Monday, 27 May 2013

Invasion USA (1952)

Entertaining Propaganda.

You’ll never be able took away
From the horror of "Invasion USA!"

Director: Alfred E. Green
Producer: Albert Zugsmith, Robert Smith
Writers: Robert Smith, Franz Schulz
Music: Albert Glasser
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 74 minutes
Budget: $127,000


Gerald Mohr: (Vince Potter)
Peggie Castle: (Carla Sanford)
Dan O'Herlihy: (Mr. Ohman)
Robert Bice: (George Sylvester)
Tom Kennedy: (Tim the Bartender)
Wade Crosby: (Illinois Congressman Arthur V. Harroway)
Erik Blythe: (Ed Mulfory)
Phyllis Coates: (Mrs. Mulfory)
Aram Katcher: (Factory Window Washer)
Knox Manning: (Himself)
Edward G. Robinson Jr: (Radio Dispatcher)
Noel Neill: (Second Airline Ticket Agent)
Clarence A. Shoop: (Army Major)



The opening credits to Invasion USA feature a picture of the New York skyline containing sky-scrapers standing proud and strong. The film then starts off in a New York City bar where several people are gathered drinking and talking while a news reporter, on a very modern-looking (for 1952) flat panel TV, reports on world tensions and the “possibility of all-out war.” However, this group of Americans do not want to hear such things and the TV set is switched off. The group includes:

Vince Potter, a television/radio news reporter who asks those at the bar if they are for or against a “universal draft.”

George Sylvester, a tractor manufacturer from San Francisco, who is opposed to the government directing him to make tanks (“Draft factories? That’s Communism”) and is faced with threats that his plant could be taken over by the government.

Carla Sanford, a beautiful woman who is accompanied by George Sylvester. She states that she worked in a factory during the last war, but had to stop because it was damaging her hands.

Ed Mulfory, a cattle rancher from Boulder Hill, Colorado.

Arthur V. Harroway, an effusive and boisterous Illinois congressman visiting New York who praises Vince for being 'the voice of the people.' The people, according to him, are against Communism, war and high taxes.

The mysterious Mr. Ohman, a “fortune-teller” or forecaster who believes that “America wants new leadership.”

Tim, the Bartender who’ll do what he’s always done, come what may: mixing drinks and bartending

A discussion ensues between the Mr. Ohman and the others where we learn that they all oppose Communism and enjoy the material wealth they derive from the current system. Not surprisingly they support lower taxes and don't see the point of private industry’s support of government. Mr. Ohman does not think their views make any sense. Ohman claims that America wants new leadership, but would prefer someone else to worry about its problems. In other words, “Everyone wants George to do it.” Its citizens would prefer a “wizard who could wish communism away.”

Suddenly tensions on the world stage explode as an unnamed but obvious ‘enemy’ conducts air attacks over Seal Point, Alaska and Nome followed by paratroops landing on Alaskan airfields. The plan of attack involves the capture of civilian airfields as staging areas and A-bombing of military airfields. The United States retaliates attacking the obvious enemy's homeland with B-36 bombing missions. Despite this, the obvious enemy advances into Washington and Oregon while the shipyards in Puget Sound are A-bombed. 

With things falling apart and faced with imminent disaster, the group at the bar rush off to do their bit against the obvious enemy. With a peculiar sense of timing, Potter and Sanford fall in love with each other. After all, "War or no war, people have to eat and drink ... and make love.” After attempting to enlist to help for the war effort, Potter is denied several times. He resumes his broadcasting role, while Sanford volunteers to help run a blood donation drive. The industrialist, Sylvester attempts to quickly turn his tractor-manufacturing business around to produce tanks but he soon becomes a casualty in the battle for San Francisco. The rancher, Ed Mulfory returns home and perishes with his family in the destruction of Boulder Dam by a nuclear missile strike. The President tries to rally the morale of his citizens with exaggerated claims of counter-attacks.

With a red-alert being issued that New York is about to be attacked, will the United States of America be consumed by this “enemy” and exist only as part of its wider empire?

And what of this strange man, Mr. Ohman sitting at the end of the bar with his huge brandy glass and his terrible Ohmans omens for the future?


