by Michael Lauck
For the last century or so the world has been able to take an animated glimpse at its past thanks to motion pictures. Although we have always had history books and, better yet, source materials such as newspapers, speeches and journals, the ability to actually see our past can enhance our understanding. There are so many small details, such as the way people spoke or the now strange seeming everyday items surrounding them, that are easily forgotten or misunderstood otherwise. The films do not have to be documentaries or old home movies, either, because even popular films show the details and reflect the attitudes of the day. If you doubt this watch a black and white movie (or even a television show) with a ten or twelve year old child. They will be shocked by things such as phone dials, the constant smoking, how all men seem to wear ties, how everyone seems to wear hats and countless other observations.
By going back and examining a selection of films from the dawn of the “flying saucer era” we can catch a glimpse of the paranoia, fear, hope and wonder felt by the American public as they were first confronted with the questions posed by UFOs. Were they actually a weapon controlled by the Soviet Union? If they were actually aliens, were they here to help or hurt? The following five films (presented in chronological order and without spoilers) are not necessarily the best from a cinematic viewpoint, but they provide a nice glimpse into the mindset of the 1950s American public when it came to UFOs.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Widely regarded as a science fiction classic, the original The Day The Earth Stood Still starred Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie as an alien visitor. It was directed by Robert Wise, who would later win Academy Awards for his film versions of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Although the bulk of Wise’s work was not in the science fiction realm he also directed the motion picture version of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The movie portrays the events that occur when a flying saucer lands in Washington DC (not on the White House lawn) and a very human appearing alien emerges with his robot. There are definite references made to religion in the movie, although some of the more overt references may have been forced into the production by film censors. The movie questions whether or not Earth is ready to join the larger galactic community, a question many still ask today. It is interesting to note that although the movie, which was written by Edmund H. North, was produced in the post-Kenneth Arnold era it was actually based on the 1940 story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates in which the ship (described as ovoid, or egg shaped) simply appears in Washington DC.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Drawing heavily from Shakespeare’s The Tempest with a good measure of Jungian psychology mixed in, Forbidden Planet features a flying saucer that is operated by humans. The crew of a United Planets saucer (led by Leslie Nielsen, who frequently played ‘tough guy’ roles in his early career) is sent to investigate the fate of an expedition to the planet Altair IV, which was lost two decades earlier. They find a survivor (portrayed by Walter Pidgeon), who has been exploring the remnants of the planet’s lost civilization, and his daughter (Anne Francis).
The film is interesting because it shows humans exploring space in their own saucer (implied to be part of large fleet) with their own robot in the 23rd century. Intelligent extraterrestrial races are implied, after all the characters are exploring the ruins left by the original inhabitants of Altair IV, but not seen. Originally written to take place in 1976 on Mercury, the film’s final script was moved further away from both our present time and location. Few expenses were spared in making this movie. Robby the Robot was built for the project (at a cost of more than $100,000) and state of the art special effects were featured. The movie also used an electronic music soundtrack. The vision of our future, intrepidly exploring our universe, juxtaposed against a story with obvious Elizabethan era roots is an interesting take on what makes up our essential humanity. The flying saucer in human control is probably a cinematic first as well (although it was not
the first film, as is sometimes claimed, to show humans in an interplanetary spaceship).
Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956)
Boasting impressive special effects by Ray Harryhausen (the man behind Jason and the Argonauts and the original Clash of the Titans), Earth Vs The Flying Saucers takes a very grim, Cold War stance of the prospect of meeting extraterrestrials for the first time. Despite the fact that George Adamski was supposedly consulted by filmmakers, these are not the peaceful, helpful Space Brothers shown in films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still. The saucers appear and, much like in War of the Worlds, are intent on our destruction.
The film was inspired by Major Donald Keyhoe’s Flying Saucers From Outer Space with a screenplay by Clifford Siodmak (who also penned 1941 version of The Wolf Man). It very much applies the World War II “we did it before and we can do it again” attitude to the prospect of an invasion from the stars.
Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story Of Flying Saucers (1956)
This is perhaps the strangest flying saucer film of the decade, and perhaps of all time. Most of the film is a docu-drama depicting the events surrounding the famous incidents in 1952 that saw UFOs over Washington DC on two successive weekends. Based on the story of Al M. Chop, the real life press agent who had to handle the affair, it even features Captain Edward Ruppelt as a character. In addition to the re-enacted version of Chop’s story the film also features several interviews and two pieces of footage that purport to show flying saucers. It is not, to be brutally honest, a particularly good movie. The acting is dry and the narration only makes things worse. It is, however, a fascinating glimpse at an important episode in the history of unidentified flying objects in an age before television projects such as UFO Hunters or Ancient Aliens.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Perhaps the most maligned film in the history of cinema, there is a great deal going against Plan 9 From Outer Space. The special effects are awful (at best). The acting is a little worse than the special effects with the film’s most established actor, Bela Lugosi, actually appearing only in silent scenes the director shot for another project as Lugosi had died before Plan 9 began production. The plot is fairly ridiculous but the motivations of the invading extraterrestrials are actually quite interesting.
There is plenty to hate about Plan 9. The aliens are resurrecting the dead (this is the “Plan 9” referred to in the title) to force the governments of Earth to acknowledge their presence in our skies. However, they only resurrect three or four corpses and never do anything to reveal the fact they have done even this! The film has merit for two reasons, though. The first, as mentioned before, is the motivation of the extraterrestrials as explained by Eros, the alien commander, near the end of the film. The second is because Plan 9 From Outer Space is a kind of symbolic nail in the coffin of high profile media attention for UFOs. In the years since its release the terrible visuals of its saucers, obviously suspended by a string, have been used over and over to ridicule both science fiction and UFOs.
The Day The Earth Stood Still Trailer:
Forbidden Planet Trailer:
Earth Vs The Flying Saucers Trailer:
UFO: The True Story…. has no trailer but the full movie can be seen here:
Plan 9 Trailer: