A piece on the British science fiction film They Came From Beyond Space.
‘I was interested in making science fiction pictures that children could see,’ explained producer Milton Subotsky , an American long resident in the UK, ‘films that weren’t violent, gruesome or nasty. I love stories that have baffling events that keep the audience guessing, yet neatly interrelate at the end. The Gods Hate Kansas was a novel along those lines. Whatever is causing the strange events, you assume to be evil. But are they? No. What I liked was at the end you discover the aliens are weak, potentially friendly. It was almost like a Cold War parable where your enemy turns out to be someone you could be friends with.’
Writer Joe Millard turned his hand briefly to science fiction, first publishing The Gods Hate Kansas as a serial in Startling Stories magazine in 1941, revising at as a paperback original novel for Monarch over twenty years later. His greatest success came with biographies (Edgar Cayce: Mystery Man of Miracles, 1961) and Westerns. Having novelised the Sergio Leone ‘Man With No Name’ movies, he wrote a string of further adventures of the character – starting with A Coffin Full of Dollars (1971) – which were especially successful in the United Kingdom, with cover images of Clint Eastwood. These led to a vogue for gritty, mean-spirited, violent Western novels (George Gilman’s ‘Edge’ series, for instance) which shared rack-space with similarly-toned 120 page paperbacks about bikers or skinheads.
By 1968, when Subotsky wrote and produced a faithful adaptation of Millard’s novel, it was thematic old hat. Directed without much spirit by Freddie Francis, the film feels like a cobbling-together of scenes, plot-threads and ideas from earlier works – notably, Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953, from a screen treatment by Ray Bradbury), Val Guest’s Quatermass 2 (1958, from a television serial by Nigel Kneale) and the Outer Limits episode ‘Corpus Earthling’ (1964, from a novel by Louis Charbonneau). However, it should be noted that the magazine appearance of Millard’s novel predates all these, not to mention Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters (1951) – filmed without credit as The Brain Eaters (1958) and officially as The Puppet Masters (1994). Millard seems to have been first to hit on the notion, expanded in It Came From Outer Space, of a stranded alien crew taking on human form and scavenging for resources to repair their spaceship so they can continue their star voyage. Dr Curtis Temple, Millard’s hero, resists alien influence because he has sustained head injuries in a plane crash (a car crash in the film) which require the insertion of a silver surgical plate in his skull. This becomes a key plot-point in ‘Corpus Earthling’ and is also the hinge of Jerry Sohl’s novel Night Slaves (1965), adapted into a TV movie in 1970. In novel and film, Temple persuades his colleagues to wear silver-plated hats to block the mental invaders – a notion touched on also in They Came From Beyond Space’s co-feature The Terrornauts (1968) – which seems to be the origin of the stereotype of the UFO paranoid wearing a foil helmet to keep safe from ‘alien signals’. Millard also has Temple invent special lenses through which he can distinguish possessed people from normal humans, an idea developed into the sunglasses used by the hero of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988).
By transposing the action from Kansas – which the Gods hate, according to Temple ‘since they throw so many stones at it’  in the form of an unusually heavy fall of meteors — to Cornwall. Subotsky and Francis inevitably shift the tone from the can-do preparedness of American pulp and film science fiction to the more guarded, fussy world of British franchises like Quatermass or Doctor Who. Millard’s Curt Temple (‘yawning, he levered his rangy six-feet one into a vertical position’) and his colleague/fiancée Lee Mason (‘nature outdid herself when she packed brains like that in such an attractive package’) read like comic book characters, but register better on film as played by mature, slightly weaselly American import Robert Hutton (who at least looks more like a scientist than a cowboy) and beehived, lush-lipped Jennifer Jayne (a suburban vampire in Francis and Subotsky’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, 1964, and later, as Jay Firbank, screenwriter of two odd Francis films, Tales That Witness Madness, 1973, and Son of Dracula, 1974). Subotsky’s Temple has more eccentric props, including a vintage car which prefigures the one driven by Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, than the novel’s two-fisted stick figure, but still isn’t the most charismatic leading man in the genre. More interesting is the casting of Pakistani actor Zia Mohyeddin as Temple’s best friend Farge, who has to melt down his silver showjumping trophies to manufacture the anti-mind-control colunder. In the climax, Subotsky has Farge lead the just-freed humans in a skirmish with the robed alien overlords in their moonbase and rescue Temple from an operating table, taking up the slack left by Hutton’s unsuitability for the sort of he-man business Millard’s character manages in the book. It would be unusual now for a British film or TV episode to present a Pakistani action hero, and it was unheard of in 1968 – the appealing Mohyeddin, who has spent a career playing oil sheikhs and diplomats, gives a relaxed, confident and subtle performance, and the colour-blind casting is at once credible (many Britons of sub-continental background are prominent in the sciences) and admirably progressive.
Millard’s plot is haphazard, reflecting the original serial publication and Subotsky does little to make it less so. A meteor strike excites attention from the authorities because the rocks have flown (and landed) in a perfect V formation. When the meteors give off flashes of light, the first scientists at the scene and the farmers on whose land the meteors have fallen are taken over by bodiless aliens. The just-possessed Lee gives a running commentary (‘control of musculature and vocal chords seems awkward but adequate’) which Francis stresses with a huge close-up of Jayne’s impassive face. An attempt to co-opt Temple is thwarted by the plate in his head, but the aliens take over influential officials – including a bank manager who provides funds for a project on the cordoned-off site of the meteor-fall, which turns out to be the construction of a moon rocket. Then, a mystery disease – ‘the Crimson Plague’ – breaks out and swathes of people seem to drop dead. The quite gruesome spread of infection jeopardised Subotsky’s intent to make a film suitable for children and the British Board of Film Censors insisted a scene in which various folks in a small town high street start bleeding be re-edited. Temple, frustrated in his dealings with the infiltrated and useless authorities (a typical ‘Quatermass’ situation), keeps trying to get into the alien camp. The invaders do a deal – no more believable in the film than the book – with the government to remove the infectious plague corpses from Earth for safe disposal on the moon, where it turns out they are merely comatose and can be revived as suitable hosts for more aliens. Temple and Farge invent the anti-alien hats and glasses, and adapt an alien raygun to dispel the creature from Lee – then travel to the moon in the alien rocket.
The film was made in a period when intense interest in space travel had been aroused by the Apollo program – this might even have been the spur which made Subotsky buy the rights to Millard’s ordinary book, since it happens incidentally to feature a trip to the moon. Holding fast to the science of 1941, Millard gives the moon breathable air ( ‘the theory held by many astronomers was true … the moon did retain some thin atmosphere’), which Subotsky does away with. Temple confronts the robed elders of the visiting civilisation (the Xacrn in the book, which comes out pronounced ‘Zarn’ in the film) and dissuades the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough) from removing his silver plate. It seems the Xacrn only want to go home (to die) and Temple convinces the Master (Monj in the novel) that humanity would have helped without being coerced if only they’d thought to ask. Millard is marginally more cynical than Subotsky: his Xacrn have evolved beyond compassion but are also thoroughly nasty, habitually possessing another species (the Vard) when they need to use physical bodies (the ten-limbed creatures, depicted on the paperback cover, are deleted from the film, presumably on the grounds of expense). There’s also a hint in the book that the human race might have practical motives (gaining advanced science) for helping the alien travellers (though Millard’s Temple lectures the supposedly brighter Monj with folksy, gung-ho speeches which Subotsky trims). With minimal, but effective sets in the tradition of The Avengers or Doctor Who – an alien complex built under a shattered farmhouse – and the traditional British B film qualities of solid acting and competent action, They Came From Beyond Space is an improvement on Millard’s poorly-written fiction, but the author seems to deserve credit for being modestly innovative in coining ideas that more skilled, highly-praised creators have elaborated upon.
1: Little Shoppe of Horrors No 20, ‘Scream and Scream Again: The Uncensored History of Amicus Productions’ by Philip Nutman (2008).
2: Joseph Millard, The Gods Hate Kanas (Derby, Conn: Monarch, 1964).
The film seems to be public domain, so there are a lot of low-quality versions floating around online or on budget DVD. Studiocanal have issued a nice-looking DVD.
Hi Kim, Enjoyed this review and commentary! In terms of aliens crashing and taking human guise while trying to repair spaceship meme, I guess there must be many earlier examples. Three To Conquer, by Eric Frank Russell (1956) is the one that comes to mind. Must be others.
As Subotsky SF goes, not a patch on the Doctor Who films, especially the peerless romp Invasion Earth 2150 AD (that 60s retro look was all over London in the middle of the 22nd century). The mind control trope is so embedded that a single point of origin seems lost to the mists of time – much like the idea of a Time Machine or invasion by Martians. There’s some overlap with Colin Wilson’s Space Vampires, such as the multi tentacles giant alien alter egos. A Jungian archetype revealing itself, no doubt. My memory is fuzzy, or I may have hallucinated – is there a creepy scene at a petrol station involving our heroes encountering a weird mind-controlled alien dupe? Seem to remember it chimed (inharmoniously, maybe) with the scene with Sting in Radio On. Or perhaps I just ate a dodgy Pot Noodle …