[17 October 2002]
The American people have proved that they can take shocking situations… without collapsing in fear. If prepared carefully—and honestly—they can take the hidden UFO facts, startling as they may be.
—Major Donald Keyhoe (USMC Retired)
Among the several oddities in 1956 alien invasion B-movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, one stands out: its featureless, otherworldly flying discs, with retractable rayguns like satellite dishes on their underbellies, are a sum of all fears about flying saucers. They travel at thousands of miles an hour, attack without warning, and withdraw as quickly as they came. What’s more, they are potent and menacing even in their defeat. They do the worst damage in their death throes, as a U.S. army miracle weapon cripples them and, in the movie’s signature scenes, they careen into the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome.
These scenes of mayhem in the nation’s capital are so important that they turn up at least four times in the wonderful new Columbia Tri-Star DVD release of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers: in the movie itself; in a short “featurette,” an interview between Earth vs. special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen and Gremlins (1984) director Joe Dante; in an hour-long Harryhausen biography, “The Harryhausen Chronicles”; and in a contemporaneous trailer for Earth vs., provided along with gorgeous trailers for other Harryhausen tours de force of the 1950s and 1960s.
Everyone knows how significant the Washington crash scenes are, from the movie’s makers and promoters to the next generation of moviemakers, to the DVD’s most likely viewers: Americans who’ve since seen the destruction of their nation’s landmarks in grim reality. “I ended up with the saucers crashing into the Capitol dome and knocking over the Washington Monument,” the gentle Harryhausen explains in “The Harryhausen Chronicles,” adding a little apologetically, “I’m glad to see they still stand today.”
At the time of this writing, fifty years after Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ release, the scenes Harryhausen discusses are eerily in tune with our endless-war predicament. A moviemaker chooses to smash an American emblem to generate some genuine anxiety in his or her audience, and September 11 did not make this so. Fear of the destruction of edifices and monuments is nothing new. One way or another, this kind of fear has been around quite a while.
The story of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ conception suggests that the destruction of American monuments has long been a source of anxiety in this country. Producer Charles Schneer, with whom Harryhausen had already worked on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), was fond of clipping stories out of the newspaper and UFOs were quite a flap in those days, Harryhausen explains in “The Harryhausen Chronicles.” Although the DVD never makes clear what popular story provided Schneer with his inspiration, the most likely candidate is a rash of flying saucer sightings that took place in downtown Washington over two July weekends in 1952.
Shocking and sensational, the event made world headlines, and was so novel and so persistent in institutional memory that it merited a 50-year retrospective in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine last July. In full, astounding color on the magazine’s front cover is the incident’s most famous image, a formation of disk-shaped lights suspended over the Capitol dome. These lights were a culmination of several strange happenings those weekends. Commercial pilots radioed their controllers with accounts of mysterious lights that changed direction abruptly and seemed to travel at fantastic speeds. These objects sped effortlessly away from interceptors, even when chased at full supersonic throttle.
Dozens of people on the national mall claimed to witness the UFOs that descended on the house of Congress, and press coverage of the event sparked a variant of the hysteria Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast stirred in the 1930s. For a few days, hand-wringing citizens nationwide entertained the possibility that Earth was on the verge of interplanetary contact, and maybe interplanetary war.
Fortunately, all of this turned out to be just a really complicated trick of the light, something the Air Force called a “temperature inversion.” But since the official explanation was a bit hard to follow (atmospheric light and heat created superfast, agile shining balls in the sky), some reserved the right to wonder. And this skepticism sparked a different sort of anxiety.
Among the skeptical and anxious was retired Marine Corps major Donald E. Keyhoe, whom the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers title sequence (directly contradicting Harryhausen) credits with providing the inspiration for the movie. In a series of best-selling books with such catchy titles as The Flying Saucers Are Real (1950) and The Flying Saucer Conspiracy (1955), Keyhoe claims that sightings such as occurred in Washington were genuine visits from alien spacecraft with unknown motives. He also believed that high-level government officials—despite their official denials and complicated explanations—knew about the alien visitors and were keeping the information secret, presumably to avoid such panics as had threatened to break out in July 1952.
