OUT OF THE SKY: HOW ‘EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS’ (1956) CHANNELED WAR TRAUMA INTO CINEMATIC FANTASY

No single artifact is more synonymous with ‘50s sci-fi than the flying saucer. You see one and you can almost hear a theremin playing. And no single movie has done more to solidify the conventions of the flying saucer in fiction than the 1956 picture Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Flying saucers, of course, are pretty passe in current science fiction, and don’t show up in movies anymore except as camp (see: Mars Attacks!) but Earth vs. the Flying Saucers established a lot of conventions that are still valid currency in your typical alien invasion movie. The popular image of the flying saucer – a stationary central cabin, a ring around it with an upper and lower portion that rotate in opposite directions, and a hatch on the bottom which can admit passengers while landed or fire weapons while flying – first appeared in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, created by legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. The genre conventions of the flying saucer are first codified here as well: the protagonist who’s a brilliant scientist, the government and military bureaucracy who are initially skeptical and intransigent, the shockingly violent first strike by the aliens done under a flag of peace, the race against time to find a weakness that can be leveraged against the aliens, the venturing inside the alien spaceship, the mind probe, and the spectacular destruction of celebrated works of Earthling architecture (lovingly animated by Ray Harryhausen, down to individual pieces of falling rubble).

It’s worth looking into the origin of the term “flying saucer.” Sightings of round objects in the sky have been attested since the Middle Ages, but the term “flying saucer” was first popularized in a widely reported story from 1947 by Kenneth Arnold, a businessman and amateur aviator. The story, which forms the basis of modern ufology, occurred on June 26, 1947, when Arnold, flying through Washington State on a business trip, glimpsed nine aircraft-shaped disks near Mt. Rainier. These craft were in formation, moving “like a saucer would if you skipped them,” and exceeding speeds of 1,700 miles an hour, or nearly three times faster than any aircraft in use at the time. Because of the way the craft maintained their formation despite their incredible speed, and the precise turns they made which would have incapacitated or killed any human pilot through G-forces, Arnold eventually came around to the belief that the aircraft were of extraterrestrial origin.

What followed the Arnold story was a rash of flying saucer sightings. In mere weeks after Arnold’s initial encounter, North American newspapers and civil authorities were flooded with reports of flying objects which matched Arnold’s testimony to varying degrees. The most famous of these was the incident in Roswell, New Mexico, in which the remains of a crashed saucer were allegedly uncovered. Suddenly, flying saucers were a hot item.

The Arnold story was followed very closely by Donald Keyhoe, a former Marine Corps aviator and freelance writer. In 1949, the editor of True magazine, for which Keyhoe had contributed in the past, reached out to Keyhoe for help, in the hopes that he could use his Pentagon contacts to clarify some contradictory information the Air Force had released about the Arnold affair. This led Keyhoe down a rabbit hole of research, from which he emerged utterly convinced that the flying saucers were real and came from another planet. He published his findings in True, and later expanded them into the book The Flying Saucers Are Real, a book which “suggested” the plotline of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers.

“Suggested” is an interesting word to use in this context. Aside from the premise “flying saucers are real,” the movie takes very little from the book. It’s an adaptation more in spirit than in letter – the movie has a semi-documentary structure, and significant portions of its plot are doled out in the form of newsreel-esque montages, with a journalistic voiceover from a never-named, never-seen narrator. The book has a fairly consistent internal narrative, which the movie completely disregards. But neither does it substitute much plot of its own. From a modern perspective, the movie lacks human interest – the characters are fairly one-dimensional, and there’s comparatively little of the moral conflict and side-plots we’ve come to expect from the alien invasion narrative.

Our protagonist, Dr. Russel Marvin, is an all-purpose brilliant scientist employed with “Project Skyhook,” which as of 1956 (one year before Sputnik launched) has already launched 11 research satellites into Earth orbit, which all come crashing down from some hostile force. What this hostile force could be is quickly ascertained when saucers land at Dr. Marvin’s workplace, and aliens emerge. They shrug off potshots by overeager Army regulars, and vaporize their enemies effortlessly, going on to destroy the entire facility, a disaster from which Dr. Marvin and his wife barely escape.

