Saturday, May 11, 2013

Stubs – 20 Million Miles to Earth

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) Starring William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Frank Puglia. Directed by Nathan H. Juran. Screenplay by Bob Williams and Christopher Knopf. Story by Charlotte Knight. Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Run Time: 82 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Science Fiction

Last Tuesday, Ray Harryhausen, one of the pioneers of stop action special effects photography, died at the age of 92. In a tribute to Mr. Harryhausen, Trophy Unlocked would like to review one of his films, 20 Million Miles to Earth. Of all the films Mr. Harryhausen worked on, this is the closest to the staff of Trophy Unlocked, since it was during a promotional tour for the 50th anniversary of the film that we met him at the San Diego Comic-Con. While perhaps not the best known of his work, 20 Million Miles to Earth is a typical Harryhausen film; low budget sci-fi.

Inspired by King Kong (1933) and the work of pioneer animator, Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen began making short films using stop-action or model animation on his own. A mutual friend got O’Brien to take a look at Harryhausen’s work and suggest Harryhausen take classes in graphic arts and sculpture to hone his skills.

The first big film of Harryhausen’s career was Mighty Joe Young (1949) a sequel of sorts to King Kong.  Harryhausen worked closely with O’Brien, who won the Academy Award that year for Best Visual Effects, even though Harryhausen was doing a lot of the model animation work. A re-release of King Kong in 1952 spurred interest in giant monsters and Harryhausen was in a position to use his talents.

His filmography includes Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953); It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955); Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956); The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960); Jason and the Argonauts (1963); One Million Years B.C. (1966); The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974); Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and the original Clash of the Titans (1981), which Harryhausen also produced. Jason and the Argonauts, which featured the famous sword fighting scene with skeletons, is considered to be Harryhausen’s masterwork.

Our film, 20 Million Miles to Earth, was originally produced in 1956; much of the film was shot in Rome, since Harryhausen wanted to vacation there. Also, while Harryhausen wanted this to be made as a color film, the low budget did not allow for that. In 2007, as part of its 50th Anniversary repackaging on home video, Harryhausen worked with Legend Films to make a colorized version of the film. However, trying to be true to the original release we will be reviewing the black and white original.

The film stars William Hopper as Col. Robert Calder, the pilot of the first U.S. spaceship to Venus that crashes upon return off the coast of Sicily after it is damaged by meteors. Witnessed by the village fishermen, only two go out to investigate the wreck, Mondello (Don Orlando) and Verrico (George Khoury). With them is Pepe (Bart Bradley, later Bart Braverman), an enterprising boy from the village.  Mondello and Verrico rescue two space travelers, Calder and Dr. Sharman (Arthur Space), from the space ship before it sinks.

Mondello, Pepe and Verrico watch as the spaceship sinks off the coast of Sicily.

The spaceship sinking in the Sea.

While Major General A.D. McIntosh (Thomas B. Henry) is dispatched to Italy to handle recovery, Pepe discovers a metal capsule that washed up on shore. There is a jelly-fish type glob inside which Pepe sells to Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), a visiting zoologist who is in the area studying sea creatures. Dr. Leonardo’s medical student granddaughter, Marisa (Joan Taylor), is called into the village to tend to the injured Calder and Sharman. Despite her efforts, Sharman dies from the same disease that had earlier affected the crew of the spaceship.

Almost a doctor Marisa tries but can't save Dr. Sharman.

After Marisa returns to the camper trailer home she shares with her grandfather, a small creature hatches from the glob. Dr. Leonardo puts it in a cage, but by morning it has tripled in size.  Meantime, McIntosh arrives in the village of Gerra accompanied by 
scientist Dr. Justin Uhl (John Zaremba) to meet with Calder and Italian government representative Signore Contino (Jan Arvan). While Marisa and Dr. Leonardo are taking their discovery to Rome, McIntosh notifies Contino that Calder’s spaceship was carrying a metal container with an unborn species of life from the planet.

Marisa, Dr. Leonardo and the newly hatched creature.

When a reward is offered for the recovery of the capsule, Pepe comes forward and leads them to the now empty container. Pepe tells McIntosh that he sold what was inside to Dr. Leonardo. McIntosh and Calder pursue the scientist to Rome.

I don't know what it is, but let's take it to Rome.
The creature, known as Ymir but never called that in the film, continues to grow and before Calder and McIntosh can catch up has already broken free from Dr. Leonardo and escaped. The Ymir annoys some animals at a nearby farm, but it is really looking for sulfur. While it’s feeding, the Ymir is attacked by the farmer’s dog, which the creature kills. The farmer, alerted to its presence, is about to attack the behemoth when Calder and crew arrive at the barn.

