This 1953 classic is the most visually unabashed SF movie of the 50s. While hampered by a low budget, this first “invasion of the body snatchers” film scared a generation of kids witless, but also contains interesting themes for adults to chew on. 7/10
Invaders from Mars. 1953. USA. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake, John T. Battle, Arthur Gardner. Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brook, Morris Ankrum. Produced by Edward Alperson. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 82/100. Metacritic: N/A.
Anyone tuning in to the juvenile 1953 production Invaders from Mars on a streaming service today without being familiar with it would be hard pressed to understand why this movie is regarded as such a timeless classic. Still, in 2009 WIRED readers ranked it among the 12 best SF movies ever made. Den of Geek lists it among the ten best science fiction films of the fifties, and in 2019 SyFy Wire named it the 22nd best alien invasion film of all time. On the surface, this is a kiddie cheapo with wobbly, bug-eyed Martians in ill-fitting velour skins with visible zippers in the back. One reason this is so highly regarded is that many of today’s veteran geeks grew up watching this movie on TV. But it is not just that simple either. Invaders from Mars has a lot more going for it when you scratch the surface.
10-year old David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) is watching stars with his telescope as he sees a flying saucer land behind a hill close to their house, and his father George (Leif Erickson), scientific engineer, goes out to have a look, and disappears. He later returns, but is changed. The loving father is now a cold-hearted beast who hits his son and seems very enigmatic about what he had been up to during the night and morning. David notices a red scar on his neck and realises that aliens have done something to his father. And thus the story gets rolling.
One by one all the people involved in the work on a new space rocket (and their families) get sucked into the sandpit outside the MacLean house, including David’s mother (Hillary Brook), his best friend Kathy (Janine Perreau), and some of the top brass in the military and the police. Those who are still themselves initially refuse to believe David, that is, apart from the beatiful psychologist Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), and her friend, astronomer Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz). In his observatory, Dr. Kelston explains that it is quite logical that the people of another planet, say Mars, gets worried when we humans start planning to build nuclear rocket stations in space, and thus they try to intervene with the rocket production. Burrowing their space ship in the sand, they snatch up those central to the project, and insert ”receivers” in their brains, so they can control their actions.
A phone call to Colonel Fielding (sci-fi stalwart Morris Ankrum) is all that is needed to bring in the military with hundreds of tanks to the MacLeans’ backyard, where ultimately all involved proceed down the rabbit hole, and discover a huge network of tunnels that the aliens have burrowed with their rock-melting cannons, leaving behind a strange, bubbly surface. Here we also encounter the green men from Mars, who strangely enough loom a lot like awkward bug-eyed, lumbering giants in ill-fitting green velour leotards with zippers down the back. They are all controlled by the strange ”Intelligence”, a golden head with tentacles sitting inside a glass sphere (played by Luz Potter). Action commences. I don’t want to spoil too much of the ending, but the very final twist with a twist is the classic cop-out ending seen in so many supernatural and SF movies before 1950: “It was all a dream”. However, there is a twist to the twist, leaving us unsure of whether David did actually dream everything or not.
The script for the film appears to have been floating around since 1950, until Twentieth Century-Fox signed a distribution deal with Edward L. Alperson Productions in 1952, and producer Alperson signed William Cameron Menzies on as director. The original treatment for the story was written by John Tucker Battle, and the screenplay was finalised by Richard Blake. Battle has a few dozen writing credits, mostly for TV, best known for Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1948). He also worked as a reporter, playwrite and author of short stories. Not much information seems to be available on Richard Blake, except that he wrote a handful of little-known films and some TV.