The film, Invasion USA essentially serves as a splendid piece of cold war propaganda that is delivered in an entertaining manner. It is designed to both persuade and entertain and in fact, Invasion USA fulfils the main criteria that constitute a piece of propaganda, namely;
  • The promotion of a particular idea.
  • Informing its audience with a series of half-truths.
  • Deceiving its audience with outright misinformation.
  • Influencing the attitude of the audience toward acceptance of a particular position.
  • Presenting mainly one side of a situation or argument.
  • Partisan in nature.
  • Relies on manipulation of emotions rather than fostering critical thinking.
  • Demonising those individuals and groups it is aimed against.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific instances from the film, Invasion USA that demonstrates the above elements of propaganda.

The enemy in the film is portrayed as being brutal and sub-human. After the take-over of New York, one of the enemy soldiers demands that they celebrate the victory with whisky. As the soldier advances menacingly towards Carla ("Now you MY woman!"), Vince tries to stop him, but is shot for trying to help her. Fearing the fate that is to befall her, Carla jumps out of a window and screaming plummets to the ground to her death.

The film, Invasion USA, serves as a warning against complacency on the part of citizens which can lead to the kind of  invasion and occupation as depicted in the film. As things stand the American public is too materialistic and selfish, whereby the college boy "wants a stronger army AND a deferment for himself," “Labour wants new consumer products AND a 30 hour week,” the businessman "wants a bigger airforce AND a new Cadillac" and the housewife "wants security AND an electric dishwasher." Such notions serve to reinforce the importance of having a strong military that must be supported by the public and by industry. However, Industry hasn't done its patriotic duty by supplying sufficient hardware for the military. According to the film, it is these kinds of attitudes that will undermine US preparedness to tackle threats to its security. It may go some way to explaining why in the film so few guards appear to be posted to defend the centre of US government in Washington, during a time of national emergency. As the invasion progresses, a scorched earth policy is put into effect in order to deny the enemy the resources it will need. This act of desperation is explained as being the result of not being prepared to “provide a strong enough army to protect ourselves.” 

Ironically, it also encourages the idea that in order to combat the threat posed by Communism, it is necessary that the needs of the State supersede the needs and desires of the individual! Supposedly, freedom and democracy comes with a price. How similar this notion and Ohman's vision for a stronger America seems to be to the ‘Enemy’s’ declaration over the airwaves: "The People's Government of America will take the wealth from the greedy, the speculators, and the capitalistic bourgeoisie and distribute it among the workers whose labour will never again be exploited for the benefit of the war mongers of Wall Street. The People's Government brings the citizens of New York a new freedom. A freedom based on order. A freedom based on loyalty to the leaders of the Party, your Party…"

Hatred toward the “enemy” for its brutality and sympathy for the poor victims of that brutality are meant to bubble to the surface as the audience witnesses the image of the child’s doll as it floats forlornly in the flood waters from the bombing of the Boulder dam.

The audience’s emotions are further stirred by referencing past historical events such as when the President states to the nation that “another day of infamy has arrived.” People are being encouraged to direct their memories back to that time when a sneak attack on Pearl Harbour by Japan ushered America’s entry into the Second World War. Think about how audiences today might feel when confronted with references to the 9/11 attack and you will begin to see how powerful such emotional manipulation can be. In fact, the nuclear attack on New York in the film and the resulting destruction could even trigger some unwelcome thoughts and feelings in modern audiences despite the gap of 60 years.

Similar kinds of propagandist ideas such as the need for constant vigilance would not have been new to audiences who would have had vivid memories of World War Two and constant exhortations to beware of what they say and to whom. After all, “Loose lips, sink ships!”

Despite the fact that American defense spending was rapidly increasing at the time, the film exaggerates the enemy’s capabilities while creating the impression that America is idly sitting by and is ripe for another Pearl Harbor “day of infamy” scenario which would still be fresh in the audience’s minds. There is also the blatant misinformation concerning the US’s technical and military capabilities. Notice how slow the American radar stations seem to be when locating the invader's aircraft. With the state of the US’s radar and other technology even at that time, it would have been unlikely that detection would have occurred not until the enemy aircraft were directly over their targets.

The film does its best to simplify quite complex geopolitical factors to a basic ‘Us versus Them.’ theme. The ‘Us’ being the freedom-loving United States divinely ordained to take on the role of combating the ‘Them,’ the Soviets and their Communist expansion. The ‘Them’ enemy is never clearly identified but it is obvious that it is the Communist Soviet Union from their initial invasion via Alaska and the terrible accents.

