A nightmarish vision of the Martian menace, Invaders from Mars is arguably a sharp comment on how a child’s world warps as a consequence of abuse.
William Cameron Menzies’ frightening portrayal of a Martian menace is blessed with his own fantastic production design, brilliantly weaving a world from a child’s perspective. With a stunning score and unique sound design to compliment it, this is a film that deserves recognition. Fading into obscurity, it is time that Invaders from Mars was given a new consideration.
One night, young boy David McLean (Jimmy Hunt) is woken in the midst of a storm. Peering out of his window, he looks in awe and fear at the sight of a glowing flying saucer descending into the hills behind his home. Fearing the worst, David tells his father George (Leif Erickson), who goes to look in the morning. When his father returns, he is but a shell of the man David knew. More and more adults in David’s town fall prey to the unseen force in the sandpit behind his home. Totally isolated from his changed parents, David turns to astronomer Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz) and Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter). Together with David, the two doctors do all they can – enlisting the help of the military – to face off the Martians before more people fall under their dreaded control.
Invaders from Mars has a simple setup, but is executed with such precision and strong performances that it goes above and beyond the expected alien invader scenario. David’s loving father-son relationship is firmly established in the film’s opening with some playfully gentle dialogue and lovely framing. One shot wherein David and his father look up into the heavens, framed together in a close-up, brilliantly passes their sense of excitement onto the viewer. Their wonder is infectious. Leif Erickson’s performance feels genuine and warm. We believe he is a father who cares about his son. In only a few minutes, a loving paternal trust is captured perfectly.
No trace of that love we initially see remains in him once he returns from the sandpit. It is heart-breaking seeing David become so disconnected so quickly from a relationship we saw rich with compassion. When David’s father physically hurts him it is nothing short of shocking. It is a cold moment. The camera lingers on David’s face: bewildered at this man he thought was his father. It defines the stark juxtaposition between who his father was, and the shell he has become. That their relationship is initially set up with such affection makes the corruption of David’s father all the more upsetting. Erickson’s performance as a puppet of the Martians contrasts brilliantly with his initial warm and friendly demeanour. Once changed, his father speaks at his son, not to him; denying David any form of eye contact. From that point on, more and more adults also fall prey to the same fate.
David finds fewer and fewer authority figures to look up to. His world and its normality are forever shaken. The emotional and physical abuse inflicted by his changed parents twists the physical world around him too – as seen in the beautiful production design by the Menzies himself – as rooms appear sparse with high walls and the trees leading to the sand pit behind his home growing warped and jagged. The world itself becomes threatening.
It is interesting to note that the two adult protagonists in whom David trusts are an astronomer and a doctor – people of intellect. The McCarthysm of the 1950s was distrustful of such people, making David’s trust in them significant. For traditional authority figures to be ‘corrupted’ by the enemy whilst those seen as intellectuals act as heroes arguably makes the case that Invaders from Mars (often cited as a ‘red scare’ film) possibly posits a narrative that stands against McCarthysm; that those we see as symbols of intellect should be trusted, and that blind obedience to typical American authority figures is potentially dangerous.
- Note – whilst the military do act as heroes in the narrative (which could counter the above point), it should be mentioned that several high-ranking army officials fall under Martian control.
The camera work is superb. Low angles work to emulate the point of view of David as well as his sense of dread and unease. Adults appear as giants to him, such as when he peers up at the police. By extension, the Martian mutants themselves appear monstrously gigantic. Tracking shots are used beautifully, often revealing the scale of the events and furthering the fantasy of it all. During a meeting with Dr. Stuart Kelston, Kelston takes Pat and David up to use the observatory’s enormous telescope. As they ascend the stairs to use it, the camera pulls back slowly revealing the grandiose scale of the instrument. Tracking shots are used similarly during the film’s gripping climax. In the midst of the desperate search for the captured Pat and David, the camera pulls back from the action. With the hill leading to the sandpit in the background, the military in the foreground close in. The cinematography of John F. Seitz elevates the film, and the visuals become one of the film’s strongest features.
The camera is allowed to excel due largely to director Menzies’ own stunning production design. From the menacing Martian flying saucer to the eerily threatening police headquarters, the vivid production design lends a dreamlike quality perfect for the child perspective the narrative asserts. The Martian spaceship’s interiors are bathed in a mesmerising green glow, and its sparseness adds an alien, unfamiliar touch. The police headquarters perfectly reflect David’s growing distrust of authority figures. The front desk is placed far from the entrance; drawing out David’s walk to what he (at first) believes is safety. The desk itself is tall, allowing for the adult menace to grow as they look down upon him.
Of particular note has to be the sandpit itself that lies behind David’s home. The crooked fence that seemingly leads to nowhere is eerie. That twisted and jagged trees surround the sandpit (as previously mentioned) only furthers that sense of unease. Seeing person after person walk toward that visually unsettling horizon adds to the nightmare that is the Martian invasion.
Complimenting the visuals is the astounding sound design. A choir is used to produce the menacing yet ethereal sound that accompanies the opening and closing of the sandpit as the Martians capture people. It is an unforgettable sound, perfectly capturing the essence of the unknown and otherworldly.
Behind the mesmerising sound design is Raoul Kraushaar’s beautiful musical score. Dramatic and terrifying at times, and whimsically fantastical at others it brilliantly compliments the impressive visuals. The final notes that accompany the film’s end gently descend as the haunting choir lingers, just as Menzies’ film itself does in one’s mind.
Invaders from Mars is often forgotten compared to more famous titles of the genre in the 1950s. It is a shame, too, because Invaders from Mars offers so much in the way of social and cultural commentary. From its arguable progressive stance critiquing how we view authority figures, to its believable and poignant performances, this is a film with perhaps more nuance than most have given it credit for. That its visual design, music, and sound all compliment one another is an additional gift in and of itself. This is a film that achieves what few can: it successfully captures the perspective of a child. Perhaps ironically, that realistic depiction of a youthful eye is realised in fantasy, in monstrous green men from Mars.