Too late, Dr. Marvin decodes a message in the signals he’s been monitoring which indicate that the aliens were trying to arrange a peaceful meeting. This seems like it’s going to jump off into a didactic plot condemning our society’s militaristic paranoia, in the style of some of the more liberal-minded alien invasion narratives like The Day The Earth Stood Still and any number of Twilight Zone episodes. But that entire plot point is a red herring because the aliens do in fact have hostile intentions. They wanted to meet peacefully so as to negotiate terms for their occupation, but there’s never any question that they intend to occupy the planet, by hook or by crook.

It’s a tired truism that alien-invasion narratives of the ’50s were all about the Cold War and the Red Scare, and while that’s definitely accurate in many cases, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers instead seems preoccupied with lingering World War II imagery. The fact that the movie came out in 1956 is no object when one considers how many contemporary action and disaster movies still carry echoes of 9/11, nearly twenty years later. Sometimes, it takes a society a long time to process something.

The aliens’ powerful first strikes echo the horrifying power of original rollout of the Nazis across Europe and the Japanese across East Asia. The billowing flames issuing upwards from Project Skyhook definitely has Pearl Harbor vibes. The film solidifies these impressions with the liberal use of World War II stock footage to fill out the scenes of destruction it didn’t have the budget to recreate. A naval carrier in the Pacific Ocean is destroyed that really was destroyed in real life (the warship HMS Barnham), a real rocket launch accident is turned into the aliens destroying a rocket, and two airplanes caught on film having crashed from misadventure found new life as victims of a flying saucer attack (cold comfort to their pilots, I’m sure).

But putting aside the rather distasteful use of real military carnage, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers also takes inspiration from the technological race that characterized World War II. After the initial alien blitzkrieg (only figurative here), Dr. Marvin becomes convinced that the way to defeat the aliens is to recreate the sonic technology that powers both their death rays and the impenetrable shields that they are able to erect around their saucers. In real life, we had several such races during World War II, including radar technology which saved Great Britain from German bombing raids, massive advances in computer science to break Axis codes, and the elephant in the room, the atom bomb. With the benefit of hindsight, history has confirmed what many leading military personnel (future President Eisenhower among them) suspected at the time – that Japan was on its knees, and the a-bomb was never needed– but at the time, the bomb was still seen as a miraculous workaround against a costly invasion of mainland Japan.

For many people, the a-bomb itself, outside of any military application, represented the beginning of a new technological era for humanity. We’d finally split the atom open and peered at what was inside. We’d left Newtonian physics behind and jumped into an entirely new universe. It was easy to believe that any aliens who might be watching our planet might consider the development of nuclear energy the benchmark that we had to pass before we were worth paying attention to. This idea shows up in a lot of the alien-invasion narratives of the period, most notably The Day the Earth Stood Still. It is also speculated very seriously by Donald Keyhoe in The Flying Saucers Are Real. But Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers doesn’t mention it. (Although, interestingly enough, the headquarters for Project Skyhook is in the desert, in a very official, very secret-looking Los Alamos type facility.)

Neither does the hypothesis Keyhoe briefly entertains that the saucers are covering up Russian weapon tests – lord knows that would have sold. And most remarkably, since the entire book The Flying Saucers Are Real is an extended narrative of Keyhoe’s investigative process: hitting dead ends, trying to reconcile contradictory stories, getting the runaround from the armed forces, and enduring subtle threats of his imminent charge as a national security threat. None of that happens in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. The government’s cover-up of the flying saucers, the entire point of Keyhoe’s book and one of the biggest recurring topics in the whole practice of ufology, is treated as an afterthought: secrecy is taken for granted, and never becomes either a theme or a plot point.

That fact, coupled with the pseudo-documentary feel of the movie, brings an interesting kind of tension with the utterly fantastic subject matter. One wonders how Maj. Keyhoe felt about it. Not only was his utterly serious-minded book turned into a ridiculous fiction, but in creating the flying saucers themselves, Ray Harryhausen contacted George Adamski, a “contactee” who claimed to have met the aliens and taken a spin around the solar system, to get an idea what the saucers should look like. Harryhausen later professed that during this meeting, Adamski, who had received several visits from the FBI, was very paranoid and jumpy, and made veiled allusions to threats he’d received. I wonder how Keyhoe and Adamski must have felt to have seen their stories used to fuel a silly make-believe movie.

