Good Movies: Invaders from Mars (1953)

William Cameron Menzies was only 28 when he was chosen to create sets and special effects for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdhad. This was, reportedly, the most expensive film made up to that time, 1924, with a set dressing budget of over $2 Million. Menzies made a huge success of his work and the movie is regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest.

The undersea world from Thief of Bagdhad. “…a family of artisans spent three months hand-blowing the required glass pieces” used as background. (via oldhollywood

Menzies won an Academy Award in 1928 for Art Direction (then called Set Decoration) for his work on The Dove and Tempest and ran up a string of other successful jobs before directing H.G.Wells’ Things to Come in 1936.

Things to Come (via oldhollywood

In 1938 David O. Selznick hired Menzies to work on Gone With the Wind and sent a memo around to everyone else working on the film that Menzies was “the final word” on anything to do with color, set decoration, art direction, and the overall look of the film. It was a very good thing that someone had control over coordinating the differents bits of the movie, since GWTW had problems with directors being hired and fired or otherwise leaving. It was Menzies who kept everything together — the burning of Atlanta sequence was done entirely by a second unit under Menzies’ direction. Selznick had originally instructed Menzies to do what is now called a storyboard — a series of drawings of every single shot. Selznick wanted a “pre-cut” movie, one that would translate directly from script to film. In the end, many of the storyboard ideas changed during the film’s production but it was still Menzies’ vision that was seen on the screen. In 1939, the Academy awarded Menzies a special Oscar for his “use of color” in GWTW. Shortly afterward, the term “production designer” was coined for those who did the kind of work that Menzies had pioneered.

Menzies was not at all modest about his mastery of the film-making craft. He thought his job was to determine where the cameras were located, how the shot was composed, and how one shot moved to the next. The director’s job was to work with actors; Menzies made the movie:

…cinema was a pictorial art, built out of motion within the frame and a rapid succession of shots. So composition took on a special importance. Each shot had to have “one forceful, impressive idea.” The art director should sketch the phases of the action, and indicate the camera’s viewpoint, the lens used, and any trick effects. Once the set was built, the final filming “reproduces the composition line for line.”
(from David Bordwell’s essay on Menzies)

Menzies went on to do a number of well-received projects, several with Sam Wood (Menzies: “Sam didn’t know where to put the camera, so I did it for him.”) and big productions like Duel In The Sun and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then, in 1951 or thereabouts, Menzies was handed a script by William Tower Battle for a science fiction movie with a child protagonist. Science fiction properties were often given the full studio treatment, like George Pal’s War of the Worlds or Menzies’ own Things to Come, but the budget for Invaders from Mars kept shrinking as it was delegated to the Saturday matinee class of space thrillers aimed at children. In the end the film makers had only $290000 to work with.

Menzies behind camera examining production drawings for Devil and Miss Jones.

One sign of a shrinking budget was that Menzies was taken on as director, not production designer for someone else, and the actors are all B-level: Arthur Franz, Leif Ericson, Helena Carter, Hilary Brooke, and Jimmy Hunt as David, the film’s young hero. Originally the movie was supposed to have been shot in 3-D, but that idea was scrapped as the 3-D bubble was already burst by the time filming began. It would be interesting to see Menzies’ sets and camera angles in 3-D, though. His eye was suited to the process.

So, what started out as a grand 3-D science fiction extravaganza has now become a throwaway. You, who are saddled with this dwindling project, are a world-famous film maker who thinks of himself as a grand artist. How do you deal with this? Let it be said, consummate professional William Cameron Menzies rose to the occasion and did the best job that he could under the circumstances. The result is a movie that has haunted the imagination of  everyone who saw it at the proper age.

