20 Million Miles To Earth

“Great
scientific
advances are
oftentimes
sudden
accomplished
facts before
most of us are
even dimly
aware of them.
Breathtakingly
unexpected,
for example,
was the
searing flash
that
announced the
atomic age.
Equally
unexpected
was the next
gigantic stride
when Man
moved out of
his very orbit
to a point more
than 20 million
miles to
Earth…” (voiceover
introduction)
Movies are the
art of the
impossible. Since
the very first
faltering
experiments at
projecting images
made of light and
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shadow, it has
been a medium
of miracle. If the
photo doesn’t lie,
then the cinecamera
has
always
specialised in
fooling the eye.
Twenty-first
century
blockbusters take
spectacle to
places it’s never
been before. We
take its sense of
wonder for
granted. But long
before CGI there
were visual feasts
to tease your
credulity. Here, a
monster
dinosaur-lizard
from Venus
grapples with an
elephant from
the Rome zoo.
Which is real,
and which
animation? The
alien reptile – the
‘Ymir’, must
obviously be
special effects,
but the
elephant..?
Where does stopframe
end and
reality take over?
It momentarily
fools even the
experienced eye.
And this is 1957.
But first, there’s a
dramatic
narration over
galactic spirals
and star-clusters,
as the title-words
hurl in from left
and right. Before
the film opens
onto the
picturesque
fishing village of
Commune di
Gerra in
southern Sicily,
where local
women in
headscarves
wash their
laundry in the
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river like 1950s’
third-world and
folksy Neapolitan
strings pluck and
swirl. Swarthy
fishermen with
comic accents
pause as an earsplitting
sound
precedes a
planetary rocketship
nose-diving
into the sea. As
other ships flee,
challenged with
“what are we,
children or men
of the sea?” two
men, and a boy in
a small boat,
cautiously
investigate the
ship projecting
from the
bubbling sea.
They climb in
through a hullbreach
to the
steaming
interior. Two
men in U.S. Air
Force helmets,
strapped into
their seats, are
retrieved before
the ‘ship of the
air’ submerges.
Meanwhile, in
the far-off
Pentagon, Major
General
McIntosh
(Thomas Browne
Henry) has a
moving orrery of
spinning worlds
to demonstrate
what’s going on.
His concern is
the XY21, a
single-stage
astro-propelled
ship, initially
with a 17-man
complement,
which was hit by
meteorites on its
return journey
from the planet
Venus. That ship
is now “20,000
leagues under the
sea,” right down
there with the
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fish. So McIntosh
prepares to go to
Sicily by U.S.
flying boat.
On the beach the
boy, Pepe –
convincingly
played by
American Bart
Braverman,
discovers a U.S.
capsule, and
hides it in the
rocks. When he
screws it open, it
reveals a jellylike
slug. He tries
to sell ‘the animal
specimen’ for
200 pre-Euro
Lira to marine
zoologist Dr
Leonardo (Frank
Puglia) who
happens to be
camping in a
caravan ‘houseon-the-wheels’
with his medical
student
granddaughter
Marisa (Joan
Taylor). He
makes the trade
despite calling
Pepe a ‘Sicilian
bandit’, and the
boy uses the
proceeds to buy a
bang-bang
cowboy outfit
from “the great
country of
Texas.” While
Marisa – ‘almost
a doctor’, helps
nurse the two
surviving
astronauts.
Although blond
uniformed pilot
Bob Calder
(William
Hopper)
recovers, his
companion Dr
Sharman (Arthur
Space) soon dies
from warty facial
growths.
Arriving in Italy,
McIntosh is
taken to meet
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Calder, as police
divers prepare to
descend and
search the wreck.
There’s some
amusing
confusion with
the local
authorities about
where the
submerged ship
had returned
from – “Venus –
not Venice!” But
by now events
are well under
way. In the
zoological
caravan, a
twitching claw
emerges from the
jelly-sample, and
a tiny lizard
hatches, hiding
its eyes from the
light. Placed
overnight in a
specimen cage it
rapidly grows to
three times its
original size.
