The heavens. Once an object of superstition, awe, and fear, now a vast region for growing knowledge. The distance of Venus, the atmosphere of Mars, the size of Jupiter, and the speed of Mercury. All this and more we know. But their greatest mystery the heavens have kept a secret. What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets? Human life, like ours? Or life extremely lower in the scale? Or dangerously higher? Seeking the answer to this timeless question, forever seeking, is the constant preoccupation of scientists everywhere. Scientists famous and unknown. Scientists in great universities, and in modest homes. Scientists of all ages.
That was the opening narration of an alien invasion film that predates “Independence Day”, “District 9”, and even “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Hello, and welcome to Madd Fictional Media, where today we’ll be taking a look at the 1953 science fiction classic, “Invaders From Mars.”
Oh, and if you haven’t guessed, we intend to walk you through the film, and that’s as close to a spoiler warning as we’re prepared to give you for a movie that’s been out since the 50s. If you’d rather not have the plot ruined for you, you know what to do.
Please note: If this is your first exposure to “Invaders From Mars” and you choose to stay, you’ll no doubt find it outdated and corny, but, if you can step outside of that mindset, and take a look at what the movie gets right, who knows, you just might enjoy yourself, and add a new classic sci-fi film to your watch list.
Now, any film buff worth their salt knows that the mark of a good film begins with a snapshot of the world the movie is set in, so that the audience can get their footing before the plot kicks in. And when you come across a great film, you’ll discover the same effect is achieved with little to no expository dialogue.
As low budget as Invaders appears to be, it does a fantastic job of providing a proper backdrop for the film. We understand instantly the reality in which this story takes place, with the family profession, the placement of the Rockwellian farmhouse, and our young protagonist’s interest, without any of the worldbuilding getting in the way. It’s a very barebones approach to a film that wastes no time getting the audience stuck in.
After the opening credits, our focus turns to the bedroom of 10-year-old David MacLean, played by Jimmy Hunt. His window is wide open, with a telescope poking out of it, which suggests that he’s an amateur astronomer.
His alarm clock goes off at 4 AM, and he’s startled out of sleep, fumbles to shut it off, and quickly stuffs it under his pillow to muffle the noise.
George MacLean, played by Leif Erickson, hears the alarm, and assumes it’s time to get up, but his wife, Mary, played by Hillary Brooke, points out that it’s only 4 in the morning.
George figures out that it’s his son, and as he enters the boy’s room, prepared to give him a good talking to, he sees David with his eye pressed to the telescope, examining an astronomical event that won’t happen again for six years.
And George is immediately invested! Which shows us they’re not just father and son, they’re best buds! And David has probably taken up aspects of his father’s scientific profession as a hobby. And the pair would have probably stayed up all night long, if Mary didn’t show up to put both her boys to bed.
It’s a simple show don’t tell bonding moment that illustrates the family norm. Yes, it’s inconvenient that David woke the entire household, but his parents aren’t angry. They understand, and support, his scientific interests, the way good parents should.
Roughly 40 minutes later, David is awakened again, this time by a noise that sounds like a thunderstorm, and when he looks out the window, he sees a flying saucer land in the sandpit on the hill just behind the house.
When David wakes his dad, and tells him about what he saw, the important thing to note is that George doesn’t disbelieve David, even though he tries to calm his son down by telling him it was just a dream. But unbeknownst to David, George is part of a scientific research team working on a secret project, and he feels what David saw might be related to it, so he goes out to the sandpit to investigate.
Morning comes, and George hasn’t returned, so Mary calls the police, and two officers (played by Charles Cane and Douglas Kennedy) conduct a search, and they wind up disappearing as well.
George eventually returns home but from the moment we first lock eyes on him, we can tell he’s a totally different man. He has a thousand-yard stare that would spook a zombie, and he’s disconnected and irritable, not at all like the affable man we saw earlier.
When questioned about his whereabouts, he curtly states that he stopped over to see their neighbor, Bill Wilson. But when George sits down, David spots a puncture wound on the back of his father’s neck.
When he asks about it, George backhands him hard enough to knock the young boy to the floor. And you can tell by David’s shocked expression that his father has never raised a hand to him before in his life.
Before Mary can question what happened, the policemen return, and they’re also noticeably different, robotic and distant, and although we don’t see it, David spots puncture wounds on the back of their necks, identical to his father’s.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch this in the theater when the film first opened. It was a little before my time. I watched it as a young boy in the mid 1960’s on late night television, after sneaking into the living room while my family was asleep.