Donald Keyhoe’s distrust of government and suspicions of conspiracy—much of the source of his continued notoriety as a progenitor of the enduring tradition that eventually, for example, turned Area 51 and Roswell, New Mexico into sites of pilgrimage—are exactly what’s missing from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as a self-described adaptation of The Flying Saucers Are Real. The saucers in the movie version do not evade; they destroy. Their motives—world colonization and conquest—are perfectly clear. And the military, far from sinister and secretive, is wholly benevolent, humanity’s sole protector and savior.
Some of Keyhoe’s uncertainty makes it into the movie anyway, though. All ends well in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers—“I’m glad it’s still here,” the female lead, Carol Marvin (Joan Taylor), proclaims in the beach-and-sunset closing shot, meaning the planet. “And still ours,” asserts her husband, Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe).
The end of the promotional trailer is a different story. “The whole world is under attack,” the narrator gasps as clips of artillery batteries fight desperately with the indestructible spaceships. Once more the saucer brings down the Washington monument, followed by the trailer’s final spoken words: “To the best of our knowledge,” Russell says into a tape recorder, “My wife and I are the only ones left alive.” Finally, the Capitol dome explodes as the movie’s title flashes across the screen and the trailer ends.
The quote from Russell is cleverly taken out of context to give the impression that the movie culminates in utter apocalypse. Watching the scenes in context, we learn that her carries his tape recorder with him at all times, so that he can describe and record such “beautiful” scientific theories as come to him in the course of daily life. (Russell, incidentally, is just as insufferably self-involved as such conduct would indicate, but the movie wants you to like him anyway.) His comment applies to a military base that’s just been attacked, not the world at large. Yet in the trailer, the tape recorder appears to be preserving “humankind” for posterity; the collapse of the monument and the Capitol dome are apparent stand-ins for the demise of the species as a whole.
Such, surely, was a source of anxiety for those who watched in 1952 as that squadron of malevolent temperature inversions descended on the halls of government power. For those who take a benign view of government’s motives and influence, the prospect of assault on government is also the prospect of disorder and social collapse. Americans of the time, after all, had been quite busy thinking about disorder and social collapse over the past few years as they endlessly rehearsed duck-and-cover exercises and simulated their own deaths in the broiling winds of atomic holocaust. Such fears had crystallized not long before, with the Soviet Union’s announcement that it, too, had acquired The Bomb.
This, anyway, is the conventional wisdom about the ‘50s cold-war sci-fi flick. It hasn’t aged very well; over time, the question of who presented the greater menace to the American people in the 1950s has gotten a lot less clear. It turns out, for instance, that as Keyhoe was busy exhorting the U.S. government to adopt a new open policy toward the American people, this same government was orchestrating bloody coups in Iran and Guatemala, knowingly exposing U.S. soldiers to sickening radiation in nuclear tests, giving Canadian mental patients LSD to research Chinese brainwashing techniques, and generally acting in a way that showed little concern for the welfare of innocents and American citizens, as well as a disdain for the value of an informed electorate—who, one imagines, might not have approved of such practices had they known about them and so were not told, for many decades.
In hindsight, it’s ironic and wholly predictable that Keyhoe’s protest against government and military censorship was, in fact, censored in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Instead, the film seizes on and aggravates popular fear of invasion, shaping it into a particular belief: of invasion as always imminent, now and forevermore, regardless of any evident concrete threat. The unnamed alien race in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, after desecrating its native solar system, has come to pillage Earth and subjugate the planet’s inhabitants, jealous as the aliens are of our planet’s marvelous liberty, its Elysian fields and beaches. The narrator neatly summarizes these beliefs in the opening scenes, outlining, in exquisite military lingo, the new threat the saucers pose to our armed forces:
As a result [of the UFO sightings], headquarters of the hemispheric defense command… issued an order: all military installations are to fire on sight at any flying objects not identified. But even as they do, the military wondered whether their scientific know-how and their best weapons would be effective in any battle of the Earth vs. the flying saucers.
