Thursday, 7 January 2010

British Science Fiction Movie Posters of the 1950s and early 1960s Part I

The rocket at the bottom of the garden from Quatermass II

British science fiction movies of the 1950s and early 60s pretty much followed their American counterparts in being Cold War allegories while cinema in both countries battled to compete with television for the public’s attention, but of course the genre was coloured by the country of origin's particular political and social climate to allow for UK audiences the chance to relate to national anxieties.

Rather like the industry today, where funding was tight, film-makers often had to look abroad for financial support and strike deals with American producers and distributors. To receive American funding and ensure a release in the USA, often as the second part of a double bill, it was often the case that the films featured an American ‘star’ – in the loosest possible understanding of the term. Then current grade A stars rarely appeared; usually they were older actors, on their way down, like Brian Donlevy, or perhaps second string stars who never quite made the grade beyond supporting actor, like Forrest Tucker.

It could be argued that British film science fiction competed with television by taking its lead from that medium. Nigel Kneale and Rudloph Cartier had adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as early as 1954; two years later it was adapted for the big screen by William Templeton and Ralph Gilbert Bettison with Michael Anderson directing and American actor Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith.

Donald Pleasance, who had appeared as Syme in the TV version, played an amalgamation of Parsons and Syme in the film.

Kneale’s extraordinarily successful BBC television serial, The Quatermass Experiment (1953) was turned into the film, The Quatermass Xperiment (to exploit its X rating) in 1955. Directed by Val Guest and written by Guest and Richard Landau, it starred fading American actor Brian Donlevy as Bernard Quatermass, who Kneale did not like and who, allegedly, was drinking on set. Like the TV version, it was a success with audiences, though it received mixed reviews, and it’s fair to say that it was in the UK, with the development of Hammer Studios, that the horror film received a boost worldwide.The American poster - note the title change - complete with the monster chasing people scenario typical for posters of this genre

The rather striking Polish poster for The Quatermass Xperiment

Hammer, then a small studio with its Dracula and Frankenstein cycle a year off, wanted to capitalise on it straight away and had Jimmy Sangster prepare a Quatermass-style script; however, Kneale refused to sanction it and it became X The Unknown (1956), a Quatermass movie in all but name about a radioactive substance emerging from the centre of the earth. Here, the intrepid scientist is called Dr Adam Royston and he was played by fading American star Dean Jagger. It was to have been directed by Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted by Hollywood, but Jagger refused to work with a suspected communist sympathiser and the directing job was given to Leslie Norman, father of British film journalist Barry Norman. His approach may have been more workmanlike, but there are scenes of genuine atmospheric terror when two boys run through the woods at night. Further down the cast list are Leo McKern and Anthony Newley.

Intrepid jornalist Sid James meets Professor Quatermass

In the meantime, the BBC had commissioned Kneale for another series, Quatermass II. Broadcast in 1955, it concerned an alien invasion but also touched on the corruption of people in power, totalitarian control, and the growth of secretive nuclear establishments. It was another success and Hammer moved to turn it into a film. This time, Kneale adapted it himself and Guest once again directed; despite the writer’s criticism of his previous performance, Brian Donlevy took the starring role. Released in 1957 (and titled Enemy From Space in the US), it was a huge success – but this was surpassed by the first of Hammer’s adaptations of the Universal monster series: The Curse of Frankenstein, which ushered in a new and profitable era for the studio.The American poster - which constructs Donlevy, who looked far older than he was, as an unlikely action hero

Although Hammer would still dabble in science fiction, it wasn’t until 1967 that it adapted Kneale’s 1958 series, Quatermass and the Pit. Written by Kneale, it starred Andrew Keir and although it was not as commercially successful as its predecessors, it is widely regarded as a critical success and, along with The Devil Rides Out (1968), one of the best of the later Hammer films, the studio having, by then, opted for sensationalism and plunging necklines over genuine horror.This even more dramatic poster was used in America; note the change of title, which is actually relevant to the storyline


Quatermass is not the whole story of Hammer's science fiction in this period. The Abominable Snowman was a 1957 British horror/sci-fi film, directed by Val Guest and starring the American actor Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing, who was beginning to make a name for himself in the genre. Based on Nigel Kneale’s TV play, The Creature, it concerns the search in the Himalayas by an American expedition for the Yeti. Kneale adapted his own television script and Cushing reprised his role. Stanley Baker had taken the part of Tom Friend, now played by Tucker. Typically for a Kneale script, this was not a straightforward monster movie but one that saw the Yeti, our collateral descendants from the apes, a group of superior intelligence that is waiting peacefully for humankind to destroy itself through war or pollution, before they inherit the planet. You'll notice that both posters keep the acuial appearance of the Yeti an mystery - and, indeed, you don't see that much of it in the film!



  1. wow. very cool post. i haven't seen a lot of these.

  2. Quatermas II scared the stuffing out of me .
    My favorite part is where the guy gets jammed up the pipe by the creature...and you can hear his scream echoing along the pipe.
    This movie is truly a gem.