Maybe they went along with it, who knows? Adamski was a known kook even before his UFO “visits,” spending the 1920s and ’30s kicking around the California occult scene, preaching a sort of hybrid Taoist Christianity. And Donald Keyhoe had cut his teeth around the same time period with pulp adventure and sci-fi stories for magazines like Amazing Stories – a fact which his critics did not hesitate to bring up against him. Perhaps these two men’s accounts are slightly more fictive than they seem on the surface. The Flying Saucers Are Real does certainly read like an early precursor to the “nonfiction novel.” Keyhoe wasn’t able to resist investing the dramatizations of conversations he (allegedly) really had and trips he (allegedly) really took, with typical adventure story beats, putting punchy pulp dialogue into the mouths of all these real people, himself included.

That’s always been a feature, not a bug, of the ufology community. Like conspiracy culture in general, the story is a more integral feature to the whole phenomenon than the facts. There’s always some theatricality, some winking self-awareness present, even in the most journalistic of narratives. Just look at the garish covers that even sober, “fact-based” UFO books are printed with. Look at the title screens of UFO documentaries on the streaming service of your choice. You can’t tell me that cool aesthetics don’t play at least a small part of this subculture. And just as not everyone who does a birth chart necessarily literally believes the planets command your destiny, neither is every person involved in UFO culture a dyed-in-the-wool true believer in alien visitations. Many just think UFOs are cool and fun to think about. As a social phenomenon, UFOs attract people with certain values: people willing to be skeptical, to exercise parsimony and detective skills, to disbelieve the official narrative; but also people whose imaginations are big enough to accept incredible things most would dismiss. UFOs as cultural totems don’t need to be literally believed in to have some value to the people who invest time in them. To return to the astrology metaphor, it’s less about whether it’s literally true and more about what hidden things it can enable you to find out about yourself.

And, as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers makes clear, the specter of alien invasion brings quite a lot of real psychological tension to the surface. First, there’s the fact that the menace comes out of the air. This goes back to World War II again. World War II was, at that point in history, unique among wars in that it turned the air into a full-scale battleground. The overwhelming power of the German Luftwaffe swarmed over Europe like locusts. Imperial Japan and their huge clouds of fighter planes made quick work of the Pacific Islands which everyone had assumed were nearly impregnable by virtue of the vast swaths of ocean between them. No longer could you trust distance or terrain to hold back your enemy. He could appear anywhere, anytime.

The ascendant American superpower, separated from the war by two different oceans, found this out when caught utterly off guard by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It shook us out of our comfort. It awakened a kind of latent paranoia within us which has never been quite turned off again. At one point in World War II, the Japanese occupied a few of the Westernmost Aleutian Islands – the bits of Alaska that jut way out and share longitude with the easternmost tip of Russia – which caused panic all the way down the West Coast. There were air raid drills, shrieking op-eds, prophecies of doom. As one member of an Alaskan bomber group reported, “The fear of that scenario was real at the time because the Japanese were nearly invincible and ruthless in Asia and the Pacific. We knew that they bombed China relentlessly and by surprise on Pearl Harbor, so we had to make sure it wouldn’t happen here in the continental U.S. similar to what the Germans did over London and Coventry.”

The big objective behind retaking the Aleutians was the prevention of mass hysteria. There was a real fear that the panics and riots occasioned by the specter of Japanese bombs could end up being more deadly than the bombs themselves. And not entirely without reason, either: in February 1942, reports of a Japanese submarine off the California coast, that turned out to not even exist, caused a blackout all across Los Angeles, a punishing artillery barrage, and civil unrest that killed five people. The specter of mass panic shows up several times in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. Even the invading aliens are wary of it: their motive for not attacking the Earth right out of the blue, they say, is to prevent destructive panics that could either hamper their efforts to take the planet or despoil it beyond the worth of their trouble to take it. But these panics never happen. We’re shown newspaper headlines from the deadly attack on Dr. Marvin’s facility; we’re told that the public demands answers, and yet when the flying saucers start hovering over London, Paris, and Moscow, there is no indication that these cities are going up in flames. Even when Earth is given 56 days to surrender its defenses and prepare to be invaded, civil society continues.

