Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Watch The Skies!

To mark the anniversary of the 1947 UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, I'll try and watch something this week that ties into the celebration.  Roswell, N.M. is having their own celebration to coincide with the event.  I've never been to the actual festivities, but I have driven through Roswell a few times. I lived in Odessa for many years, and drove north on vacations going to Santa Fe and Taos or further northbound into Colorado, where my sister lives. 

Kenneth Arnold was the first (as far as I know) to encounter a UFO, which launched the modern age of flying saucers, and after that the UFO craze pretty much began, probably peaking in the 50's and 60's with all the glorious science fiction that was released during those decades, and is still prominent today.  Heck, who doesn't like bug-eyed aliens, giant tin robots, and damsels in intergalactic distress?

Flying saucers came into the public psyche at a time of great tension and paranoia in America.  People feared "the Bomb" and communist infiltration.  The Korean war, Sputnik, and our early failures in the space race had shaken national confidence.   Many feared how Khrushchev and the "Russkies" were going to take us over without even firing a shot.  Carl Jung believed that flying saucers were psychological projections of cultural fears and desires in an uncertain world.  Substituting the words "communist infiltrator" for the words "flying saucer" in some early saucer books seems to bear this out.

Following Jung's lead, critics have suggested that movies like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) are political allegories or metaphors for cultural tensions.  But as a kid who grew up in the 50's, I just thought those movies and others like them were cool!

One of my favorite and probably my first early remembrance of such movies was Invaders From Mars.  I didn't see it at the theater, but saw it on our old back and white Magnavox set at home.  It scared me to death!  I had nightmares for weeks, but it didn't curb my cravings for such movies.  In that movie a young boy about my age at the time watches the sky through his telescope one night.  He sees a flying saucer go down behind his house out in a sandy field.  A policeman in that area is investigating the glowing incident and the boy watches as the policeman is sucked down into the sand, similar to  quicksand.  He gets very frightened by what he has just seen, but the next day the same policeman comes for a visit to his house.  Surely what he saw the night before was just a crazy dream, but the policeman acts weird, like a robot or something.  There's also this weird X-shaped wound on the back of his neck.  The boy tells his parents trying to get them to believe him, so they go to investigate the field, and sure enough they get sucked under too, only to return like robots.  Talk about creeping you out as a kid!  A YT streamer can be found here. 

One of the things I find nostalgic about these older SF films is that there seems to be a sense of community in them.  People know each other and care about each others' welfare.  If something is wrong in somebody's household neighbors try to help them out, everyone knows the policemen or fireman, and the guy at the corner store or gas station.  I guess that's just a part of that decade, but it seems charming in retrospect.  Granted there's a downside to that, as also everyone knows the town alcoholic or floozie too, but still sometimes I miss that.

While on this same topic I've been reading a book by Robert R. McCammon called Boy's Life.  It's been a great read so far.  McCammon has a great writing style that's easy to read, which is always a great plus with me, but also if you happen to be a baby boomer like me or just want to read something good taking place during that era, check it out.  In it McCammon also describes the same film, Invaders From Mars.  The book, I believe, is marketed as horror, but so far has been more a mystery set in the 50's.  The main plot has been a mystery about a car that drives off a cliff early one morning when a young boy, Cory, who is in the third grade is along with his dad on his milk route.  His father upon seeing the car plunge into the lake dives in after it to rescue whoever might be behind the wheel.  To his astonishment the male driver is handcuffed to the steer wheel, and he can't get the door open or the guy out of the car.  His father reports this to the authorities.  We find out the lake is too deep to dredge up the auto and it becomes a mystery as to who was behind the wheel and who may have done such a thing to him.  From there, a bit of that plot is put on hold and we learn more about the small town of Zephr, where Cory and his family live. I've not finished the book yet, but it's been a good summer read.

At any rate the public first became aware of flying saucers when the press reported Kenneth Arnold's now famous sighting on June 25, 1947.   Arnold was an experienced mountain pilot.  He had been flying in the vicinity of Mr. Rainier, Washington.  At 3pm his eye was attracted to a series of flashes.  he saw a formation of nine highly reflective objects traveling in the distant mountain tops.  Arnold describes them as, "they flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water."  To compute their speed, Arnold timed the objects as they zipped between Mts. Adams and Rainier, 20 miles ahead of his position.  He assumed he had been watching a new kind of jet plane.  But the speed he calculated, 1656.71 mph, far exceeded any aircraft at that time.

Arnold's sighting received unprecedented coverage, and suddenly people everywhere were observing flying "dimes, hubcaps, and ice cream cones" in the skies.  The public furor prompted the Air Force to establish "Project Sign," or more popularly "Project Saucer," in December of 1947.  It's mission was to assess the potential threat of flying saucers to national security.  One month after the Mt. Rainer incident, Arnold sighted another group of UFOs near Tacoma, which was detailed for Fate magazine publisher, Ray Palmer.  It became known as the Maury Island Hoax. En route, Arnold saw and attempted to film a flock of brass-colored flying objects that looked like ducks.  Many UFOlogists cite Arnold's Mr. Rainier encounter as the beginning of the "modern age" of flying saucers.  Later, with the help of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Arnold won the 1962 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Idaho. 

