Invaders From Mars (1953)
Written by Richard Blake, from a story by John Tucker Battle
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Produced by Edward L. Alperson Jr., Edward L. Alperson
20th Century Fox
Starring Jimmy Hunt, Helena Carter, Arthur Franz
Wikipedia describes the Second Red Scare as having inspired movies and literature to produce “stories and themes of the infiltration, subversion, invasion, and destruction of American society by un–American thought and inhuman beings.” There is perhaps no clearer or less subtle example of that than Invaders From Mars, with body snatches, mind control, personality change, threat of invasion, etc. Not that these themes are rare in science fiction of this period, but here they are so “on the nose.” The performances are far from nuanced, the Americanism proudly flag-waving, and the music dramatic and obvious. And yet … it turned out to be a highly enjoyable viewing.
This was my first time seeing Invaders From Mars, and I have to say that it was a pleasant surprise. Even though “subtle” was not a word in the writers’ or the director’s vocabulary, and some of the sequences are laughable, I found myself caught up in the characters and their plight. There were plenty of reasons to deride the film. First, the portrayals of the controlled humans, chiefly David’s parents, the police chief, and little Kathy Wilson, are rather over-the-top. There’s no need to find a mark on the back of their necks to tell that they’re being manipulated by the invaders, their behavior telegraphs that fact a mile away. David’s father, for example, goes from being a gentle, intelligent, loving, amiable man in one scene to a cold, emotionless brute who smacks his kid in the face and knocks him to the ground. Yeah, there’s definitely something amiss here. Second, the music used to describe a person about to be sucked underground is an odd “heavenly host” choir effect which can be heard by the characters. On the one hand it’s an entertaining juxtaposition. On the other hand, it’s just weird. Third, there’s the bizarre way that all the characters pronounce the word “mutant,” with the exaggerated second syllable, like “mue-tant.” Was that an accepted pronunciation at the time?
Another — and bigger — distraction if you notice and focus on it is the movie’s pacing. For the most part the story moves along at a pretty nice clip, never taking too long to develop the plot or lingering too long on any particular set piece. Except in two places: the first is about 2/3 in, where we’re treated to far-longer-than-necessary shots of Army preparations and tank maneuvers, including shots of tanks being loaded onto rail cars and shipped to the story’s setting. What made this so noticeable wasn’t just the duration but the seemingly endless recitation of an instrumental rendition of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” America! Going far beyond establishing the Army’s presence and purpose in the film, these scenes almost seem like recruitment films. But even worse, and far more repetitive, is the sequence at the end in which the locals are running from the saucer that’s about to explode. The camera focuses in on David’s face as he runs, and overlaying that are repeats of clips from virtually every previous scene in the movie, as if David, as he runs from danger, relives the entire movie all over again. Eventually it becomes rather comical, like, “how the hell long has David been running?” Without these two lengthy sections, the film would probably only run a little over an hour, suggesting that, short on story, the movie needed to be padded out to make feature length. At one point in the running scene, I asked myself if this was all a dream, because this replay of clips had a disjointed, dreamlike quality to them.
And before David can finish running, he suddenly wakes up in bed, as if from a dream. He runs into his parents’ bedroom (in which they, of course, sleep in separate beds), only to be sent back to sleep. He wakes up again later, and witnesses the exact same events again that he did at the beginning of the movie — the saucer landing in a nearby field. So was what we saw throughout the whole movie a dream? Is this second occurrence also a dream? The ending is a tad confusing and kind of weakens the impact of the rest of the film.
The movie was still quite enjoyable though, one of the more fun ones that I’ve reviewed, and has a great deal to commend it. The scene in which Sgt. Rinaldi gets slowly dragged underground, resisting all the way and firing his rifle — after all previous victims have been swallowed rapidly like falling into a pit — is extremely effective. The best part is that Col. Fielding watches it happen from a distance through binoculars, putting to rest any final doubts in his mind about what is going on. The moment near the end where David and Dr. Drake are suddenly swallowed themselves comes as a bit of a shock. In fact, Helena Carter as Dr. Pat Drake is one of the highlights of the whole film — a woman who is an authority, whose knowledge and experience is invaluable to the story, and who is key to the discovery of a key piece of the mystery. Yes, she turns into something of a helpless female once captured by the mu-tants, but I’ll excuse her for that, as she’s been such strong presence throughout. This movie really isn’t about the Martians, their mu-tants, or anything like that, it’s about the people in a small town and how they change, and the insidiousness of outside influence. But still … the being referred to as the Martian Mastermind
— oddly described in the film as “Mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence” — is properly bizarre and rather disturbing, all the more so because who and what he is, and what he does, is never explained beyond that one line. Is he in fact human? How did he get to be the (supposed) ruler of Mars? He’s extremely creepy, his head and shoulders and short tentacle arms contained in a glass globe with no lower torso attached. It’s extremely unsettling in a brilliant, sci-fi-y sort of way.
While other films, War of the Worlds in particular, are far more sophisticated, this film does have a charm of its own. And it has a capable, competent, and level-headed leading female character, which is something that War, for all its superiority, did not have.