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EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)
[aka Invasion Of The Flying Saucers]

"The world, crippled by these events, waited for the first sign of an invasion from outer space...."

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Director: Fred F. Sears
Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Morris Ankrum, Harry Lauter, Donald Curtis
Screenplay: George Worthington Yates and Raymond T. Marcus (Bernard Gordon)
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Synopsis: On their way back to Project Skyhook, a military operation, project director Dr Russell A. Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his new wife, Carol (Joan Taylor), have a close encounter with a flying saucer. At Skyhook, Carol discovers that Russ’s tape recorder accidentally recorded the sounds of the saucer. General Hanley (Morris Ankrum), Carol’s father, tries unsuccessfully to stop the launch of a rocket, the eleventh sent up. At dinner, General Hanley tells Russ that all of his rockets have burnt up and crashed. Russ suggests that they may have been shot down; he and Carol tell the general about the flying saucer.  

The Marvins decide to monitor the twelfth and final rocket themselves from a bunker-like control room. While they are preparing for the launch, a flying saucer lands at Skyhook. Three aliens emerge; one is shot. The saucer takes off again, and sets about destroying Skyhook. Russ and Carol are trapped in their bunker. General Hanley is knocked out by an explosion, and taken onto a saucer. On board, he has his mind absorbed by an alien device. Waiting to be rescued, Russ and Carol discover that the sounds they recorded were a message from the aliens arranging a meeting. The message was recorded at the wrong speed, remaining unintelligible to the earth people and precipitating the Skyhook disaster.

After they are rescued, Russ and Carol travel to Washington to tell what they know. Although forbidden to do so, Russ makes radio contact with the aliens and arranges another meeting. Carol and the Marvins’ military liaison officer, Major Huglin (Donald Curtis) follow him, along with a pursuing motorcycle cop. All four are taken on board a saucer. The aliens tell Russ that they intend to take over the planet, and would prefer to do it peaceably. They ask him to arrange a meeting with the world’s leaders, and demonstrate their power by blowing up a destroyer. Back in Washington, Russ explains what happened, and announces that he has an idea for a new weapon. The aliens take over world communications, proclaiming their intention of conquering the planet. Russ and his team race against time to prepare a defence against the invading aliens.

Comments: The original Independence Day, done faster, cheaper, shorter and - dare I say it? - better. Mercifully lacking the pretensions, jingoism and heavy-handed symbolism of its big-budget descendant (the story opens on July 16th), this is an entirely enjoyable romp culminating in a marvellous fifteen minute sequence depicting the battle in the skies over Washington D.C. and the resulting destruction of just about every famous building therein. Ray Harryhausen’s saucer effects are a joy to watch, and so, frankly, is what’s done with them. If Earth Versus The Flying Saucers has taught us anything, it’s that, in the event of an alien invasion, do not take shelter in a national monument. Landmark after landmark crumbles as Russ Marvin’s magnetic disruptor sends the aliens’ saucers plunging to the ground, while as for the Washington Monument - well, let’s face it, anyone who sticks an obelisk in the middle of their city is just asking for trouble.

Indeed, so unabashed is the glee with which the city of Washington is demolished that the film was surely risking a charge of "un-Americanism". The conservative nature of the screenplay probably rescued it. In contrast to those in the more liberally inclined The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), the aliens here are frankly hostile. They don’t attack initially only because they don’t want their new home planet to be too messy when they move in. Their display of power, unlike Klaatu’s peaceful effort, involves the sinking of a destroyer, and there is a genuinely unpleasant moment when the bodies of General Hanley and the motorcycle cop are tossed out of a saucer like bags of garbage. Consequently, even though the shooting of an alien by a soldier is even less provoked here than it was in The Day (at least Klaatu reached for something), no-one suggests that it wasn’t really a good idea.

Science and the military are comfortably hand-in-glove throughout, and while they have their disagreements, no real conflict arises between them. Still, for all this surface conservatism, the script does quietly raise one or two pertinent issues. Faced with an alien invasion, one of the military men naturally suggests the atomic bomb. It falls to Major Huglin, the human face of the army, to point out that’s there’s not much profit in using the bomb when the enemy’s on your home soil, and further - galling admission - that they don’t even know if it will work.

Conventional weaponry fares little better. The rockets fired at the saucers hit their targets squarely - perhaps the only rockets in American military history to do so - but prove totally ineffectual. The vast majority of the civilian casualties are caused, not by the invading aliens, who concentrate successfully on purely military targets, but by the actions of the American armed forces. It takes an entirely new weapon put together cooperatively (the idea of an Indian scientist put into practice by a team of Americans with materials from all over the world) to defeat the alien menace.

The aliens and their saucers are the focus of the movie, and the human actors wisely don’t try to compete. In fact, most of the performances are so low-key as to be almost invisible. Hugh Marlowe gets to play the hero here, but is considerably less memorable than he was playing Patricia Neal’s obnoxious jerk of a boyfriend five years earlier. Joan Taylor’s contribution is minimal, while Morris Ankrum does yet another of his crusty old soldier routines (he won these roles so often that it’s impossible not to suspect that he owned his own uniform, like George Barrows and his gorilla suit).

For director Fred F. Sears, who spent most of his career churning out westerns and B- (or lower) grade science fiction, Earth Versus The Flying Saucers was an unquestioned highlight. The star of the show, though, is Ray Harryhausen. Computer wizardry and unlimited budgets may dominate science fiction today, but for me their results can’t compete with Harryhausen’s stop motion saucers. Whether landing in front of the White House, slicing the Washington Monument in half, or drifting past the Eiffel Tower, they comprise some of the truly indelible images of classic science fiction.