Invaders from Mars
Don't forget to read Part one of this article.
Jimmy Hunt, the talented child actor who carries the show in Invaders from Mars,
appeared at an earlier age in Pitfall, a moody film noir. Jimmy plays the five
or six year old son of disenchanted husband Dick Powell, who is nearing middle age
and can't understand why his loving wife and good job don't satisfy him. The most
telling scene in Pitfall happens when little Jimmy wakes from a nightmare.
Something was threatening him at his window.
Jimmy's mother (Jane Wyatt, later of Father Knows Best) can't
understand what could disturb a boy in such a perfect suburban situation.
Dad picks up a stack of - what else - 'trashy' comics: "Now it's comic books.
Where does he get this stuff?" It's only 1948 and
already scapegoats are being sought for the lack of values and direction
in American life that evoke an unnameable fear in both little Jimmy and
his father ... there is something different about the times themselves, an
uneasiness, and no one seems able to identify the cause.
In Invaders from Mars David MacLean has a BIG nightmare, and once again
his parents blame it on 'those trashy comic books he's been
Invaders as a 50s, post-modern version of The Wizard of
Oz. In Dorothy's circa-1900 world of dull rural sameness, a
dream is a chance to escape into a magical realm, that explains
in strange but logical ways how the real world works - authority figures without
substance, representatives of Good and Bad whose struggles ordinary people can
hardly relate to. An innocent can find her way, if she is brave and virtuous,
and perhaps discover truths about herself in the process.
But Dorothy's Kansas world had one quality David MacLean's does not : a sense
of security. David's dream is a result of the pressures of his daily life, not
an escape from it. It's not a magical place Over the Rainbow, that you can
enter like a Tex Avery cartoon character ('Technicolor Begins Here').
David's dream is an alternate reality, so close to his real world he doesn't
even know he's left it. Like Dorothy's Oz, David's dream is populated
by people he knows, but now they are sinister doppelgangers of their 'real' selves.
Most of the criticism of Invaders from Mars stems from director
William Cameron Menzies' decision not to identify David MacLean's
adventure as a nightmare, literally from David's own point of view. With
certain exceptions (1946's Dead of Night) tales that turn out
to 'all be a dream,' tend to rejected outright as a cheat by adults.
You might have to explain to a four-year-old that Dorothy really didn't
go to a place called Oz, but adults aren't going to be fooled.
David MacLean's nightmare isn't revealed until the end, after 75
minutes of ludicrous illogical characters and plot. Illogical
to an adult mindset, that is.
Invaders from Mars has a reputation for scaring the hell
of of children because it's that rare film engineered around adolescent
fears. The nightmare is not only shown from little David's point of
view, it is also restricted to his frame of reference and his experiences.
In Pitfall, Dick Powell's disenchantment is having an unnoticed
psychological effect on his son, who perhaps worries that his father
doesn't love him. In Invaders, if the pressures of
1953 are making adults paranoid, what effect are they having on the children?
We know that the 'real' David MacLean is a precocious Astronomy buff who
lives with his loving parents. His father might a scientist working on a
secret project. David probably has a neighbor friend named Kathy
Wilson (Janine Perreau
whose father might work at the same
place David's father works. That's about all we are told regarding
David's 'reality.' Everything in David's nightmare is is a distorted
projection of his waking world, and not to be trusted. There are no
reassuring 'winks' to the audience, no loveable Scarecrow who resembles
a farmhand back home. David wishes he had an Astronomer
for a friend; he seemingly also has a good idea of the woman he wants
in his life as well - sexy Pat Blake (Helena Carter).
There's a standard read on Invaders from Mars in most of the
reference books: Fantasy stories obviously present us with crazy-mirror
visions of our own real world .. we relate to fantasy because of its
relevance to 'real life. 2
The fantasy content clearly shows David MacLean's world to be a threatening
one. He's insecure,
therefore his dream parents 'aren't really his parents.' 'Those trashy
comic books' have populated his dream world with flying saucers and
Aliens. Authority figures are remote and disinclined to believe him.
Beyond those observations, most reviewers can't fathom the rest of the
film, let alone the continuity weirdnesses detailed in Part One of
The brilliance of Invaders from Mars is that all the 'weirdness'
does make very sophisticated visual and thematic sense. It isn't convincing
to an adult sensibility because a 10-year-old,
David himself, is 'writing the script' and 'painting the scenery.'
