(1/10) Despite the viral marketing, the first American UFO warning turns out to be a false alarm. Alien visitors are notably absent from The Flying Saucer (1950), which plays like low-budget cold war spy serial interlaced with a promotional film for the Alaskan outback.
The Flying Saucer. 1950, USA. Directed by Mikel Conrad. Written by Mikel Conrad and Howard Irving Young. Starring: Mikel Conrad, Pat Garrison, Hantz von Teuffen, Earle Lyon, Lester Sharpe, Russell Hicks, Frank Darien, Denver Pyle, Roy Engel. Produced by Mikel Conrad. IMDb: 3.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
The fifties was the gilded age for the flying saucer genre. The UFO craze was kicked off by two incidents in 1947. The first was when aviator Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine unidentified flying objects in Washington state, and describing them as ”pie plate shaped” and as flying erratically, like ”saucers skipping on water”. The other was the Roswell incident, in which a farmer reported the crash of a flying disc in New Mexico, and later collected aluminium (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), rubber and paper debris at the site. The first incident has been explained as a mirage, and the second was, in fact, covered up by the military. That’s because the thing that crashed was a balloon carrying a disc containing microphones used for long-range monitoring of Soviet nuclear tests as part of Project Mogul, then a top-secret US army operation. At the time, the military said the crashed balloon was an ordinary weather balloon.
The very first movie to capitalize on UFO shenanigans was The Flying Saucer, that sported a poster portraying people fleeing in horror from a silvery disc swirling in the sky, with the tagline ”WHAT ARE THEY? WHERE ARE THEY FROM? HAVE YOU SEEN A FLYING SAUCER?” The film’s mastermind, writer, director, producer and lead actor Mikel Conrad sent the LA papers into a frenzy during the marketing of the film, claiming that while filming Arctic Manhunt in Alaska in 1948, he had actually seen, and filmed, eight real flying saucers. He further claimed that all the footage had been seized by the FBI, and that only a third of it had been returned. He even produced an actual FBI employee who could confirm that the bureau had in fact confiscated the material and returned only a part of it. This part would be used in the film The Flying Saucer. The movie also begins with the text: ”We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of those in authority who made the release of the Flying Saucer film possible at this time.”
But, alas, it didn’t take long for journalists to find out that the man claiming to be an FBI cooperative was nothing of the sort, but in fact a buddy of Conrad’s who had gone along with the film’s star’s marketing stunt. The film’s marketing also turned out to be complete bogus, which a lot of disappointed sci-fi fans found out when they took their seats in cinemas, anticipating an H.G. Wellsian, pulpy scream-fest with spaceships zipping across the sky, little green men and doomsday bells. Instead, we are promptly informed from the very first scene that this is in fact no alien spacecraft, but an experimental jet designed to carry an atom bomb. The task of the main character is to find it, its designer and its pilot before the dirty ol’ Russkie commies find it first. Then the film turns into a dragged-out Z-grade cold war ”thriller”, combined with a promotional film for Alaskan outdoors tourism. The actual flying saucer turns up in the very last five minutes of the movie. Blink and you missed it. It is a small wonder that the flying saucer genre didn’t implode on itself in its very first movie.
The long and the short of it is this: Drunken, thick-headed playboy Mike Trent (Conrad himself) is called up by an old friend of his rich father, CIA executive Hank Thorn (Russell Hicks). Thorn wants Trent to work for the CIA and try and find the flying saucers before the commie spies do, since the saucer has been sighted near Trent’s old home in a remote Alaskan village. He is to go there under the guise of a ”nervous breakdown”, and accompanying him will be the beautiful blonde ”nurse” Vee Langley (Pat Garrison), actually one of the CIA:s ”top operatives”. We follow the pair on a barge journey through beautiful Alaskan landscapes (actually pretty well filmed), narrated by Conrad in an attempt at a Chandlerian voice-over, with cringe-worthy lines like ”I had forgotten there was such a thing as beautiful scenery outside of a New York night club”. They finally arrive at his father’s old cabin, where they don’t seem surprised at all at the fact that the usual caretaker has disappeared in a puff of blue smoke and been replaced by an ominous gentlemen known as ”Hans” (Hantz von Teuffen), who lurks in the shadows and carries a knife. Nothing unusual there.
