Tuesday, 30 March 2010

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Country: USA

20 Million Miles to Earth is an interesting if largely forgettable science-fiction film from the heyday of the genre in the 1950’s. However the film has one or two noteworthy aspects to it that separates it from other examples of the time. The first of these is an Italian setting. The film opens in a fishing village off the coast of Sicily. The calm heat of a Mediterranean afternoon is shattered when a rocket suddenly appears in the sky and crashes into the sea. The bewildered fisherman scatter like a shoal of fish, but fortunately a couple of brave fellows are on hand to investigate the possibility of survivors. We later discover that the rocket was returning from an expedition to Venus and the only survivor Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper) is keen to get his hands on a cylinder brought back from the mysterious planet. Pretty soon the might of the US military led by Major General McIntosh (Thomas Browne Henry) has descended on the sleepy village. Urgency is the order of the day as the cylinder which contains the egg of a weird lizard like creature from Venus has found its way into the hands of the zoologist Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) and his daughter Marisa (Joan Taylor). The creatures adaptation to the atmosphere is terrifying and unique as it starts to grow to massive proportions. Eventually the creature is caught and chained up in a zoo in Rome, but he soon escapes to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Italian populace.

Like most science-fiction narratives of the 1950’s 20 Million Miles to Earth is concerned with consensus and cooperation. In these films an expert (normally of military or scientific background) must convince both the authorities and the wider community of (a) the existence of an invading force and (b) whether to use peaceful or aggressive means to handle the potential threat. In this particular film the existence of the Venusian monster is never in doubt, but the means to deal with it is. The local Sicilian authorities are the aggressors here as they can only see the harm such a creature can do. By contrast the other invading force (the American military) are in favour of a pacifist approach in order to study the creature. It is fairly clear that the screenplay by Robert Creighton Williams and Christopher Knopf is emphasising both the technological advancement of the US (the image of a space rocket contrasted with a peasant village) and the moral and philosophical superiority of the US (the search for a peaceful means to subjugate the beast). This is a hard proposition for an audience to stomach just twelve years after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Furthermore only the American’s can understand both the technology and the creature. The Italian authorities in general are meekly acceptant of the US military and take on an increasingly subservient guise as the US takes over Rome zoo.

Although its refreshing to see the military and the scientists working in harmony (apart from the usual gender struggle that ends in predictable romance) they only do so because they have a common opponent in Italian aggression. What we have here is an example of trans-national consensus (one of the scientific specialists brought in to study the creature is Japanese) and the general message is that if trouble is in our midst we can rely on America to sort it out. The fact that the US is the cause of this bizarre series of events is soon forgotten as the creature starts to rampage around Rome landmarks. The creature itself is confused and bewildered by suddenly finding itself shot at, chained up and the size of an elephant. But by this point the US military’s pacifism has slipped quietly away in favour of gunfire and bombs. There is no question of them attempting to capture the creature a second time. It is ultimately harmless unless provoked and its treatment during the film (after all I’m sure it didn’t want to be stolen from its home planet) is unjust and harsh. It ultimately becomes a figure of sympathy as it climbs atop the coliseum and its death throes echo that other great sympathetic movie monster King Kong.

This is a film though in which visual effects are the most important thing. From the crash landed rocket which opens the film to the Venusian creature, this is a showcase for the stop motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen. A particular highlight being a fight between the creature and an elephant in the streets of Rome. When Harryhausen’s visual stamp is vacant from the screen action the film drags along and is quite simply boring. The characters never rise above stereotypes and the acting rarely rises above the level of catatonia. But the monochrome palette gives the film a certain grittiness and covers up any of the cracks in Harryhausen’s visual wizardry. By and large this is a bland science-fiction film with a confused and mixed message that is saved by the visual brilliance of Ray Harryhausen.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. A nice write up to a film I think I watched on the UHF band back in Dallas, Texas when I was growing up. Either after sporting events on Saturdays or post church services on Sundays, I'd lay around in front of the boob-tube sucking up old television westerns like THE LONE RANGER, GUN SMOKE, and my personal favorite, THE RIFLE MAN. As I got little older and the day began to wane, I switch to sci-fi and horror films ranging from the 30's through the 70's (though the lion's share where from the 50's), these being the mid to late afternoon fare on those long forgotten channels 27, 33, & 39, just to list a few. No matter how cheesy or bad most of them were/are, they made quite the impression on my young mind. I remember many of them terrified me. It wasn't rare then to catch many of the classic Universal and Hammer horror films from the Golden Age, too. The ones I haven't seen since, which is the vast majority of them, exist on some weird subconscious plane, like old or forgotten dreams, trace images of which can come crashing back unexpectedly when jogged by some outside (and usually unrelated) force or event.

    Anyway, an informative write up to say the least. I've decided that I'm going to endeavor to educate myself by reading all of your reviews over the next month or two. This was the first one I've read since I decided to do just that. And I'm already better off for it! Cheers, mate. - Greg

  2. Wow you've really been digging into the far reaches of the Highway. I had totally forgotten I'd reviewed this...thanks for bringing it to my attention again. Your formative film watching years sound like halcyon days my friend, but my experience was slightly different. We had just 4 terrestrial television channels in the UK for the duration of my childhood, and while BBC1 and BBC2 did do a series of late night horror slots (where I feasted upon Hammer horror and the like) 50's science-fiction was largely absent from my film diet. Aside from such Sunday afternoon fare as THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, FORBIDDEN PLANET, and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. You can imagine the ground I had to cover when 50's sci-fi quickly became one of my research interests. Those images that exist like fragmentary dream passages, should remain just that. If you revisited those films they probably wouldn't do your memories justice. I find that is all too often my experience.

    If you come across any errors, or layout problems, on your wanderings into the far reaches of this site, please let me know, and I'll endeavour to correct them. There are some reviews on here that I haven't revisited since they were published. Also good luck on your journey, I feel I should sponsor you :-) Instead I promise to buy you a cool beer (or maybe even two!) if our paths ever cross out there on the real Highway.


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