Sunday, April 7, 2024

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Earth vs the Flying Saucers Poster

(1956) Directed by Fred F. Sears; Written by Bernard Gordon and George Worthing Yates; Screen Story by Curt Siodmak; Suggested by “Flying Saucers from Outer Space,” by Major Donald E. Keyhoe; Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum and Grandon Rhodes; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

“Saucers were very prominent at that time, and Charles (Schneer) cut out a thing in the paper and said, ‘Let’s make a picture about flying saucers.’ I hesitated… but I thought it was a challenge to get… some sort of personality in the saucers, that there was some intelligence guiding them.” –  Ray Harryhausen (from DVD commentary)

Flying Saucers

If Earth was ever visited by extraterrestrial beings, what would that encounter look like? Would they attempt to hide their presence from us, or would they make some sort of grand gesture, purposely arriving at a prominent location or center of government? Not long after the alleged incident in Roswell, New Mexico, along with many other sightings, UFOs became a hot topic for Hollywood, with genre classics The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), and The War of the Worlds (1953). A few years after the initial wave, producer Charles H. Schneer approached effects maestro Ray Harryhausen to make their own movie about the subject. The resulting film, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,* his second collaboration with Schneer after The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) plays like a story ripped from the headlines, taken to its logical, horrible conclusion. 

* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Due to the blacklist of the 1950s, screenwriter Bernard Gordon’s name was left off the credits. His name was only recently restored to the credits, when the film arrived on DVD.

Dr. Marvin and Carol

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to newlyweds Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and Carol (Joan Taylor), driving along a deserted road, enroute to a rocket test base. As he begins to dictate through a tape recorder, he picks up strange sounds emanating from a huge disclike flying craft* that buzzes their car. Dr. Marvin and his wife arrive at the base, just in time to witness the impending launch of another rocket (the previous 10 went missing), but they soon discover an unauthorized visitor at the site – (you guessed it) a flying saucer. In typical Hollywood military fashion, our first direct encounter with an extraterrestrial being is marred by shooting first and asking questions later (a decision that doesn’t bode well for the soldiers on base or humanity in general). Meanwhile, in the ensuing commotion and destruction, they abduct Carol’s father, General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), extracting his knowledge with an “infinitely indexed memory bank.” Dr. Marvin learns, belatedly, that the sounds he recorded were an initial attempt by the aliens to communicate with him.** Defying orders from his superiors, he decides to take matters into his own hands, arranging a second meeting with the extraterrestrials, *** in which he learns their malicious intent. Now, it’s us against them, as Dr. Marvin and his colleagues race against the clock to find a weakness in the invaders they can exploit. 

* Fun Fact #1: The telltale sound of the saucers came from an unlikely source – a recording of sewage moving through the pipes of the Redondo Beach wastewater facility in Southern California. The sewage plant, with its myriad twisting pipes, also served as the “high tech” rocket research lab. 

** Fun Fact #2: If the alien leader’s voice sounds familiar (despite the intentional distortion), it belongs to announcer Paul Frees who lent his ubiquitous vocal talents to many projects (including the “Ghost Host” in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion). 

*** Fun Fact #3: The meeting spot where Dr. Marvin makes his rendezvous with the aliens is Zuma Beach, in Malibu, California.

Attacking the Washington Monument

Since the movie is called Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and not Dr. Marvin and His Delayed Honeymoon, we’re not here for the romantic subplot but to see the aliens blow stuff up. Ray Harryhausen delivers on the promise with his usual aplomb, depicting the obliteration of various Washington, DC architectural landmarks, including the Washington Monument (a scene later parodied in Tim Burton’s 1996 comedy, Mars Attacks). A hallmark of Harryhausen’s formidable skill is imbuing his creations with personality (personality that often eclipses the human characters), which extends to inorganic objects. The flying saucers* are far more than blank, featureless discs, displaying counter-rotating sections on the top and bottom, suggesting a mechanism that provides lift. The nodules on the bottom of the spacecraft served a dual purpose: imparting additional detail to the saucers, as well as enabling a practical location for Harryhausen to anchor the supporting wires. Other than the suits,** we almost never see the aliens, themselves (one is briefly revealed without their helmet). 

* Fun Fact #4: According to Harryhausen, he created eight saucers for the film: four little ones for medium shots, three larger ones for the long shots, and the biggest one (approximately 12” in diameter) for close-ups. The largest model included a telescoping cylinder for entry and exit into the saucer. 

** Fun Fact #5: Besides his animated sequences, Harryhausen made another important contribution to the film, suggesting to the filmmakers that the aliens’ suits were comprised of “solidified electricity.” As someone with a liberal arts background, I’m not sure how plausible that would be, but it sure sounds cool.

Dr. Marvin Tries on Alien Helmet

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is not without its minor nitpicks, starting with the interior design of the spacecraft. There’s too much empty space in the saucers, leaving a large, cavernous area containing nothing (when space would likely be at a premium for an interstellar craft). And where would the telescoping cylinder (providing egress to the craft) fit? Space efficiency questions aside, probably the most problematic element is the overzealous use of stock footage* throughout. While obviously a cost-saving measure (with most sci-films of the era relegated to low-budget B-pictures), the over-abundance of stock footage causes credibility to strain at the seams at times. In one scene, a shot of jet fighters scrambling against the extraterrestrial threat is intercut with footage of propeller planes crashing. Thankfully, most of the footage used integrates more convincingly, but these momentary lapses demand our suspension of disbelief.   

* Fun Fact #6: In the sequence where a cathedral is blown up, the filmmakers repurposed an effects shot from The War of the Worlds, depicting the destruction of Los Angeles City Hall.

Aliens Use Ray Gun

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is that it glosses over one of the most intriguing themes it raises: conflict started over miscommunication. Arguably, the war between an alien race is at least partially due to our negligence. I can’t help but speculate what could have been if humans had found a common ground with the aliens, but amidst the milieu of paranoia and distrust of the mid-50s, a peaceful solution wasn’t in the cards. There’s much ado about the colorized version in the DVD’s supplemental materials (endorsed by Harryhausen himself), but despite the advances of the process, it looks unnatural and uncanny (and not in a good way). I much prefer the original black-and-white version, with its moody contrast and newsreel footage quality. Whichever version you choose, however, you’re guaranteed to see a film that lives up to its title.


  1. Fun and informative review, Barry! I've seen Earth versus the flying saucers more than once and I enjoy it a lot! I didn't know much about it though, but now I do! So I'll have to rewatch it soon! However, I think I will stick with black and white. I'm just not a fan of colorization!

    1. Thanks, John! Yeah, I've never seen a colorization job that improved the movie. It's the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for me. ;)