Invasion (1966)

Director: Alan Bridges
Writers: Roger Marshall, from a story by Robert Holmes
Producer: Jack Greenwood
Composers: Bernard Ebbinghouse
Production Company: Merton Park
Principal Cast: Edward Judd, Yoko Tani, Valerie Gearon, Lyndon Brook, Eric Young, Tsai Chin, Barrie Ingham, Anthony Sharp, Glyn Houston, John Tate

All too rarely seen these days, Invasion is one of the true gems of the British 60s SF cinema boom, a quirky collection of films that ran the gamut from the almost documentary-like Unearthly Stranger (1963), though the apocalyptic The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) to the widescreen masterpiece that is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and a great many points in between.

Invasion opts for the smaller scale, being set almost entirely in and around an isolated country hospital around which slinky female Oriental aliens have placed a force field, trapping their escaped male prisoner and forcing a fine cast of dependable British character types to sweat it out with typical British grit and determination as the temperature rises and the air begins to run out.

Despite what appears to have been the most inconsequential of budgets, director Alan Bridges does a remarkable job, creating one of the creepiest atmospheres of any of the run of black and white science fiction thrillers made in the UK in the 60s. The dark, shadowy black and white photography (courtesy of James Wilson, then at the end of a very long career which included the likes of Counterblast (1948), Satellite in the Sky (1956) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)) is particularly striking, adding immeasurably to the clammy claustrophobia of the proceedings.

Bridges makes the most of his meagre resources, particularly in representing the presence of the invisible force field that has encircled the hospital. In the film’s single most memorable image, a doctor tries to flee the besieged hospital in his car only to run into the force field and be killed in the impact. Using nothing more than a few stock sound effects, tight cutting and a mangled car prop Bridges expertly makes us believe in the force field without a single penny spent on special effects. Can you picture the CGI overkill if this simple and effective scene were to be shot today?

The cast is one of the great draws in Invasion. Edward Judd was something of regular in those low budget British genre films of the time – he’d already perfected his manly sweating routine in the brilliant Day the Earth Caught Fire, been to the moon in First Men in the Moon (1964) and been in several TV SF series, including The Invisible Man (Shadow on the Screen (1959)), Out of the Unknown (Time in Advance (1965)) and R3 (Experiment in Death (1965)) and still had Island of Terror (1966) and The Friendly Persuaders (1969) to come. His no-nonsense style was perfectly suited to this sort of realistic, low-key genre fare and he turns in a sterling performance here.

The under-used Valerie Gearon is excellent too, as a fellow doctor, making one wonder why she didn’t get more work at the time. Most of her work seems to have been on television but judging by her presence here she really should have had a lot more big screen time. The rest of the cast are largely made up of those know-the-face-can’t-quite-place-the-name sorts that were everywhere in 60s British cinema and the only really disappointing showings are from Yoko Tani the her sidekick Cali Raia who seem stilted and uncomfortable as the alien Lystrians. Raia seems to have done nothing before or since, though the Japanese Tani was a regular in British and European films throughout the 60s.

The script for Invasion was written by Roger Marshall (who later wrote Twisted Nerve (1968), What Became of Jack and Jill? (1972) and –And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) as well as episodes of many popular British TV shows) and Robert Holmes, a stalwart of Doctor Who (1963 – 1989). As well as creating the popular Autons for the show (later revived for Rose, the opening episode of the 2005 reincarnation of the show), Holmes contributed 18 scripts to the show and was, for a while, its script editor.

In 1970, he oversaw the arrival of the Third Doctor in the shape of Jon Pertwee in the story Spearhead From Space, the opening episode of which recycled many elements from Invasion – in both scripts, an unconscious man is rushed to a remote country hospital where he is found to be an alien.

Where the script for Invasion scores so highly is in its refusal to play along with what was then the standard model for alien invasion movies, instead playing against audience expectations and building up a very creditable mystery sub-plot. What we initially think we know about the aliens is turned around part way through the film when their true motives are revealed. Only the rather wet ending disappoints.

Invasion is a quite wonderful film, well acted, with excellent direction and lighting and a script full of ideas and crackling dialogue. It used to turn up fairly regularly on British television but seems to have vanished of late, not having had a broadcast for a few years and being criminally unavailable on commercial video or DVD anywhere at the time of writing. For those who despair of effects-heavy screen SF and hanker for something a bit moodier, a touch more intelligent and certainly a lot more memorable (that car crash sequence has seared its way onto the brain of many of us who first caught it on TV as kids during the 70s and 80s) then Invasion could well be the one for you.


War of the Worlds, The (1953)

Director: Byron Haskins
Writer: Barré Lyndon from a novel by H.G. Wells
Producer: George Pal
Composer: Leith Stevens
Production Company: Paramount
Principal Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Lewis Martin, Bob Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Bill Phipps, Jack Kruschen, Vernon Rich

OK, so Wells purists have much to complain about, but despite the gross liberties taken with the source novel, Byron Haskin’s (very) loose adaptation remains a hugely enjoyable film. Relocating the action to 1950s United States (the sound you hear is that of a whole army of Wells scholars groaning in anguish) and dispensing with the single most iconic image from the novel (there’s not a tripod fighting machine to be seen anywhere), Haskin, his producer, the legendary George Pal, and screenwriter Barré Lyndon were clearly in no mood for a straight adaptation, even if finances and existing effects technology had allowed it.

