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Science Fiction Movies of The 1950s


A Review of 1950s Science Fiction Films

With one exception, you won't find these 1950s films on our Academy Awards page. You may remember them from their original release, from the Drive-In, or maybe from late-night television, but you will probably remember them!

One of America's responses to the space age and the nuclear age was a deluge of science fiction films. Some were serious studio pictures but most were b-movie offerings. Some consider it the Golden Age of science fiction movies, if you've seen some of these, you may question the title. Here's a sampling:

1950
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Destination Moon
Director: Irving Pichel
Screenplay – Robert A. Heinlein, James O'Hanlon & Rip Van Ronkel, Based on the novel Rocketship Galileo by Heinlein

Aerospace manufacturer Jim Barnes comes up with the idea of building the first rocket to the Moon. The only way to finance the project is for him to persuade a group of other aerospace manufacturers of the strategic importance that the Moon will have as a missile platform to the first country that lands there. But as they begin construction on the rocket, the government is fearful of what its atomic engine might do and try to stop them launching. They launch nevertheless, undergoing a journey fraught with problems to eventually land on the Moon.

A serious movie that tried to foresee the development of manned space exploration, it is generally lifeless despite the involvement of renown writer Heinlein. Still, it is considered a classic and praised for its technical accuracy; its low-key, almost documentary approach; and above all its intense earnestness.

1951
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The Thing from Another World
Director: Christian Nyby
Writers: John W. Campbell Jr. (story), Charles Lederer

Produced by Howard Hawks' and adapted from a science fiction story by John W. Campbell, this film follows the story of a discovery of an alien aircraft, frozen pilot intact, in the Arctic. The original story was remade into The Thing by director John Carpenter in 1982.

A re-supply crew from the U.S. Air Force is dispatched from Anchorage, Alaska at the request of Dr. Carrington, the Chief of a group of scientists working at the remote research base. The crew is headed by Captain Hendry and takes along Scotty, a reporter and former war correspondent, who is hanging around the base in search of a story.

The alien craft is round - a flying saucer. They attempt to free it from the ice with explosives, but in doing so accidentally destroy the craft. However, one team member with a Geiger counter finds that there is a frozen body nearby. They excavate the body in an ice block and return to the research outpost as a major storm moves in, making communication with Anchorage very difficult. Feeling uneasy, one of the Air Force crew guarding the body covers the ice block with a blanket, not realizing it is an electric blanket, and the creature thaws out.

They find that the creature, played by James Arness, requires human blood to reproduce. The Air Force men and the scientists struggle with how to handle the creature. The scientists wish to control and study the creature, the Air Force group wants to destroy it. Eventually, the creature escapes although he is set afire in the process.

Before long the creature returns, and it turns the camp's oil burning heat off, forcing the scientists and the airmen to make a final stand at the generator shack. Here they create a trap for the creature using high voltage electricity as a weapon. The creature is electrocuted, shrinking to a husk as it is killed. Its seedlings are also destroyed. The reporter, Scotty, files his "story of a lifetime" by radio, imploring his listeners to "Watch the skies!"

1953
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War of the Worlds
Director: Byron Haskin
H.G. Wells (novel), Barré Lyndon (screenplay)

Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Lewis Martin

This movie is considered to be a real classic, based on the 1898 story by H.G. Wells, and the live reading in 1938 by Orson Welles that caused nationwide panic when listeners became convinced that Martians had invaded the Earth.

The residents of a small town are excited when a flaming meteor lands in the hills. They find that it is actually a Martian invasion! The Martians unchain a direct assault to our planet, with hundreds of invulnerable ships. The invasion takes place all over the world, and all the major cities are destroyed one after one; even the atomic bomb can't stop them. But, if the humans can't beat them, who can? As they close in on hero Gene Barry, we find that they are susceptible to a simple human virus as their seemingly unstoppable, indestructible craft fall to the ground.