Invaders paints a surreal landscape of dialogue
non-sequiters, plot illogic, and crazy character behavior. To an impressionable
ten-year old of 1953, comic book flying saucers and aliens have a
credibility equal to headlines about atom bombs, brainwashing and foreign
1999 critics and fans alike often cite filmmakers like Quentin
Tarantino, David Lynch and sometimes Tim Burton as having quirky,
odd qualities to their movies: situations, scenes, and entire moods
where as a viewer you feel the director is in control, even if you're
not quite sure of your own footing. The best discussions about their
films invariably involve the weird and intangible ... some of
their scenes have to be seen and felt to be shared. Invaders from Mars
works in the same
key, except that it played to audiences insufficiently hip to
realize that a 'silly kid's film' could possibly be so serious. Taken
literally, Invaders is incoherent. Taken like,
say, Lewis Carrol's Alice through the Looking Glass,
it's a mother lode of engrossing ideas.
Breaking Down the Pulp.
Titles: The martial marching music behind
the titles blends
with an eerie suspense theme as planets and moons drift by ...
in 1953, Outer Space is Big Science, and Big Science is Military
Science. The music's real theme is a Brave New Future of
aggression, expanding into Outer Space.
Norman Rockwell Opening: In a few brief
scenes Menzies and writer Richard Blake sketch
a happy family in their modest home just as succinctly as would
the famous Saturday Evening Post illustrator. David and his father's Three A.M. telescope fun is as wholesome as a fishing trip. The only odd
notes are the weird green-bluish colors, and Menzies' precise use
of gigantic closeups that show Mary and George MacLean as parents
too perfect to be true, nurturing and sweethearted even when
awakened in the middle of the night.
Saucer Landing: Our first darkened view of
The Hill makes it
look like a flat storybook illustration. When the Saucer lands,
at 4:41 A.M., David doesn't shrink in fear, he wonders out loud,
"Gee whiz!" He's the first of the Cinefantastique sense-of-wonder
boys, Spielberg's inspiration for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
When the sun rises, we see Menzies' minimalist art
direction at its most uncanny. The sets are simple one or two
wall rooms. The view out David's back door shows just a tree, and an almost
empty horizon. Shots alternate between wide, flattish domestic
masters and intense choker closeups (usually accompanied by blasts
of strange music). There is no action montage per se; only tableax
and obsessive details. The huge shoulder of a policeman looms above
little David, who strains to see something on the back of his neck.
Discontinuity of Angles. In the earlier
part of the story, The
Hill is always seen from a single wide angle view.
It's a dream image, the kind of oneiric repeated image that never changes.
When George or Mary leave their porch and step into
The Hill set, they seem to be entering a different
world. The action on the hill stays limited to several obsessive
angles: a closeup of a character in danger, a funnel of sinking
sand forming in the Pit, and back to the ultra-wide unchanging Hill,
as if It were alive and responsible.
Bizarre Music: Credited composer Raoul
Kraushaar, or whoever
really created the jolting, schizophrenic score to Invaders,
also invests The Hill and its grasping Sand Pit with a living dimension,
an eerie, stomach-twisting vocal effect that seems to be an inversion of
a stock 'heavenly chorus.' This collection of slippery tones
is incredibly creepy, and will grab the attention of any child. It's
far more disturbing than the Theremin, if only because of that
instrument's overuse. 3
The chorus seems to be part of the musical score,
until Sgt. Rinaldi is taken in the Sand Pit. David blurts out,
"That noise!," as if hearing it for the first time. Do the
Martians sing as they operate their sand-trap, or is David hearing
the soundtrack of his own dream? Later, both David and Pat hear the 'music'
just before they are captured. And the entire cast reacts
similarly to a choral burst as the saucer prepares to
lift off. The logic of David's dream fully enlists
the soundtrack in its surrealism.
'Overplayed' Villainy. Because
David is orchestrating the
Dream Logic, his parents behave like baddies out of the comic
books he reads: If this were a 'realistic' photoplay, his father's sullen
demeanor and explosive anger would have Mary MacLean running to
the neighbors for help. George MacLean's sinister, menacing
invitation to show his wife something in the Sand Pit plays like a
come-on line for Bluto in a Popeye cartoon. And after Mary too
is possessed, they huddle and exchange crazed stage-whisper
conspiratorial asides so villainous, even Forrest Gump would be dialing the F.B.I.
When quisling Mary hugs her son at the Police Station, she
raises an eyebrow and addresses the camera directly, as if
saying, 'Yes, I'm possessed.' Pokerfaced Police Chief
Barrows (Bert Freed) similarly seems to be confronting the camera
directly, saying, 'Yeah, I'm one of 'em too. Got a problem with that?'