Points Of Interest

A substantial proportion of the film is taken up by rather inaccurate stock military and combat footage. The audience is presented with a mish-mash of scenes depicting the destruction of New York using footage from the London Blitz; a jumble of WWII and Korean War stock footage; Communist forces fitted out in American military attire; Soviet pilots flying B-29s and B36s, along with Nazi-German Luftwaffe and Japanese aircraft!. At least there were some brief shots of Soviet MIGS. I guess budget constraints and the belief that the audience would not know what they’re looking at might have been a determining factor in all of this? After all, the film was shot in seven days in April of 1952 on a budget of $127,000.00. Despite all of this, it did make a return of close to $1.000.000. At least the relentless presentation of the invasion and battle scenes along with the music score do serve to create a rising sense of excitement, panic and hysteria in the audience.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the "Enemy’s” profligate use of nuclear weapons. It seems to reflect the kind of military tactical thinking that was a product of World War 2 rather than what would be appropriate for modern warfare. These days we are probably more aware of the results of nuclear detonations in terms of radiation, fallout and sheer destruction. In Invasion USA, nuclear weapons are thrown about like confetti blowing up airfields, dams, battleships, one-horse towns, and cities. One would have to ask if there’d actually be anything left to invade and occupy. However, in more recent times, just after the era of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) which was supposed to act as deterrence to nuclear warfare, a change of thinking occurred. Some people in government and the military started to propose using tactical battlefield nuclear weapons in the event of war erupting between the West / NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. Suddenly it was believed that nuclear weapons could become a viable battlefield option in a winnable war. Now that would be MAD!

One thing about the movie I just could not understand was why they decided not to show the president of the United States looking directly into the camera? All we saw was his profile while he addressed the public on such an important matter as the Invasion of the USA by another world power. I couldn’t imagine Barack Obama presenting only one of his ears to the public during such a time of national crisis!

There are some very silly but very funny occurrences in the film which rather than deserve criticism, actually add to the film’s entertainment value. For instance, when the "Enemy" sends its troops disguised as American soldiers to infiltrate Washington, DC, one of them who claims to be from a Chicago unit is challenged by an American guard, “Ever see the Cubs play?” He actually replies with, “Cubs? A cub is a young animal, a bear...” A “Yes” or “No” might have given him a 50/50 chance of avoiding a bullet!

What could be better than succinctly summing up the entire invasion with a metaphor that’s as American as apple pie, such as when the rancher declares, “This is it, the final game of the World Series…and we’re the home team!”

And then there is the exchange between Vince and Carla after the invasion is underway and atom bombs start raining down. Carla declares, “It’s a nightmare, this can't be happening!” Vince relies with, “It was a cinch to happen. The last time I met a girl I really liked, they bombed Pearl Harbour.” You gotta love it!

Although most of the characters are meant to represent various sections of the community and are largely forgettable, one character who does stand out is Mr. Ohman. His brief performance sets up that menacingly dangerous and eerie atmosphere that is to hang over the heads of the group at the bar and the nation as whole. It seems as if he can really hypnotize his listeners and that he has knowledge of the shape of things to come.

And so dear reader, maybe it is time for us to wake up from our individual and collective trances and realize that “tomorrow springs from today.” We must think about what we can do now to avoid future disasters or calamities that may be visited upon our way of life and recognise that threats to our existence can be of our own making and come in many forms, both expected and unexpected. We just need to…….”concentrate”……….. 

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Red Planet Mars (1952)

A film of its time
Certain aspects overdone 

  • Director: Harry Horner
  • Producer: Donald Hyde, Anthony Veiller
  • Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, John L. Balderston
  • Based on the play Red Planet by John Hoare, John L. Balderston
  • Music: Mahlon Merrick
  • Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
  • Editing: Francis D. Lyon
  • Distributor: United Artists
  • Running time: 87 minutes


  • Peter Graves: Chris Cronyn
  • Andrea King: Linda Cronyn
  • Herbert Berghof: Franz Calder
  • Walter Sand:  Admiral Bill Carey
  • Marvin Miller: Arjenian
  • Willis Bouchey: President
  • Morris Ankrum: Secretary of Defence Sparks
  • Orley Lindgren: Stewart Cronyn
  • Bayard Veiller: Roger Cronyn



At a time “some years hence,” an American astronomer obtains photographic images of Mars suggesting large-scale manipulation of the Martian environment, supposedly by intelligent beings with advanced technology. This conclusion was arrived at by a comparison between pictures taken that night and another set taken a week before. On the photographs, it was discovered that there were “canals traversing the entire planet.” These ‘canals’ seemed to be reflecting “light like mirrors” which suggested that the inhabitants of Mars were melting the ice-caps to irrigate the planet.

Meanwhile, a husband-and-wife team of scientific researchers, Chris and Linda Cronyn have been engaged in a project to send radio signals to Mars using a hydrogen valve developed by an ex-Nazi scientist. The Cronyns have been receiving signals which repeat their own transmissions and they have determined that these signals are not merely echoes bouncing off the planet’s surface.

The US government eventually gets involved in the form of Admiral Bill Carey who had cracked an important Japanese code during World War II. Carey’s role is to assist the scientists with developing a means of communicating in a meaningful way with the Martians. 

It turns out that the scientists’ son is the one who comes up with the idea of using pi (geometry & mathematical concepts) as the language of communication. From this it is hoped that the Martians will realize that they are to continue with a particular sequence of numbers being transmitted to them and that they will reply with the appropriate sequence of digits. Chris Cronyn uses his son’s idea with successful results.

Linda Cronyn, however, does not see the endeavour to establish contact with an advanced Martian civilisation in terms of success. For her, the Martians could represent a significant threat to our own civilisation, especially when you consider that major technological advances on our own planet have resulted in social dislocations and a heavy price being paid with more efficient ways being conceived of slaughtering one another. For Linda, this opportunity for communication with an advanced civilisation would be far from being a “grandstand seat to the creation of the world.” Rather it could mean “its death.”

Meanwhile, in the Andes, a German scientist named Franz Calder (inventor of the hydrogen valve, former scientist under the Third Reich and convicted war criminal) is using a primitively equipped laboratory to try and contact Mars. Calder had been rescued from prison by agents of the Soviet Union. He was to be put to work for the benefit of Soviet interests and world power. Calder has tried to distance himself from his Soviet masters but he has not been successful in his isolated attempts to establish contact with Mars. However, he has been able to intercept all of the transmissions sent and received by the Cronyns. This ability will at least prove to be very useful to his Soviet masters.

Chris Cronyn arrives at the stage whereby he can ask the Martians some important questions such as;
How long do the Martians live for?
Answer: About 300 Earth-years
How do the Martians power their entire civilization?
Answer: By harnessing the energy of cosmic rays
Such questions and the answers they produce causes global political and economic chaos with panic affecting agricultural, coal, oil, and the electricity industries, all of which will probably be put out of business if the technology of the Martians is ever adopted on Earth.

This state of affairs is good news for the Soviets who consider the possibility of taking advantage of the social and economic crisis by immediately going to war with the West. That is until the next question posed to the Martians by Cronyn:
How, with all their advanced and powerful technology, have they managed to avoid destroying themselves with war?
Answer: War is an impossibility amongst the inhabitant of Mars because their planet is ruled………by God!
As proof of this revelation, they offer a quote from the Sermon on the Mount.

And what of this revelation from Mars?

Is it all just a hoax?
Do greed and self-interest and the accumulation of wealth become a thing of the past?
What implications are there for those living behind the Iron Curtain? 
Will the Soviet Union experience popular uprisings? 
Will the Soviet people who have been forced for decades to deny God now be free to embrace their religion?
Will the legacy of Lenin and Marx reside in the dustbin of history?
Will everything that Linda Cronan had feared become a reality for all of humanity?

Points of Interest

 (Warning! There may be some spoilers beyond this point!)

Linda Cronyn’s assertion that “Albert Einstein split the atom.” is not really accurate since it was his work that made it possible to predict what would happen if the atom was split.

In 2013, it hasn't been all that long since many of us have been viewing our entertainment using a flat screen wall mounted TV. You'll notice that in the 1952 film, the Cronyn family use a flat panel wide screen set embedded in a wall. Check out the advertisement featuring a typical TV set from 1952 in my post, “Sci-Fi on Film and the Year 1952” and you'll see why the TV set in the film was a pretty good piece of prediction.

The eerie mood and atmosphere of the film is derived from the fact that neither the scientists nor we, the audience, actually see any Martians. We don’t go to Mars and no Martians try to invade the Earth. Instead, messages are exchanged between Earth and Mars in the form of a code which is displayed as flickering lines on a video screen. The flickering lines, flashing lights and monitors and electric sounds add to the eerie and alien nature of the mysterious beings from another planet.