What they kept was what made the Wells novel so powerful and memorable in the first place – the notion of a mass alien invasion, something that hadn’t been tried on the big screen before. We’d had the odd solitary alien, both benign (The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)) and belligerent (The Thing From Another World (1951)) , but there hadn’t been a full-scale attempt to control the planet in the cinema before.

In Wells novel, the Martian forces make short work of the combined military forces of Great Britain, then a globe-spanning colonial power with a military machine unmatched anywhere in the world. The vision of this fighting force being swept aside by an implacable and seemingly unstoppable foe galvanised Victorian readers and Pal’s decision to relocate the story to California at the dawn of the Cold War retains some of that same sense of shock – at a time when the United States military was strutting its stuff, posturing aggressively at the new-found enemy behind the Iron Curtain, the sight of military personnel and hardware being casually trampled underfoot by the Martian war machines must have been unnerving in the extreme. Even the much-vaunted – and much-feared – new super-weapon, the nuclear bomb, is shown to be useless and the film effectively voices America’s fears about its place in a new world where new enemies possessed weapons of fearsome destruction against which there was no guarantee of any successful defence.

So many of the 1950s Hollywood science fiction films traded in these Cold War fears and paranoias, but The War of the Worlds now seems to be the most blatant of them all – faceless invaders from the Red Planet lay waste to the States as they trample underfoot just about every image and icon of all-American decency and wholesomeness as Haskin can cram in. They have no truck with religion, blasting a foolhardy preacher without compunction; care nothing for our architectural history, demolishing great Los Angeles landmarks with abandon; they swat away the US military’s most fearsome weapons as one might swat away an irritating fly; they disrupt a wholesome square dance by cutting the power to the small Californian town where they first turn up; in short, they’re heartless bastards who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be made to see sense and will eventually be struck down by God Himself, pretty much the same broad strokes in which the Soviet Union would be painted in the decades to come. The War of the Worlds lends itself well to this sort of political commentary – Steven Spielberg would do it again in his under-rated 2005 take on the story which, made in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, would replace the communist threat with international terrorism.

However, in his efforts to hammer home his Cold War points, Lyndon fatally misreads the climax of the novel, in which the apparently invincible Martians are finally halted, not by anything that Man pits against them, but by the bacteria that their bodies’ immune systems are unable to combat. Wells meant the death-by-microbe business to be ironic, but Lyndon gives the classic ending an all-too-literal reading and the climax becomes the culmination of a long-running religious streak that permeates the entire film. Wells, a life-long atheist, would have no doubt been appalled, especially by the sight of a fighting machine brought crashing to Earth outside a church full of cowering believers singing their little hearts out. (In his version, Spielberg explicitly rejects the religious subtext – at the climax of Pal’s film, humanity seeks refuge and solace in a church; in Spielberg’s version, just about the first thing the invading aliens do is demolish the first church they get their claws on.) Pal, a Catholic, inherited the film from Cecil B. DeMille who had tried to mount his own version of the story for many years, and Pal’s own spirituality and DeMille’s penchant for theological epics seems to have combined in Lyndon’s script.

Regardless of this odd mis-step, there’s still much to enjoy in Haskin’s version of the story. The effects were, for their time, extraordinary. Today, they might seem crude – you can clearly see the wires holding up the Martian fighting machines – but at the time, nothing had been attempted on this scale before. The lengthy sequence wherein the first of the flying machines emerge from the pit and begin their assault on the military forces surrounding them is still astonishing, despite that fact that no effort seems to have been made to disguise the many wires holding the machines up. The design of the fighting machines is fabulous, now one of the most indelible icons of 50s SF. The sleek, manta ray like machines are a far cry from the towering, terrifying tripods of the novel, but they work remarkably well, those bloody strings notwithstanding.

Elsewhere, things are less successful. The stiff and wobbly little alien that menaces Anne Robinson beneath the ruined farmhouse is wholly unconvincing (thankfully we only get the briefest glimpse of it); some of the more visceral details of Well’s novel has been omitted (the Martians no longer feed on the blood of humans); and the acting is, at best, merely functional, at worst pretty poor.

But overall the Byron Haskins/Barré Lyndon/George Pal take on The War of the Worlds (and it’s very much a collaborative effort) is a wonderful piece of 50s science fiction cinema, inevitably dated and flawed, but moving at such a breakneck pace and packed full of incident and beautiful visuals that it retains its impact even in the wake of the remakes by Spielberg and others. The set-piece scenes of massive devastation are still hugely impressive and more than make up for the rather unconvincing love story that takes up centre stage, and it’s just very hard indeed to dislike a film that has so many lofty ambitions – thematically and technically – and achieves almost all of them.