Apparently Battle was so furious over the dream-ending that he demanded his credit be removed from the film, and thus Blake ended up getting most of the credit for the movie, and even in later years, Battle has been credited simply for ”story”. In fact, Battle wrote a very detailed screenplay, which he allegedly (ironically?) based on a dream that his wife had. The script is available online and reveals that Blake only made minor cosmetic changes to it, mostly for the sake of streamlining and compressing – for example ”Pat” and ”Blake” were originally two different characters. In fact, there is an even earlier rough draft of the screenplay edited by writer and producer Arthur Gardner, which outlines the basic idea of the film, but missing several key scenes that were added by Battle. Gardner received no credits, but this little piece of information shows the interesting evolution of even a low-budget film like this, and one can only imagine the armies of uncredited writers that have a go at the big blockbusters of today. It seems, though, as if someone took notice of Gardner’s work, since it can hardly be a coincidence that David’s last name is changed to Gardner in the 1986 remake by Tobe Hooper. Gardner had initially planned to produce the film alongside his constant companion Joseph V. Levy, but their rights to the script expired. The duo went on to produce a number of westerns and even a few sci-fi films, best known is probably The Monster that Challenged the World (1957).
One guess is that the dream frame was a machination by director Menzies. The original screenplay hints at some psychological depth, especially as the film is told from the perspective of a child, and deals with an estrangement from his parents. Menzies might have decided to take the film to even deeper Freudian levels by framing it in a dream, or a dream within a dream, if one adheres to some commentators. At first sight the scripts seems highly illogical and incoherent, which is how Menzies must have found it as well, but it sort of makes sense of you view it as the dream of a pre-teen kid struggling with trust issues and going through the adolescent phase of separating himself from the symbiotic relationship with his parents. There are dozens of cues to riff off regarding themes of sexual awakening, distrust of the people close to you and the search for adult role models as surrogate parents, latent in the ”original” script, but brought into focus by the surrealist style of Menzies’ direction.
There are hints throughout the film that what we are seeing is not reality. High and low camera angles and long, static wide shots remind us of films like Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Menzies, who also designed the film, made surrealist sets with unnaturally high ceilings and elongated, unfurnished halls, some of which were used for multiple locations. Small changes appear, like doors suddenly missing where they had been before, all soup cans in the department store are upside-down. That the astrologer would so happily support every one of David’s claims about the aliens is rather absurd, as are the conclusions he draws from them, and the fact that the military is sold on the idea with just a phone call even more so. This may of course seem terribly clever in hindsight, but once you know the story behind the script, it does seem very much like an attempt by a very clever director to cover up huge, gaping inconsistencies in a juvenile, absurd story, especially as Battle had insisted on it all being real.
So the film can be seen as an adolescent boy’s growing pains explored in a dream, and you can get really Freudian with some of the details if you like. But there’s also the other theme explored here, as in almost all science fiction films made in Hollywood in the fifties – the the communist scare and the fear of nuclear war. The Martians’ premise for sabotaging the rocket factory is their own fear that humans may invade their space with nuclear platforms, and Dr. Kelston is even highly sympathetic to this notion, not really laying any blame on the Martians’ actions, which is an interesting twist in the script.
That the Martians are the bad guys is in no doubt, though. However reasonable their fears, their methods and actions speak for themselves. It is worth pointing out that this is the first film dealing with an alien invasion specifically through body-snatching, although the 1951 movie The Man from Planet X (1951, review) played with the idea of Martian mind-control.
Of course, the notion of something evil taking over the minds and bodies of people had long been explored in sci-fi and horror films, but in most cases we were talking about more moral issues than political ones, even though many mad scientists had distinctly Russian or German traits. But the alien invasion genre gave filmmakers completely new possibilities to draw parallels to communism creeping in to the US through your neighbours and your family, and also to tackle the poisonous paranoia fuelled by McCarthyism.
The idea of alien mind and body control wasn’t new, though, and had been tapped in literature for quite some time. The idea had been around since Robert Potter’s 1892 novel The Germ Growers, about aliens who take the form of humans to cultivate deadly germs, and was explored for example in Robert Bloch’s The Shambler from the Stars (1945) and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There (1948). But the genre really took off with the red-scare of the fifties, resulting in works like The Puppet Masters (1951) by Robert A. Heinlein, Good-Night, Mr. James (1951) by Clifford Simak, We Don’t Want any Trouble (1953) by James Schmitz and if course the most famous of them all, Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1955, review).
