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Part One: The Ultimate

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

Finally! A decent DVD is available for Invaders from Mars. Read Savant's review. (12.9.02)

Invaders from Mars is a modest 1953 science fiction film that 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 who jam sub-Freudian meanings into movies, have no fear. My argument is based on the movie we all can see, and doesn't try to conform the film to some graduate-student agenda. On the other hand, this article probably is more for confirmed Sci Fi aficionados than the general DVD Savant reader. I thank both for their patience.

But if you want to hear some discussion about Invaders from Mars, this is the place. Invaders is so rich in ideas I don't claim to have a handle on the whole subject. Part 2 of this article 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 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. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, 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 The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King's 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. It unfortunately gave him the reputation of a director who couldn't handle actors or block scenes. The Savant article on the versions of Things to Come hopefully helps to explain how 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 Whip Hand, a thriller about a journalist who discovers a nest of Nazis in postwar America, seeking to launch a fourth Reich. The Whip Hand was also editorially mangled, this time by weird-o producer Howard Hughes. After the film was completely finished, Hughes decreed that it be reworked to turn the Nazis into Communists experimenting with biological warfare weapons. No other Hollywood film demonstrates as well how interchangeable Nazis and Commies really were in those politically charged years.

Synopsis (with spoilers)

Invaders tells the story of young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), who witnesses the landing of a flying saucer from his bedroom window. Burrowing into a sand pit, the Martians trap David's kindly father George (Leif Erickson) and plant a radio-activated control device in his neck. Now the Invaders' zombie-agent, George MacLean spreads their influence by luring others into the pit: David's mother Mary (Hillary Brooke), army General Mayberry. Soon the Martians are in control of the local police, too. Young David responds to the trauma of finding his own family transformed into inhuman automatons by confinding 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 are planning to use their human operatives to sabotage an atomic rocket being developed at a secret government base nearby. Kelston informs the Army, which surrounds the sand pit. David and Pat are captured, and discover the buried Martian saucer contains only one real Martian, a disembodied, tentacled head in a glass globe. It commands a crew of giant, bug-eyed, green Mutant slaves, communicating telepathically with both them and its radio-controlled human agents. 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 Martian slaves seal off the escape tunnels. With young David manning a Martian infrared raygun to burn an exit tunnel to the surface, the entire cast runs for cover. When the explosives finally detonate, David wakes up and the entire adventure is revealed to be but a dream. But is it? Once again, David is awakened by the sound of an approaching spacecraft .. .

The Production

Invaders from Mars was shot 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 the now long-abandoned CineColor process. Original prints of Invaders from Mars have an other-worldly color texture, with slimy greens and blues and vivid reds.1 It was not shot in 3-D, even though Menzies' depth-enhancing design makes it look more like 3-D than many real 3-D pictures.

Most of the movie was shot on inexpensive but carefully designed sets. One oft-repeated bit of trivia is that the bubbles lining the walls of the Martian tunnels were inflated condoms - clusters can be seen wobbling as soldiers run by them. Some sets were cleverly recycled - assassination target Dr. Wilson's lab 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 the telescopic view of the atomic rocket are both mattes. Some of the saucer interiors are augmented with clever glass paintings, such as the dynamic angle down the glass tube above the Martian operating table.

The Infamous Zippered Aliens.

Casual Sci-Fi bashers have a lot of ammunition to hurl at Invaders from Mars if they are so inclined. Most often derided are the plush velour jumpsuits used to represent the Martian slaves. 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 these suits practically overnight, which accounts for the legendary famous zippers running up their spines. Bug-Eyed Martian faces were provided by a simple plastic eye-nose-mouth combo mask worn like sunglasses. In stills, the Martian slaves remind one of the moth-eaten CatSuits the wardrobe man of The Bad and the Beautiful tries to push on producer Kirk Douglas. Not the most convincing Aliens concocted for the screen .... point granted.

The Sand Pit Hill Set.