Their work done,
the pair hitch the
caravan – “the
house that
follows like a
goat,” and head
back for Rome
via Messina.
En route,
inevitably, the
creature
wrenches the
cage-bars apart
and escapes,
scares the horses
and stampedes
the sheep,
although a dog
distracts its
attention from a
cutesy-cute lamb!
Alerted by Pepe,
Calder and
McIntosh speed
to the scene in
time for a
dramatic
showdown.
There’s another
encounter with a
dog when the
now man-sized
beast is
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discovered hiding
out in a barn.
Despite being
warned that it’s
“not ferocious
unless provoked”
the farmer does
some unwise
pitchfork
provocation, and
is severely
injured as a
result. Calder
jousts with the
beast, using a
pole in some
impressive liveaction
and
animation
interaction. But it
escapes into the
Italian
countryside,
taking time out to
bask at a scenic
waterfall close by
some volcanic
lava-beds.
William Hopper –
who had already
featured in the
1955 sci-fi movie
Conquest Of
Space, as well as
playing Natalie
Wood’s father in
James Dean’s
classic Rebel
Without A Cause
(1955), is now
Calder, using a
huge brick-like
walkie-talkie
radio to
coordinate
operations. The
creature eats
sulphur, so they
lure it out with
sacks of its
mineral of
choice. In uneasy
alliance with
suspicious Italian
authorities, he
uses two Marine
helicopters with
an electrified net
to capture the
fugitive beast. As
it’s carried off to
the Rome
‘Giardino
Zoologico’,
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strapped down
and controlled by
a continual
voltage charge,
Calder shoves his
cap back on his
head and slots a
cigarette into his
mouth in a jobwell-done
gesture.
Then he gets on
with his
bantering
flirtation with
Marisa,
reconciled with
the promise of a
tryst for two in a
dark café with
candles on the
table. Joan
Taylor –
American, but
with dark
Italianate
features
inherited from
her conveniently
Sicilian descent,
was familiar to
audiences
through
appearances in
TV westerns
Wagon Train
and Gunsmoke,
but could also be
seen in Ray
Harryhausen’s
box-office hit
Earth vs. The
Flying Saucers
(1956).
She’s now
working in the
Zoo labs,
“cooking over a
hot creature all
day.” She decides
the Venusian
beast is “a
mutation, but of
what species?” It
has no heart, no
lungs, and
gunfire has no
effect on it.
However, Earth’s
atmosphere has
accelerated its
growth to ‘King
Kong’
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proportions. And
like Kong, it’s an
unfortunate
victim of human
exploitation.
Retrieved as a
sample of
Venusian fauna,
it’s an unwilling
exile on Earth.
Until, taking
advantage of a
falling arc-light
accident that
interrupts the
anaesthetising
electrical supply,
it wakes, and
bursts free
through the wall
into the adjoining
elephant
compound.
Here,
Harryhausen
himself can
briefly be
glimpsed feeding
the elephants.
And this is where
his beautifully
choreographed
elephant versus
monster battle
occurs. With the
fight spilling over
into the Roman
streets, “loose
and on the
rampage”
causing
predictable
shrieks and
panic, and Calder
hot on its trail.
Both creaturecombatants,
of
course, are stopmotion
animated
and split-screen
integrated into
action-sequences
that define 1950s
state-of-the-art
visual effects.
In the next
century, as a
knowing tribute,
in 2002’s
Monsters, Inc the
CGI beasties
frequent a
Monstropolis
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sushi bar called
‘Harryhausens’.
Because Ray
himself – born 29
June 1920, is
both a
continuity-link,
and an
accelerator in the
evolution of the
movie special
effects that made
it all possible. As
a member of the
‘Los Angeles
Science Fiction
League’ Forrest J
Ackerman
introduced Ray
Harryhausen to
Ray Bradbury,
the three
‘tweenagers’
becoming firm
fan-friends.