William Cameron Menzies was first and foremost a production designer. Or one should say, THE production designer, since the title was invented for him, so as to convey that he was in charge of the design of the entire film, rather than just the matte paintings, when he worked on The Thief of Bagdad in 1924. Other production designs include films like The Tempest (1928), for which he won an Oscar, Gone with the Wind (1939), for which he got another Oscar and For Who Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). He also directed 20 movies, of which the best known is the incredibly lavish and visionary sci-fi epic Things to Come (1936, review), a film hampered by H.G. Wells’ likewise incredibly preachy script and some awfully wooden acting – a film that discouraged the UK from making costly sci-fi films for decades, but also the the most impressively imagined sci-fi film (without challenger) made between Metropolis (1927, review) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Menzies was a chief importer of German expressionism, and a lot of the elongated sets and the extreme depth shots were trademarks of his, please read this great blog post by David Bordwell for more on him.
And the film looks so good. Drawing strong influences from German expressionism, Menzies gives a masterclass in how to use set design, symbolism, camera angles, editing and framing in order to create atmosphere and tension. The fairy-tale like backyard where people are sucked into the ground is a pastiche of middle-class homeliness, where sinister danger lurks. The scenes in the police station are unsettling, giving off the feeling a child would have walking into a place of authority on his own, they have an almost kafkaesque vibe. The corridors are all too long, the door arches too high and narrow, the white walls too tall and bare. The huge receptionist’s desk towers like a massive oaken throne at the end of a corridor, framed by white walls bathed an otherworldly pinkish hue. The UFO interior is all slick, cold metal, dark and sinister, awash in murky greens and silver. It’s lifeless, just as are the zombified Martians telepathically controlled by the Intelligence in her hermetic glass jar. Menzies films the action through portholes, down ladders, downwards from the ceiling, creating sinister framings, violent diagonals, a feeling of helplessness as we see the heroes captured and prepared for brain drilling as we watch them from afar in wide shots, unable to lend a helping hand. This truly is the stuff of nightmares.
In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, William Phipps, who plays one of the soldiers who enter the maze underground where the spaceship is hidden, tells us that the set was built so that the backyard with the hill where people disappear was built high up under the roof of Republic Studios, and the maze underneath, probably for time-saving purposes. He describes it as “a whole world of tunnels, like a rabbit’s warren or a prairie dog town, and there were all kinds of entrances and exits. It was hard work: I wore a helmet and a uniform and I carried a lot of equipment, and it was hot and sweaty and miserable.” Phipps’ memory of Menzies is that it was “like he was always lost in thought, like he was far away someplace”:
The one thing that unfortunately shatters the illusion for a modern viewer is the Martians. They might well be cutest bunch of Martians ever portrayed on film. The laughably amateurish velour suits were reportedly put together in a single day by either wardrobe designer Norma Koch or one of the seamsters. The zippers are clearly visible, the leotards are adorably ill-fitting, gathering in sausages here and there on the actors’ bodies. Instead of the long, clawed fingers described in the original script, we get fingerless mittens, as if the whole bunch of Martians were going out skiing. And it doesn’t help that many of the tall extras have bad posture and some are a bit stocky around the waist area. Some of the them have difficulty moving, either because of the suits or because they were a bit fragile because of the conditions that caused their gigantism. Case in point: Lock Martin, the man who played Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), also appears in this film. There’s just no way you can be afraid of these guys, as an adult at least. But on the other hand, for children in the fifties, they must have been quite terrifying, especially when you add the fact that any time the Martians interacted closely with humans, little people were substituted for the actors, making the Martians seem even bigger and taller than they were. And remember, for most people, this was the first time they would have seen Martians on screen in colour. The War of the Worlds was officially released a month earlier, but that film didn’t get a general release until the end of 1953, whereas Invaders from Mars was distributed in April.
