Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 26, 2015

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

I owe my fondness for our solar system and the planets that belong to it to my late grandfather Bill (who I affectionately called Poppa). Bill owned a telescope and he would set it up on the sidewalk in front of his house on a hot summer Fresno, California night and let the neighborhood (and his grandson) gaze up at the heavens.  I saw Saturn and its rings and Mars for the first time through his telescope. I memorized all the names of the planets as a kid and to this day I look to the stars from time to time when I notice a particular bright object in the sky or on the horizon.

Hollywood has also been fascinated with the stars and planets and galaxies that make up our universe for story ideas. Many films have aliens coming from the red planet Mars like WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) but the filmmakers for 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) are the first that I can recall to have a space creature from Venus. The second planet from the sun and the closest planet to Earth (it's actually 25 million miles away according to Google not 20 million miles as the film's title suggests), Venus is that bright star just on the horizon in the west after the sun sets. I stumbled upon 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH one afternoon as a kid while over at a friend's house. Although I was intrigued by the lizard like Venus creature, I remember being slightly traumatized by a scene where the creature pushes a zoo elephant back on its haunches, crushing two zookeepers behind the elephant. Yes, both were just clay model creatures but it seemed real to me at the time.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH and its creature from Venus (known as Ymir by film geeks although never named in the movie) is the work of famed Special Effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.  This would be only Harryhausen's 2nd feature film following IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955). 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is directed by Nathan Juran who would collaborate with Producer Charles H. Schneer and Harryhausen on 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958). 20 MILLION MILES screenplay is by Bob Williams and Christopher Knopf from a story by Charlott Knight. Harryhausen idolized KING KONG effects wizard Willis O'Brien and got his first film work on O'Brien's MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH follows the KING KONG storyline to a degree but with a science fiction angle.

A U.S spaceship, the XY21, returning to Earth from a 13 month mission to Venus crash lands off the coast of Sicily. Two Sicilian fishermen Verrico (George Khoury) and  Mondello (Don Orlando) with a young boy Pepe (Bart Bradley now Bart Braverman) paddle out to the ship and rescue two of the 17 astronauts on board before the spaceship sinks. One of the astronauts Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper) survives but Dr. Sharman (Arthur Space) dies from a space fungus on his face contracted on Venus that killed most of the crew.

A small metal container from the ship washes up on the beach and young Pepe discovers it. He finds a frozen embryo with a creature inside the container. Pepe sells it to a zoologist Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) who's on vacation in the region with his granddaughter Marisa Leonardo (Joan Taylor), a medical student. The U.S. Government tracks the wayward spaceship to Sicily. Major General McIntosh (Thomas B. Henry) and Dr. Judson Uhl (John Zaremba) arrive in Sicily and meet up with Calder who briefs them that the expedition brought back an alien specimen from Venus on the spaceship. Only no one knows where the specimen is.

The embryo hatches and a small lizard like creature with a human like torso, dinosaur like tail, and reptilian scales emerges.  Dr. Leonardo has never seen anything like it. He places the alien creature Ymir in a cage in his trailer and begins to return to Rome to study the creature. Young Pepe reveals to Major McIntosh that he found the container and sold it to Dr. Leonardo. Calder and the Army race to find Dr. Leonardo. Ymir grows at a rapid rate and escapes Leonardo's trailer. Calder almost traps Ymir in a farmer's barn but Ymir escapes. Calder knows the creature likes sulfur (Venus's number one mineral). Ymir heads to the base of Mount Etna and its sulfur pits. Italian Police Commissario Charra (Tito Vuolo) wants the alien killed but Calder devises an electric net to drop on Ymir and immobilize the monster which he and Dr. Uhl successfully complete with the assistance of Army helicopters.

Ymir, sedated by an electrical current, is brought back for observation at the Rome Zoo. McIntosh updates a small pool of reporters on Ymir's origin. As Calder shows three reporters the alien from Venus, an electrical accident awakens Ymir and the monster breaks free of its chains, terrorizing an elephant at the zoo before wrecking havoc through the streets of Rome. Calder and the US Army (who are somehow available instead of the Italian Army) pursue Ymir through the Roman Forum to the Colosseum where Ymir climbs to the top of the ancient arena in its final standoff against tanks and bazookas.

