Aliens in the Movies
UFOs and Alien Invasions in Film
On June 24, 1947, the civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine objects, glowing bright blue-white, flying in a "V" formation over Washington State's Mount Rainier. He estimated their flight speed at 1700 mph and compared their motion to "a saucer if you skip it across water," which became the origin of the soon-to-be popular term "flying saucer." Though reports of various types of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) had existed for hundreds of years, Arnold's sighting –combined with a highly publicized UFO incident that took place later that summer near Roswell, New Mexico – a frenzy of interest in otherworldly visitors and an entire new subculture, known as "ufology," that would be vividly represented in movies in the decades to come.
One of the first notable examples of Hollywood's depiction of the UFO phenomenon is The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), adapted from Harry Bates' 1940 short story "Farewell to the Master." In the film, a flying saucer causes utter chaos when it appears in the skies over Washington, DC. Touching down outside the White House, a British-accented alien named Klaatu emerges and asserts that he means only goodwill towards humankind; he wants to gather the world's leaders together to deliver an important message. Rebuffed by suspicious U.S. authorities, Klaatu befriends Helen and her young son, who introduce him to a prominent scientist, Professor Barnhardt. When Klaatu is shot and killed by the military, only Helen is able to give a key order to Klaatu's faithful robot servant, Gort, in order to resurrect his master. Alive again, Klaatu is finally able to deliver his message to mankind: The development of atomic weapons on Earth has been noted by the Galactic Federation, which will not stand for their misuse. The mighty Gort will serve as a planetary policeman, with the authority to destroy the world if things get out of hand.
The Day the Earth Stood Still and its rather pessimistic ending – according to Klaatu, the Earth has only two choices: live in peace, but under constant supervision from another civilization, or choose conflict, and be obliterated – can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the Cold War-era United States, when anti-Communist hysteria was sweeping the country, stirred up by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). The depiction of the media's coverage of Klaatu's arrival and stay on Earth in the film reflected coverage of the Communist threat in the popular media at the time, as the polite, erudite Klaatu is characterized as a "monster" and a "menace" that "must be tracked down like a wild animal … destroyed." Some saw the film's peace-loving message as political propaganda, pointing to the participation of one of the actors, Sam Jaffe, who was accused of Communist sympathies and later placed on Hollywood's infamous blacklist. In the end, the film stands up not only as an interesting milestone in the development of ufology, but as a monumental science fiction film in its own right.
Red Scare-era America also embraced the classic Oscar-winning movie The War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells's novel, which took a more sinister view of invaders from another planet. A radio dramatization of the novel by Orson Welles, beginning with a series of news bulletins that suggested an actual Martian invasion was in progress, caused mass hysteria when it was broadcast on Halloween of 1938. As the 1953 film opens, the narrator intones that with their own natural resources being exhausted, the inhabitants of Mars – the Red Planet – are looking to Earth to continue their civilization. Dr. Clayton Forrester, a famous scientist, rushes to the scene after a molten hot meteor-like object lands in the California countryside. It turns out to be an alien spacecraft, and its occupants viciously kill three men who approach the craft in friendly greeting.
The military is alerted, but human weapons are powerless against the strange ships, which have begun landing all over the world. Forrester and his love interest, Sylvia Van Buren, struggle to evade the Martians, who (in a radical departure from the human-like Klaatu) are portrayed as smallish brown creatures with three-fingered hands (to match their tripod-like ships) and a single large "electronic eye" glowing red, blue and green. Military forces around the world hit the Martians with all their firepower – even the deadly A-bomb – to no avail. In the end, the all-powerful aliens begin dying when they try to emerge from their spacecraft. As narrator puts it, they are "killed by the littlest things which God in his wisdom had put upon this earth" – bacteria.
The popularity of The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as that of a number of other films, including The Thing From Another World (1951), Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) helped make the 1950s a watershed decade for ufology. One of the most high-profile UFO incidents of the decade involved George Adamski, who claimed to have met a friendly visitor from Venus in the California desert on November 20, 1952. Adamski became a kind of hero to the budding ufology movement, but some have argued that he was less than honest, and that much of his story bears strong similarities to aspects of films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. This was especially true of his account of the extraordinarily human-like alien, who according to Adamski radiated a "feeling of infinite understanding and kindness, with supreme humility." Another notable "contactee" incident came in the early 1960s, when the New Hampshire couple Betty and Barney Hill claimed to have been abducted by aliens. In the investigation of the case, the Hills' ongoing accounts of the abduction – retrieved partially through hypnosis – were also found to bear strong parallels with various media representations of alien invasions, including the 1953 film Invaders from Mars and an episode of the science fiction anthology television program, The Outer Limits.
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