Another great feature of the film, Red Planet Mars, are the plot twists by which we are led to believe that the ex-Nazi scientist, Calder, is the one who has been transmitting the `Martian' messages in order to trick the Americans and the whole world! As proof of his assertion, Calder suggests that the transmissions stopped at the time of his lab’s destruction by an avalanche. We are then taken through another twist in the plot and are confronted with a titanic struggle between the Cronyns’ preparedness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and Calder’s hateful and vengeful attitude expressed by his assertion that it would be “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” 

The two characters, Franz Calder and Arjenian are wonderful as the ex-Nazi scientist and Russian KGB agent respectively. They are both detestable in their own way, but you can’t help liking them as they bounce off each other and try to seek advantage over one another. For Arjenian, the Soviets “demand an accounting” for their investment, to which Calder replies, “you won’t harm me, you need me!”

There is one character, however, which really creeps me out! This is none other than Linda Cronyn. Her hysteria hits you like a sledge-hammer. Consider her reply to her husband’s contention that science has advanced us where she spits out at him, “and you’ll have done it!” and (off-screen in the movie and volume up high), “RIGHT INTO OBLIVION!” It is almost like Linda is a projection of the fear, hysteria and paranoia of the times. She frequently appeals to her husband, “don’t send a message tonight” and she feels as though “the whole world is scared” and that “fear has become a natural state.” Such sentiments are not surprising when you consider that the world of which speaks had not long before experienced the Great Depression, a truly global war and was then just coming to grips with the Korean war, a developing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and the internal insanity of the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts.

Red Planet Mars encourages us to think about what happens when a technologically superior civilisation comes into contact with one that does not rely on advanced technology. Our history is littered with the tragic results of such kinds of contact including Australian Aborigines, South and Central American Indians and many African communities. Wholesale slaughter, decimation due to introduced diseases, destruction of religion and culture, theft of land; these have been the sad consequences of such cultural contacts and clashes. In the film, Red Planet Mars, as a result of the messages being received, it is little wonder that Earth's economy has begun to collapse with coal mines shutting down, resulting in the steel industry grinding to a halt and nervous people withdrawing money from banks as stocks plummet. The response to this situation is violence, social unrest, political instability and the declaration of martial law.

It is unfortunate that the film's Christian message is laid on rather too thickly with its many references to God and Christ. This feature of the film results in it taking on a particularly naïve, arrogant and blinkered view of the world and existence. The following are some of the examples from the film;
  • Calder’s clue to the Russian’s, “You can find me only through finding Christ.”
  • Linda’s appeal, “Dear Lord, don’t make us sorry.”
  • News headlines like;
 “God Speaks From Mars!”
  • Messages from the ‘Supreme Being’ on Mars such as, “Seven lifetimes ago….”linking to the time of Jesus Christ.
  • The window frame in the lab forming the shape of the Cross with a view of the sky and God’s creation.  Notice how it looms above the technological creations of Man’s materialistic science.
  • The world-wide religious upheaval with particular emphasis on everything Christian and including rather token all-embracing references to Islam and other religions.

On and on it goes. Such overloading of the film with religious, mainly Christian, messages tends to detract from its finer aspects. Instead, it seems to make it more like a poster film for the more lunatic elements of the American fundamentalist Christian right.

The overthrowing of the atheistic government in Russia and being replaced by a “nation finding its soul” and no longer sinfully “worshipping false gods” certainly has some parallels with what has taken place on the world stage in recent times. In the early 1990s we witnessed the fall of the communist dictatorship in Russia and the breakup of the former Soviet Union, along with a revival of Christianity in Russia. Rather than being the result of an overwhelming desire to embrace Christianity, it had a lot to do with a bankrupted Soviet Union being outspent by the West. Tragically, this in turn gave rise to the increasing influence of criminal groups and oligarchies, along with political corruption, social inequality and political repression!  Not exactly “following the star of Bethlehem!” It would have been far better to focus on a struggle against the enemies of freedom which resonates well across different eras and cultures and which is applicable to our real-life example above of the breakup and fall of the Soviet Union.

Like so many other science fiction films of the 1950s, Red Planet Mars is definitely a product of its time. It provides us with a fascinating glimpse of a period in the USA’s history where 'duck and cover' drills for kids, the 'red scare' and ‘reds under the bed’ menace and right wing paranoia were the order of the day. But what makes this film stand out from so many other films of this genre is that instead of relying on action and special effects, it does make you think and dare I say…..HOPE for something better!

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Sci-Fi On Film And The World Of 1952

In our look at science fiction films of 1950 and 1951, we saw reflected in them the anxieties of the time fuelled by the US and Soviet development of nuclear weapons, the testing of incredibly destructive hydrogen weapons, and the developing Cold War. We also saw through these movies a fascination with rocketry and space exploration where we made tentative footprints on the moon and Mars and even burrowed into the Earth itself. And there were the visitors to our world who came here with various motives from wagging a warning finger at us for our destructive impulses through to wanting to harvest us for nutritional purposes and even possibly invading our planet.

By 1952, daily life was beginning to change for many people in the Western world. Television, once a staple of science fiction, was in millions of American homes. 

The skylines of cities were beginning to be punctuated with skyscrapers such as New York’s Lever House. 

The Comet, the world’s first passenger jet,  heralded the start of faster and cheaper air travel and brought far-flung places on the globe just that little bit closer. 

Prosperity for many had arrived with average worker earnings being $3,400 per year, 3 out of 5 families owning a car and 2 out of 3 families possessing a telephone. 

Women in America would on average be married by 20 years of age but would be unlikely to pursue a career after having children. 

By 1952, it seems that the future had begun to arrive. What was once science fiction was rapidly becoming science fact.

Major Events Of 1952

Major World Events & Personalities

  • Harry S. Truman was U.S. President throughout most of the year.
  • On Nov. 4, Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected 34th President of the U.S.
  • King George VI of England died and his daughter Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen of England. In 2013 she is still queen of England!
  • War-time leader, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
  • The dictator, Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, but not for much longer
  • In Egypt, a military coup overthrew King Farouk
  • Pius XII was Pope
  • Evita Peron, wife of Argentine President Juan Peron, died
  • The Korean War continues on.
  • The Mau Mau rebellion began in Kenya
  • Greece and Turkey joined NATO. 

In Washington, D.C., Senator Joseph McCarthy, continued his campaign to expose communists in government and throughout society. "McCarthyism,” in the form of a wave of anti-communist paranoia swept the country with devastating effects on many people’s lives, reputations and careers.

Science & Technology

  • The hydrogen bomb was detonated for the first time
  • The polio vaccine was developed
  • Transistors were first produced commercially by the American company Raytheon

Strange Phenomena

  • Reports were made of UFOs flying over Washington, D.C. for six hours
  • A small town in Green Bay Wisconsin was invaded by 175,000,000 Leopard Frogs over two days. (Hope our cane toads in Australia don’t get any ideas!)
  • A thick fog (smog) engulfed London for 5 days and killed approximately 12,000 people. The environmental movement had begun

Unearthing the Past

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered with continuing religious and historical revelations and implications.

The Tomb of the Mayan King Pakal (683 A.D.) was opened in 1952. The tomb was designed as a Mayan clock to mark the return of the new King. It has been claimed that each glyph belongs to a three year period depicting the years from 1952 until 2012. (With so-called Mayan prophecies & calendars, 2012 was a nervous year for many, but a boon to end of the world book and film producers and distributors! 2013 and we’re still here!)

Sci-Fi Movies

What struck me about the year, 1952 is how few science fiction films were produced when compared with the other years of the 1950s. I’m not sure why that was the case. The genre certainly did not die off after that year. In fact, it took off with a vengeance! For the year of 1952, I’ll be presenting two films: Red Planet Mars and Invasion USA. What stands out about these two films is how the propaganda element is presented far more overtly than appears to have been the case prior to and after 1952. With these two films there is no subtlety involved in conveying their messages. In fact, we find ourselves submerged in an ocean of cold war sentiments, symbols and references.

Join me next time when we take a look at the first of the two films, Red Planet Mars

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Unknown World 1951

A film with a serious purpose but fails to truly engage

  • Director: Terry O. Morse
  • Producers: Irving A. Block, Jack Rabin, Robert L. Lippert
  • Writer: Millard Kaufman
  • Music: Ernest Gold
  • Cinematography: Henry Freulich, Allen G. Siegler
  • Editing: Terry O. Morse
  • Distributor: Lippert Pictures Inc.
  • Running time: 74 minutes


  • Victor Kilian: Dr. Jeremiah Morley
  • Bruce Kellogg: Wright Thompson
  • Marilyn Nash: Dr. Joan Lindsey
  • Otto Waldis: Dr. Max A. Bauer
  • Jim Bannon: Andy Ostergaard
  • Tom Handley: Dr. James Paxton
  • Dick Cogan: Dr. George Coleman
  • George Baxter: Carlisle Foundation Chairman
  • Harold Miller : Carlisle Foundation Board Member 


Spoilers may follow....

Dr. Jerimiah Morley of the defunct Society To Save Civilization is convinced that humanity is doomed due to the inevitability of a worldwide nuclear war. As indicated in the opening newsreel, Civilisation vs The Atom, humanity has reached the “crossroads of history.” The “Atomic Age” is like a double-edged sword which, on the one hand, holds out the promise of a life of abundance, while on the other hand, offers humanity a bleak destiny as outlined in The Morley Report. Here we are presented with a pessimistic view of the future prospects for human civilisation. For Morley, the answer lies with developing a “plan to preserve civilisation.” In order to do this, it is deemed necessary to “find a temporary haven” consisting of a “geological shelter.”

Morley organizes an expedition consisting of a team of expert scientists who would all journey into the Earth’s interior in an atomic-powered rock-boring vehicle called a cyclotram which is described in layman’s terms as being “like a submarine.” The object of the expedition would be to navigate through “funnels and fissures” until a suitable subterranean environment could be found where survivors of a nuclear holocaust could keep “the spark of life alive.” It is assumed that the Earth’s interior would be conveniently honey-combed with such fissures and that it would be cooler the further you descend!

After 1 year, the project faces failure and for Morley and the team this means that, “we have no plans, we have no hope.” When the crucial government funding falls through, the wealthy newspaper heir and adventurer, Wright Thompson declares that he will personally and privately fund the project on condition that he goes along with them, “just for the kicks” of course.

The Expedition into the Unknown World Begins……

0 -100 miles:

The expedition begins from Mount Neleh (spell it backwards!), which sounds like it is situated in Hawaii, but is the "world's oldest extinct volcano" in the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska. As the explorers begin their descent, they are ominously farewelled by an erupting volcano. As they “take one last look,” is this a warning of the dangers they will face, or a reminder of the possible fate of the world they are leaving behind? 

As the group goes deeper beneath the Earth's crust, they discover a large cave, and a big plaque from the 1938 Engstran expedition. The words indicate that they managed to get this far but no farther. They assume that anyone going beyond this point would have good reason for doing so and that they wish anyone who tries to go farther, “good luck.”

100 Miles:

Dr. Joan Lindsey notes how depressed and suffocated she seems to feel. The psychological effects are explained as due to being away from contact with other people, as if the last chord tying them to humanity is being cut. Paxton believes this is rubbish and that “one strong man” can control nature. Such a strong man can take the lead and others will follow.

After a receiving a “Toxic Gas” warning, it’s discovered that Dr. Paxton and Dr. Coleman didn’t take their gas masks when they left. The others go out to find the missing men. Their dead bodies are soon discovered and they are buried “a hundred and ten miles” below the surface, which seems to be a rather striking notion for the rest of the explorers-no, I will NOT use the word, surreal!

240 Miles

Joan notices that the water level is dangerously low. Thompson negligently left a valve open and the amount of water has not only diminished but what remains is now polluted. There is now a pressing need to find water.

Later on they notice the sound of running water coming from behind a rock wall. They manage to break through, and steam pours out. Back inside the cyclotram they notice that the outside temperature has risen two hundred and eighty degrees.  After the temperature begins falling, the resulting condensation will mean that they will have water. 

Decision time soon arrives: To go on or return to the surface? After a tied vote, Joan casts the deciding vote. The expedition continues on toward its final goal.

960 Miles

The Cyclotram bursts through a rock wall and hits water which turns out to be an underground ocean.  They surface and emerge inside a vast cavern. Is this what they’ve been looking for: Flowers that crumble and fish without eyes?

While exploring their surroundings, Andy manages to slip on a slope and begins to slide down. Thompson rushes to assist by tying his rope around a boulder and lowering himself to where Andy is. As Andy starts clambering up, the rope begins to fray. Just as Thompson reaches the top, the rope snaps and Andy plummets to his death.

With morale low, the expedition members decide that they must leave this “Valley of Shadows” before it becomes their “graveyard.” To go on or return? They decide on the need to go on, “to find what we've been after.”

1640 Miles

How much further will it be to their destination?

Will it turn out that their unknown world will prove to be a “promised land” or will it just be “a haven for the dead?”

Points Of Interest

It is unfortunate that the copy of the film is of such a low quality. Hopefully someone will make use of a digital process to clean it up. As it is, the film has the feel and appearance of a 1930s production. Anyway, try to persevere with it.

