Ray Harryhausen Film Notes: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)

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*The following are film study notes, as part of an ongoing Ray Harryhausen course I instruct in Lawrence, Kansas. 

What do you do when you’re a hard-working special effects guy, but need a European vacation? If you are Ray Harryhausen, you kill 2 birds with one stone by simply creating a monster movie opportunity in Italy.

That’s exactly what Harryhausen did when he came up with the idea for 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). Not only did he create a movie that allowed him to scout Italy for 2 weeks so he could work while sight-seeing, but how often do you hear of the special effects tech being the origin point for a film? As we’ve discussed before, Ray Harryhausen stood alone in his legacy.

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Building very loosely on the tried and true concept of a Kong-esque (but from Venus) story, of a tortured and misunderstood creature destroying a major city, Ray worked with Charlotte Knight for expanding “The Giant Ymir” idea. While never referred by name in the film, this strange friend from Venus was called “Ymir” on set, a name based on the Norse god of Scandinavian mythology. Ymir’s likeness will be repeated by Ray when we watch the Kraken creature in CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).

While other studios shied away from Ray’s complex drawings that he pitched, Charles Schneer of the B-unit at Columbia Pictures accepted. He was already confident of Harryhausen’s abilities, with the proviso that the script be reworked from Knight’s treatment. Nathan Juran had the necessary experience with the giant-creature-on-the-loose genre, having also directed THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957). He would later helm the classic Harryhausen film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad(1958) as well as the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaLost in Space and Land of the Giants.

Noteworthy…

Rereleased under the title, “The Beast From Space.”

Most of the noises made by Ymir are recordings of elephant noises played at a higher speed.

Ray Harryhausen wanted the film to be shot in color, but the filmmakers were not given a budget large enough to accommodate color filming. In 2007, five years after the death of the film’s director, Harryhausen worked with the restoration and colorization experts at Legend Films to create a colorized version of the film.

Ray Harryhausen makes a cameo appearance as the zookeeper!

Talking Points/Questions for Discussion:

The narrative intro is placed in space with an image of a galaxy and discusses the atomic age and the burden of responsibilities of nuclear war, in addition to nods to the “race for space.” This film was released right on the cusp of that time- what are your thoughts on that influence in alien creature features like this?

This formula has several standards in storytelling. How does this film fit that mold and in what ways does it branch out?

Why do you believe this film became a cult classic?

What ways do you believe this storyline sent a message to 1957 audiences regarding international cooperation in space exploration, if any?

Ray’s Creature List:

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Space rocket- This giant craft crash lands in the water off the coast of Sicily, fresh from a trip back from Venus. In order to show this mega space craft fly through the skyline, crash into the sea, where fishermen climb in and rescue a couple of astronauts, and barely escape prior to sinking, Ray’s magic was on full display to blend stop-motion animation with live action.

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Ymir- We see this unique creature interact with stop-motion animated people, iconic buildings (like a bridge and the famed Roman Colosseum ruins), and even battle an elephant. Impressive special effects with Italy as the live-action background. Even more impressive is Ray’s marvelous ability to create an empathetic character in this creature, who evokes emotions and human-like mannerisms. I don’t know about you, but I was rooting for this fella!

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Elephant- This was an epic battle, where you cheer on both sides but mostly steer clear. The realistic details on this elephant are astounding even to this day, and the chest rising and falling upon defeat is an authentic and endearing touch.

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Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: Christopher Knopf, Bob Williams, based on a story by Charlotte Knight
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Cinematography: Irving Lippman
Visual Effects: Ray Harryhausen
Film Editing: Edwin H. Bryant
Original Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Principal Cast: William Hopper (Calder), Joan Taylor (Marisa), Frank Puglia (Dr. Leonardo), Thomas Brown Henry (Gen. A.D. McIntosh), John Zaremba (Dr. Judson Uhl), Jan Arvan (Contino).

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Comments

  1. I wish there was a “like” button on these…awesome stuff Kellee! Fun to read…

    Thanks,

    Ken Butterworth

    >

    Like

  2. I feel prepared to go forth and amaze my friends and astound my enemies with my knowledge.

    Sidebar: Leading man Hopper is easy on the eyes.

    Like

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