The story — yes, Spoilers, but knowing the ending shouldn’t  disturb your pleasure in this film — has ten-year-old David MacLean, an amateur astronomer, waked at 4:40 in the morning by a horrific noise. He sees a spaceship, a flying saucer, land out back of his house, near a sandpit. He wakes his parents but they reassure him: “It’s just a dream.” and the boy goes back to bed. But Dad walks out to the sandpit to check things out — and doesn’t come back. In the morning, David’s mother calls the police. Two officers go out and also disappear. Then Dad returns, but he is changed, irritable and unfeeling where once he was the fine Dad who wasn’t angry about having been waked at quarter to five in the morning by a kid with a nightmare. David spots a sore spot on the back of his father’s  neck. When he asks about it, Dad hits him. David is shocked, astonished. The policemen show up and they, too, are acting funny and they also have the sore spots on the backs of their necks. The cops leave without filing a report. Later, David takes his telescope outside and watches as a little girl disppears into the sandpit. He runs to tell her mother but the little girl returns. She is acting strangely, in fact she is downright creepy, and David runs off. Meanwhile, we’ve seen David’s dad lead his mother into the pit. David tries to get help and winds up at the police station. He tries to talk to the chief but that man has a strange spot on the back of his neck. David manages to contact Dr. Pat Blake, who tries to help him. She takes David to her astronomer friend, Dr. Stuart Kelston. Kelston describes a theory to David that involves Martians trying to maintain an existence on their dying planet. The Martians have developed mutant slaves and now look to stop Earth from developing space flight. Yes! Dr. Kelston has this entire thing worked out and when Dr. Blake questions him smiles pityingly at this silly woman and responds, “I’m a scientist.” David and his new-found surrogate parents examine the sandpit from afar. There they see David’s dad leading a top general to the sandpit. “Oh, Dad!” David is stricken. Now Kelston and David manage to get an Army colonel on side. They examine the sandpit and, somehow, come to the conclusion that the Martians have a “radioactive ray” that can eat right through the earth. Meanwhile, the little girl that came under alien control dies suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage. Dr. Pat Blake attends the autopsy and discovers a strange device buried in the little girl’s brain. Now the team tries to reverse engineer the device into an alien detector. Meanwhile, the Army loads tanks onto trains and ships them to the sandpit. The alien-controlled humans begin sabotaging industries connected to the space industry. Some die from cerebral haemorrhages. David is worried about his parents. He prays, “Please God, don’t let them die, too.” The general is killed trying to blow up a rocket that is due for launch. The tanks move on the sandpit. David’s parents are apprehended as they try to kill or kidnap a top scientist. The Army units blow a hole into the sandpit and descend into the Martians’ lair. But David and Dr. Blake are sucked down into the sandpit. There they are taken by mutants to the Martian leader who interrogates them through a soldier who has become a slave. Dr. Blake tells them nothing. She is thrown onto a table and a machine begins to twist an enslaving device toward the nape of her neck. The Army is fighting to get to them. David’s parents are on the operating table. David is grabbed by a human slave. Dr. Blake is about to be enslaved. Everything builds to a terrible climax. BUT: Dr. Blake is rescued in the nick of time. The Army plants explosives in the flying saucer. The timer is set and starts counting down, but the slave soldiers imprison themselves inside the saucer which is beginning to take off. David is rescued. He uses the Martian radioactive ray to burn a hole to the outside. Everyone runs out. The timer is counting down. The saucer begins to rise from the sandpit. Everyone is running. David is running. He flashes back over all the terrible things he has seen: the mutants, the Martian leader, his father leading the general to his doom. He is running. The spaceship lifts off and explodes. The explosion keeps happening and happening and David wakes up in his bed. He runs to see if his parents are okay and they reassure him that it was all a dream. David goes back to bed but at 4:40 he is awakened and sees a spaceship land in the sandpit…

The original script was re-written by Richard Blake who was assigned mainly to downscale the global invasion into something that would fit within budget. It was Blake who re-wrote the movie as a dream. Turning the story into a dream greatly upset John Tucker Battle, who had his name removed from the credits. (In the original script the Army thinks it has destroyed the Martians, but the leader and some mutants remain alive. David wakes up to see them leave in a flying saucer.) And people who read this without having seen the movie may feel the same: “It was all a dream.” = cheating. But that’s not what’s going on here; the dream is the movie.

Once you realize that the story is being dreamed, all of the odd camerawork and effects make sense:

The furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with … repetitions of shots and scenes … Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. …these repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.

Menzies cited The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as one of the great films that influenced him. Invaders and Caligari have a similar structure. In one, the narrative is a boy’s nightmare; in the other, the hallucinations of a madman. And, of course, there is a bridge — literally — between the two films.

The bridge in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The bridge-like path to the sandpit behind David’s house was constructed to give a forced perspective view. Look how David’s parents shrink into the set:

This set ate up a lot of Menzies’ budget, so he had to economize elsewhere. Okay, let’s get the chuckles out of the way:

Yes, that velour-suited creature is a mutant. When he turns around, you can see the zipper down his back. And those bubbles (caused somehow by the heat of the radioactive ray melting rock) are actually inflated condoms. Finished laughing? Fine. Let’s look at the alien leader:

The Martian leader was played by midget Luce Potter, remembered by Jimmy Hunt as a “neat little lady. She sat on a box with the bubble around her whole head, She was just in her little street clothes, and all she did was move her eyes.” This was an excellent visual concept that is suggested in Battle’s script, as was the look of the mutants:

 These creatures are mutations developed by the Martians for physical labor.  They are humanoid in appearance, but are covered with a coarse black hair.  (Flocked baggy tights.)  Their feet are about twice the length of human feet and the four toes of each foot terminate in heavy black digging claws. The fingers are much longer than human fingers and are equipped with black, non-retractable digging claws.  A hairless, snout-like nose, similar to a mole’s, protrudes from the front of the face.  They are with ears, and beady-like reflecting eyes look out from the hairy mask of the face.  At no time do they utter any sound, for these creatures are telepathic.

…a mutant backs out of the bulkhead carrying a Martian seated on a circular metal tray, which is surmounted by a plastic bell jar.  Another mutant enters, supporting the other handles of the metal tray.  A mutant steps forward quickly and places a circular metal drum approximately three feet in diameter and thirty inches in height in front of Pat.  The other two mutants then place the Martian on the drum and step  back and assume an attitude of attention:  TRUCK in to CLOSE SHOT – THE MARTIAN — He is approximately thirty inches in height, dressed in a singlet that resembles soft chain mail.  Over this is a gorget of soft black material similar to velvet.  He is seated, tailor- fashion, on a circular cushion resembling sponge rubber. He is extremely brontocephalic, and his tremendously large skull is completely devoid of hair.  His eyes are small and deep-set and peer from their dark sockets with a strange ophidion lustre.  He is entirely covered by the plastic bell jar, and sits so frozen and unmoving that he appears to be a wax figure until we are suddenly aware of the eyes moving to the right, then to the left, then down, where he focuses upon Pat.

The chain mail and brontocephaly are a blend of two different Martian cliches — Menzies’ tentacled head is much better. Otherwise, Battle’s concepts stand up.

Aside from the path to the sandpit, Menzies used perspective to set off authority figures or to isolate David. Here’s David in the police station followed by a look inside the lab of the scientist David’s parents are meant to kill. Both are the same set dressed differently:

Menzies reused shots, flipping them or just re-running them. This may have been a budget-cutting measure but it adds to the dream quality of the movie. Unlike other science fiction movies of the day, Menzies didn’t enlist the National Guard for the obligatory Army vs. Monster sequences. Instead he used a training film about loading tanks on trains as the visual for military mobilization. It may look a bit silly — especially if you know the source of the sequence — but seeing that armor loaded onto flatcars made the audience at the Saturday matinee where I first saw this movie burst into ten-year-old shouts of “Yay!” Yeah! Now we’ll get those monsters that have taken over Mom and Dad.

Much of the action is filmed from a low angle. This may be because Menzies was trying to imitate a child’s-eye view of the world or because he really really liked this kind of shot which is used in a number of his films. But Menzies did make this movie from a child’s point of view. He had, early in life, written some children’s books (no, I haven’t been able to locate any) and perhaps this helped him to script a child’s nightmare. The essence of Invaders from Mars is that you are weak and powerless, discover something terrible, and then find out all the authority figures that you are supposed to trust are in on the terrible secret. You can’t trust the police or the Army or even your own parents. I think many kids would find the notion that their parents are being controlled by aliens perfectly believable.  To me, in 1954, it explained a lot.

There is a lot of kid wish-fulfillment in this movie. David’s parents become alien slaves but he gets a new set — a real cool know-it-all scientist and a beautiful lady doctor who believes our boy even as she mothers him. Dr.Blake struggles with the mutants and the shoulder of her blouse is torn — just enough implied by that to titillate pre-adolescent yearnings — as she is carried off like the lead female in a hundred other science fiction and horror movies. She faints, of course, as women do, and is placed under the terrible alien drill only to be saved at the last moment from a fate certainly worse than death.

David, though powerless, is not completely helpless: he can use the radioactive ray to melt through a wall. And he does manage to mobilize armed force against the invaders. He is as heroic as it is possible for a boy to be under these circumstances, only the final triumph and conflict resolution is denied him.

Fight the Power, David!

That’s what makes David’s dream a nightmare. Menzies’ ending was too disturbing for some adults — England insisted on a new ending, so an added sequence at the end explained how the Martian ship was destroyed and David’s parents are okay and Earth is saved. That ending was shorter than Menzies’ so extra shots of the observatory were added. The current best copy of Invaders from Mars is cut from both: the original dream ending is there but there are padding shots of the observatory. There may be other changes as well — a few lines that I think I recall from the theatre release are not found in the current version. Some of this may be due to editing by a well-meaning amateur of the only prints so far discovered.

And we aren’t seeing the color that Menzies, a color film pioneer, intended. Menzies used an odd film process called Cinecolor (he probably used Super Cinecolor which is somewhat better) that produces startling (to me) bursts of eye-bending hues. But Cinecolor happens to age better than, say, Eastmancolor and so if a long forgotten print of Invaders from Mars turns up somewhere, it’s likely to be in good shape.


Invaders from Mars is available in a number of places on the Net. Here’s one. 

DVD Savant discusses Invaders from Mars

David Bordwell on William Cameron Menzies

Production drawings by Menzies and his mentor, Anton Grot. (site is in Dutch)

Selznick’s Vision: Gone with the Wind and Hollywood Filmmaking
by Allen David Vertrees contains a lot on Menzies work on Gone With the Wind

Some of the remarks on production and Jimmy Hunt’s recollection of Luce Potter are from the booklet accompanying the 2002 DVD release: Invaders from Mars (1953)


3 comments on “Good Movies: Invaders from Mars (1953)

  1. nursemyra says:

    Fascinating post, as always.

  2. doug kightlinger says:

    This is one of my all time favorite movies……the flashback sequence at the end always haunts me to this day.

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