Calder claims that the beast is only dangerous if provoked, but the farmer tries to stab it with a pitchfork anyway and is killed. The Ymir won’t go quietly either and escapes into the countryside. The Commissario of the Police, Charra (Tito Vuolo) orders that the creature be hunted down and destroyed. Calder pleads to spare the creature and the Italian government allows him to track and capture the creature.

Calder’s plan is to ensnare the Ymir in a large electrified net dropped from a helicopter. But the Italian police, who have continued their own pursuit, shoot the creature with flame throwers. Using sulfur as bait, Calder coaxes it to an open site and incapacitates it with the electric net.  The creature is then taken to the Rome Zoo. When McIntosh debriefs the media at the U.S. Embassy, he allows three reporters to get up close to the Ymir, which has been anaesthetized with electricity so scientists can get a closer look. One of those scientists is Dr. Leonardo, who is being assisted by Marisa. Marisa in turn starts to flirt with Calder. Suddenly, the electric equipment shorts out and the Ymir is once again loose.

The Creature knocked out so scientists can do their thing.
The Ymir gets into it with an elephant. The two wreak havoc in the city before the elephant is killed by the Venusian. Calder tracks the creature to the Tiber River, where it submerges before it is brought back to the surface by bombs dropped into the river. On shore, the creature heads for where else, the Coliseum. It destroys an old temple on the way with soldiers killed by the falling debris.

When in Rome you have to see the Coliseum.
Calder and bazooka firing soldiers drive the Ymir to the top of the Coliseum, where a direct hit topples the creature from its perch. A couple of more rounds from tanks knock him off completely and it is apparently the fall, like King Kong, that kills him.

DIdn't I see this ending in King Kong (1933)?
Our film ends with Marisa running into Calder’s waiting arms, as the couple that had been battling each other most of the film are now totally in love.

You can't have bad sci fi without a love story.
The premise for the film is unbelievable: A mission to Venus that was pretty much a secret from the rest of the world crash lands upon return and is only tracked by a few radar stations on its return. By this point, the U.S. was already a major super power in the world, so the fact that we seem to have only two guys we can fly in from Washington to handle seems paltry at best. Maybe I’m looking at this through eyes that watched the space program go to the moon, but you’d have to think there was more to the space program than Maj. Gen. McIntosh and Dr. Uhl as a response team and hiring local divers as search and rescue.

Who needs Navy Seals Special Forces?
I don’t want to discuss the science in the film too much. But I don’t like films that set a universe and then don’t live in them. We're told the Ymir can’t be killed with bullets and gunpowder, so why keep hunting it down with guns? And a bazooka and tank cannon fire work, but aren’t those really just big bullets? And we’re told the creature doesn’t have a heart or lungs, but while it is unconscious we see its chest rise and fall as if, I don’t know, breathing like a human, with lungs.

The plot seems to be moved along by one stupid act leading to another, starting with the little boy Pepe, who goes far too quickly from cute to annoying and dwells there for as long as he’s on the screen. He makes the first stupid act by taking something that clearly has come from outer space and opening it. He compounds the problem by selling it to Dr. Leonardo who buys it sight unseen. And then Dr. Leonardo doesn’t know what he has, but he’s taking it to a major city, Rome. What harm could there be in that?

Stupid is as stupid does.
The actors are okay. Some of the leads would better be known for their work on the small screen. William Hopper, who had previously appeared in the James Dean starrer, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as Natalie Wood’s cold father, would perhaps best be remembered as Paul Drake, private investigator on the long running Perry Mason TV series, starring Raymond Burr (1957-66). John Zaremba would make 139 appearances in films and on various TV series, but is perhaps best remembered as Dr. Raymond Swain on the one season series Time Tunnel (1966-67).

Imagine the cross-over episode between The Time Tunnel and Perry Maston.

But frankly, you don’t watch 20 Million Miles to Earth for the acting or the plot. The only reason to watch is the work of Ray Harryhausen. He is truly the bright spot of the film. His model animation, specifically of the Ymir, is terrific. The creature moves with such fluidity throughout the film, you really forget it’s made of clay.  Many special effects artist will refer back to the birth of the creature from the goop with awe at how well it is conceived and presented. While the film is not so great, Harryhausen’s talent still shines through.

Ray Harryhausen at work.

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