From the DVD case: On its way home from Venus, A US Army rocket ship crashes into the sea of Sicily leaving Colonel Calder (William Hopper of Rebel Without A Cause) the sole survivor, or so it seems. A sealed container is also recovered from the wreck, and when a zoologist (The Mark of Zorro‘s Frank Puglia) and his granddaughter (Joan Taylor) open it, the gelatinous mass inside escapes. Overnight, it grows into a horrific monster that has doubled in size. In desperation, Calder calls in the Army to help fight the monster, which has taken refuge atop the Coliseum in Rome. But it will take more than man’s weapons to fight the evil forces of the unknown and save the world from destruction. (1957, b&w)
Mark says: As to be expected, the DVD description is not entirely accurate. However, it is close enough to serve as a synopsis.
I’ve always thought 20 Million Miles to Earth an inappropriate title for this film. It leads you to believe that the focus will be on the voyage from Venus to Earth, when in actuality, the entire story unfolds exclusively on Earth. Of course, the voyage to and from Venus is discussed, but it is definitely not the core of the plot.
The focal point of our story is what is brought back from Venus: the Ymir. The term “Ymir” is never used in the film, but that is what stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea) dubbed the beast upon its creation (named after the fabulous giant from Norse mythology). The Ymir, by far, is the most interesting aspect of this film. As is often the case, Harryhausen’s fantastic animation is stuck in a rather mediocre movie (based on a story by Charlotte Knight).
Ray Harryhausen has always proclaimed his love for the film classic, King Kong. In fact, he attributes King Kong, and especially the work of stop-motion pioneer, Willis O’Brien, as the inspiration for his own career. 20 Million Miles to Earth was Harryhausen’s chance to animate a similar tale. Like Kong, the Ymir is taken from its own environment and placed in a world that is unjustly hostile to it. At the climax of the picture, the creature climbs to the top of a famous landmark (in this case, the Roman Coliseum) where he is shot down and falls to his death.
What Kong has, and the Ymir lacks, is pathos. The viewer gets a sense for Kong’s personality, and thus feels a certain empathy for the brute and his lovestruck obsession with Fay Wray. On the other hand, while we feel some sympathy for the Ymir (he only attacks when provoked, and doesn’t even eat meat), we don’t get a strong feel for his character. Of course, the Ymir being reptilian in nature, may not be particularly prone to personality, but it would have added a nice dimension to the story.
20 Million Miles to Earth starts off on a sensational note as a huge spacecraft crashes into the Mediterranean Sea. Harryhausen was responsible for the rocket’s creation, and his work is superb. We get a strong impression of its enormity. I am particularly impressed with how the spaceship casts a shadow on the water as it skims above its surface. Harryhausen’s eye for detail is nothing short of amazing.
After the crash, however, things start to go downhill. We are introduced to a small group of fishermen (two men and a boy) that happen to be out in their boat when the spacecraft crashes. The boy, Pepe, played by Bart Bradley, later to become Bart Braverman (1980’s Alligator), is one of those annoying child actors that films of this era and genre seem to be fond of. We are obviously supposed to find Pepe an endearing lad, but he’s an absolutely grating presence. That aside, this group of fishermen rescue the two survivors aboard the spacecraft.
Ultimately, only one man from the Venus expedition lives, Col. Robert Calder, played by William Hopper (The Deadly Mantis, The Bad Seed). Col. Calder serves as the hero of our story, but truth be told, the story is only adequate as a vehicle for Harryhausen’s effects. We never really care for any of the human characters, and their presence only seems to delay the appearance of the Ymir, the true star.
You may recognize Joan Taylor as Marisa Leonardo, the love interest of the film. I thought Miss Taylor was pretty and almost radiant in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, released just the year before, but she seems a little tired in this picture. Frank Puglia (1943’s Phantom of the Opera) plays Marisa’s grandfather, Dr. Leonardo, and look for B movie veteran Thomas Browne Henry (Blood of Dracula, Beginning of the End) as Maj. Gen. A.D. McIntosh. John Zaremba (Frankenstein’s Daughter, The Magnetic Monster) is Dr. Judson Uhl, perhaps the most useless character in the entire film.
Like I said, the Ymir is the real star, and his scenes are fabulous. He hatches from what appears to be a larvae brought back from Venus. Pepe, that annoying brat, found the larvae on the beach in a capsule clearly marked USAF, but instead of returning the capsule to the authorities, he removes the larvae and sells it to Dr. Leonardo so he can buy a cowboy hat. I hope he enjoyed the hat, considering all the death and destruction caused because of his actions.
When the Ymir hatches (see image at the top of this post) he is just a little fellow, but he grows quickly. He is utterly fascinating to watch as he struts about, his tail in almost constant motion. His movements are so realistic that some people believed, on first viewing, that the Ymir was a man in a monster costume. He is far more interesting than a man in a suit, though. The Ymir soon outgrows the doctor’s cage and breaks loose to roam the Italian countryside.
The military, of course, is dedicated to tracking the Ymir down for study. If possible, they want to take the beast alive. Unfortunately, after a farmer plunges a pitchfork into him, the Ymir becomes less passive and more than a little distrustful of the human element. He also almost kills the stupid farmer who stabbed him. The Italian government insists that the creature be destroyed, while the Americans remain optimistic they can take it alive before it hurts anyone else.
Eventually the Ymir is caught by the use of an electrified net. When he escapes again, he goes on a rampage and even fights a zoo elephant. To me, Harryhausen’s animation of the elephant is even more impressive than that of the Ymir. With the Ymir, Harryhausen was dealing with a fictional creature with which he could take liberities, but everyone knows what an elephant is supposed to look like. The scenes are executed wonderfully, and except for the elephant’s trunk being a tad too long (this was pointed out to me; I doubt I would have noticed it otherwise) the battle is primarily believable.
The finale of the film is a bit of a disappointment. It’s fun to watch the Ymir stalk the Roman Coliseum, but his death scene is anti-climatic. It is established earlier in the film that the creature is impervious to bullets and artillary. So his demise by falling off a relatively small structure (for a giant Ymir, anyway) seems preposterous. Still, the film had to end somehow, and I guess falling off one famous landmark is as good as another.
20 Million Miles to Earth features some of Ray Harryhausen’s best work, and for this alone, it is worth watching. I only wish the quality of the story and acting could have matched Harryhausen’s talents.
Produced by long-time Harryhausen collaborator, Charles H. Schneer.
Scene to watch for: If you watch very closely, Ray Harryhausen has a cameo appearance as a man feeding peanuts to an elephant. He also appears as one of the crowd fleeing the zoo.
Line to listen for: “Fascinating. Horrible, but fascinating.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.