“Invaders from Mars” – Dreams & Fears


I was 8 years old when I first saw Invaders from Mars (1953), about the same age as the protagonist, David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt), a young boy who sees a flying saucer land in a sand pit behind his house and burrow into the ground. Martians begin taking over the local human population via implants in the back of the neck. David’s parents (Lief Erickson & Hillary Brooke) are among the victims. He’s the only one who has a sense of what’s going on, but who’s going to believe him? He’s just a kid. Eventually two scientists (Arthur Franz & Helena Carter), rather improbably do believe him and somehow, equally improbably, manage to mobilize the army to thwart the Martians. I’ve seen Invaders from Mars a number of times over the years. I have a great deal of nostalgic affection for the film, though it’s pretty weak in a lot of areas. But what still works is what worked then — having David’s parents, previously loving and supportive, become something “other.” The film exploits a fear that your parents, the police, and adults in general, are not who you thought they were. This had a lot of impact on kids of that age.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers would explore the theme of being taken over much more powerfully in 1956. But until then, this one did the job.

Invaders from Mars isn’t in the same league as ‘50s films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Them (1954), and The War of the Worlds (1953). But at the time it probably engaged me more directly in a personal way because of my identification with David. I’m not alone in that. In a piece on the film in the Den of Geek website, Don Kaye reports that Steven Spielberg has said of Invaders from Mars that “It really turned my world around…It certainly touched a nerve in all the kids like myself who saw the film at a very young age.” He went back to the theater four more times to see it.

Per Joe Dante, director of The Howling (1981) and Gremlins (1984), “Invaders from Mars is a very Lewis Carroll, child’s eye view of a science fiction story.” John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London (1981), says “My great affection for Invaders from Mars is partially because I saw it at the right age and was very frightened by it.” It’s an important film for the Famous Monsters of Filmland generation.


While it frequently has the look of a low-budget film, particularly in its extensive use of military stock footage to pad the running time, the filmmakers involved have a long list of impressive credits.

Invaders from Mars was directed by William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957). He began working on feature films in 1917. His work covered five decades. While he directed a number of films later in his career, he is best known as a production designer, a job title either invented by him or created for him, depending on your source. In 1936, he designed and directed Things to Come, notable for its futuristic sets. In 1939, he was production designer for Gone with the Wind, as well as directing the burning of Atlanta sequence. He received a special Academy Award for his work on that film. The last film he worked on was Around the World in 80 Days (1956). He died the following year at age 60.










Per Don Kaye, Menzies’ work on Invaders from Mars included “…designing the sets so that they looked overly large and somewhat distorted—the way a child might view them from a much lower vantage point. The best example of this is the police station, which consists of an unusually tall desk situated at the end of a long, white hallway. The walls are stark, unadorned, and higher than normal, adding to the sense of dislocation that little David feels as he approaches the desk (Menzies also used a lot of low camera angles, again to replicate the POV of a child). Other sets fashioned in this way were the inside of the alien spacecraft and the observatory where David meets with Dr. Blake and Dr. Kelston (the scientists who believe him). Of course some of the minimalism of the sets (along with the obvious stock footage of army units on the move) was due to the tight budget, but they added to the surreal nature of the film.

Here is a shot set in the police station.

Below is a shot of the hill behind David’s home, a surreal set with its twisting fence, tortured trees, and winding pathway like something out of Grimm’s fairy tales or Fantasia.


Invaders from Mars was shot by John F. Seitz (1892-1979), a cinematographer I was unaware of by name, but I certainly knew his work. He began as a lab technician in 1909. By 1916 he’d become a lead cameraman, a few years later shooting the Rudolph Valentino film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Some of his many credits include Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and A Place in the Sun (1951). He was nominated for seven Academy Awards, which includes four nominations for films he shot for Billy Wilder. He died in 1979 at age 86.


Lief Erickson, as David’s father George Maclean, is a scientist working on a hush hush project to develop an atomic rocket. The Martians are here to destroy it. He’s introduced as a loving father who shares his son’s interest in astronomy. The most disturbing scene is when, after being taken over by the Martians, he gets angry at something David says and  backhands him across the face, knocking David to the floor. It’s frightening because it’s a very real moment in an otherwise fantastic narrative. A short clip of this scene can be seen in the two trailers further down.