Menzies appears to have put the majority of his rescources into one very large, very special set, the hill leading to the Sand Pit behind David's house. It is one of the most remarkable sets ever made, for a number of reasons. A slightly curved path winds up the hill between some leafless black tree trunks, followed by a broad plank fence. 2 Atop the hill, the blackened fence dips out of sight into the largely unseen Sand Pit beyond.

The hill is 'deceptively artificial.' On first impression it reminds of the bridge in the 1919 Cabinet of Caligari, the bridge over which Cesare the Somnambulist kidnaps his female victim. The Invaders hill appears to be a similarly flat-perspective, diorama-like design. In static shots it resembles a painted backdrop. But when an actor walks up the path, all sense of perspective goes haywire. The hill is like a 2-dimensional painting, but 3-dimensional people defy visual logic and diminish as they walk 'into' it. It's a 'reverse forced-perspective' optical illusion. George MacLean seems to get smaller than he should as he reaches the top of the hill, and it takes a lot of steps to get him there. But the trees at the rear of the set don't give the right 'perspective clues,' so it almost looks as if George MacLean is shrinking as he walks. It is a subtle effect that is more easily perceived on a large screen.

Stock Footage.

Invaders from Mars is shamelessly padded with stock footage. Large sections of a WW2 training film on how to transport tanks by rail have been spliced in, to represent the regiments Colonel Fielding summons to surround the Sand Pit. It's clear that the money just wasn't there to hire the National Guard, as did The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still to such good effect. Ditto all of the footage of tanks pulling into position amid the greenery around the Pit: it's all stock footage from earlier productions, some of it with rather non-American looking tanks. 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 from Los Angeles' Griffith Park.

The Strange Repetition of shots.

But the biggest invitation for nitpickers in Invaders from Mars is the constant and obvious repetition of shots. When those aforementioned tanks start shooting, a handful of angles are reused over and over. One specific image of a shell blast is seen at least a dozen times just by itself.

Not just stock footage is repeated. In the Martians' underground lair, shots of both shuffling Martian slaves and running soldiers look suspiciously recycled. There seem to have been at most three actual camera angles in the Martian tunnel set. The same six velour suits shambling past, repeated three times, become eighteen 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 this scene, the same three-bubble pattern can be seen repeated in over 50% of the shots, often back to back. Likewise, when David's parents flee the army in a two-angle no-budget car chase, both shots are flopped horizontally, and shown again.

During the underground fighting, two and three-shot sequences are repeated as well. Sgt. Rinaldi (Max Wagner) drags David out of the operation room and down to the next level of the saucer. A few moments later, David breaks free, runs back upstairs - and the same exact shots are reused as Sgt. Rinaldi drags David out a second time. A group of soldiers shoots down a Martian slave ("Blast him!") and the fallen alien gets back up again, seemingly unharmed. The soldiers doggedly open fire again, and the entire sequence of them shooting, and the Martian slave toppling, is repeated exactly as shown only seconds before.

Crazy Suspense Editing.

Invaders from Mars uses a 'deadline' tension device when the soldiers struggle to escape from the saucer before their demolition charges blow it up. A huge closeup 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. Editors usually cheat these kinds of sequences a little, stretching the material to last longer than it should, all in the service of suspense (clock the bomb countdown in Goldfinger sometime). Here in Invaders the bomb's second-hand defies all logic, passing the same numbers on its dial again and again. Also seen 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.

If a filmmaker shoots twenty minutes of filmstock, 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 there are so many repeated shots, its shooting ratio is 1 to 2 !

A Bizarre Montage like No Other.

This is the point where Invaders from Mars becomes an editorial tour-de-force for some, and a cinema joke for others. The parallel actions of ticking bomb, escaping saucer, and fleeing troops overlap to a point where time stops progressing altogether. David never reaches the bottom of the hill, the saucer never breaks free of the Sand Pit. David runs for his life in an unending closeup. Then a prolonged optical montage begins. Striking images and violent action from earlier scenes are recapitulated, superimposed over David's running face and intercut with that same repeated shell blast. The music downshifts out of its martial frenzy, into a previously unheard ethereal theme, not unlike the conclusion of Holst's The Planets. David's running, already reduced to a non-progressing state, now goes in reverse, as we see another series of superimposed images, now running backwards. These are non-violent but eerily disturbing: David leaping from the embrace of his parents; the zombie police chief (Bert Freed) putting on his hat. Finally the odd visions dissolve into a starscape of planets receding, retreating away. A final explosion, concurrent with a clap of thunder, 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 feeble joke; in a series screening at UCLA the film got the most enthusiastic response of all, even as it remained a mystery. Savant hasn't yet read anything about Invaders that satisfactorily resolves the meaning behind Menzies and editor Arthur Roberts' crazy-quilt editing of these last reels.

A Victim of Version - Manipulation.

The American cut of Invaders from Mars 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. England apparently nixed the dream structure of Invaders outright, for reasons that are unclear. It's the same structure used in The Wizard of Oz, after all. A very inexpressive angle was shot of the three actors reaching the bottom of the hill and ducking behind an Army vehicle. The saucer's animated landing was reversed to make it look as if it were taking off, with an added flash to show it being destroyed by the Army bomb. One of the prop trees lamely tips over. Pat glibly announces that with the control source destroyed, David's parents are now safe. 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.

Collector Bruce Kimmel has an uncut 35mm print of this reshoot sequence. He allowed Savant to transfer it to tape in 1988, and resynchronize its audio - a defect which 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, who, however did not fix its audio flaw.

The English ending reportedly skips the weird montage finale altogether. Pasting this cop-out ending onto the film meant losing running time - and to make up for it, a second new scene was filmed with the same three actors. In the Observatory, just when the trio are discussing the likelihood of living beings on Mars, the new footage kicks in. Jimmy Hunt's neck grows about 2 inches and his haircut changes. Dr. Kelston takes his two visitors to a new corner of the Observatory to view a conveniently displayed photo album full of news clippings of flying saucer sightings. He then opens a cabinet and produces big models of three 'typical' saucer shapes. David seems to already know all about these exhibits. After several dull minutes of pointless discussion, An impressed Pat accompanies the two UFO experts back to the desk, where they resume their seating positions so the film can pick up where it left off.

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

1) The original cut. The only place this can be seen (?) is on the Image 1993 Laserdisc. In Los Angeles, it played on televsion in b&w throughout the 60s, 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.

3) The Television cut Savant first saw in 1979. The same as the original cut, except for a number of annoying alterations, using pieces of the footage shot for England. The heroes now run to safety, and the saucer explodes in the air, but the story still resolves itself as a dream as in the original. Some dialogue lines have been deleted. Colonel Fielding, informed that their escape tunnel is hopelessly blocked, no longer shouts, "Start digging!" In addition, minor editorial lifts were made all the way through the picture to (reportedly) pick up the pace.

4) A TV version Savant taped in 1989, time-expanded to make the film fit a two hour time slot, with commercials. This version has the original ending, but includes the full Observatory reshoot scene (The Image laserdisc includes only an excerpt).

There's only one explanation for all this: Wade Williams. Hailing from Kansas City, this film collector began announcing that he had rights to a number of Science Fiction films in the early 70's, including favorites Rocketship X-M and Kronos. Like a latter-day Raymond Rohauer, Williams began the dicey practice of altering prints of 'his' films, as Rohauer had once done to the classics of Buster Keaton, as a way of re-registering them under new copyrights. Rohauer just retyped some title cards, but Williams had much bigger ideas. Like the worst of film revisionists, Williams seems to have been interested only in the 'improved' versions he re-edited, and may not have retained elements to preserve the originals. The original Rocketship X-M had some pretty crummy V-2 rocket stock footage that didn't match models seen elsewhere in the show. Williams hired some Cascade alumni (including cameraman Dennis Muren) to shoot replacement footage featuring a proper-looking rocket. It is excellently done; there might even be some matching astronauts marching in the new footage. This is the version that appears on television, VHS and Laser, and presumably on forthcoming DVDs. But the original unaltered 1950 Rocketship X-M has been a no-show for decades, if it exists at all.