The War of the Worlds proved the be the most influential of the 50s science fiction blockbusters – When Worlds Collide (1951) had given us the end of the world, but did it so well that no other large scale version was felt necessary; Klaatu came and reasoned with us in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but with McCarthy at the height of his powers and the super-powers squaring up to each like petulant but horribly armed brats, no-one was in the mood for reason; and although The Thing From Another World‘s intellectual carrot spawned many a snarling, growling invader, it was the cold, clinical, heartless invasion force that became the most popular trope in 50s screen SF, vying for screen space with the giant mutant monster genre. The effects of The War of the Worlds were still being felt many years later when Roland Emmerich took a much bigger budget, a massive cast and completely failed capture the charm, wit and invention of the Haskins/Pal/Barré film when he unleashed his bloated and bombastic Independence Day (1996) on us all.

A truly satisfying version of Wells’ novel remains to made but for now, this and the Spielberg version will do just fine. Neither are perfect, and neither are particularly good adaptations of the book, but as pieces of story-telling in their own right, both are great fun – with this version just gaining the upper hand as the more enjoyable version.

Them! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas
Writer: Ted Sherdeman
Producer: David Weisbart
Composer: Bronislau Kaper
Production Companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents A Warner Bros.-First National picture
Principal Cast: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Chris Drake, Sandy Descher

The archetypal 50s Big Bug movie, Them! has justifiably become something of a classic of its kind. Utilising the same parched desert settings familiar from the best works of Jack Arnold to the same devestating effect, Douglas’ skilled direction and the documentary-like quality he brings to the film makes for a tense and often quite unnerving viewing experience.

The opening is unbeatable – a pair of cops and a spotter plane discover a young girl wandering through the deserts of New Mexico, terrified beyond the power of speech and virtually catatonic. Not far away they find the shattered remains of a mobile home and an unidentified animal track in the sand. Strange chirruping sounds drift in from the deep desert and the discovery of further ruined building and mutilated bodies only adds to the chilling sense of foreboding. It’s an exemplary opening, cleverly tantalising the audience with just enough clues to keep them on the hook while never quite giving away too much. A radio newscast cheerily informs us that Mankind’s ingenuity has eradicated many previous fatal diseases from the Earth, yet there’s a terrible sense even this early on that the forces of Nature are massing in the windswept night.

In the light of modern film-making technique, Them! may at times seem crude and naive but one needs to remember historical context and keep in mind the effect the film had on its original audience. Today, the notion of gigantic ants, mutated by exposure to radiation from atomic testing, is patently ridiculous, but in a world suddenly paranoid over the proliferation of both technology and weaponry, it packed a considerable punch. The ants themselves aren’t the epitome of special effects wizadry, it’s true, but their first appearence, a single specimen emerging from a sand storm to put the frighteners on Patricia Medford is an unforgettable moment. Equally unsettling is the sudden, violent emergence from her catatonic state of the terrified little girl – when exposed to the stench of formic acid, she suddenly screeches “Them! Them!” before bursting into uncontrollable tears.

The film’s assertion that Man has only learnt to play with Nature, not master her, is particularly evocative – the desert setting heightens the sense of the human characters adrift in a world to which they are utterly alien, a world they are increasingly losing touch with. While the rest of Hollywood’s SF community were busy cranking out anti-Communists tracts, Douglas and co seemed content to go off in their own direction, suggesting that we had to more to fear from a vengeful Mother Nature than we did a few imaginary Reds under the bed. Some have tried to read Them! as another of the paranoid political fantasies of the era, but it has more in common with the subsequent Revenge of Nature cycle that was popular in the 1970s, occupying the same niche as Jaws (1975), Grizzly (1976), Prophecy (1979) and the rest – one can even see, in the atmospheric egg chamber sequences, the influence it had on the Alien films. It has less to do with a supposed take over by stealth of an unfriendly power (a staple of the anti-Communist SF of the time) than with the utter destruction of everything we hold dear by forces we simply don’t understand.

This reading is strengthened by the second half of the film – by far the weaker – as the action moves out of the desert and into the more familiar and controllable environs of the city. Having escaped the poison bombing of the nest, a pair of queens and their consorts flee to Los Angeles where they set up home in the sewers. In the nick of time, the army arrive and fry the egg chamber just as the new swarm are being hatched. The message is clear – we can only hope to beat Nature when we face it on our own turf; out in the desert, on her turf, despite our brute strength and the appalling efficiency of our technology, we’re strictly amateurs – “Ants are savage, ruthless and courageous fighters… but even the most minute of them have an instinct, and talent for inustry and social organisation, and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison.”

The point may be somewhat laboured at times, particularly by the increasingly gloomy Dr Medford whose every appearence is accompanied by doom-laden prophecies and predictions. But it’s compelling stuff nonetheless (the lengthy biology lesson in the mid-section not withstanding!), powerfully delivered – and it certainly made a change from the relentless Commie bashing that most SF buffs of the 50s were used to.

Warner Bros. saw Them! as a fairly important production and were rewarded by a spectacular showing at the box office, where it turned out to be their most successful film of the year. Its immediate influence extended to Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957) and the most obvious lookalike, The Black Scorpion (1959). While all very entertaining in their own ways, all three lacked the vitality, chilling sense of menace and the intelligence of Them!