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March 2015

20 Million Miles To Earth DVD

cast: William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Thomas Browne Henry, Frank Puglia, and Arthur Space

director: Nathan Juran

82 minutes (PG) 1957
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

20 Million Miles To Earth colourised

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..." (voice-over introduction)

Movies are the art of the impossible. Since the very first faltering experiments at projecting images made of light and shadow, it has been a medium of miracle. If the photo doesn't lie, then the cine-camera 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 stop-frame 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 river like 1950s' third-world and folksy Neapolitan strings pluck and swirl. Swarthy fishermen with comic accents pause as an ear-splitting sound precedes a planetary rocket-ship 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 hull-breach 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 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 jelly-like 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 'house-on-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 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 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 live-action 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', 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 job-well-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' 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 creature-combatants, of course, are stop-motion 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 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 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 long-time collaborator Charles H. Schneer, 20 Million Miles To Earth is very much his own project, selecting Italian shooting locations because they offer the 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-and-white 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 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 film-makers.

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 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.

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