The cyclotram has a great art-deco look. If the model of the cyclotram turned up on American Pickers I'd bet it would fetch a pretty good price. It also reminds me of some of the automobile designs of the early 1950s. I doubt very much that the cyclotram would be able to withstand the kind of pressure under water that would be encountered at the depth of 2500 miles. At least the interior shots of the Cyclotram give the illusion of movement along with the sounds of motors whirring. And those great labelled levers, switches and big analogue dials that were part of the technology of the time! It gives you something similar to that solid comfortable feeling you get from holding a big vinyl record LP album or an old large printed book.

There are also other suspect areas in Unknown World in terms of scientific accuracy. Temperatures would not decrease the further you descended into the Earth’s interior. In the film it stated that, "the latest body of theory holds that the inside of a sphere, such as the Earth, is cooler than the temperature at the surface." The erupting volcano in the film would certainly suggest a far more active, hotter and molten environment. Oddly enough, the conveniently gently sloping path taken by the explorers through the Earth’s crust and mantle consists of largely hollow areas containing an abundance of stalagmites and stalactites. If only! Not only that, but one of the characters declares, "The air is clear! You can take off your masks." I would be surprised that there would any kind of breathable air so far into the Earth’s interior. There would more likely be noxious odourless gasses, all of which would prove to be lethal to human beings. Still, how much more do we really know about the Earth’s interior (or the depths of our oceans for that matter!) over 60 years after the making of this film? We probably have a greater awareness of what lies in outer space. So much still remains a mystery to us, leaving conjecture, theories, assumptions and wild guesses to fill in the gaps.

We may question the accuracy of a determination that a litter of dead bunnies is an indication of possible human sterility in the environment of the cavern’s interior. However, it has been established practice to use animals in such endeavours as space exploration to determine the likely effects on human beings.

The pace of Unknown World is rather pedestrian. It is a well-meaning film but it takes itself too seriously and tends to come across as being rather dull. Too much time is taken up with just shots of the explorers inching their way deeper into the Earth’s interior, punctuated by less than gripping events. A lot in terms of entertainment value is lost in the process for the audience.

It took a long time for any of the characters to become people who possess qualities we can relate to. Towards the end of film we had earnest, dull and professional characters evolve into slightly more reflective and introspective characters who can declare such things to each other as, “I used to be afraid of death” (Dr. Bauer) “I was afraid of life.” (Joan)

Post War early 1950s handling of the issue of the role of women is evident with the portrayal of Joan Lindsay. We learn that she's both a medical doctor and a biochemist, and (Shock! Horror! Watch out!) an "ardent feminist!." So how did this beautiful, intelligent and strong woman fall for such a shallow boof-head like Thompson? Her role as a doctor and biochemist would have been a radical concept for a woman at that time. The winds of change might have been on the horizon but were slow in coming. In the meantime, it was considered prudent to stay within the bounds of acceptable behaviour. Just give a hint of what can be for now. Even today, film companies, sponsors and TV stations are reluctant to alienate audiences by pushing barriers in various aspects of life too far.  It seems that for Joan, despite her talents and intelligence, marriage, staying home and having babies may have to take precedence over her career, at least until the wind changes direction…..

We could go on and on cynically nit-picking the film’s faults. But the fact remains that Unknown World is a product of its time in terms of the themes it deals with, the degree of scientific knowledge about the world it draws on, the kind of ethical and moral viewpoints it presents, as well as its portrayal of human relationships. I think we in the 21st. century can look past these things, take note of it and then perhaps even get over it and not waste time making fun of it. Think how we might be viewed in 60 years’ time!

Unknown World serves as an allegory about the dangers associated with a global nuclear war. The question is posed, ‘what do we do about it?’ Do we take our heads out of the sand so to speak and go back to the surface and try and change the world?  Do we work together to see that such a global nuclear war never happens? Or do we run away and hide in fear, seeking our own personal haven, even though it is inimical to life?  

I find that the best way to view films like Unknown World is not to get too hung up on scientific inaccuracies or judge them according to standards far removed from the era in which they were made. I try to enjoy them using the simple “What if…...” principle. For me, Unknown World, is in the tradition of Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth or At the Earth's Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Isn't the modern era film like, The Core part of the same tradition? What if you could journey into the earth’s interior? What dangers would you face? What obstacles would you need to overcome? What wonders might you witness? Why would you want to or need to go such a journey? What would be achieved? What would be learned? 

And so, on that note we come to the end of our look at the classic sci-fi films of 1951. What does the year 1952 hold in store for those who appreciate vintage sci-fi movies? Drop in every now and again and find out as we continue our journey through the golden age of science fiction film......

©Chris Christopoulos 2013