The one Martian that is well designed and utterly spooky is the Intelligence, a very cleverly designed villain, with just a head and the upper part of a torso inside a glass sphere, never speaking, but just staring from her jar, controlling Martians and humans alike with her mind. How they did the special effects of removing most of actor Luz Potter’s body is still a mystery to me. Apparently billed as ”Luce”on IMDb her name is however spelled Luz in her Telegraph obituary from 2000. Potter appeared in a number of films, including The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
Endless stock footage of American military WWII exercise has been used and re-used to pad out the running time. When we see the same shots of tanks rolling around a muddy field firing artillery for the second and third time, we know the editor (Arthur Roberts) is in trouble. The same goes for the shots of Martians running around in the tunnels. Not only are shots of the six lumbering extras re-used, but they are also horizontally flipped, re-used and then the flipped images are re-used again.
Jimmy Hunt’s constant exclamations of ”Gee whiz!” and ”Gosh!” are sure hallmarks of the fact that this film is made in the fifties, and Hunt’s constant expression throughout the film is one of a person who has just bitten a lemon. In short, he is the classic boy actor, and despite his rather extensive pre-teen career, this seems to be the only one of his films that really stuck. In truth, Hunt avoids becoming the fall-down of the movie by being just nuanced enough to make the performance endurable, and his up-nosed charm isn’t lost on the viewer. Hunt left show-biz in the mid-fifties, but had a cameo as the police chief in the 1986 remake of the film.
Arthur Franz is pleasant as Dr. Kelston, and is able to deliver some really daft lines without making them sound too outlandish. Perhaps the best performance of the film is put in by Leif Erickson, playing the father George MacLean. He is so warm and loving in the beginning of the film, that it comes as a real shock as he gets abducted and turns into an evil menace to his son. Hillary Brooke is quite good as the mother, even if she doesn’t get that much screen time. One actor we are extremely happy to see getting a fair amount of exposure is Morris Ankrum, who plays the no-nonsense Colonel Fielding, perhaps the real hero of the film.
Invaders from Mars received generally positive reviews upon its release, with the caveat that it was strictly kiddie fare. Pseudonym “O.A.G.” wrote for the NY Times that “it will probably frighten witless a lot of small children”. The review continued: “While adults will find it difficult to become indignant over this pablum, it is a pictorial ‘funnybook.’ Full of impossible actions and childish imaginings, it was designed to meet the demands of today’s space-struck youngsters.” Variety praised Menzies’ “fine direction” and the “credible” actors. And Harrison’s Reports said: “A pretty good science-fiction melodrama […]. The story […] is highly imaginative, but it is packed with suspense from start to finish and should thrill the action fans, especially the youngsters.”
The movie has a solid but not stellar 6.3/10 rating on IMDb, but an 82% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Today, critics have mixed feelings about Invaders from Mars. Time Out gives a scathing review, calling it “a sci-fi cheapie about another invasion of the body snatchers”, ignoring the fact that this was actually the very first sci-fi cheapy about an invasion of the body snatchers. The magazine goes on to write that it “has some chillingly effective moments but doesn’t really live up to its reputation”. AllMovie gives the picture 2.5/5 stars, with Patrick Legare calling it “one of those films that many people fondly recall seeing as a child, but have to laugh at a bit when they see it as adults”. According to Legare Menzies “keeps things flowing and his art direction is quite good considering what must have been an extremely low budget”, and that the “pajama-costumed Martians and second-rate cast […] make for an entertaining trip down memory lane, even if the film seems like a potential candidate for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment”. Chris Barsanti likewise writes in The Sfi-Fi Movie Guide that it is “a famous but dated sci-fi fave” that can “be enjoyed both as a juvie adventure and on a deeper level”.
Leonard Maltin in his Classic Movie Guide gives the picture 3/4 stars, calling it “a starkly stylish sci-fi”. John Stanley awards it with 3/5 stars in Creature Features, writing: “A cult following has built up over the years because this touches a sensitive cord in people who remember those thing which first frightened them, and the gap between youth and adults”. In his book Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren calls the film “one of the most unusual and most highly praised science fiction films of the 1950s. For the most part it deserves the praise. It is an intelligently conceived, nightmarish horror story directed at children.”