This order from HQ does what the whole movie does, broadly speaking: transform “enemy” as a concept, from societies, nations or ethnicities who wish “us” harm or whose ideologies differ from “ours” (however you wish, given the context, to define “us”), to a consummately vague generality. HQ lacks any specific knowledge of the aliens, but presumes them to be hostile. This doesn’t simply underscore HQ’s nervous bellicosity. The invaders from outer space, lacking any discernible culture, could attack Earth for any reason: for our resources or religions, the colors of our skin or the shapes of our bodies. Because of this, detente with hypothetical enemies is a lost cause. No peace is possible under such a hyper-vigilant worldview. Only war, or its impending likelihood.
In this light, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is instructive not only (not even mainly) as a fantabulous parable about the fear of invasion. Fifty years on, it still teaches that a subtler form of invasion springs from the act of imagining and creating enemies to defend against them. But looking back from a privileged position 50 years into Earth vs.‘s future, one is struck not by how much the military of today resembles the military of a 1956 movie. One is instead struck with how much the military of today resembles Earth vs.‘s alien menace.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is full of oddly clairvoyant moments, prefiguring military misadventures that were the faintest daydreams in those days around the Korean War. The mouthpiece for the alien fleet describes the saucers’ hovering, quick lethality in terms that evoke the post-Cold War U.S. Army: “Speed, maneuverability, and force,” the disembodied alien voice explains as a saucer drops down on a Navy ship, destroys it with a death ray, and vanishes as quickly as it appeared. Harryhausen talks in his biography about the thinking behind the saucer’s hovering design, which brings its speed, maneuverability, and force convincingly to the screen. The saucers appear to float aloft by spinning jerkily in place like a top, an effect Harryhausen creates with independently movable plates on the saucer models he used for the film. The effect is reminiscent of the then-nascent invention, the helicopter—an emerging technology used in the frontless wars the U.S. was later to fight so ruinously in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Persian Gulf. How unnerving that the U.S. military was eventually to adopt the technologies and strategies once imagined for its most abstract enemies.
Yet, the line between friend and foe has a way of blurring in just this manner, time after time. In The Biology of Doom, for instance, Ed Regis describes how the U.S./Canadian bioweapons program—begun in 1940 as a way of anticipating and keeping up with hideous Japanese germ warfare research—metastasized over the years into the vast, uncontrolled bioweapons monstrosity that is the source of so much nail-biting on CNN today. Among the earliest innovations to this fledging U.S. program’s credit: a prototype of the weaponized anthrax so recently cooked up in an army lab and mailed to the U.S. Capitol.
If the events of the last half century have largely discredited hyper-vigilance as a pathway to peace and enlightenment, the only glimmer of hope in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers—given its lamentable whitewash of Keyhoe’s perspective on the UFO phenomenon—is an offhand moment when Carol, surrounded by Army brass and scientists, tests an alien language translator by reciting into it a Shakespearean couplet. The quote from The Merchant of Venice is jarring amid Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ keep-watching-the-skies ethos. But it gives the impression that Carol offers more wisdom than Russell does for our current predicament. If only she could find a way of translating the couplet’s meaning for the paranoid generals all around her.
But the recitation passes without further comment. The translator promptly renders it as squawky gibberish and the generals, unphased, continue plotting the planet’s descent into warfare. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” are Shakespeare’s forgotten words. “It falls as the gentle rain from heaven.”
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[Many observations about Donald Keyhoe are adapted from Ronald Story’s The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters: A Definitive, Illustrated A-Z Guide to All Things Alien (2001).]
Sources on the U.S. military’s mistreatment of American civilians include: