Archive for June 28, 2011

1950’s Science Fiction films…

June 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The years between 1950 and 1956 were a highly creative period in Science Fiction film making, adding greatly to what is often referred to today, as the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

“People by the 1950’s had lost their optimistic confidence in the ability of science to fulfil all the dreams of mankind; instead you saw science about to fulfil all the nightmares of mankind.” J.G. Ballard

On both sides of the Channel, film makers fuelled by the perceived rise and associated fears of communism, improvements in film making technology and the creeping fear that science was not necessarily going to be the saviour of mankind (as suggested by Mr. Ballard above) produced a huge number of films, not all brilliant by any means, but some that I think can be regarded as absolute classics…

1951, (the same year incidentally as the Festival of Britain was busy expounding only the virtues of science) saw three of the best hit the big screens: The Day The Earth Stood Still, the wonderfully apocalyptic When Worlds Collide and The Thing from Another World, the film that John Carpenter would rework for his masterpiece The Thing.

All three films were American and relied heavily on the fear of Invasion, be it from far superior and intelligent races, other planets or that perennial favourite, monsters… Much has been written about McCarthyism and the purging of so called communist tendencies from the creative fields, and although it was finally on the wane by the early/ mid 1950’s, The Un-American Activities Commission was still an important consideration, with all three of these films demonstrating how much jingoism played a part in getting things made. The stars are all very Gung-ho, the enemy is always assumed to be anti-American/ Human and attacked without question, the Americans/ Humans always win, and the aliens/ monsters/ Russians always lose…

By the mid 50’s, film making techniques and effects were improving to such an extent that when one of my all time favourite films (and one I have touched on before) Forbidden Planet, came out in 1956, it looked and felt completely different from its predecessors. A truly remarkable film for its time, Forbidden Planet was one of the first to be set wholly on another planet, and its thanks to a futuristic electronic score and revolutionary special effects from by The Disney Studios, that it largely succeeded in being convincing with machines, weapons and robots that looked as if they might actually work. The acting was a step forward as well. Whilst there was still all the necessary Hollywood tick list items (comedy crew member (check) love interest (check) handsome hero (check) evil wrongdoer (check) these elements were beginning to become incidental to the plot rather than fundamentally driven by the script (just compare Leslie Neilson’s relationship with Anne Francis to the rather laboured goings on in either When Worlds Collide or Spaceways.

The War of the Worlds from 1953, directed by the inimitable George Pal (also responsible for Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space), is pretty faithful to the ideas of the original story, apart from the wholesale transportation of the story from Woking to California  that is. For the time and due in no small part to the estimated $2m budget allocated by Paramount Pictures, the effects were truly out of this world and quite rightly won the Oscar for best special effects in 1954. Colour also plays a huge part in the success of the film, with the green lights of the war machines and the scratchy effect death rays in particular standing out.

Other marvellous films from this period include; Destination Moon (1950), Spaceways (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), This Island Earth (1955), Conquest of Space (1955) and Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956) all of which are wonderful in their own way, with most relying on heavy curtains, clever lighting, perspex sheeting and a triumph of will over budget to bring the directors particular vision to life… I particularly like the main alien in Invaders From Mars, basically a man’s head, painted green with some stick on tentacles in an upturned fish bowl, or the silver suits and white wigs of Exeter and his alien colleagues in This Island Earth..  Simple and effective….

Of the films above, only two were made in the UK, Spaceways (the only film here I’ve not managed to see all the way through) and The Quatermass Xperiment. Both films were produced by the Hammer Studios and are decidedly more low key than their American counterparts, being both black and white and heavily reliant on a very small scale relationship at the centre of the film. In fact Spaceways (from what I can tell) seems to be  a fairly standard murder mystery love triangle, just set in space…

I must say that the posters are all pretty amazing in their own right, all original painted artwork or tinted photos, they very much reflect the styles of the day. It’s interesting looking at them all together now, how many similarities there are between them, be it the diagonal streak of fire/ text/ laser beam/ rocket across the image or that almost all of them emphasise the role of the “monster” in the picture… Not being a big monster movie fan, I thought I had deliberately chosen films which were more or less monster free, and instead concentrated on the space/ sciencey bit… but you wouldn’t really know it to look at these posters.

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