But then again, TV Guide calls Invaders from Mars “an unusual and well thought out”, “nifty, atmospheric science fiction film”. And then there are those who love it. Rick Sanchez at IGN gives it a whopping 9/10 stars, calling it ” one of the classics of golden age science fiction”; “Yeah, the plot seems pretty simple by today’s standards, but for the time, it was edge of your seat stuff. The special effects were also first rate for the 50’s and the score and sound effects were positively eerie.”
And Keith Phipps at the AV Club writes such an elegant defence of Menzies and the movie, that I’m just going to quote half of his article here:
“Maybe even with a director other than Menzies, Invaders From Mars would feel like it’s made of dream-stuff. But Menzies is one of the secret shapers of our collective imagination, even though he never became a household name. He worked as an art director, set decorator, director, and producer as part of a career that stretched from the silent age to the Technicolor era. Along the way, he made notable contributions to films like The Thief Of Baghdad, the bizarre Paramount adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, and The Bat (a major inspiration for Batman), and memorably adapted H.G. Wells’ Things To Come. By the time he shot the relatively low-budget Invaders From Mars, Menzies knew as much as anyone about pulling off startling effects using simple elements. Here, it’s less the bizarre Martians—as creepy as they are—that make the film effective, and more the cavernous, sparsely decorated police station or the view from David’s bedroom, where horrors await just over the horizon at the end of a pleasant-looking trail.
It’s a nightmare, and Menzies keeps it rooted in the stuff that makes kids restless at night. David struggles to understand not just the aliens, but also the workings of the grown-up world. The drama beneath all the Martian business comes from his fumbling attempt to navigate antagonistic parents and unreliable authority figures. It’s as much a film about growing up as about fending off an alien invasion, and the aliens’ moist, flesh-like hideout, or the way Menzies keeps framing David against the outline of Dr. Blake’s tight sweater, could make even the most casual Freudian’s head swim. When the film was re-released in 1978, the posters billed it as ‘A nightmarish answer to The Wizard Of Oz.’ That about sums it up.”
In a wonderfully detailed essay at DVD Savant, Glenn Erickson defends the movie’s reputation as an overlooked masterpiece, and he latches on to the Wizard of Oz parallel: “Think of Invaders as a 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. Her adventure explains in strange but logical ways how the real world works. […] Dorothy’s Kansas world may have been dull, but it had one quality David MacLean’s sorely lacks: a sense of security. David’s frantic dream is a symptom of the pressures of his daily life, not an escape from it. It’s not a magical place Over the Rainbow that one can enter like a Tex Avery cartoon character. David’s dream is an alternate reality so close to his real world he doesn’t even know he’s left it. […]
Older reference books dismiss Invaders from Mars a fantasy for juveniles, not realizing how completely it expresses juvenile anxieties. […] The brilliance of Invaders from Mars is that all the ‘weirdness’ does make sophisticated visual and thematic sense. It isn’t convincing to an adult sensibility because a ten year-old, David himself, is ‘writing the script’ and ‘painting the scenery.’ Invaders paints a surreal landscape of dialogue non-sequiturs, plot illogic, and crazy character behavior. To an impressionable child of 1953, comic book flying saucers and aliens have a credibility equal to headlines about atom bombs, brainwashing and foreign conspiracies.”
By no objective standard can you give this film a 9/10 rating, there’s just too many flaws and weaknesses to the whole affair. The stiff acting, the amateurish Martian costumes, the plot holes, the sometimes ludicrous dialogue and not least the endless reuse of stock footage ad even original shots. But on the other hand, few, if any, SF movies from the fifties have this kind of sophistication to its content and themes, nor as many layers to be analysed. Visually, the movie is superb, and it has a heart and a personality of its own, which is why you keep coming back to it. It works as a terrific kiddie film, but there’s also all the adult material hidden in the political and psychological subtexts to probe for a more mature audience. As a piece of cinema, it is clearly lacking, but it makes up for it in spades by being one the visually most unabashed science fiction movie to come out of Hollywood in the fifties.
