I am ending the month of reviews with the film that I answer the question: “What’s your favourite movie of all time to?” when asked. No it’s not what I put for security questions that ask the same. I am insane, not stupid. I have seen this twice on the big screen by pure luck and enjoy it every time. I avoid the colourized version when possible and suffer through it when not. It’s important to note, when looking at the genre of Sci-Fi this is one of forerunners of the modern alien movies. Coming out in 1951 it was part of the rise of cultural xenophobia and anti russian sentiment growing in the US during the post war environment. We were already at war in Korea during this and the Russians were the boogeymen. The boogeyman can’t be a man though, not really, not then anyway, it had to be something else, something Alien perhaps?
The Day the Earth Stood Still had not come out yet that year, and the genre of science fiction has been around on screen for as long as we’ve had screens. It’s been on the air since well we had airwaves to transmit for entertainment. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, a little thing called War of the Worlds? Novels of such things have existed even longer with a mother of science fiction in Mary Shelley, and those who followed such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The 30’s saw a rise in pulp fiction, with such literary greats as Robert E Howard and H.P. Lovecraft; or even a certain man (he might even be called super) created by Siegel and Shuster. Yet, with all of this background the idea of alien films was still very new and this is among the earliest and due to two factors more overlooked. The first factor is the Robert Wise production of The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of the top films of the same year. It would be like me asking you what other Sci Fi movie came out the same year as Independence Day, you probably can’t, and that’s ok. Some films are just so big they overshadow the rest.
The second factor leaving this one overlooked and underrated is John Carpenter. In 1982 he released his take on the same story. Both films are based on a story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. While, per usual, I haven’t read the original story the Carpenter version is attributed to being more accurate to the xenophobic fear that the story espouses. Carpenters version is also widely praised by cinephiles and fans of both sci fi and horror. It’s practical effects are still a benchmark. With all of this in mind, I do prefer this film.
Let’s talk about the film in the usual way shall we?
The credited director is Christian Nyby, with this as his first film. He then moved to TV and never quite looked back with dozens of TV shows to his credit through 1975. IMDB indicates there is an uncredited director – Howard Hawks, who was also the producer. Hawks worked on some of the greatest war movies and most memorable westerns of all time, with Sergeant York (a joke in the movie I realize now), Air Force, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado; he was even the director on the Marilyn Monroe classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). So the sharp direction, wit, and conversations through the movie. For 1951 it has excellent blocking and timing with the understanding that editing was more difficult back then.
The script was written by Charles Lederer, who had been writing for two decades prior, and worked with Hawks on several films after. Probably one of the most famous films he worked on was the original Ocean’s Eleven and Mutiny on the Bounty. I think it was this man that probably inspired most of what I like about the film, the dialogue. While analyzing it as an adaptation of the source material it is a fail, for a standalone story it works. It captures the paranoia growing through the country well enough and again is one of the forerunners of alien invasion movies. It also brilliantly doesn’t demonize anyone as so many of the movies in Sci Fi from the 50s and 60’s do. There is a strong anti science sentiment, mostly due to the realization of the nuclear bombs power and that science delivered it, contrasted by scientists still saving us. It’s an interesting mix in film at the time with very strong fear of the nuclear age and those who delivered it to us. This movie lets science show it’s curiosity as much as it’s caution with several of the scientists arguing amongst themselves as to how to proceed, and I admire that. Along with this, we get a strong female who has a sexual identity of her own that helps drive the backstory/lovestory between her and the main protagonist. It’s not forced, in fact it feels very real and natural as written. The rest of the dialogue through the film almost reminds me of Aaron Sorkin on the West Wing, it is witty, quick, and relies on strong chemistry with the cast.
I wish I could say more about the cast beyond that strong chemistry. Everyone in the film is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. Kenneth Toney (Capt. Hendry), Margaret Sheridan (Nikki), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Arthur Carrington), and Dewey Martin (Bob..seriously); all of them were great. They played their parts well, felt like a real crew who knew each other and it was warm despite the climate. The relationship between Hendry and Nikki was absolutely believable and honestly a bit racy for the 50s; especially where he lets her tie him up for a date. Carrington’s obsession with science is portrayed as reasonable at first and grows less so, but at the same time you cannot help but appreciate his arguments – Cornthwaite is responsible for that. Bob is every sergeant story I have ever heard since. He knows all, sees all, and a good captain and officers wisely listen. They do. They even joke about it. It works.
There is of course, James Arness, who is our visitor. His name, unlike the others who vanished in to relative obscurity even with long careers, is known as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. They used his 6’7″ (2.01 meter) frame to full advantage which made him an imposing monster on screen.
I can’t say much about the technical aspects, it’s 1951. What they do – works rather well.
This is one of the great sci fi movies of all time and it doesn’t get nearly enough love. If you want to check it out, I highly recommend it.