What then follows is a boring spy drama. Most of the movie is taken up by scenes where Trent and Langley ”act normal” on the shores of the Alaskan river and the cottage, or as Elizabeth Kingsley at And You Call Yourself a Scientist puts it: ”Mike and Vee settle into their mission, which consists primarily of spoiling some very beautiful location photography, having picnics, and indulging in outdoor sports such as rucksack football and tongue hockey.” This is when they are not spilling every detail of their top-secret mission to the ominous caretaker or arguing about it at the top of their lungs outside the cottage. Soon Trent (to his credit) realises that they will find no flying saucers by playing lovebirds at the cottage, and instead takes matters into his own hands. That is, hits every bar in Juneau, asking everybody he meets if they’ve seen any UFO:s or commie spies. When Langley finally finds him and realises that the whole town of Juneau, including all and any Soviet spies, now know all about their mission, she does what any ”top operative” of the CIA would do: kicks his balls, puts him in a thumb-lock and drags him out by his heels. Ehm, no, actually, she doesn’t. This top operative whimpers about it for a while and then leaves him with the town prostitute. Trent then takes another very long boat ride home through some very beautiful scenery and, for no apparent reason, falls into the river and spends the rest of the morning sleeping it off on an ice float.
Then things get rather confusing, as we come to the first deus ex machina; the very secretive UFO designer (Roy Engel) calls the local authorities for help financing his UFO. Langley seeks him out, and even though she knows that all the commies know where she and Trent live, she takes the UFO designer straight to their cottage, where, of course, the commies are waiting and they all get caught. After having sobered up and gotten knocked out again by some commie spies, Trent hijacks a small airplane, and in another deus ex machina just happens to luck upon the UFO designer’s lair, where he finds Langley and the inventor and the commies, and gets caught. They then traverse some elaborate but not very convincing cave sets, but gun-happy commies set off an avalanche. In a third brilliant deus ex machina the avalanche just happens to kill all commies but no Americans. They finally reach the UFO, a small, not completely disastrously designed, metal plane, looking a bit like a cross between a stealth plane and a flying saucer. But the inventor’s assistant Turner (Denver Pyle), is a commie supporter and takes off with the UFO. But all is resolved in a fourth wonderful deus ex machina.
There is so much wrong with this film, that there’s no point in going over it all. But let’s just say this: it is boring and stretched, the script is thin, the actors wooden, the direction dull and after all the drumming about flying saucers, its feels like a gargantuan cop-out. It was produced by Conrad’s cash-strapped “Colonial Pictures” studio, set up for this film alone, and it shows. The images of the ragged Alaskan landscapes are very beautiful, but one gets the feeling that the whole film is just an excuse to make a tourism advertorial for the Alaskan outback. They even use stock footage of whales. The startling landscapes, however, throw the cheap interiors into stark contrast. The final special effects of the flying saucer in flight, all two seconds of it, are not badly done at all, but, boy, you can’t build a whole film on the concept of a flying saucer, then fail to show one during an entire film, just to have it whizz by in the very last shot.
Mikel Conrad’s direction lacks all understanding of pacing, but at least he is a capable actor, although his only other leads were in the above mentioned Arctic Manhunt (1949) and the lost world fable Untamed Women (1952). Most of his other roles are uncredited bit-parts, and he hung up his acting gloves in 1956. One of his last films was Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), the reworked American version of the original Godzilla (1954).
Helping Conrad write his screenplay was Howard Irving Young, a playwrite and screenwriter who wrote the original screenplay for the British sci-fi comedy Time Flies (1945, review). The music was written by Darrell Calker, who has a few sci-fi credits to his name, including Voodoo Woman (1957), From Hell it Came (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), and the animated series Space Angel (1962-1964). Actually, I am amazed that someone wrote original music for this movie. One of the most annoying aspects of the film is that it re-uses a single theme over, and over, and over, and over. You know the sort of schmalzy string theme you usually hear in films where the romantic couple are floating down a river in boat with fireflies filling the air and we see them lean in for their first kiss. Well that theme is plastered on every scene in this film.
Our old friend Bosley Crowther at the New York Times said about the film: ”A film called The Flying Saucer flew into the Rialto yesterday and, except for some nice Alaskan scenery, it can go right on flying, for all we care. In fact, it is such a clumsy item that we doubt if it will go very far, and we hesitate, out of mercy, to fire even a critical shot at it.”
Generally, it’s difficult to find anyone who has anything good to say about this movie, which is rather unusual. It’s not one of those films where the audience is divided into those who feel it’s just crappy movie making and those who like it as a camp fest. Most reviewers write something along the same lines as Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant, who calls the picture “sleep-inducing”; “90% of the film is woefully undramatic footage of characters walking to and from cabins and getting in and out of boats and airplanes”. Even Richard Scheib at Moria, who does likes landscape photography so much that he gives the film 2/5 stars, writes that the film “is not terribly interesting”. 2/5 stars is also the verdict at AllMovie, where Hal Erickson calls it “slow-moving”. Stuart Galbraith VI at DVD Talk labels The Flying Saucer “excruciatingly dull”, wheras Chris Cristopoulos at Sci-Fi Film Fiesta writes that it is “pretty dull fare“. In his book Keep Watching the Skies!, American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren states that the film is “dull and thuddingly unimaginative”. And finally, Derek Winnert, who awards The Flying Saucer 1/5 stars, calls it “incredibly ripe, cheap, thoughtless and daft, even by the standards of low-budget Fifties sci-fi films”.
