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Earth vs the Flying Saucers, or, Paranoia vs Ignorance

Cause and FX

by Rick Kennett

  • This article previously appeared in Metaluna #21, 1988 and The Golden Age of Flying Saucers Vol 1, #5, Feb-March 1998.

Whenever talk gets around to the 1956 movie Earth vs the Flying Saucers, comment usually starts and stops with the Ray Harryhausen special effects, in particular the climactic battle between Earthmen and the Saucers in Washington D.C., and all those famous landmarks getting the chop.

But there's a question in that film that I've never heard anyone ask: Who were the bad guys?

Most references to EVTFS concentrate on the effects and the battle scenes, pausing only to blame 'evil aliens' or similar. But were they evil? To answer that we have to take a look at how the Earth/Saucer War began.

First of all there was the mystery of the crashing 'birds' — satellites launched by Project Skyhook and space scientist Hugh Marlowe, which were dropping out of the sky or disappearing altogether with vexing regularity. Next we have Hugh Marlowe and love interest Joan Taylor driving through the ubiquitous Californian desert (beloved by so many SF movies of the 50s) when they're buzzed by a flying saucer. They manage to record its high-pitched shrill on a tape recorder. Later, back at Project Skyhook, the saucer lands. From it emerges a humanoid figure encased in a metallic suit. Asking no questions, the Army shoots the alien dead with canon fire. Somewhat annoyed, the aliens shoot back, obliterating Project Skyhook with heat rays.

Trapped in the ruins of a block-house, Marlowe and Taylor listen again to the recording of the saucer buzzing their car. As the power fails the tape slows down, revealing an alien voice explaining how they would be dropping into Project Skyhook for a bit of a chat on immigration. Tragically, they'd been talking too fast to be understood. The aliens had also misunderstood the launching of the satellites; thinking they were weapons sent against them, they'd destroyed them. Yet even after this presumed attack, they were still willing to meet peaceably with the natives. But now blood — or whatever the aliens used for circulatory fluid — had been spilled, so the war was on.

This is a film about culture shock (though the theme is possibly unintentional) every bit as much as it's about alien invasion, and it's strange that it is rarely if ever remarked upon. The aliens misinterpreted the satellites as weapons. They failed to make their intentions clear prior to their sudden appearance at Project Skyhook. Mix in a little human paranoia — particularly the brand floating about in the cold war 1950s — and we have the classic recipe for conflict. Given all this, it's little wonder that the Earth people (for 'Earth people' read 'U.S. military') started shooting first without really knowing why.

As in most conflicts, there were faults on both sides. Morally and to begin with, it was Earth who were the bad guys inasmuch as they acted aggressively to a group of refugees from a "disintegrated solar system" desperately needing to re-settle on our planet. But the word here is "desperate", and desperate people are rarely rational. Even given a more amicable beginning in interplanetary relations, the aliens might still have eventually bitten the hand that aided them, no matter what. This is shown up well in their destruction of a ship at sea simply to serve as an example of their power; likewise the mind-wiping of a captured policeman and an army general, followed by the callous dumping of their bodies some time later.

A higher technologically evolved civilization will always seek to dominate and absorb a lesser one. In an accidental way, by striking first out of paranoia and fear at aliens who knew no better than to step out into a barrage of shell fire, humanity may well have saved itself a lot of long term misery.

For what may be perceived as just an alien invasion movie (albeit a pioneer in the genre), Earth vs the Flying Saucers opens up a can of worms. In the long run, Earth did the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. If, in an old fashioned way, this film has a moral, it seems to be that two wrongs do sometimes make a right.


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