1954
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Tobor the Great
Director: Lee Sholem
Writers:Carl Dudley (story), Philip MacDonald (screenplay)

Dr. Harrison and Prof. Nordstrom develop the robot Tobor for space flight, intending that he should be controlled by ESP. They believe it will be safer to send a robot to space than humans. The press conference announcing their accomplishment includes a foreign spy. The spy and his henchmen kidnap Nordstrom and his grandson, but Nordstrom cleverly signals Tobor to charge to the rescue.

It's primarily a kids' fantasy, a movie for boys who love robots. The dialogue includes phrases like "Gee willikers" and "I just gotta see that robot. I just gotta!" Still, it has some darker moments as when grandson "Gadge" is threatened with a blowtorch by the spies. In the end, Tobor saves the day and Gadge has a robot friend.

Interesting to note was the marketing slant that Republic Pictures used in the movie posters. They showed a robot carrying an unconscious woman, clothes torn, with the tagline that the robot had "all the human emotions." This must have surprised a lot of people when the movie turned out to be a boy and his robot story!

Screenwriter Philip MacDonald was a mystery writer and had been involved with some the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto film mysteries in the 1930s. He also wrote the story The List of Adrian Messenger, produced as a film in 1963 and directed by John Huston.

Them
Director: Gordon Douglas
Writers: Russell S. Hughes (adaptation), Ted Sherdeman

Along with the red scare and "duck and cover" nuclear attack drills, Hollywood capitalized on the fears of Americans with menaces stemming from radiation. They walked a thin line between exploitation and morality plays, ostensibly hoping to shape public opinion and make us safer.

In Them, nuclear tests in the desert result in the growth of gigantic mutant ants who menace cities in the American southwest. A team of investigators and the army search for a way to control their spread.

After several people in the New Mexico desert wind up missing or dead, including an F.B.I. agent and most of his family, police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) teams up with F.B.I. agent Bob Graham (James Arness, again) to find out what's causing the strange occurrences. They find send a strange print found at one of the crime scenes and it is sent to the Department of Agriculture. Doctor Harold Medford and his daughter Doctor Patricia Medford arrive and ask to be taken to the scene of some of the disappearances. When they get there they are shocked to find gigantic ants, whose mutations were caused by the first atomic bomb explosion nine years earlier. They manage to destroy the nest of ants, but not before two winged queen ants and a couple of drones have hatched and escaped the nest. Now it is a race against time to find the two queen ants before they can establish more nests and hatch more queens.

Gojira (Godzilla)
Director: Ishiro Honda
Writers: Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Kayama (story)

Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk. At first the authorities think its either underwater mines or underwater volcanic activity. The authorities soon head to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were sunk. One night, something comes onshore and destroys several houses and kills several people. A later expedition to the island led by paleontologist Professor Kyohei Yemani, his daughter Emiko and a young navy frogman Hideto Ogata soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164 foot tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan, but the rest of the world as well. Although Emiko loves Hideto Ogata, she is bethrothed to Progessor Serizawa.

The monster wreaks havoc on Tokyo, many lie dying from injuries and radiation poisoning. It's revealed that Dr. Serizawa has an Oxygen Destroyer bomb, but that he is reluctant to use it because of its devastating power. Finally agreeing, a navy ship takes Ogata and Serizawa to plant the device in Tokyo Bay. Serizawa requests that he be put in a diving suit to make sure the device is planted correctly. Ogata at first refuses but soon gives in.

Ogata and Serizawa then descend into the water and soon find Godzilla awake but resting. Seemingly unaware of the divers, the monster slowly walks around the ocean floor. Serizawa signals Ogata to surface as he plants the Oxygen Destroyer. As Serizawa watches Godzilla dying from the destructive weapon, he cuts his cord and dies with Godzilla, sacrificing himself so that his knowledge of the horrible weapon will surely not be known to the world. A dying Godzilla surfaces, lets out a final roar, and sinks to the bottom, disintegrating into the ocean.