Invaders from Mars was released in the UK in 1954, but the British distributor British Lion Film thought the picture was too short, and didn’t think the dream narrative was satisfactory, according to an interview with cinematographer John Seitz. Seitz explained that the production team got together to film so-called pick-ups, adding new material to the sequence in the lab where Arthur Franz’ character works, explaining in more detail about real-life UFO “sightings” and expanding the discussion around Franz’ UFO miniatures. The scene features a perceptibly older and taller Jimmy Hunt, as he, Franz and Carter were called in to do pick-ups several months after principal shooting. In the new material, Jimmy wears a cardigan over his shirt, which he doesn’t in the original, and Franz’ tie is tied differently, and there are some egregious continuity errors as Jimmy’s sweater appears and disappears between shots. The already over-long military montages were also further lengthened. The ending was also re-edited in order to remove the notion that David was dreaming all along, as the British distributors disliked the cop-out finale. There is yet another version of the picture, a 1970 re-edit done by film collector Wade Williams, who acquired the rights to the movie in the late sixties, and used material from both the US and the UK versions to put together what was in his opinion the ultimate edit.
The film is extremely difficult to find for home streaming if you live outside the US, and if you do find it somewhere in the darker corners of the internet, it is a good chance it is either the UK version or the 1970 version.
Invaders from Mars was remade in 1986 by Tobe Hooper. The remake generally has a bad reputation, but there are those who defend it as a knowing pastiche on cheap horror and SF pictures, riddled as it is with nods to other films and inside jokes.
You will find some claims that Invaders from Mars was shot in 3D, but this was not the case. The first 3D movie released in the US came later the same year, when Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil premiered. John Seitz has claimed in later interviews that Invaders from Mars was designed to be a 3D movie, but that the producers realised at the last moment that there was no 3D camera available. The exaggerated heights and over-long corridors, as well as the way many scenes are shot through windows, door openings and bulkheads, and with objects often placed in the foreground close to camera, would lend credence to this statement. On the other hand, this was the way Menzies often shot his films, 3D or no 3D. The movie was filmed on the new Eastmancolor one-strip film, which made colour photography a lot less work-intensive, and the opening night prints were made on SuperCinecolor reels, giving the movie an oddly striking look. Later prints were made on standard Eastmancolor film.
The eerie music of Invaders from Mars is one of the best known scores for a fifties science fiction film, consisting of 16 voices chanting dramatic, wordless cues in unison, creating an otherworldly and spine-chilling atmosphere. Credit has been given to Raul Kraushaar, a French immigrant who worked for Republic. Even though an independent film, distributed by 20th Century Fox, Invaders from Mars was shot in Republic’s studios, and a lot of Republic staff worked on the movie. Kraushaar did compose for a number of films (for example Captive Women, 1952, review), but his real role in the industry was firstly as an owner of a large music library, which he used to put together stock music scores for movies, and secondly as a sort of middle-man between composers and studios.
This meant that Kraushaar would find the talent for Republic and commission a score. The actual composer would then work as a ”ghost composer” and get a one-off payment for the work, while signing off his (or her) rights for the music to Kraushaar, who subsequently was credited for the composition and received the royalties. In later years Kraushaar has sometimes gotten some flack for maintaining that he did compose the groundbreaking music for Invaders from Mars, but this was actually part of the agreement, which he did with the actual composers. This was a fairly common practice in Hollywood during this age.