Menzies makes the Chief's weirdness all the more apparent by shooting
his signature closeup in
The faces of these zombified humans all mirror the
emotionless-but-intense facial expression of the as-yet
unseen Martian Intelligence controlling them.
A Kafka Collection of Characters: One thing David
MacLean fully understands is his own lack of credibility and
power as a child. Protected, sheltered and ignorant of anything
beyond their Davy Crockett coonskin caps, most 1950s kids weren't
the streetwise, DARE to Say No, hip, economy-driving
consumers we know today. Nobody takes David seriously, not Mrs.
Wilson, nor the gas-station attendant Jim, who instantly betrays his
Even benevolent Police Deck Sergeant Finley (Walter Sande)
isn't going to understand David's predicament. David finds
himself in a psychological Hell where his pleas fall
on deaf ears, a dark corner darker than that of the
most luckless film noir protagonist: your parents
have become unfeeling monsters, part of a vast conspiracy
to conquer the Earth. Only you know about it, but nobody
will even listen to you. You're just a kid.
A Sex Life for David MacLean:
Richard Staehling, writing an hilarious article
about Teen films of the 50s, 10
wrote that before James Dean, teenagers really didn't exist as a cultural concept.
Invaders from Mars shows what a 1953 10 year-old really
is thinking. He probably isn't getting any peeks at the first
issue of Playboy, but he knows how to tell Virginia Mayo from
Aunt Virginia. David's Mom comes right from the glamor-girl mold
herself (incidentally, Hillary Brooke already carried a mild taint of villainy, as the
television foil to Gale Storm's My Little Margie.)
David's playmate Kathy Wilson is seen only
in her 'zombie' state; the knowing, sneaky, creepy look of triumph
in her giant closeups has a hint of the boyhood sexual distrust of
girls that society still doesn't know how to acknowledge. Little girls
(when I grew up in the 50's) were smarter, better behaved, and tended to be trusted
and believed more than little boys. Some had actually been given facts
about sex that nobody thought to tell us boys about ... when
hanky-panky got started, it quite often was girl-initiated. 50s culture tightly
pigeonholed proper little girl behavior, making Kathy's 'knowing'
smile seem sexually precocious, dangerous. Next stop,
Patty McCormick in The Bad Seed.
But the big burner in
David's dreamland love life is the incredibly sexy Dr. Pat Blake.
She's a health nurse who wears two-tone high heels and
undoubtably an intoxicating perfume. A crimson handkerchief
sticks fashionably, daringly out of her designer nurse's uniform.
She's as tender as David's mother, but takes him seriously -
accepting him as an adult in all matters. Pat Blake doesn't
leave David's side from the moment she finds him. Forget
stuffy Astronomer Kelston. It's David and Pat all the way.
When she's manhandled by the Martian slaves, her oh-so perfect
uniform is torn at the shoulder just so. Just the
way every heroine in action movies from Joanne Dru (Red River)
to Virginia Mayo to Maureen O'Hara seem to have their
dresses torn at the shoulder. Invaders from Mars
isn't repeating this cliche, it's revealing its source as
a little boy sex-thing. Naked woman aren't necessarily a part
of David's psyche yet ... but he's getting there. The classic
closeup of Pat resting peacefully on the Martian's glass
operating table, one shoulder bared, with a diamond-like needle
pulsing slowly toward the back of her neck, is a penetration image
charged with concepts of sex and rape, innocence and violation.
(see image top of page)
Maybe the 'real' David MacLean has a crush on his school nurse,
who is sweet to him. A lot of adolecent confusion, angst and guilt
comes when a boy realizes that the older women to whom he's attracted are
going to be 'gotten' by males other than himself. The threat of
the Martians taking David's 'girl' away overrides even his anxiety
about his parents' fate.
That Wacky Dr. Kelston. Anyone
doubting that the 'text' of
Invaders comes directly from the mind of 10-year-old David
MacLean should view this scene immediately. Already there has been
the bizarre dialog between George and Mary where George tells her
all about the 'secret' work at the Coral Bluffs plant. When she asks
what it is, her husband chuckles and replies, "Honey, you know I
can't talk about that." 6
Now the logic of expository dialogue breaks down completely.
David's grasp on science seems pretty slim. His imagined best
friend Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz) works in an Observatory
with backlit transparencies on the walls, smokes a pipe, and
comes up with the darndest, most ridiculous theories out of
thin air, just to lay a foundation of explanations for the
Martians that will soon be making their first appearance.
