(1/10) In a nutshell: One of the true bottom-feeders of the cold war propaganda films, this movie depicts five people who oppose the universal draft seeing USA invaded by the Soviet Union. Despite good talent both behind and in front of the camera, this startlingly dumb movie is singularly boring and consists to a large part of military stock footage and five people talking in a bar. Worth watching perhaps only because of Dan O’Herlihy of Robocop fame and the fact that it features two Lois Lanes.
Invasion U.S.A. (1952). Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Robert Smith & Franz Shulz. Starring: Gerald Mohr, Peggie Castle, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Bice, Tom Kennedy, Wade Crosby, Phyllis Coates, William Schallert. Produced by Robert Smith & Albert Zugsmith for American Pictures. IMDb score: 2.5
Let’s be clear about one thing: Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant is one of the most brilliant film critics on the internet. But sometimes I am completely flabbergasted by his judgement – like when he uses words like ”well-handled”, ”neatly structured”, ”clever” and ”excitingly assembled” about a film that the rest of humanity agrees is a big giant pile of turds. This film is Invasion U.S.A. To Erickson’s defense, he also calls it ”one of the weirdest political films ever made”, writes that it reaches ”the heights of camp hilarity” and that it is hard ”to be sillier than this movie”.
Indeed, this is one of the worst propaganda films ever to be spouted out of Hollywood, and one that is so bad that it is even hard to view it as a so-bad-it’s-good film. Produced by Poverty Row studio American Pictures and distributed by Columbia, the movie was directed by veteran B director Alfred E. Green, who had been around since early silent cinema, and is perhaps best known for directing The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), the biopic of the first black baseball star of America. It was written by Robert Smith, who also worked on the writing team for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), which gave him a Hugo Award nomination.
So. Five libertarians who oppose the universal draft walk into a bar. Seriously! This is how the film begins! Five libertarians who oppose the universal draft walk into a bar, and are asked by a reporter (Gerald Mohr) how they view the universal draft. A sinister brooding ”forecaster” called Ohman (Dan O’Herlihy) scalds them for wanting peace and stability but aren’t prepared to pay the price. He then swirls his glass of cognac and leaves the five (including leading lady Peggie Castle) in a strange, almost trance-like state. Then the man on the TV (Knox Manning) informs them that ”the Enemy” has began a full-scale invasion of USA.
The film then follows the five bar guests – including a congressman (Wade Crosby) who opposes the draft and taxes, and a tractor manufacturer who has refused to build tanks for the army – and the bartender who has always dodged the draft, through the horrors of war, where most of them meet horrible deaths and other calamities. Slowly they realise that by clinging to their personal freedoms and comforts, they have let their country and their army down and all but invited the communists to bomb the shit out of their country with atom bombs. The movie ends with a not entirely unanticipated twist, intended to encourage viewers to do their bit for national security before it was too late.
1952 was something of an off-year for Hollywood science fiction. 1950 had kicked off the sci-fi genre with Destination Moon (review) and Rocketship X-M (review), and 1951 brought on an onslaught of superb movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (review) and The Thing from Another World (review). The slack would get picked up again in 1953, but 1952 not only saw a rather small amount of sci-fi films getting made in Hollywood, they were also almost uniformly bad. Invasion U.S.A. is no exception.
About half of the film is taken up by stock footage of WWII and military training videos. This creates a noisy, disjointed film where most of the time you don’t follow any of the protagonists but rather faceless, uninteresting soldiers, airplanes, paratroopers, and explosions. Most of the soldiers carry US uniforms – the film explains this by way of confusion tactics, but really the only reason is that this way the stock footage of US soldiers can thus be used to represent an invading army. The communists are portrayed as alcoholic, mindless, brutish rapists and all speak with a wide variety of faux accents, ranging from vaguely Slavic to vaguely Teutonic to Hispanic or Asian. The conversations of the communists seem ripped straight from a Mel Brooks movie. The conversation of the protagonists fares no better.
The effects are not too bad – the physical ones are gory for their time, there’s a few obvious dummies involved as well, and the visual ones are about as good as they get in a low-budget production in the fifties. The man behind the visual effects is sci-fi cult legend Jack Rabin, who had cut his teeth on films like Rocketship X-M and Flight to Mars (1951, review) – see the reviews for the latter for more on Rabin. Veteran W. Donn Hayes is listed as ”supervising editor”, and one could imagine that Rabin helped out with the cross-fades, overlays and the rapid editing of the stock footage, creating a visually energetic, albeit incohesive and ultimately pointless barrage of war and destruction. The cinematography is handled by John L. Russell, the cinematographer responsible for the iconic work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, that one film that he created an entire legacy on. Hitchcock called him the greatest cinematographer in the world, although basically all the rest of his catalogue consists of B movies, including Rocketship X-M, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Tobor the Great (1954, review), The Atomic Kid (1954) and Indestructible Man (1956).
There are films you can forgive or even love for being bad, if they have no budget or talent, but are made with great love and enthusiasm. This film is not one of them. Most of the people involved are rock-solid professionals, many of them even acclaimed in their fields. In addition to those mentioned above, we can add Oscar-nominated art director James W. Sullivan, Oscar-nominated set decorator John Sturtevant and B-sci-fi composer extraordinaire, Albert Glasser. Sullivan and Sturtevant don’t do anything particularly wrong, it’s just that they don’t really have anything to work with. Glasser’s music is effective, but constantly drowned out by the noise of machine guns, airplanes and bombs.