This scene is where the first real fear came into play, because the film introduced a new concept to my young mind. I was used to monsters looking like the creature from the black lagoon, or something easily identifiable. But I was totally unprepared for the idea that monsters could wear the faces of the people you loved and cared about most in the world. That they could be changed into cold, unfeeling strangers overnight without your knowledge.
Yes, I know now that it was a popular theme during the cold war era of science fiction films, but as kid I didn’t know anything about the Red Scare. All I knew with a certainty was that monsters were real, and aliens existed and their only purpose was to take over our world.
But I digress.
Later, David, having a scientific mindset, takes his telescope outside, and trains it on the sandpit, where he witnesses the disappearance of a young girl, Kathy Wilson, played by Janine Perreau. He runs to tell the girl’s mother, played by an uncredited Fay Baker, but in the middle of his story, Kathy returns.
And she’s perfectly cast in this role, because she has the creepiest expression ever witnessed by human eyes. If you woke up in the middle of the night and found her staring at you, you’d instinctively reach for a weapon, or holy water and a crucifix. And maybe even a stake, if you had one handy.
This is not meant to be a slight on the actor’s looks at all, she grew up to be a very beautiful woman. All I’m saying is that stare was visually the creepiest thing about the film. It still gives me chills to this day. Good job, Janine.
Meanwhile, George and Mary are heading into town, but first, he wants to show his wife something out by the sandpit. This leads to another scary event. I mean, who wouldn’t be frightened by a sandpit sinkhole that sang a tune in the eerie vocal effect of a chorus as the swirling sand swallowed you whole?
Nothing’s been right since he saw the saucer land, so David decides to go to the police station to get help, but Police Chief Barrows (played by an uncredited Bert Freed) also has that strange puncture wound on the back of his neck. And David winds up being locked in detention until his father can pick him up.
Desk Sergeant Finlay (played by an uncredited Walter Sande) is concerned about David’s mental wellbeing and puts a call through to Dr. Pat Blake (played by Helena Carter) from the city health department.
David asks to see the back of Dr. Blake’s neck and I have to admit that for at least a solid week and a half after watching this movie, I asked to see the backs of everyone’s neck who spoke to me. They must have thought I was crazy, and they were right, just not on this occasion.
David tells Dr. Blake the entire story and in another amazing turn of events, she doesn’t automatically dismiss the boy’s claims. Instead, she calls her astronomer friend, Dr. Stuart Kelston (played by Arthur Franz) to validate David’s story.
While Dr. Blake is on the phone, Mary arrives at the station to pick up her son, and David is happy to see her, unaware that she now has that same thousand-yard stare. Then George shows up and David tries to resist them taking him home.
Re-enter Dr. Blake who stops them from taking David from the police station under the guise that the boy is showing possible signs of having the poliovirus and must be taken to the hospital isolation ward for observation.
Dr. Blake takes David to the observatory and Dr. Kelston describes a theory that the Martians have developed a race of slaves called MYU-Tants, not mutants, MYU-Tants to travel to Earth and stop us from developing space flight (which is the top-secret project that David’s father is a part of) in order to maintain an existence on their dying planet.
In a bit of lucky coincidence, they turn the telescope to David’s house and spot George MacLean leading General Mayberry (played by an uncredited William Forrest) and pushing him into the sandpit. Now Drs. Blake and Kelston are 100% on David’s side. Kelston immediately calls his contact, Colonel Fielding (played by Morris Ankrum) to get the army on the case.
Kelston postulates that the Martian ship is hiding beneath the sandpit, having used a radioactive ray that can melt right through the earth. In another stroke of coincidence, one of Fielding’s officer’s, Sergeant Rinaldi (played by Max Wagner) strikes off on his own to investigate the sandpit and gets sucked in while the military watches, offering proof that the threat is real.
Word comes through that Kathy Wilson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Dr. Blake attends the autopsy and uncovers a strange bit of technology buried in the little girl’s brain that they assume to be a mind control device. By reverse engineering the device, the military figures they stands a chance of locating the broadcast’s point of origin.
While the Army tanks are en route to the sandpit. The mind-controlled humans begin destroying facilities connected to the top secret space rocket project, and those who successfully complete their mission, die from cerebral hemorrhages due to the control crystal exploding in their heads.