The acting is not what kills this movie, even if it’s pretty wooden. Pat Garrison, who plays the female live interest and CIA “top operative” doesn’t have any other film credits at IMDb (I assume the her credit for playing the croupier in the 1985 film Lost in America is a mix-up), although there is a Patricia Garrison with one credit from 1948. She isn’t all too bad, though.
Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant notes that he actor playing the main villain is “terrible” and that the name “Hantz von Teuffen” sounds made up and has no other IMDb credit. He therefore suspects that “von Teuffen” would have been one of the film’s financiers. Erickson is right that the name is something of a pseudonym, but the actor in question was actually a Swiss adventurer, globe-trotter, sailor, WWII veteran, occasional author and documentary filmmaker and suspected intelligence agent, called Hans von Meiss-Teuffen, who lived for a few years in Alaska around 1950. He may or may not have been a financier of the movie.
Earle Lyon, playing Alex Muller (I can’t even remember who that was), is an interesting fellow, as he would later turn up as producer of a number of really bad science fiction films, including Destination Inner Space (1966), Cyborg 2087 (1966) and The Astral Factor (1978). Russell Hicks, as the CIA boss, was a prolific bit-part actor, who often played authority types and appeared in close to 300 films and a number of TV series. Denver Pyle was another prolific supporting actor, who actually later made something of a name for himself as Briscoe Darling Jr. in the TV series The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and as Jesse Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard. He was a well-known fixture in westerns and in 1984 was awarded with a Golden Boot for his contribution to the genre, alongside other winners of the year, like Sam Peckinpah and our old friend John Carradine. He appeared in a number of sci-fi serials and series, and the kids’ movies Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return to Witch Mountain (1978).
Roy Engel had a good run in many small roles in science fiction, most notably in the TV series My Favourite Martian (1963-1966) and The Wild Wild West (1965-1969). But he also played the police constable Tommy in The Man from Planet X (1951, review) and the mayor in the William Shatner vehicle Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). He had more or less uncredited bit-parts, almost always as a policeman or military person in a whole slew of sci-fi movies, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Killers from Space (1954), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Indestructible Man (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), The Colossus of New York (1958), Flight that Disappeared (1961) and the classic Silent Running (1972). Robert Boon as the barge captain turned up as Anders Brockman in Queen of Blood (1966), teaming up with Florence Marly, whom we have quite recently covered in the Czechoslovakian film Krakatit (1949).
As a general rule, I don’t give zero-star reviews if a film has even half a leg to stand on, but I considered leaving The Flying Saucer star-less. However, this reaction was perhaps more out of disappointment than anything else. When you’re promised an exciting, schlocky UFO movie and end up with a tedious and unimaginative cold war spy yarn made on a shoestring budget, it rubs you the wrong way. Even as a tedious and unimaginative cold war spy yarn made on a shoestring budget, this film has precious little to offer, but it’s not a zero-star movie. It’s halfway competently filmed and has some nice location footage. The acting is not woefully bad. The lines in the script are at least coherent. It succeeds in being a movie. But that’s really the extent of the praise I can give it.
One must give Mikel Conrad credit for seizing on the UFO rumblings before anyone else in Hollywood, and for his brilliant trolling of the media with his stories of real flying saucers and the phony FBI agent. Unfortunately he chooses to go about the subject in the most unimaginative way possible and probably pissed off so many sci-fi fans with the movie that he blew away any chance of a cult legacy within the genre, let alone a film career. The Flying Saucer is a hodgepodge of clichés served up as a bland and badly directed porridge. It made me want to visit Alaska, though.
The Flying Saucer. 1950, USA. Directed by Mikel Conrad. Written by Mikel Conrad and Howard Irving Young. Starring: Mikel Conrad, Pat Garrison, Hantz von Teuffen, Earle Lyon, Lester Sharpe, Russell Hicks, Frank Darien, Denver Pyle, Roy Engel, Garry Owen, Virginia Hewitt, George Baxter, Philip Morris, Robert Boon. Music: Darrell Calker. Cinematography: Philip Tannura. Editing: Robert O. Crandall. Art direction: Charles D. Hall. Makeup artist: Harry Ross. Sound: Frank Moran. Produced by Mikel Conrad for Colonial Productions.