HCF REWIND NO. 183: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH [US 1957]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 79 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A spaceship crashes off the coast of the Sicilian village of Gerra, and the two men who witness this pull two injured astronauts from the capsized craft before it sinks into the sea. Pepe, a young boy, finds a jelly-like substance inside a capsule that was washed ashore and sells it to Dr Leonardo, a visiting zoologist. One of the astronauts dies of the fatal disease that had decimated his crew but the other regains consciousness. A small creature hatches from the glob and Leonardo locks it in a cage. Maj. A. D. McIntosh arrives in Gerra, hunting for a missing US spacecraft, a spacecraft that was carrying a sealed metal container bearing an unborn species of animal life from Venus….
20 Million Miles To Earth may be just another ‘B’ monster movie, but it’s also a really savage indictment of humanity. The darn film angered me as a child and still winds me up. Think about it. An unborn creature is taken from its home planet to ours. It hatches from the gelatinous substance containing it and straight away the baby creature is treated like shit by humans, even when it ignores horses, sheep and chickens because it’s actually a vegetarian and prefers to eat grain. The zoologist cages it, and without food or water, the colonel pokes it with a stick, the farmer stabs it in the back with a pitchfork, the police shoot it, the scientists strap it down and kept it electrocuted, while it only kills a dog and an elephant because they attacked it first. There is no doubt that the film, while still aiming to be, and for the most part succeeding in being, an exciting monster movie, was intended to hit a nerve, especially if you’re an animal lover, and in the end it’s not much different from King Kong [which was an obvious inspiration for this picture] or even Frankenstein, where the monster is more sinned against than sinner.
This project was first called The Cyclops, The Beast From Cylinder 29 and The Space Beast before its eventual title was reached at, and Ray Harryhausen first started planning it in 1954. The setting was originally Chicago and then San Diego, while the monster was a Cyclops [Harryhausen resurrected that idea for his next film The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad] and a Satyr before the strange dinosaur/human/alien hybrid it became. The film was partly shot in Rome and the Italian village of Sperlonga, which doubled for Sicily, though out of the cast only William Hopper actually went to Italy, everyone else remaining at the studio. The intercutting from sets to locations is sometimes obvious, as is some back projection where characters are obviously not part of the background, and I’ve always wondered why the whole film except for the monster scenes wasn’t shot in Italy, because it would have made for a much smoother and realistic-looking picture, though maybe it was for budgetary reasons. 20 Million Miles To Earth was the first film where Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer had trouble with the British censors, where, despite its ‘A’ certificate, the unseen death of a dog [this was actually originally intended to be seen, but the stop-motion dog didn’t work too well] and the monster being stabbed with a pitchfork had to be shortened.
Though never called this in the actual film, the creature was named the Ymir and remains one of my favourite Harryhausen creations, perhaps partly because of the poignancy of his brief existence. He’s so vulnerable when he’s first born, rubbing his eyes as he adjusts to the light, and even when he grows bigger and bigger one is on his side. This approach means that the monster, and thereby the film, doesn’t frighten, but that would have been the easier approach. After a leisurely first half an hour or so, there are still plenty of thrills anyway, especially in the final Rome rampage and King Kong-like Coliseum confrontation. At one point the Ymir battles an elephant through the streets of the city, and the stop-motion elephant is far too big [and jars with some shots of a real elephant], but it’s an exciting scene anyway. The slightly bigger budget than the previous two films allows for a few more elaborate special effects shots, like an opening spacecraft crash where you see great details like the ship’s shadow in the water. Though such stuff may not look too realistic to modern eyes, I think it’s often far more fun watching this kind of thing and trying to work out how it was done than seeing all the CGI stuff around today, which is all done in one way – CGI. Things like craftsmanship, the personal touch and the thrill of knowing that the effects crew actually had to figure out how to do something are going from cinema are disappearing because now CGI Can Do Everything.
Thankfully the only narration here is at the beginning while the romantic element is only given three or four brief scenes. “Well hello, almost a scientist” says one of the soldiers when the heroine, again played by Earth Vs The Flying Saucers’ Joan Taylor, arrives, in a script which is sometimes a little sharper than usual, while most of the cast who are not playing Americans fare fairly speaking with Italian accents. It’s a shame that the character of Pepe, the young boy who finds the container containing the Ymir, disappears from the film, even if Bart Bradley sounds more Mexican than Italian. In the end, 20 Million Miles To Earth may be a minor creature feature, and it would be the colour fantasy actioners that followed which would really make Harryhausen’s name, but it has a conviction and harshness that gives it a certain power. I think the man himself must have been very fond of it as he virtually recreated two scenes from it in his later Valley Of Gwangi, while you can see elements of the poor old Ymir, definitely Harryhausen’s most tragic creature, in the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and especially the Kraken from Clash Of The Titans.