Other mind-slaves are not so lucky. General Mayberry is killed while attempting to blow up a rocket scheduled for launch, and David’s parents are apprehended as they unsuccessfully try to kill one of the secret project’s top scientists, Dr. Bill Wilson (played by an uncredited Robert Shayne) who happens to be Kathy’s father. Hearing the fate of the other mind-slaves, David is naturally worried about what will happen to his parents.
The army tanks arrive and surround the field around the sandpit. Then a unit determines the approximate spot where people have been sucked into the sand, dig a hole, pack it with explosives, and blast a pathway into the Martians’ underground lair.
Dr. Blake receives a call telling her that David’s parents are on the operating table. When she walks the boy to a secluded spot to break the news to him, the pair are sucked into the sandpit and carried by MYU-Tants to the Martian Intelligence (played by and uncredited Luce Potter). The being, described as “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence,” is interrogating them through a mind-controlled Sergeant Rinaldi and when Dr. Blake refuses to answer any questions, she is forced onto a table and the drill machine used to implant the mind-control device inches toward the nape of her neck.
Fielding, Kelston and a small detachment breach the tunnel beneath the sandpit and make their way to the Martian ship, fighting MYU-Tants along the way. They manage to save Dr. Blake before she’s enslaved but the ship is preparing for take-off, so Fielding orders his men to pack the saucer with explosives.
The problem is, David’s missing, having been carted off by Rinaldi. Fielding orders all available men to go looking for the boy.
The timer is set and starts counting down, but the MYU-Tants use the radioactive ray to seal off the tunnel leading to the escape route.
David is rescued. And he suggests using the Martian radioactive ray to burn a hole to the outside. The tension builds as the explosive timer ticks down to zero and everyone has evacuated the tunnels and are running for cover. David’s run feels like an eternity just like in a dream when you’re running for dear life and not getting anywhere. And the events of the movie are playing out over his frightened face, almost as if his life is flashing before his eyes.
That scene, expertly done, made me nervous and had me chanting under my breath for him to run!
The spaceship lifts off and explodes and David wakes up in his bed during a thunderstorm. He races to his parents’ bedroom, confused and frightened. They’re both alive and back to their normal selves. They reassure him that he was just having a bad dream, and George puts him back to bed.
But at 4:40 AM, David hears a loud noise like thunder, goes to his window, and the movie ends with him witnessing the very same flying saucer from his nightmare, slowly descending into the sandpit.
As previously mentioned, Invaders from Mars was released in 1953 just when science fiction was becoming a major Hollywood genre, adapted from John Tucker Battle’s original screenplay which was based on a nightmare that terrified his wife.
The script found its way to producer Edward L. Alperson and the original intention was to go for a 3D shoot, but the 3D craze was beginning to die down by the time filming began, so that idea was abandoned. And as it was delegated to the Saturday matinee class of space thrillers aimed at children the budget shrank to $290,000.
This meant the script needed an overhaul, so Richard Blake was brought in to downscale the global invasion into something that would fit within the tinier budget. Blake’s solution was to turn the story into a dream, a change that upset John Tucker Battle so much that he had his name removed from the credits.
I think this was a mistake on Battle’s part. Having read Battle’s 1950 revised draft, most of the key elements remained intact. All Blake did, besides adding the dream element, was tighten up the pace by removing unnecessary elements (like David’s dog, Cricket) and tweaking the initial interaction between David and his father. In Battle’s script, George MacLean, was a little gruffer about his sleep being disturbed, disbelieved David’s U-F-O sighting, and fed his son leftover flu medication to put the boy to sleep, even though David wasn’t sick. I don’t know about you, but slipping your kid a mickey finn at 4 in the morning hardly qualifies you for parent of the year, in my book. Also, the thing that leads George to investigate the sandpit in the early morning, was the disturbing noises made by their cow that was being a nosey parker on the hill. Maybe my bias is showing but I prefer Blake’s take on the story.
Again, I digress.
The film was then rushed into production in an attempt to beat George Pal’s “War of the Worlds” to theaters, making it the first feature film to show flying saucers and aliens in color.
Other budgetary changes Included Alperson hiring an all B-List cast and assigning the directing chores to William Cameron Menzies, who had directed before but was primarily known for his ingenious work on production design (a concept he practically invented) at the time.