On this particular film the composer was Mort Glickman, who had a long working relationship with Kraushaar. Glickman scored many films for Republic under Kraushaar’s banner, mostly westerns. Although often praised, Glickman’s music was fairly unoriginal even when he got to make non-westerns, which he could score in his sleep by the early fifties. Nothing in his scores had anticipated the originality of Invaders from Mars, his first chance to work on a film with a fairly large budget, and one of the most anticipated films of the spring 1953. His wavering bass lines in the beginning of the movie, the high-frequency violins and the oft-imitated ethereal choirs, edited in post-production to refine the haunting quality, all seems like something that has just been waiting for all those years for the right production to be sprung on the world. Invaders from Mars could have been the stepping stone Glickman had waited for, but tragically he passed away the same year. Glickman’s music can also be heard in over a dozen of Republic’s sci-fi serials, as well as the film Untamed Women (1952, review), which contains his probably most original work outside Invaders from Mars.
Adult male lead Arthur Franz had quite a successful career as a supporting actor in both B movies and A efforts like The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Sands if Iwo Jima (1949). He may be best remembered for playing the lead as a deranges murderer in The Sniper (1952). He appeared in a large number of science fiction series on TV and a few films, we have previously reviewed him on this blog in one of the major roles of the 1951 film Flight to Mars (1951, review). He also appeared in The Flame Barrier (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958), The Atomic Submarine (1959), in all of which he played the lead. He also narrated King Monster in 1976.
Born William Anderson, Glenn Erickson, playing the father, is best known for his work in westerns, but was also memorable in films like The Snake Pit (1948) with Olivia de Havilland and On the Waterfront (1954) starring Marlon Brando. Erickson was originally a singer and trombonist with a jazz band, but appeared in films under the name Glenn Erickson, before changing his first name to Leif because of his Nordic looks. He is probably most famous for playing one of the leads in the western series High Chapparal, which made him a huge star in Europe, where the show was especially popular, winning the prestigious German Bambi award for best international TV series in 1971. He appeared in a few sci-fi series, but only one other film: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), starring Burt Lancaster.
Hillary Brooke was something of a minor star of B movies, best known for her work with Abbott and Costello, and for three of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, especially Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945). As a former model, she herself said that her road to movie stardom wasn’t so much about talent as it was about her being a tall blonde woman with a knack for portraying villainous characters and ”straight women” without breaking a sweat. ”I never thought I was a great actress. Maybe I would have been better if I’d worked harder at it. But I really enjoyed my career and what I was doing. I played a lot of villainesses and rather enjoyed it”, she said according to an obituary in The Independent in 1999. Brooke appeared in small roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941, review), the Spencer Tracy version, and The Maze (1953), and had the female lead in The Lost Continent (1951, review).
Morris Ankrum is probably better known to a broader audience as the quintessential ”heavy” from westerns in the thirties and forties, particularly from his six Hopalong Cassidy films. Ankrum had a legal degree and a background in theatre, where he started off on a hobby basis, but soon became a fixture in the Pasadena Playhouse. He worked as actor, writer, producer and director on stage, and appeared in close to 300 films or TV series in his career. Most online biographies claim his name was originally Nussbaum, but according to Chuck Anderson at The Old Corral, his census data does not back that up. According to census information, Morris Ankrum’s parents’ names were Ankrum. It is, however, possible that he might have used the name Nussbaum at some point in his early career, but it seems like a strange stage name to take. What we do know is that in his first films he was credited as Stephen Morris.
Morris Ankrum holds a special place in the hearts of lovers of old science fiction movies through his numerous appearances in small roles, often as stern military types, but also the occasional mayor or scientist. Ankrum made his sci-fi debut in 1950 with the first sci-fi film of the decade, Rocketship X-M (review), and continued with a substantial role as an evil Martian leader in Flight to Mars (1951, review). He played the secretary of defence in Red Planet Mars (1952, review) and had a number of guest spots on Ivan Tors’ TV series The Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1956). He held major supporting roles in the legendary Ray Harryhausen-animated Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the bad Beginning of the End (1957) and the underrated Kronos (1957) – as well as in the hilarious The Giant Claw (1957). In 1958 he was one of the actors that shot additional footage for Roger Corman, turning Ishiro Honda’s Jû jin yuki otoko (1955) into Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman.
Ankrum further appeared in How to Make a Monster (1958) and narrated Curse of the Faceless Man (1958). In 1959 he went uncredited in Byron Haskin’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in a bit-part as US President Ulysses S. Grant. He had a small role in The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), and again went uncredited in his last film role in X (1963), often considered one of Roger Corman’s best films. In the late fifties Ankrum’s film roles had all but dried up, but he kept busy on stage and on TV, from where he might be best remembered for his recurring role as a judge on 22 episodes of Perry Mason (1957-1964). He passed away in 1964.
In a small role as Sgt. Baker we see William Phipps, lead actor in Arch Oboler’s post-apocalyptic religious allegory Five (1951, review). 1953 was a year when Phipps was almost synonymous with science fiction. After Invaders from Mars he appeared in Oboler’s The Twonky, George Pal’s and Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds and Arthur Hilton’s Cat-Women of the Moon (review). He later acted in a number of sci-fi series, including The Twilight Zone, The Green Hornet and Batman.
Another small role is occupied by Milburn Stone of Gunsmoke fame, who had previously been sighted in Invisible Agent (1942, review), Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), The Mad Ghoul (1943, review) and Jungle Woman (1944, review). As an MP we see later TV stalwart Richard Deacon (of The Dick van Dyke Show), who also appeared some of he better sci-fi films of the mid-fifties: in Them! (1954, review), This Island Earth (1955, review) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as Piranha (1978). The small but important role as the police desk sgt is played by the pleasant Walter Sande, previously seen in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review) and Red Planet Mars (1952). He later appeared in The War of the Worlds, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) and some sci-fi series.
Bit-part actor Frank Wilcox had previously appeared in a few little-known semi-sci-fi films, and went on to play in Carolina Cannonball (1955, review), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and Beginning of the End. The Pentagon chief of staff is played by something of a sci-fi cult actor: Robert Shayne. Shayne played the lead in The Neandarthal Man (1953) and had substantial supporting roles or bit-parts in Indestructible Man (1956, review), Kronos, The Giant Claw, How to Make a Monster, War of the Satellites (1958), The Lost Missile (1958), and Teenage Cave Man (1958). However, he is best known for appearing in close to 100 episodes of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) as Inspector Henderson.
Even though Menzies himself took care of the production design, he also hired an art director, and it wasn’t just any hack: duties were handled by Boris Leven. Leven was by that time not a huge name in the business, despite dozens of pictures, but Menzies clearly identified talent when he saw it. Leven would later become production designer in his own right, perhaps best known for his work with The Day the Earth Stood Still director Robert Wise, on pictures like West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and the stylish, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971). In 1953 he also worked on Donovan’s Brain.
Producer Edward L. Alperson was an interesting character, who set up an independent studio in 1938 with the aid of star James Cagney, and ran a successful business for a little over a year, until the studio went bankrupt after a creative misfire. He rebounded in RKO in the early forties, and then went on to produce an number of B movies under his own company. Invaders from Mars was his only science fiction film, apart from the American versions of Japanese Toho’s The Human Vapor (1960) and The Last War (1961).
Invaders from Mars. 1953. USA. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written by Richard Blake, John Tucker Battle, Arthur Gardner. Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brook, Morris Ankrum, Max Wagner, William Phipps, Milburn Stone, Janine Perreau, Barbara Billingsley, Richard Deacon, Bert Freed, Lock Martin, Luz (Luce) Potter, Robert Shayne, Frank Wilcox. Music: Mort Glickman, Raoul Kraushaar. Cinematography: John F. Seitz. Editing: Arthur Roberts. Producion design: William Cameron Menzies. Art director: Boris Leven. Makeup artist: Gene Hibbs. Special makeup: Anatole Robbins. Sound: Earl Crain Sr. Visual effects: Jack Rabin, Irving Block, Jack Cosgrove, Howard Lydecker. Wardrobe designer: Norma Koch. Produced by Edward L. Alperson for Edward L. Alperson Productions & 20th Century Fox.