"I cannot believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species," Dr. Yamane ponders. "If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world, again." As the people aboard the ship look to the sun, it is uncertain whether the death of Godzilla is either the end or the beginning of an apocalyptic era. The Japanese people, especially Emiko, will always remember Dr. Serizawa's sacrifice. Later movies prove Yamane right.

The American release of the film in 1956 was dubbed in English with inserted footage of scenes featuring American actor Raymond Burr. It was at that time that Gojira became Godzilla.

1956
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Director: Don Siegel
Jack Finney (Collier's magazine serial), Daniel Mainwaring (screenplay)

Dr. Miles Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) returns his small town practice in fictional Santa Mira, California to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. Initially skeptical, especially since the alleged doubles are able to answer detailed questions about their lives, he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened, and determines to find out what.

In actuality, pods that had been drifting through space have landed on Earth. They grow to resemble a nearby human, then kill and replace the victim. The pods, found in basements, automobile trunks, a greenhouse, and on a pool table, take over an entire community replicating and replacing the humans.

The human-sized pods and partially formed duplicates are eerie and thought-provoking as ordinary reality is turned on its head in this compelling story. McCarthy's humanity as a determined man of conscience plays well against the film's fantastic nature.

It has been said that this is a film allegory that represents either the Joe McCarthy paranoia over communist agents in the U.S. or its near opposite, the spread of Soviet Style communism in the East.

Forbidden Planet
Director: Fred Wilcox
Writers: Irving Block (story) and Allen Adler (story) ...

Starring: Leslie Nielson, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis

1950s science fiction films reached a new high with this expensive, thoughtful film.

In the early 2200s, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D is sent to the planet Altair IV in the Altair star system, sixteen light-years from Earth, to find out what happened to the Bellerophon Expedition, sent out some twenty years earlier. As their ship arrives after a year's voyage, the crew detects an immense power source scanning the ship.

They are immediately contacted by Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns them to leave, but refuses to provide a reason. Upon landing, they are met by Robby the Robot, who takes the Commander (Leslie Nielson), his First Officer and Medical Officer to Morbius' home. Morbius explains that a year after the expedition's arrival, some unknown force wiped out nearly everyone in his party and vaporized the Bellerophon as the final survivors tried to take off. Only he, his wife (who later died of natural causes), and infant daughter survived.

The daughter grows to be the attractive Altaira (Anne Francis), innocent yet curious about the interactions of men and women. Luckily, the Commander is an honorable man who would not take advantage of the situation.

A dangerous invisible monster roams the planet, and artifacts and technology from a long-dead civilization, the Krell, are being studied by Dr. Morbius. The monster attacks the space travelers and suspicions about its origins arise.

The film features a number of spectacular special effects (Oscar nominated) including the United Planets Cruiser (a flying saucer!), a force field that reacts to the monster's intrusion, and the gigantic Krell complex. The musical score was all electronic. The film also featured the first screen appearance of the famous Robbie the Robot. Filmed entirely on the studio sound stage, the film uses matte and scenic paintings to portray the alien landscape and locations.

It Conquered the World
Director: Roger Corman
Writer: Lou Rusoff

Featuring: Peter Graves, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef

Dr. Tom Anderson (Van Cleef), an embittered scientist, helps an alien from Venus come to the Earth under the belief that the alien will help save mankind from itself. He fails to see that the alien is bent on conquest for his own reasons.

The vegetable-shaped alien is one of the silliest monsters from the science fiction movies of the fifties. Some speculate that this movie would have had a much better reputation with a more convincing creation (or if, as originally planned, it had not been trotted out in the open for all to see). The movie is actually quite strong, largely because of a script with far more depth than is usually found in low budget movies of this period.

1957
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The Incredible Shrinking Man
Director: Jack Arnold
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent

Repercussions from nuclear testing figured predominately in 1950's science fiction films. In this film, a man shrinks to nothing after encountering a radioactive cloud. As he gets smaller and smaller, his wife is forced to place him in a dollhouse where he soon becomes prey to his pet cat, a spider, and anything else with an appetite. Filmed in five or six weeks at a cost of only around $800,000.00, it's shocking that it turned out so well. Thoughtful, understated, well acted, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN explores humanities' will to survive and accept the unknown.

The Invisible Boy
Director: Herman Hoffman
Writers: Edmund Cooper (story), Cyril Hume

Featuring Richard Eyer, Philip Abbott, Diane Brewster

Timmie is a typical ten-year-old boy: he loves fun and mischief and hates to study. When his scientist father, in an attempt to improve Timmie's mind, plops him in front of the Super Computer, the boy learns more than how to beat his dad at chess.

With designs on world domination, the computer has Timmie reactivate Robbie the Robot (seen in The Forbidden Planet) and directs the metal hulk to do his bidding. But while Robbie is an efficient minion, can he be made to harm the boy who gave him life?

Beginning Of The End
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Writers: Fred Freiberger, Lester Gorn

Reporter Audrey Ames (Peggy Castle) is driving along a highway in Illinois when she is stopped by the military. She then finds out that a small town was destroyed and everyone has seemingly disappeared. She then goes to a lab run by the Department of Agriculture. While she is there she meets the lab's director, Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves). Ed then tells her that strange things have been happening ever since he discovered that a bunch of grasshoppers managed to get into a silo containing a batch of radioactive wheat. They soon discover that the grasshoppers have grown to monstrous proportions and not only are devouring the local vegetation, but attacking people as well.

The grasshoppers march on to Chicago and must be stopped before the military uses an atom bomb on the city.

The Amazing Colossal Man
Director:Bert I. Gordon
Writers:Mark Hanna (screenplay) and
Bert I. Gordon (screenplay)

Lt. Col. Glenn Manning is inadvertently exposed to a plutonium bomb blast at Camp Desert Rock. Though burned over 90% of his body, he survives, and begins to grow in size. As he grows, his heart and circulatory system fail to keep pace with his growth, and he is gradually losing his mind as a result of reduced blood supply to his brain. He reaches 50 feet tall before his growth is stopped. By this time he has become insane.

The doctors search find a cure, but before they can administer it to him, he escapes and begins terrorizing Las Vegas. They corner him, but after they inject him with the formula to stop his growth, Manning picks up the needle and spears a major, killing him instantly. He then picks up his girlfriend Carol and makes off with her taking her to Hoover Dam where he is cornered by the military. He comes to his senses long enough to let Carol go and as soon as that happens the military opens fire on him causing him to fall seemingly to his death in the Colorado River.

1958
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Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
Director: Nathan Juran
Writer: Mark Hanna

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman tells the story of Nancy Archer, a wealthy alcoholic who cannot tame her blatantly cheating husband. Her troubles increase when she encounters an alien in the back deserts of California and no one believes her because they think she is drunk. When Nancy grows to a height of 50 ft. as a result of radiation exposure from contact with the alien, she is finally in a position when she can no longer be ignored.

When she finds her husband carrying on with another woman she squeezes them to death. Her jealously and size cannot go unchecked and the sheriff arrives to kill her with a riot gun.

1959
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Invisible Invaders
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Writer: Samuel Newman

Aliens, contacting scientist Adam Penner, inform him that they have been on the moon for twenty thousand years, undetected due to their invisibility, and have now decided to annihilate humanity unless all the nations of earth surrender immediately. Sequestered in an impregnable laboratory trying to find the aliens' weakness, Penner, his daughter, a no-nonsense army major and a squeamish scientist are attacked from outside by the aliens, who have occupied the bodies of the recently deceased.

One of the film's claims to fame is the similarities it has with Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; the scenes of the dead men (the aliens don't possess the bodies of dead women, for some reason) in various states of decay wandering around foreshadows the zombies of the later movie.

Published in sections: The Fifties ::

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