305: Invaders from Mars

Archival Spaces 305

Invaders from Mars (1953) restored

Uploaded 30 September 2022

Invaders From Mars (1953) with Jimmy Hunt

At the Cinecon Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend, Scott MacQueen, the former head of film preservation at UCLA Film & Television Archive, presented his restoration of William Cameron Menzies’s Invaders from Mars (1953). MacQueen had previously introduced the film at this year’s Cinema Retrovato in Bologna.  Although a low-budget science fiction film in Cinecolor, the film had a huge impact on children in the 1950s, possibly because of the film’s threatening parents, influencing future filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, John Sayles, John Landis, and Brad Bird. However, because the film was produced by Edward Alperson, who went bankrupt in 1956, the film’s elements were scattered to the wind. The restoration was further complicated by the fact that a European version with ten minutes of new footage and a different ending had been added a year after its original release. Apart from the European and American versions, a hybrid version was released in 1976.

Invaders from Mars (1953) was directed by William Cameron Menzies, an art director of such classics as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Gone with the Wind (1939), who had occasionally directed films, like H.G. Well’s Things to Come (1934). Edward L. Alperson, who had worked as an independent B-film producer since the mid-1930s, financed the film, which starred Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, and Jimmy Hunt as the 10-year-old hero.  Made at the height of the flying saucer scare, the film theorizes that a Martian spaceship lands in America, kidnap Americans, and turns them into slaves by inserting a pin-sized receiver in their brain stem. The boy observes the flying saucer land but has trouble convincing any adults, including his own parents who soon turn against him because they are under the control of the aliens. Like other sci-fi films, including The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), whose very title describes Invasion from Mars, the film metaphorically works through the dual traumas of a Communist infiltration – ordinary humans becoming malevolent social actors  –  and parental abandonment of children.

Scott MacQueen
Invasion From Mars (1953) with Jimmy Hunt

Invented in 1948, Super Cinecolor was a 3-color process, similar to Technicolor, but, rather than exposing three b+w negatives in camera with a beam splitter, Eastman color negative was used. While Technicolor created matrixes for color printing, Cinecolor generated b+w separation positives from the original camera negative (OCN), whose emulsions were impregnated with yellow dye. The sep pos’s were then toned cyan and red and step-printed on either side of duplitized Dupont film stock with an added cyan-colored soundtrack. The process was cheaper and utilized much less light than Technicolor (no beam splitter to diffuse light.), making it suitable for lower-budget producers.

Invaders from Mars (1953)
Invaders from Mars (1953) with Hillary Brooke

The process of restoration began more than ten years ago, when Jan Willem Boseman, the owner of Ignite Films, purchased the OCN from a laboratory. The restoration began in earnest in 2021 when MacQueen was brought in to manage the project, while Ignite combed the rest of the world for more material since the OCN was missing at least one reel. Further complicating the restoration was the fact that the Cinecolor process did not allow for process shots (dissolves, fade in-outs), which had to be produced separately, and were not cut into in the printing negative. Working at Roundabout in Los Angeles, the restoration team utilized the following elements: 1) The 35mm OCN from Ignite; 2) 2 35mm Cinecolor prints of the European version from the National Archives of Australia and George Eastman Museum, respectively; 3) 1 35mm print of domestic version; 1 35mm badly faded print of the 1976 reissue.

MacQueen’s restoration chart for The Invaders from Mars

Trying to produce a new restoration, means evaluating all the elements, and choosing the best material for different sections, once all the elements had been scanned and digitized. As MacQueen noted, the surviving prints have evidence of color fading and discoloration, and in some of the shadows what could only be described as solarization. Digital repairing these imperfections – one shot could only be found in the badly faded 1976 print –  as well as the usual splice lines, scratches, and tears further complicated the restoration.

Invasion from Mars (1953) with Hillary Brooke and Jimmy Hunt

Finally, philological decisions had to be made, e.g. whether to include the ten-minute scene in the observatory that had been added in 1954, in which Dr. Kelston explains to little David the work of astronomy, thus becoming a surrogate father after the real one turns evil. Then there is the issue of two different endings: a “happy” American end in which it all appears to be a little boy’s bad dream, and the much more threatening European finale, where the boy loses his parents. The blu-ray, released this week by Ignite Films, includes both endings as well as many other bonus features.     

Invasion from Mars (1953, William Cameron Menzies)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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