As far as I know, this was one of the first films to have a theme of people being taken over, or replaced. The name for believing this is happening is Capgras Syndrome, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome, described as an irrational belief that someone you know has been replaced by an imposter. Though in case of Invaders from Mars and other films that utilized this theme, the belief is not irrational at all.

In It Came from Outer Space, also released in 1953, aliens have not come to invade. They’ve crashed on earth by mistake and mean no harm to humans. Because they know their real appearance would be too horrible for us to accept, they take the shape of people they encounter so they can walk among us while working to repair their ship. They just want to get the hell out of here. It’s not as paranoid as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a truly great film, would be in 1956, but it’s unusually thoughtful for the genre at that time.

More recently, an Austrian film, Goodnight Mommy (2014), went deeper into the notion of replacement. Per a description from IMDb: “In a lonesome house in the countryside between woods and cornfields live nine-year-old twin brothers who are waiting for their mother in the heat of summer. When she comes home, her head completely wrapped in bandages after cosmetic surgery, nothing is like before. The children start to doubt that this woman is actually their mother.” This is an extremely creepy film.


I most recently saw Invaders from Mars at Film Forum last month as part of their weekly Film Forum Jr. program. This is a Sunday morning series showing films that are not kids films per se. The intention is to make classic films of all types available to audiences of all ages. This was a 4K restoration done by Ignite Films. The original release trailer is below, followed by the restoration trailer. The difference in image quality is quite stunning. I think the second trailer gives a better sense of the film.


At the end of Invaders from Mars, David wakes up in his bed at home, relieved to realize  it’s all apparently been a bad dream. But maybe not, because then through the window he sees a space ship coming down behind their house as before, and it all begins again. Someone at IMBd calls this “…that wonderful ending when it seems that the nightmare will never end.”

At the Film Forum screening, I was sitting in front of a father and his son, who looked about the same age as I was when I first saw Invaders from Mars. When it was over, the father asked the boy how he’d liked it, who replied, “It was great! I loved it.” I got a kick out of that. Seventy years later, and it still works.



Some interesting connections in the cast.

Jimmy Hunt, who plays David, was 12 or 13 when Invaders from Mars was made, though he appears younger in the film. Born in 1939, he’d been appearing in features since 1947. He was in two more films after Invaders from Mars, then took a break from 1954 until 1986, when he played the sheriff in Tobe Hooper’s inferior remake of the film.

Leif Erickson, who plays David’s father George, was the patriarch of a ranching family on the Bonanza clone, High Chaparral, appearing in 97 episodes from 1967 to 1971. He also appeared in the Marlon Brando film, On the Waterfront (1954).

Arthur Franz, who plays Dr. Kelston, the scientist who believes David’s UFO story, was in the John Wayne movie, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus (1958).

Morris Ankrum, who plays Col. Fielding, was a judge in 22 episodes of Perry Mason from 1957 to 1964. He played another military character in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).

Milburn Stone, who plays Capt.Roth, appeared as Doc Adams in an astonishing 605 episodes of Gunsmoke from 1955 to 1975.

Barbara Billingsley (uncredited) as Dr, Kelston’s secretary, played the awesome June Cleaver on 235 episodes of Leave It to Beaver from 1957 to 1963.

Robert Shayne (uncredited) as a scientist working on the rocket project the Martians want to derail. He appeared as Inspector Henderson in 90 episodes of The Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958.


Here are deep dives into Invaders from Mars and its production.

Invaders from Mars: The Sci-Fi Classic that Inspired the Spielberg Generation by Don Kaye  

Invaders from Mars – article by Jann Wass


That about wraps it up. See you next time. Until then, “Keep watching the skies.” — Ted Hicks



About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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5 Responses to “Invaders from Mars” – Dreams & Fears

  1. David M fromm says:


  2. Mark Ryan says:

    Very enjoyable post. I must see INVADERS immediately.


  3. Ted Hicks says:

    You’ll appreciate it more if you can time travel back to when you were 8-10 years of age.

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