According to
Ackerman,
Harryhausen was
inspired, and
encouraged by
Willis O’Brien’s
innovative work
on King Kong
(1933). After
“seeing ‘Kong’
upwards of 80
times in the
intervening
interval, and
always
experimenting to
find improved
methods of
creating and
animating
monsters,” he
advanced the
cinematic art,
devising what he
termed his own
‘Dynamation’
techniques.
He got to work as
O’Brien’s
assistant on
Mighty Joe
Young (1949),
performing much
of the actual
frame-by-frame
animation, but
emphatically
came into his
own with the
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spectacular
creature-feature
The Beast From
20,000 Fathoms
(1953), based on
a story by his
friend, Ray
Bradbury. Caught
up in Cold War
paranoia, a
hibernating
dinosaur is
revived and
unleashed on
New York by an
experimental
nuclear testing
programme. It
was followed by
the even more
impressive It
Came From
Beneath The Sea
(1955), this time
set on America’s
west-coast, with
a giant octopus
attacking San
Francisco.
By now,
Harryhausen had
the ability to
transform his
films into a
medium of
spectacle,
exerting a degree
of technical
control that
enabled unique
integrations of
live-action with
miniaturised
elements. His
increasingly
bankable
reputation also
meant he was
able to take
advantage of new
opportunities. So
that, despite
producer-credit
going to his longtime
collaborator
Charles H.
Schneer, 20
Million Miles
To Earth is very
much his own
project, selecting
Italian shooting
locations because
they offer the
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chance of travel
to exotic corners
of Europe.
The gift of
O’Brien’s ability
with ‘Kong’…
carried over into
Pixar’s Monsters,
is to establish
emotional
characterisation
in their creations.
And the Ymir is a
fully-realised
cast-member in
its own right,
walking upright T
Rex-style on its
hind legs while
constantly
flicking its
reptilian tail to
convey an
expressive range
from curiosity to
frustration. Its
upper jaw-line
even resembles a
kind of
moustache!
Subsequently
colourised – with
Harryhausen’s
active
participation, the
film still works
best in its
original
atmospherically
crisp black-andwhite
print.
To critics David
Miller and Mark
Gatiss, it
“remains a
fantastic sci-fi
fairy tale and
Harryhausen
deserves more
than a fortnight
in Sicily for his
pains” (They
Came From
Outer Space!,
Visual
Imagination,
1996). Among his
subsequent
movie-magic was
visualising the
mythic
masterwork
Jason And The
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Argonauts
(1963), including
perhaps his most
memorably
admired
sequence, the
sword-wielding
seven-skeleton
army; setting
standards that
would, in turn,
inspire later
generations of
fantastic filmmakers.
Meanwhile, with
an eye to the
tourist dollar,
and with the
Empire State
Building not
available, the
monster first
emerges from the
Tiber, smashing
the iconic Ponte
Sant’ Angelo
bridge to rubble
fragments, then
detours to
Rome’s most
famous location,
the Colosseum,
wrecking Roman
columns with
scant
consideration for
their historic
value. In
Ackerman’s
phrase “ruining
what wasn’t
already ruined in
Rome” (in
Nebula #23,
August 1957).
And Calder is
there. Cameras
take panoramic
pans around the
vast ruined
interior of the
empty arena.
Where is the
monster? Calder
bazooka’s it as it
climbs to the
highest point of
the outer walls
where it hurls
stone blocks
down at the
assembling
marines. It
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stumbles, but
hangs on, until
tank-fire brings
the wall down.
And it plummets
to its death.
As curious people
gather around its
mighty corpse,
and Marisa falls
into Calder’s
embrace, the
Professor
laments “why is it
always, always so
costly for man to
move from the
present to the
future..?” The
film itself
constitutes a step
forward towards
new movie
futures