You can read some about the UFO case here.  By 1950, the first round of saucer books were out and a film linking Russians and saucers entitled The Flying Saucer had been released.  You can watch it on Youtube here.  By mid-decade George Adamski and Buck Nelson had told of their contacts with saucer people.  By 1956, arguably most of the best saucer films had been produced.  By the late 50's flying saucers had invaded practically every aspect of popular culture.

One of the more recent UFO movies that I still enjoy is Hanger 16.  Probably because parts of it was shot in a small West Texas town I grew up in, Big Spring, Texas.  Webb Air Force Base was located there and when we moved to West Texas, it was still operating as a pilot training center.  Sometime in the mid-70's after we had gotten out of Vietnam, they closed the base down, and the town of Big Spring suffered quite a bit from the economic downturn as a result of that.  However, parts of Hanger 16 were filmed there as well as around other parts of the town, like Alon Refinery, which used to be called Cosden.   All in all it's a pretty decent film if you haven't seen it.  You can find it on Youtube here. 

As a side note, the other claim to Big Spring's fame is that they also shots parts of Midnight Cowboy there, another one of my favorite films.  During that time I read in the newspaper they were hiring extras and although I knew zilch about acting or movie making, I went out to the Holiday Inn where they were conducting interviews for the film.  I, along with everybody else, had no idea what type of extras they were looking for, so we just showed up in line for the short interviews.  I was not hired, being the wrong type (that may be a plus if you've ever seen the film--they were looking for more rural Deliverance movie types), but I still have fond memories of the incident and talking to an actual talent scout.

I thought perhaps this week in honor of the Roswell anniversary I might watch The Man From Planet X (1951).  It's an expressionist, shadowy, abrupt, and rather dark horror/thriller in which an alien lands in the Scottish moors, and an American reporter, some scientist and a pretty girl have to deal with the fallout.  It's fairly corny in places, but has a decent musical score.  Patty Duke's dad, actor William Schallert, plays one of the unscrupulous scientist who tries to get the alien to give him the formula to the metal his spaceship is made out of.  In the movie the visiting alien is a decent sort, however, all the humans are not.  You can find a copy on Youtube here. 


At 9:10 AM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

I loved all those 50s sf flicks too, and still can watch the with pleasure. Although one of the cheesier films, I think "Invaders from Mars" was particularly well targeted for a kid audience, playing as it does on natural separation anxiety and fears of abandonment.

I'm told Roswell's UFO festival is a good party. One of my guilty pleasures 15 years ago was the teen sf soap "Roswell" which lasted three seasons. It had a strongly loyal audience but not a big one, so it always was on the verge of cancellation. The dvd set is perfect for binge-watching btw. Trailer for the pilot episode:

At 8:59 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

Yes, I still watch the old SF flicks when I can catch them on TCM or some other channel and nothing else is pressing. Some come on TCM tonight in fact. I may watch It Came From Outer Space. I seem not to remember that one.

I've not heard much about what goes on in Roswell during their festival. I haven't found a site that details too much. As I said I've driven thru there and seen the UFO museum, though it's not much to speak of and pretty small (though you can't make too much mystery out of a weather balloon crashing). :) Though they do have a few tie-ins like some alien statues around town, etc. that are fun.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

Maybe next year I'll crash (so to speak) the party. What keeps the Roswell conspiracy theory alive is that the air force (then still the US Army Air Force) plainly did lie. It was not a weather balloon. Most weather balloons were and are just radar reflectors for the purpose of tracking wind direction and speed; far from making a fuss about them, the army at the time regularly paid a $25 bounty to anyone who found one and brought it in. Nor is there any reason to disbelieve Major Jesse Marcel who, after he retired, insisted that the wreckage shown to the press had been switched. Original official records no longer exist, but current prevailing opinion is that it was a balloon from Project Mogul, which was a top secret program (in those pre-satellite, pre-U2 days) also based in NM for spying on the USSR with electronics carried by high altitude balloons. The existence of the program was revealed until the '90s. That was the reason for the fuss and the cover-up -- unless, of course, one prefers to conclude that this story is a cover-up too.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

make that "was NOT revealed"

At 5:54 PM, Blogger El Vox said...

Ha, good to know. Well, knowing one of my friends, he'd say a good cover-up is just subterfuge for another cover-up, layered so it's hard to get to the truth unless you just happen to know the "right" knowledgeable people. That way you have many trails, rabbit holes, and red herrings to perfect or muddle your story. I will say that I can open minded enough to think that aliens may exist in our or other solar systems, but I don't know why they'd want to visit earth. Also that although I'm skeptical about UFOs etc. I find the urban myths, stories and such surrounding them interesting.


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