Mass panic, then, is something which, in 1950s society, was too horrible to think about, even in an apocalyptic fantasy. Why should this be? The obvious answer is that sci-fi was still an extremely low-budget affair, and they lacked the resources to depict huge crowds of extras destroying things in the street. But it’s interesting to think of whether guilt might be involved. Along with the aforementioned “Battle of Los Angeles” (which itself would inspire another alien invasion movie, 2011’s Battle: Los Angeles), one of the most culturally prominent episodes of mass panic in recent memory was in response to yet another alien invasion narrative: the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, which led to civil disturbance due to audiences’ ignorance of the fictional nature of the alien invasion. Though the actual scale of the panic is disputed nowadays, it made for a splashy newspaper headline, and many commentators of the day attributed the panic to the heightened tensions the country was experiencing leading up to – you guessed it – World War II. Orson Welles, the announcer, and H.G. Wells, author of the novel on which the broadcast was based, reached much the same conclusion when they sat down for a radio interview in 1940. Wells described the supposed panic as “a bit of Halloween fun,” and went on to say “You aren’t quite serious in America, yet. You haven’t got the war right under your chins. And the consequence is you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict…. It’s a natural thing to do until you’re right up against it.”

I think there may have been some part of the American psyche that still felt guilt for “playing” with the idea of existential terror in this regard. Hence, in this idealized version of alien invasion that appears in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, the American public reacts in as calmly and orderly a fashion as anybody has any right to expect from them. All the world does, really; during the inevitable moment where the aliens commandeer every radio and TV in the world to communicate their next ultimatum, we see crowds of working people all over the world listen to the message in Spanish, French, German, Hindi, Chinese, and no one panics, they just listen intently and put appropriately grim expressions on. They even keep their cool after the Earth is hit with several days’ worth of artificial storms, with a shot of Washington, D.C. being calmly evacuated, queueing up for buses with suitcases in their hands, without even moving out of a walk.

The Americans do this, even though they end up suffering the brunt of the alien attacks, ending in spectacular fashion on the attack on Washington. Nowadays, it’s passe to see skyscrapers and beautiful old buildings tumble to pieces at the hands of aliens, but at the time of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers it was pretty shocking. If we follow the whole guilt hypothesis, this might be a way to let America work through its “survivors’ guilt.” For, America was unique among World War II’s major players in that it got through the war relatively unscathed. Other countries got absolutely pummeled by bombs. London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo: landmark architecture, thousands of years of history destroyed, to say nothing of all the lives lost, and no small amount of the destruction was caused by American bombers. Whether we felt personally responsible for all that or merely grimly accepted it as a necessary step, the fact is that this scourge didn’t touch us. The alien attack on our own treasured national landmarks could represent a symbolic purge of our guilt, a way to level the scales. Hence the Smithsonian, the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument all fall beneath laser beams, saucers land right on the White House lawn, and a saucer crashes right into the dome of the Capitol. Here, as in no other scene, is the American public allowed to scream and run around as they realistically would, and our protagonists are right in the thick of it, ducking behind the columns to dodge falling rubble.

This kind of architectural assault had been depicted on film before, of course: in the Godzilla movies across the sea, as well as in American creature features like Them and It Came From Beneath the Sea (in which Harryhausen had an octopus destroy the Golden Gate Bridge). But Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers was different: this was no creature, no force of nature, but conscious beings, an organized military force, bringing the metaphor for the horrors of world war into ever-sharper relief. This was a marked contrast from the typical alien invasion metaphor from the Cold War era. There, the fear of communist infiltration played out in tales of mind control, body-snatching, sabotage, espionage; in government cover-ups and the fog of war leading man and alien alike to paranoid madness. The kind of war where anyone could be a good or bad guy, or maybe there were no good or bad guys after all.

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers hearkened back to a different kind of war – the last widely perceived “good war” we fought. A war that, for all its horrors, was plain and vivid in its effects, that had clear sides drawn and clear moral stakes established; where communities were invaded, or leveled, instead of infiltrated and poisoned from within. An “honest” war. This kind of war pleased crowds and made good cinema: it was visually spectacular, lent itself to heroes you could cheer and villains you could jeer, and most importantly was decisively winnable, with no sticky complications to detangle at the end, enabling an inspiring, music-swelling happy ending on a beautiful beach. After seventy years of morally sticky, seemingly unending Cold War proxy conflicts and wars on terror, the enduring popularity of the film genre established by Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is perhaps a testament to our yearning to fight those kinds of “good wars” again.

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