the local gas station where the attendant asks him what’s wrong. In standard filmmaking, there is a rule known as the 180 degree rule. This states that when filming a shot of two characters talking, the director should draw an imaginary line between the two of them, and when shooting coverage of their discussion, never cross that imaginary line. Thereby placing character A on the left side of frame from over B’s shoulder, and for the reverse, character B on the right ie of frame from over A’s shoulder. There are of course times that this rule can and should be broken, but by 1953 this had been a firmly established conceit. For this scene with David and the attendant, every shot between the two of them breaks the 180° rule. David is always on the left side of frame, and in the “reverse shot,” the attendant occupies the same space. No other sequence in the film repeats this mistake, leading to the conclusion that Menzies knew what he was doing and represented this mistake as another hint that something was amiss in the world.
As with other invasion and alien films from this error, xenophobia was a strong theme. But another theme that was also very strong was the paranoia that aliens had taken over normal people, and that the outside evil lurked just under the surface of the homogenous society. Invaders uses what is surely a metaphor for Communism as the central conceit of the Martian invasion: control the populace through the implantation of technology, allowing conformity as well as control. Mind control is a theme that continues to crop up in sci-fi films such as They Live (1988), The Matrix (1999) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). It’s related to the themes in other films from this era like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) which involves aliens replicating humans with simulacra and taking over the population via replacement, rather than just control. Obviously the paranoia that society can be easily subverted by outside forces was something that Americans, at least, had fears about. But the upside of Invaders From Mars seems to be that if a child can spot the changes in the people around him, it shouldn’t be that difficult for others to spot the differences.
The Science in The Fiction
The film ups the stakes regarding the invading aliens, blurring the line between fact and fiction. In the British version of the film, there is an additional scene with Dr. Kelston, discussing the known types of spacecrafts with David. He talks about two real, reported incidents of people seeing UFOs: The Lubbock Lights and Thomas Mantell’s sighting. Utilizing these (at the time) recent news stories coupled with the fictional accounts of the craft David saw, blends what audiences might remember and help them suspend disbelief easier in regards to this invasion. The US version only goes as far to discuss current beliefs about the martian landscape, and where cities may exist, or the fact that scientists had recently learned of potential water sources on the red planet. The astronomy was real, but short of that, much of the other “science” presented herein was entirely fictional.
The Final Frontier
Outside of what has already been discussed, there are quite a few other bits of trivia that are interesting with this film. The first is cameo of actress Barbara Billingsley as Dr. Kelston’s secretary. She would go on to greater prominence as matriarch June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver in 1957. Another actor that was easily recognized, having been a supporting character in Rocketship X-M was Morris Ankrum. He would continue to show up (often as military leaders) in other sci-fi films including 1956s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and 1958s From the Earth to the Moon.
There’s an interesting shot early in the film of young David hiding in some reeds with his binoculars observing the sandpit where his father disappeared. I was struck by how closely it appeared to mimic a similar shot of Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. However, it’s not an homage to that film, as Rear Window wasn’t released until 1954; the next year! It’s a pretty amazing coincidence!
This film may also seem familiar to children of the 80s due to Tobe Hooper’s (Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist) remake from 1986. That version is a relatively faithful and expanded adaptation of the script, including updated special effects and martian creatures created by Phil Tippett (Aliens, Predator). It even features Jimmy Hunt, young David from the original, as the Police Chief.
Overall Invaders From Mars is a fun, interesting and at times scary science fiction film that provided as much inspiration to future films of the genre as it took from films of the past.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.