As you can imagine, the special effects were done on the cheap. The effect of the Martian radioactive wave melting the tunnel walls was achieved by an overhead angle of oatmeal boiling in a pot, with red food coloring mixed in and shot with a red light. The cooled bubble tunnel walls were actually thousands of latex condoms blown up and pasted to the walls (and if you pay close attention, you can see them wobbling whenever anyone runs past). And the MYU-Tants were plush velour jump-suited extras with visible zipper seams running down their spines.
Jack Cosgrove created matte paintings of the MacLean house and the telescopic view of the atomic rocket, as well as glass paintings of a number of saucer interiors, including the angle down the glass tube above the Martian operating table.
The scenes of the military regiments rolling in when Colonel Fielding summoned troops to surround the sandpit, were accomplished by Edward Alperson using stock footage of a World War 2 training film on how to transport tanks by rail.
And then there was the infamous repetition of shots. In the underground tunnels leading to the Martian ship, the scenes of shuffling MYU-Tants and running soldiers are reused and disguised by flipping the scenes horizontally, to make it appear that there are more than six MYU-Tants present. The same trick is used when David’s parents attempt to flee from the army soldiers, when Rinaldi drags David out of the Martian operation room, when the soldiers open fire on a MYU-Tant and drop it in its tracks, only to have the fallen MYU-Tant rise and get shot again by reusing the same shot from seconds before, and when the army tanks open fire on the spot in the sandpit that the Martian ship is launching from.
Despite all this, one of the things that impresses me today is, even though it’s all a dream, David is somehow grounded in reality. He never overpowers an adult or goes toe to toe with a MYU-Tant. He’s constrained by the laws of physics of what a boy his age and size can do. That doesn’t make him any less a hero. His actions are responsible for mobilizing an armed response to an alien invasion and he’s in the thick of the action every step of the way. He’s a 10-year-old boy who marches with soldiers and manages to keep stride.
Once you realize that the story is being dreamed, all of the odd camerawork and effects make sense, as they added flourishes of dreamlike surrealism. David’s house was the most elaborate indoor set because it was a place he was most familiar with. Other indoor sets, the ones David hadn’t seen every day (the police station, the observatory, and the Martian saucer) were spartan, consisting of elongated structures with stark, unadorned walls, sometimes much taller than necessary to emphasize David’s smallness in the face of authority and the unknown.
Oh, I should mention Raoul Kraushaar’s curious musical score, especially the Martian chorus as people are sucked into the whirlpool of the sandpit. What’s even creepier than the eerie and foreboding melody is that fact that David and Dr. Blake can actually hear it just before the sandpit swallows them.
A year later, the film was scheduled to be released in the UK, but the run time was too short, and the dream narrative didn’t meet the demanding standards of the British film distributor, so additional footage was shot to expand the planetarium scene (causing wardrobe and background set continuity errors, not to mention new Jimmy Hunt’s growth spurt and older appearance) the U.S. ending was replaced with a more straightforward conclusion of David, Blake and Kelston seeking cover behind an army tank before the Martian saucer explodes overhead, and Dr. Blake assuring David that his parents are safe now that the Martian saucer was destroyed. This version ends in David’s bedroom, where he’s been put to bed by Kelston and Blake. Standing at his door, they wish him a good night.
In my humble opinion, the U-S ending stands head and shoulders above this, but hey, to each their own. Different bikes for different likes as they say.
Have you seen the film? If so, which version, American or British? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Nostalgia certainly plays a big part of my love for Invaders From Mars. Seeing it at a young age helped me to relate to this compelling tale set in an adult world heading into the crisis of an alien invasion, mainly because it was told from a boy’s point of view, and a good portion of the key scenes are filmed from a low angle to enhance the dramatic and visual impact. It was easy to put myself in David’s helpless shoes, and imagining how I would feel, and what could I do, if the logic of the world shifted on its axis, and the people I knew and authority figures could no longer be trusted. After the movie was over, I spent a long time thinking about how I would deal with a sandpit that became a living, sinister place that fed on humans, swallowing them whole into the bowels of the earth. I wasn’t as fortunate as David, because I didn’t know an astronomer with military connection, and I doubted that I could have convinced a single, solitary soul of the impending peril of an alien invasion that utilized our own people as weapons of mass destruction.
Which begs the question: How would the 10-year-old version of you be able to safeguard the planet? Let us know in the comments.
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