Harryhausen's Venusian lizard creature Ymir from 20,000 MILES TO EARTH has many similarities with another large cinematic creature that wishes it had never met the human race -- King Kong. Both Ymir and Kong are brought to earth/civilization against their will. Because these creatures exhibit fear when first interacting with humans, the audience feels empathy for the lizard alien/ape and their fish out of water situation. Ymir just wants to be back on its sulfuric planet Venus. King longs to be fighting dinosaurs on Skull Island. Ymir breaks out of the Rome Zoo and terrorizes some of  Rome's famous landmarks like the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Kong bursts out of his shackles in New York's renowned Radio City Music Hall and climbs to the tallest perch he can find in New York - the Empire State Building. Both creatures fight to the end against the US Army/fighter planes and fall to their deaths dramatically, surrounded by the curious public who feared the monsters hours before.

It should be no surprise that 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH borrows plot elements from KING KONG (1933) as KONG was the film that inspired a young Harryhausen to enter the world of film special effects, even apprenticing with Willis O'Brien, a special effect pioneer who created King Kong and gave Harryhausen his first job on another rampaging ape movie MIGHT JOE YOUNG. 20 MILLION MILES pays it forward inspiring future Science Fiction movies. A point of view (POV) shot of the spaceship in 20 MILLION MILES hurtling toward open water is replicated in a similar POV shot from the opening minutes of PLANET OF THE APES (1968) as a spacecraft carrying Charleton Heston breaks through the clouds and toward water where it crash lands. And the embryonic egg that the lizard Ymir hatches from in 20 MILLION MILES took me back to the eggs that John Hurt stumbles across in Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979). Hurt wishes a small alien lizard like Ymir had emerged instead of the squid-like organism that attaches itself to Hurt's face.

Most of the 1950's Science Fiction monster films were fairly low budget like TARANTULA (1955)or THE BEAST FROM 50,000 FATHOMS (1953). Some were shot overseas in Europe to save on money. You won't find Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, or Ingrid Bergman in these kind of films. 20 MILLION MILES has the good fortune to be partially filmed in Italy. Somehow,  Producer Charles Schnee procured some Army hardware to beef up the production value. Army helicopters, jeeps, two dozen Army extras, and even a tank give 20 MILLION MILES some pizazz. The most amazing coup by the filmmakers are sequences of the soldiers racing around the Roman Forum and the Colosseum chasing the creature. Two years ago, I was in Rome on vacation. Those historical sites looked spectacular but protected with limited access for tourists. Archaeologists are still excavating on the sites. Apparently in 1957, the Italians weren't doing much upkeep to the Forum or Colosseum. The Forum looks overrun with weeds. And it looks like no section of the Colosseum was off limits to the film crew as soldiers race up and down all levels of the ancient arena. How times have changed.

Ultimately, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is a B movie with some unintentionally laughable moments. Early in the film, the high ranking military officer McIntosh actually pays the reward money himself to the young urchin Pepe for discovering the lost container. Where's the General Accounting Office to handle that transaction? Later, McIntosh gives an incredibly detailed speech about the creature to reporters (and the audience), giving way more information than any government official should. I would hate to see McIntosh brief reporters (and Russian spies posing as reporters) on any of the U.S.'s military secrets or classified projects.

William Hopper as Col. Robert Calder is the only real recognizable star in 20 MILLION MILES. Hopper, the son of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, had already acted in an earlier B monster movie THE DEADLY MANTIS (also 1957 also directed by 20 MILLION'S Nathan Juran) with Craig Stevens. Hopper would gain great popularity as Perry Mason's sidekick Paul Drake in the TV show PERRY MASON. Hopper has a funny gaffe in 20 MILLION MILES. After he's rescued from the sinking spaceship, we find him recuperating in a hospital bed.  When Marisa checks on him and Dr. Sharman, Hopper gets out of bed to reveal he's fully dressed in his military uniform instead of a hospital gown. Somebody get me the wardrobe and continuity department!

But where 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH distances itself from the other monster films from the 1950's is Special Effects wizard Harryhausen's Venusian creature Ymir.  Whereas TARANTULA or THE GIANT MANTIS superimpose their giant insect onto a landscape, 20 MILLION MILES brought back the stop motion animation that made KING KONG realistic and a big hit. It's obviously a model but the model work is so intricate, Ymir's movements so life like, it takes 20 MILLION MILES to another level.

Despite 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH'S script limitations and occasional hokey dialogue and acting, this film works because of the talent of Ray Harryhausen and his excellent stop motion animation work with cinema's first ever alien from Venus -- the reptilian Ymir.

1 comment:

  1. There is also another interesting fact about, thisyou movie: actually, the town and sea of thethe spaceship wreck and creature's birth is not "Gerra", which doesn't even exist, but Sperlonga, which is an international touristic place where other showbiz events occurred, one for all, the videoclip of "When the rain begins to fall" by Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora.