British science fiction movies of the 1950s and early 60s pretty much followed their American counterparts in being Cold War allegories while cinema in both countries battled to compete with television for the public’s attention, but of course the genre was coloured by the country of origin's particular political and social climate to allow for UK audiences the chance to relate to national anxieties.
Rather like the industry today, where funding was tight, film-makers often had to look abroad for financial support and strike deals with American producers and distributors. To receive American funding and ensure a release in the USA, often as the second part of a double bill, it was often the case that the films featured an American ‘star’ – in the loosest possible understanding of the term. Then current grade A stars rarely appeared; usually they were older actors, on their way down, like Brian Donlevy, or perhaps second string stars who never quite made the grade beyond supporting actor, like Forrest Tucker.
It could be argued that British film science fiction competed with television by taking its lead from that medium. Nigel Kneale and Rudloph Cartier had adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as early as 1954; two years later it was adapted for the big screen by William Templeton and Ralph Gilbert Bettison with Michael Anderson directing and American actor Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith.
Donald Pleasance, who had appeared as Syme in the TV version, played an amalgamation of Parsons and Syme in the film.
Kneale’s extraordinarily successful BBC television serial, The Quatermass Experiment (1953) was turned into the film, The Quatermass Xperiment (to exploit its X rating) in 1955. Directed by Val Guest and written by Guest and Richard Landau, it starred fading American actor Brian Donlevy as Bernard Quatermass, who Kneale did not like and who, allegedly, was drinking on set. Like the TV version, it was a success with audiences, though it received mixed reviews, and it’s fair to say that it was in the UK, with the development of Hammer Studios, that the horror film received a boost worldwide.The American poster - note the title change - complete with the monster chasing people scenario typical for posters of this genre
The rather striking Polish poster for The Quatermass Xperiment
Hammer, then a small studio with its Dracula and Frankenstein cycle a year off, wanted to capitalise on it straight away and had Jimmy Sangster prepare a Quatermass-style script; however, Kneale refused to sanction it and it became X The Unknown (1956), a Quatermass movie in all but name about a radioactive substance emerging from the centre of the earth. Here, the intrepid scientist is called Dr Adam Royston and he was played by another fading American star, Dean Jagger. It was to have been directed by Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted by Hollywood, but Jagger refused to work with a suspected communist sympathiser and the directing job was given to Leslie Norman, father of British film journalist Barry Norman. His approach may have been more workmanlike, but there are scenes of genuine atmospheric terror when two boys run through the woods at night. Further down the cast list are Leo McKern and Anthony Newley.
Intrepid journalist Sid James meets Professor Quatermass
In the meantime, the BBC had commissioned Kneale for another series, Quatermass II. Broadcast in 1955, it concerned an alien invasion but also touched on the corruption of people in power, totalitarian control, and the growth of secretive nuclear establishments. It was another success and Hammer moved to turn it into a film. This time, Kneale adapted it himself and Guest once again directed; despite the writer’s criticism of his previous performance, Brian Donlevy took the starring role. Released in 1957 (and titled Enemy From Space in the US), it was a huge success – but this was surpassed by the first of Hammer’s adaptations of the Universal monster series: The Curse of Frankenstein, which ushered in a new and profitable era for the studio.The American poster - which posits Donlevy, who looked far older than he was, as an unlikely action hero
Although Hammer would still dabble in science fiction, it wasn’t until 1967 that it adapted Kneale’s 1958 series, Quatermass and the Pit. Written by Kneale, it starred Andrew Keir and although it was not as commercially successful as its predecessors, it is widely regarded as a critical success and, along with The Devil Rides Out (1968), one of the best of the later Hammer films, the studio having, by then, opted for sensationalism and plunging necklines over genuine horror.This even more dramatic poster was used in America; note the change of title, which is actually relevant to the storyline
Quatermass is not the whole story of Hammer's science fiction in this period. The Abominable Snowman was a 1957 British horror/sci-fi film, directed by Val Guest and starring the American actor Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing, who was beginning to make a name for himself in the genre. Based on Nigel Kneale’s TV play, The Creature, it concerns the search in the Himalayas by an American expedition for the Yeti. Kneale adapted his own television script and Cushing reprised his role. Stanley Baker had taken the part of Tom Friend, now played by Tucker. Typically for a Kneale script, this was not a straightforward monster movie but one that saw the Yeti, our collateral descendants from the apes, a group of superior intelligence that is waiting peacefully for humankind to destroy itself through war or pollution, before they inherit the planet. You'll notice that both posters keep the actual appearance of the Yeti as a mystery
It wasn’t just BBC serials that inspired sci-fi movies; the fledgling ITV’s serial The Trollenberg Terror (1956) was later adapted into a movie of the same title in 1958 starring Laurence Payne (later TV’s Sexton Blake) and Forrest Tucker. Also known as The Crawling Eye, Creature from Another World, The Creeping Eye, and The Flying Eye, it was directed, as was the television series, by Quentin Lawrence and was the final film to be produced by Southall Studios, one of the earliest pioneer film studios in the UK.
This atmospheric chiller involves Journalist Philip Truscott investigating unusual accidents occurring at a Swiss resort where he meets United Nations troubleshooter Alan Brooks (Tucker). However, the strange menace makes itself known through the telepathic reception of a mind-reader (Janet Munro), a heroine key to the drama rather than the stereotypically female screaming victim that we are all familiar with. The monsters are (typically for this period) radioactive and strange clouds begin to move and cut off the escape road to the mountain hotel...
Yet another British sci-fi movie that features monsters triggered by radioactivity is 1958’s Fiend Without a Face. Directed by Arthur Crabtree, it concerns a series of mysterious deaths at the hands of an invisible monster that steals human brains.
To appeal to American audiences, the film was set on an American airbase in Manitoba, Canada, and featured largely American and Canadian actors living in Britain. Some British actors were even dubbed by Americans. Star Marshall Thompson would appear to be a curious choice. He seldom had a starring role and never in a major film; his key role in the genre occurred the same year in the Alien inspiration It: The Terror From Beyond Space, which was actually released later. He found fame almost 20 years later as the veterinarian in televison’s Daktari.
The locals think fallout from radiation at the base is causing the deaths, but Major Jeff Cummings is suspicious of Professor Walgate, a British scientist who is experimenting with telekinetics. Eventually, he discovers Walgate has succeeded in developing telekinesis, and that nuclear experiments at the base have increased its effect beyond his intentions, creating a new, invisible form of life which escapes the laboratory. They are later revealed to be brain-shaped monsters that suck out the brains of their victims to absorb intelligence.Note the scantily clad girl - always a selling point for a movie like this
Fiend Without A Face was clearly inspired by the success of Quatermass, as was The Strange World of Planet X (1957), which features a small, rural British lab, run by Dr. Laird and his staff who create ultra-intense magnetic fields; the apparatus begins to affect distant objects and to draw extra power from some unknown source. After an unusual storm, strange things happen in nearby Bryerly Woods, insects and spiders begin to mutate into monsters and a UFO hovers over London warning that Laird's experiments will cause a catastrophe. Directed by Gilbert Gunn, it was an adaptation of a seven part ITV serial, though a rather tenuous one, and was clearly inspired by Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).
Forrest Tucker stars as a Canadian scientist as, once again, the producers hoped to increase the film’s appeal across the Atlantic; indeed when it was first released in the USA, it was given the more sensational title of The Cosmic Monsters and is also known as The Crawling Terror and The Crawling Horror.The poster adopts the classic conventions of the period: screaming woman in the foreground being threatened by the monster near the top of the picture
Like American science fiction cinema of this period, British film included its share of sensational trash; nowhere was this more apparent than in Devil Girl From Mars (1954), in which a sexy alien woman dressed in black vinyl lands on a remote Scottish moor looking for virile men to replace the dying male population on her home planet.
The shoestring budget meant that most of the 'action' took place in one room of a pub! Possibly the only noteworthy fact about this movie is that future Thunderbirds creator, Gerry Anderson, worked on the editing.
The Time Machine poster designed by (William) Reynold Brown
Towards the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, film adaptations of sci-fi literature became increasingly popular, though the first notable one, Byron Haskin’s George Pal-produced The War Of The Worlds, had been made much earlier, in 1953. Pal looked to H. G. Wells again when he produced and directed The Time Machine in Britain in 1960. Starring the Australian actor Rod Taylor, then making a name for himself in Hollywood playing Americans (and lately seen as Winston Churchill, no less, in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009)), as H. George Wells, and the American Yvette Mimieux as Weena, the girl from the future.
Although it was filmed in Culver City, California, Pal had been unable to sell Hollywood the screenplay, and was backed by British MGM, for whom he had made Tom Thumb (1958) with Russ Tamblyn, Peter Sellers and Terry Thomas.
The Time Machine won an Oscar for time-lapse photographic effects showing the world changing rapidly through time. Pal always intended to make a sequel, but never did.
The actual Time Machine prop has appeared elsewhere - Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos and Joe Dante's movie, Gremilins, for example.
The 'quad' poster - the style preferred by British cinema chains
The French poster - a simplified version of Brown's original
The Spanish poster
Quad poster favoured by British cinemas
Another 1960 literary adaptation was Village of the Damned, a reasonably faithful adaptation of John Wyndham’s dystopian novel The Midwich Cuckoos, directed by Wolf Rilla.A group of children are all born the same day after an incident months earlier when everyone in the British village of Midwich suddenly fell unconscious and the military established a five-mile exclusion zone even for aircraft. As they grow, they develop at impossible speed and it is obvious they have a telepathic bond with one another. They begin to exhibit the power to read people’s minds and force them to act against their will; for example they make a man kill himself by crashing his car into a wall and then they force his suspicious brother to shoot himself. It is found that similar occurrences happened in other communities around the world.The dramatic Italian version of the poster
Rather than show much in the way of onscreen violence, Rilla peferred to use suggestion and suspense and he hooks the audience by creating a perfectly believable picture of village life, with people going about their everyday business.Poster for the Belgian release
The film was slated to be an American production in 1957, starring Ronald Colman as Professor Gordon Zellaby, the man who discovers more about the children, but MGM shelved the project, deeming it controversial because of the sinister depiction of virgin birth. George Sanders took the role of Zellaby when filming started in England; by then he was married to actress Benita Hume, widow of Colman, who had died in 1958.French poster
A sort of thematic sequel, Children of the Damned, was released in 1963 in which two scientists discover the existence of six genetically similar children with superior intelligence, from China, the USSR, the USA, the UK, Nigeria and India . They take them to London for observation and, with Cold-War tensions building, world governments decide how to use their powers and ask for their return. The children already know this and, using telekinesis, kill several government and military officials, then they hide in an abandoned church waiting for the inevitable confrontation with the armed forces...
John Carpenter remade Village of the Damned in 1995, changing the setting to the US.
Another Wyndham adaptation, The Day Of The Triffids, appeared in 1962. Directed by Steve Sekely, it starred Howard Keel in the central role of Bill Masen to capture the international (that is, American) audience; another pivotal role was given to Kieron Moore, a minor international star and one famous in this genre for his role in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951); former child star Janette Scott (daughter of Thora Hird and future wife of Mel Tormé) played Moore’s wife.Janette Scott in classic female victim pose
The script is credited to Philip Yordan, but he was acting as a front for Bernard Gordon, who had fallen foul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in America. His friendship with writer/entrepreneur Yordan led to regular work as a writer and producer in Madrid for the Samuel Bronston company; however, he was initially denied any acknowledgement for his work, Yordan crediting himself as sole author of films like Circus World (1964), Battle of the Bulge (1965) and The Day of the Triffids.
Though the film garnered some decent reviews, most were critical of the fact it didn’t stick closely to its source material, particularly the cop-out death-by-seawater ending, which, ironically, along with the meteor shower at the start, is the one thing that sticks in most people’s minds!
It is widely believed that cinematographer and director Freddie Francis, famed for his work on Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) and The Innocents (1961), one of the best horror movies, stepped in and directed the lighthouse-set climax of the movie.
Eugene Lourié’s Behemoth, The Sea Monster (1959) is an American-British co-production and an unacknowledged remake of Ray Bradbury's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), also co-scripted and directed by Lourié. In the U.S. it was called The Giant Behemoth; Gene Evans, a supporting actor in many Hollywood movies (notably several directed by Sam Fuller) and television shows, is the American ‘star’.
A large, radioactive Brachiosaurus is swimming off the coast of Cornwall, leaving countless radioactive dead fish. The monster does more damage by accident than by brute force, burning hapless citizens with its radiation; the original idea was more subtle: to have an unknown, shapeless radioactive being that left people dead in its wake, but the producers wanted to take a more sensational angle and the dinosaur monster was created.
The military decide to use a mini-submarine capable of firing a torpedo with enough radioactivity in its warhead to "overdose" the behemoth and kill it. An American scientist and a young Cornish fisherman pilot the sub and kill the behemoth, but the film ends ominously with reports of radioactive fish washed up off the coast of Florida.
The stop-motion animation in the film was supervised by Special Effects master Willis O'Brien, who had worked on many films, including King Kong (1933) and his assistant Pete Peterson. This was one of the the last films to showcase O’Brien’s work.
The German poster made a surprising link in its title!
Lourié also directed Gorgo, a 1961 British variation on Godzilla (1954; American version released in 1955) and the aforementioned King Kong.
It tells the story of a 65 feet tall underwater dinosaur, woken by the eruption of a submerged vocano, is captured off the coast of Ireland near the island of Nara and taken to London as a circus attraction.
Scientists examine Gorgo, think he is not an adult specimen and hypothesise that his mother must be about 200 feet tall. Sure enough, back in Ireland, Ogra, Gorgo’s mother, lays waste to the naval base at Nara then heads to London, detroying Tower Bridge and Big Ben before rescuing her son and heading back to sea.William Sylvster, an American actor who had been living in Britain since the war, provided the link for the American audiences as salvager Sam Slade, one of the men who discover Gorgo. His captain, Joe Ryan, is played by Newcastle-born Bill Travers, later famous for his role as George Adamson in Born Free (1966) and his work to highlight the suffering of animals in zoos throughout Europe. His older sister, Houghton-Le-Spring-born Linden Travers, attended La Sagesse School in Newcastle before going on to an acting career of countless supporting roles, including that of Mrs. Todhunter in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), before retiring after her second marriage in 1948. Brother Peter Travers ran a garage in Shieldfield.
Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), is a science-fiction/disaster movie/newpaper movie hybrid with Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro.
Filmed on location in London and Brighton, it concerns a Daily Express journalist’s discovery that nuclear testing by the Russians and the Americans has resulted in the earth shifting from its orbit and moving closer to the sun. Order breaks down and martial law is enforced; cities are evacuated; rationing implemented. Meanwhile, scientists work out that detonating more nuclear devices in the west of Siberia will steady the earth’s orbit!
Two versions of the front page of the Daily Express are prepared: "World Saved" and "World Doomed". The staff of the paper wait to see which headline will be correct. The film ends with Stenning (Edward Judd), whose investiagtion uncovered the story, walking through the empty streets of London.
Director Val Guest had intended the ending to remain ambiguous, but church bells were added to the end of the American version to indicate that the world had been saved. He suggested that this studio intervention had been inspired by the 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds, which closes with the sound of church bells to imply the crisis was over.
This gripping film is blessed with a thoughtful plot, some sharp dialogue and excellent naturalistic acting.
Some of the filming took place in the offices of real Daily Express and its former editor, Arthur Christiansen, played himself as the editor of the newspaper. Blink and you’ll miss young Michael Caine as a policeman.
Though the film was photographed in black and white, the original prints were tinted yellow/red in the opening and closing sequences to suggest the intense heat.
Many of the sci-fi films from this period rely on monsters or aliens for shocks, viewing the post-nucelar Cold War world metaphorically; however blacklisted American diector Joseph Losey’s The Damned, based on Children of the Light by H. L. Lawrence, explored many of that era’s fears more directly.
On holiday in Weymouth, an American tourist, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey, for the American market), meets a young woman, Joan, (Shirley Ann Field), who lures him into a mugging staged by her brother King (Oliver Reed) and his biker gang. They meet later and he forgives her but they are once again threatened by Reed and escape to spend the night in a cliff-top house surrounded by sculptures of twisted human figures (actually made by Elizabeth Frink) but the gang find them again and they head across a military base and are chased by soldiers with dogs. With King in pusuit, they hide in a network of tunnels and bunkers in which they find a group of young boys and girls whose skin is cold to the touch.
The children have been confined to these underground chambers by a scientist, Bernard (Alexnader Knox), who runs the base and who teaches them but limts their knowledge, telling them they’ll know more in good time. They are watched by surveillance cameras and are visited by men in radiation suits.
Wells and Joan manage to stay undetected with the help of the children, but they start to feel unwell but promise to rescue the children with King’s help, but they discover they are radioactive. They escape and see the sun for the first time, but they are recaptured by the military. King flees in a car, but he is chased and he crashes; Wells and Joan escape on a boat but it is followed by a military helicopter which will destroy it when they die of radiation sickness.
Bernard's lover is the sculptress, Neilson (Viveca Lindfors) in whose house Wells and Joan spent the night; she witnesses what happens and he explains the children were bred radioactive and the plan is to release them when nuclear war happens so they will be able to resist the fallout and carry on the human race. When Neilson won’t join Bernard, he kills her. As the film closes, people go about enjoying themselves on the beach unable to hear the desperate cries of the children from the cliffs.
The film was a Hammer productions and perhaps the use of the word ‘Damned’ in the title was to cash in on the success of Village of the Damned, a film the studio had regretted missed out on; the poster, with its blank-eyed children also points towards this. Losey preferred On the Brink – one of several sore points between the director and the studio; another was Columbia’s (the studio’s financial backer) decision to delay the film’s release over Hammer’s objections. In certain quarters of the British Board for Film Classification, the reason behind the making of the film was questioned to the extent that one letter referred to the people behind the project as ‘fellow travellers or paid up members of the Communist party”.
Although it was made in 1961, perhaps due to political considerations and the gang violence (at a time when there was a concern about the rise of youth gangs), the movie was not released in Britain until 1963. Even then it was cut heavily, losing some key speeches, from 96 to 87 minutes in Britain and 77 minutes in America where it was released as These Are the Damned in 1965. A complete print was released in 2007.
One of the children is played by Kit Williams, who later went on to become an author and illustrator, best known for his book, Masquerade.
Perhaps it's fitting that in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis, science is portrayed as wholly harmful to mankind and that Nigel Kneale's thoughtful scientist who battled government indifference and even conspiracy, has been replaced with another Bernard who is preparing for a nuclear holocaust that he sees as inevitable by destroying the life that Quatermass fought so hard to preserve.