He lays out a rapid series of illogical, baseless non-sequiturs, that
the Martians are visiting the Earth in Motherships, that they
live underground on Mars and have bred a race of synthetic humans
called Mutants as their slaves! David chimes in with cheery support,
but Pat's first polite objection is met with the "I'm a scientist"
retort made hilarious years later in Ghostbusters. Apparently, a
scientist's work is to make up wild theories, and believe them until
they're disproven! Pat has the gall to ask a couple of mild questions,
both of which are dismissed with meaningless allusions to public
scepticism of the airplane. If George MacLean has a loose
concept of national security, Kelston is a madman. He spills the beans
to David and Pat about the entire secret project, which, naturally,
is military in nature.
Science / miliary collusion seems complete when Dr. Kelston talks to his Coral Bluffs
Army contact, Colonel Fielding. There's no hint of ideological conflict
between scientist and soldier here, not even the token sympathy given
Dr. Carrington of The Thing from Another World. David's adolescent view is clearly
right-wing ... Oppenheimers need not apply.
"A real General wouldn't say that."
The soldiers show up, led by the Gung-Ho Colonel Fielding, who behaves as if his life has been spent
waiting on full alert for a cue to start fighting Martians.
His phone calls set in motion the stock footage padding detailed in
Part one of this article. More
evidence of the David dream-logic of
events: Fielding and company personally call on the family of poor
dead Kathy Wilson, and then climb up on David's roof to observe
the Sand Pit.
That they look so ridiculous perched up there among the gables can only be
because the visual is David's dream notion of what
being on the roof would be like - when he's never been up there!
U.S. Troops: Ultimate Heroes.
When 40s and 50s films get written up,
there's not enough talk about the fact that the majority of the
young adult men on view were not long before part of a civilian army with an entirely
different attitude to war and fighting than today's glamorized
gladiators. Vet James Whitmore in Them! is the prime
example of the sane & humane ideal of the American warrior, circa
1954: decency personified, there to protect and serve. This idea is infused
in genres where it's not expected. The horde of police that raids
the oil refinery at the end of White Heat evoke a vision of
criminals at war with an America that is an army. David MacLean
seems to have this attitude too ... the soldiers in his dream are perfectly
disciplined, whether following ridiculous orders or totally ignoring
the presence of dishy dame Pat Blake. Their engineers are just as
scientifically clairvoyant as civilian Dr. Kelston. Captain Roth
(Milburn Stone) somehow knows all about infrared Rayguns that can
melt tunnels in the earth, and immediately diagnoses the control
device retrieved from the late Kathy Wilson's skull. A couple of
minutes later, he's got it rewired as a divining rod
to locate the Martian tunnelers. Roth has perhaps Invaders' best,
most insane dialogue
line: "Don't worry son. They aren't going to use a complicated device
like this just to kill people." He gives David a reassuring
pat on the head; a moment that contrasts with the bit in
the Earth Stood Still when a soldier gives a
similar pat to a kid on the sidewalk who tells him that fugitive spaceman Klaatu
went thataway in a Taxicab. Audiences boo and hiss the little
Judas in Day, a film with an exceptional attitude. Most 50's
Sci fi films idolize the Army the same way David idolizes brave Sgt.
Rinaldi, who charges single-handedly up The Hill like John Wayne
in The Sands of Iwo Jima.
The furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions
of shots and scenes outlined in Part One.
Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David's, "Colonel
Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!," which is heard so often it becomes
an unending echo. As Part One took pains to point out, these repetition
patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high
level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl.
A classic anxiety dream situation is 'running in place but not
getting anywhere,' exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders.
Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming
back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In
our dreams, shocking moments
seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically 'come back again,
but for the first time,' over and over.
In the dream logic of Invaders cause and effect, and
observation and explanation, are often reversed. The 'surprises' found
in the underground Martian nest are not surprises at all, having been
perfectly described earlier by Dr. Kelston and Captain Roth. "Mutants!,"
shouts David upon first seeing the huge green Martian slaves.
8 Zombie Sgt.
Rinaldi's verbal intro for the 'Martian Intelligence' is completely
redundant. David pummels the fishbowl as if having always known that the tentacled
sphinx inside is fully in charge. The most illogical, dreamlike
event in the tunnels is David's ability to recognize and operate
the clarinet-like Infrared tunneling Raygun. (see image top of
Part One.) Nobody, including
David, has seen its full function, yet David takes charge of the
Raygun and leaps into action, an instant expert. David MacLean's
dream may be a mirror for his anxieties, but there's plenty of
room within to cast himself as the know-it-all hero.