Wade Williams reissued Invaders from Mars to theaters in the middle 70s, with the changes listed above in versions 3 and 4. The dialogue lines were (reportedly) excised because audiences laughed at them, putting Williams in the category of earlier producers who cut scenes out of foreign imports like The Mysterians, Reptilicus, Gorath, and Varan the Unbelievable because screening audiences laughed 'at the wrong places.'

The rape of Invaders from Mars is one of the worst examples in modern film preservation of the trashing of a significant title. The 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 Image producers threw their net far and wide to find decent source material for this 'labor of love' disc, yet their presentation jumps from patches of excellent quality, to ones with heavy damage, to passages that look like a bad color xerox. Clearly, they were trying to reconstruct what someone else (W.W.?) had chopped up.

Wade Williams' name appears nowhere on the Image laserdisc, which carries the legend, 'Richard I. Rosenfeld presents a film from the Johnar Library.' Is Wade Williams' copyright claim in question? Has he the only decent copies of the film? Its original negative? You can't tell by the 'Wade Williams Collection' DVD. Released in early 1998 by UAV, the DVD is the 'futzed' version #3 detailed above, and is actually worse-looking than the laserdisc. The DVD boldly states that Invaders is "protected by copyright worldwide owned and controlled by Wade Williams." So why does it look like an inferior 8mm print? Is Mr. Williams afraid to let out a decent-quality copy?

Savant rented several beautiful-looking 16mm prints of this film in the 70s and once saw a perfect 35mm trailer on a giant screen at Filmex that knocked my eyes out. As I continue to the second half of The Ultimate Invaders From Mars, please believe me when I say that Invaders once looked sensational, even if the videos presently available are so wretched. Hopefully pristine original prints still exist 3, or the negative has not been butchered by film Phillistines and is safe somewhere, ready to someday resurface.

Those Who Dare - Advance to the
Invaders From Mars Part 2 Essay.

1. Cinecolor was originally a two-color process designed as a cheap alternative to pricey Eastmancolor. Cinecolor release prints had two emulsion layers, each directly adhered to both sides of the film base. In appearance, it was essentially like the long-abandoned two-strip Technicolor, but employed opposite hues. CineColor was mostly used for cheaper movies. Many lowbudget Westerns came out in CineColor, and films from lowercase 'studios' like Allied Artists, who did not want to go to the more expensive (and sometimes big-studio controlled) labs. From Paul Samuels:

"Invaders. . ." was not released in 2-strip Cinecolor, but had a full spectrum where blues were blue and whites were white instead of shades of cyan and orange. It was reputedly done in Super Cinecolor, which used Eastman negative and somehow managed to enhance the original cinecolor spectrum and get around Technicolor patents."

It is arguable that Menzies' creative use of the restricted color scheme in Invaders is Cinecolor's finest hour. It is presumed that modern video copies of Invaders are made from Eastmancolor elements and therefore might not accurately represent the more limited color range of the original Cinecolor prints. The piece of Invaders Savant has seen whose colors remind him of the original prints, is the trailer as presented on the Image laserdisc from 1992. See the Cinecolor explanation on the informative Widescreen Museum site.


2. A favorite motif of William Cameron Menzies , used to advantage before in key scenes in Gone With the Wind and King's Row.

3. One of the nice things about CineColor: with only two emulsions, each directly adhered to a side of the acetate base, the prints don't fade as predictably as do Eastmancolor prints of the same vintage. Yes, hopefully some archive is secretly sitting on a print or two right now ...


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

Like SCIENCE FICTION? Try the following SAVANT entries!
Review: IT HAPPENED HERE, METROPOLIS and STAR WARS, DUNE and David Lynch, DANGER: DIABOLIK, The Uncut THINGS TO COME, THE ANGRY RED PLANET and CineMagic, Jump Cut 1 - FORBIDDEN PLANET, QUATERMASS who?, An Exotic Treat - THE MYSTERIANS!, Review: Quatermass and the Pit, Those ASTRAL COLLISION Movies, The Strange Case of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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