The acting, even though uneven, isn’t the problem. Gerald Mohr as newsman Vince Potter is a pretty good actor, although he made his career out of looking like Humphrey Bogart. Mohr had a decent career as leading man in B movies or second or third man in a few A films. Mohr had the lead in the strangely appealing Ib Melchior movie The Angry Red Planet (1958) and voiced Mr. Fantastic in the 1967-68 animated series Fantastic 4. Peggie Castle is bland in the movie, but also had a nice career as a B movie leading actress and in TV. She starred in Beginning of the End (1957). Robert Bice as one of the bar guests also acted in Captive Women (1952), Port Sinister (1953), Space Master X-7 (1958), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). Bice also acted as dialogue director on the film. The bartender is played by Tom Kennedy, a staple bit-part player in comedies, who worked with artists like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers.
Another prolific character and bit-part player was heavy-set Wade Crosby, playing the senator. Crosby also turned up in Red Planet Mars (review) – another heavy-set propaganda piece, made in 1953, and the cult movie Westworld (1973). Invasion U.S.A. is a fun rarity in the sense that it actually has two Lois Lanes in it. Noel Neill who played Lois in the 1948 film serial Superman (review), and would reprise the role in the George Reeves TV series with the same name, is badly underused as an airline worker. Phyllis Coates, who played Lois in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review) and played Lois in the first season of the afore-mentioned TV show plays a Mrs. Mulford – unfortunately they have no scenes together.
The star of the film, however only seen in the first and the last scenes of the movie, is Dan O’Herlihy as Ohman the ”forecaster”. O’Herlihy is wonderfully ominous and smug, adopting some kind of vague European accent. O’Herlihy’s big break seemed to have come in 1954, when he played Robinson Crusoe in Luis Bunuel’s adaptation of the book, but it never quite took off although he continued to stack up impressive work in both A and B films and numerous TV roles. He played the lead in the 1964 nuclear thriller Fail-Safe and portrayed president Roosevelt in the 1977 film MacArthur, starring Gregory Peck. He apperared as a guest star in the TV series The Bionic Woman (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978), and had roles in the films Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) as well as The Last Starfighter (1984). But it is two films that have made him instantly recognisable for a generation of movie-goers: Robocop (1987) and Robocop 2 (1990), in which he plays ”The Old Man”, or the president of Omni-Consumer Products.
Oh, yes, and watch out for ”Man from Omaha”, who is played by our old favourite, bit-part actor/extra legend Franklyn Farnum. Also among the extras of the film are William Hoehne Jr and William Schallert. Schallert is something of a sci-fi cult legend because of his involvement in numerous science fiction films and TV series. We have previously encountered him in one of his bigger roles, as the devious Dr. Mears in The Man from Planet X (1951, review). His long and industrious career on screen and off can be read about in detail in the review of said film.
So, clearly a lack of talent was not an issue with this movie. If that lack resided anywhere, then it was with the scriptwriters Robert Smith and Franz Schulz, and perhaps with the lack of interest from director Green. And although the film is a low-budget effort, it still had a budget of 127 000 dollars, which is a little under one million dollars today, with project-adjusted inflation. Considering about 70 percent of the film is either stock footage or five persons talking in a bar, one wonders where all that money went. I have seen better films made on a tenth of that budget.
In fact the acting is ok, the direction and filming are quite alright, and the effects aren’t bad either. The story might have even held up, had someone taken the time to actually develop it. Now it feels like someone came up with an idea: ”Hey, five libertarians walk into a bar and say they oppose the universal draft. How do you think they’d feel if at that very moment USA got invaded by the Soviets?” And then they just left it at that.
And nevermind that the science and geography is all garbled. As when the commies land ”on the shores of Washington D.C.” Come again? Or the fact that the newscaster says that ”thousands of A bombs” have been dropped on the States, in preparations for an invasion. If thousands of nuclear weapons had been dropped on USA, there would be nothing left to invade, disregarding the fact that all invaders would likely drop dead like flies in a few years from radiation sickness. And then of course there is the hilarious paradox that the movie encourages Americans to fight communism by sacrificing their comforts, freedom and assets to the state. Basically turning America into a socialist country so that it can fight socialism. Brilliant!
Unlike Glenn Erickson, I don’t see many redeeming qualities in the film, as it takes itself a bit too seriously to be good for campy fun, and is just a bit too professionally made to be forgiven its flaws. But most of all, it is just simply extremely boring to watch, unless you are a stickler for old military stock footage, in which case this film will be a hoot. Others than sci-fi completist nerds like me really should give this film a pass. I watch it so you don’t have to. And that’s said with all due respect to the talent involved, like Gerald Mohr, whose son Anthony wrote this incredibly moving story about the time his father was involved in the making of the film for the magazine War, Literature and the Arts. Read that one. Oh and just to make it clear: this film has no relation to the equally bad Chuck Norris movie of the same name.
Invasion U.S.A. (1952). Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Robert Smith & Franz Shulz. Starring: Gerald Mohr, Peggie Castle, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Bice, Tom Kennedy, Wade Crosby, Erik Blythe, Phyllis Coates, Aram Katcher, Knox Manning, Edward G. Robinson Jr, Noel Neill, Clarence A. Shoop, Franklyn Farnum, Willian Hoehne Jr, William Schallert. Music. Albert Glasser. Cinematography: John L. Russell. Art direction: James W. Sullivan. Set decoration: John Sturtevant. Makeup: Harry Thomas. Production supervisor: Ralph E. Black. Sound: Frank McWhorter. Special effects: Roscoe Cline. Visual effects: Jack Rabin. Produced by Robert Smith & Albert Zugsmith for American Pictures.