David MacLean's dream-confusion between wish-fulfillment and dread
becomes complete as the climax draws near. The ending montage
has several dynamic up-tempo changes, as when the tanks fire to begin the assault
on the underground tunnels. But, at the height of the tension,
when David is running-in-place during the escape, time-progression
comes to a standstill. The rising arc of tension breaks,
with a music change (a harp arpeggio) and the addition of the superimposed bits of
visuals from before. As the music score becomes more ethereal, the dream
seems to be folding in upon itself,
laying itself to rest, even with David still running, still unreleased
from his nightmare. The oddly reversed scenes that conclude the
montage are like mirage memories fading into themselves, those striking mental
images that disappear when you try to remember them.
If this were a normal dream, in the morning David would have a burst
of memory, a sudden consciousness of an entire dream storyline populated
with details and events. But it would be fleeting, because only some
dreams fully resolve in the light of day ... most evaporate in the act of
remembering them, leaving behind only random images full of
mysterious significance. The strongest of these surface every
once in a while into normal consciousness, and perhaps remind one
of the dream. Or just remain mysteries.
William Cameron Menzies' direction and unforgettable images are what
make Invaders perhaps the most accurate 'nightmare film'
Savant has ever experienced. The topography of its dreamscape surely
match my own more
than most of the 'art film' dreams of Fellini and Bergman. That
the nightmare of Invaders from Mars seems to sum up the shared
anxieties underlying the sheltered, secure 50s childhoods of David MacLean,
myself, and millions of American boys like us possibly makes it
subjectively more relevant to its time. (not exactly the same as, 'dated')
Does the dreamworld of Invaders from Mars 'speak' to younger
1999 audiences? Do you feel its surreal logic? Or does it seem
hopelessly dated, an artifact for the appreciation of Sci Fi fans, and
maybe graphic artists? Savant would like to know.
ADDED LINK: A
letter response by John Mastrocco.
1. Remember, folks, whenever you hear pundits blaming real social problems
on art or the media, start looking for little radio implants in the backs of their necks.
2. Savant remembers the 'Ahhs' of approval from the audience during a
screening of The NeverEnding Story when the terrifying 'Nothing' is explained: what
seemed a shallow fairy tale suddenly became multi-dimensional, and meaningful.
3. Another uncanny use of weird choral music that is unexpectedly successful in creating a
subliminally disturbing atmosphere is Krystopher Komeda's score for The Fearless Vampire Killers. Runner up: The Gallant Hours.
4. Shooting this CU in
reverse was probably a practical aid to allow the actor to start on his
mark, perfectly framed and in focus, before stepping back away from the
camera. But it still comes off as bizarrely pre-Lynchian.
5. The gas station
attendant Jim is played by
uncredited Todd Karns, who also played George Bailey's younger brother,
war hero Harry,
in It's a Wonderful Life. Wonderful was a flop in 1946 and
influence on Karns' role in Invaders.
6. If this wasn't a
private joke in Invaders it certainly became one in
1980's Airplane!, in the 'Raid on Macho Grande' flashback sequence.
Chalk up Sci Fi fan Airplane! producer Jon Davison for that one,
7. Kelston arrogantly states that
weapons can be 'anchored' in space, any country that
"dares attack us can be wiped off the face of the Earth in a matter of minutes." Swell.
Funny that in
the very first serious 50's American Sci Fi film, Destination Moon, the icebreaker that
funds the private moon rocket is the stern warning that if America doesn't use the moon
as a nuclear weapons base, its enemies will. With only a few exceptions, the entire history
of Sci Fi film has been militaristic, from Forbidden Planet through 2001 all
the way to Until the End of the World with its Indian Nuclear Satellite threatening
the Earth at the dawn of the millenium. The American press parroted the official US
line that our Space Program was non-military, while the American Sci Fi film told the truth,
years before it came to pass. Are these Martians really conquering Earth or, like the
Arachnids of Starship Troopers, just trying to neutralize a nuclear threat?
8. The mutants always reminded Savant
of the Winkie Guards from The Wizard of Oz ... something about the noses, and their
9. Savant met Janine Perreau in 1996; her
actress sister Gigi was directing a play at my daughter's school. Janine, a popular child
performer at the time, just remembers Mr. Menzies being nice, and having to pick flowers
and drop through a trap door on the hill, where a stagehand caught her! She's very proud
of her 'zombie' closeups, and was happy to be told that, yes, she was probably the
first 'possessed' child on the American screen, years before The Innocents, Village of the Damned or The Exorcist.
10. Staehling, Richard, From
Rock Around the Clock to The Trip: The Truth about Teen Movies Kings of the Bs,
A. Dutton 1975 NYC, Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn
Don't forget to read Part one of this article.
Special Thanks to Larry Tuczynski for help with this page ... visit
his Godzilla Page sometime!
Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson