DVD Review: Five Million Years to Earth

Since I’ve already covered the plot of this story in detail in the 6 episodes of the BBC television version from the 1950s, I won’t go over it again except where there are significant or interesting differences.

This Hammer film version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit was filmed in 1968. It was revised by Kneale himself to cut it down to less than half its original length, but I don’t think he has anything to do with the new, alternative title that was used in the U.S. However, as nonsensical as Five Million Years to Earth is as a title, the first difference I make note of is that, in this version, there really isn’t a Pit either. The deep hole of the Knightsbridge construction site is gone; this time, our story begins in the Hobbs End Underground station, which isn’t very far underground. But the phrase “the Pit” also has certain connotations beyond a simple hole in the ground, suggestive of Hell and demons in keeping with the nature of the creatures discovered buried there. “Quatermass and the Renovated Tube Station” doesn’t evoke that same note of horror.

Ape-man skull At the Hobbs End station, workers are extending the train line when they dig up the fossilized skeletal remains of some hominids. The strange object that Dr. Roney’s team first takes for an unexploded bomb is discovered less than 7 minutes into the film, opening credits included.

Both the fossils and the object are found in the clay in the back wall behind the subway tracks, so there is no sense of remarkable archaeological chronology here–more a sense of surprise that things so close to the surface weren’t dug up ages ago.

Captain Potter of the Bomb Squad (Bryan Marshall) is still too young to have WWII experience. In this version, he’s the one who seeks out Colonel Breen (Julian Glover, who was born in 1935 and is way too young himself to be playing a crusty old WWII vet at this point in his career). After the meeting at the War Office where Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is told that his Rocket Group is about to be handed over to Breen, Breen receives Potter’s phone message and Quatermass comes along with him since the two were intending to thrash the matter out over dinner. This little bomb problem is just a stop on their way… until they get a look at the thing that obviously is no bomb. And when the undamaged skull turns up inside the sleek and shining black hull, Quatermass is drawn into the mystery whether Breen wants him there or not.

Tiny 'pentacle' on the ship's hull

Dr. Roney and Quatermass aren’t previously acquainted, but they bond quickly over their mutual dislike of Col. Breen.

From that point, the story plays out in pretty much the same way. When the spaceship is fully uncovered, they discover the sealed bulkhead in front with a little “pentacle” on it. A civilian contractor with an industrial-strength drill is brought in.

The hull shatters After he tries his drill on the surface and sets off the first wave of disturbing vibrations, a hole appears in the bulkhead, which then shatters like broken glass and melts away to reveal the compartment on the other side containing 3 grasshoppery-looking creatures inside clear hexagonal compartments.

Now that they’ve been exposed to the modern London air, the creatures and the compartments rapidly decay; the latter are hastened away for preservation and study to the museum where Dr. Roney works. (It’s the Natural History museum, I think. I love that Dr. Roney has a smallish triceratops skeleton in the front lobby just outside his office door and wish we had one where I work).

Martian grasshoppers

Quatermass and Roney agree that the creatures are Martians and that their horned image has haunted men’s minds in the form of demons and gargoyles since before the beginning of history. Quatermass forms his theory that 5 million years ago the inhabitants of dying Mars sought to preserve some part of their way of life by proxy by meddling with the development of the hominids on Earth.

Sladden is pulled out of the Tube Statiom Meanwhile, the drill operator is possessed by visions of life on Mars when he shuts down his equipment to remove it from in and around the ship.

He doesn’t do a bunny-hop like the drillman in the TV version, but appears to be pulled along against his will, up out of the underground station and down the streets.  A brisk wind and telekinetic flying debris accompanying him until he collapses in the churchyard.

Although I preferred the bunny-hop, I am more impressed by the actor who plays the drillman Sladden when he describes his visions to Quatermass. His voice is high-pitched and on the edge of hysteria as he speaks of the Martians leaping and the tall buildings going up and up into the dark purple sky. The visions continue to haunt and horrify him.

Sladden disappears from the film after that scene. He isn’t present when Quatermass repeats the shutting down of the drill equipment as an experiment and Barbara Judd receives similar visions which are recorded on videotape.

There are other compressions of the plot, details removed, and some minor characters excised. The elderly couple who lived in Hobbs Lane are gone, and so is the reporter Mr. Fullalove; it’s Quatermass who gives the story about the spaceship and the giant grasshoppers to the press.

Now, about those grasshoppers.

When I wrote my review of The Stone Tape a couple of months ago, I said that Nigel Kneale’s imagination exceeds the BBC’s special effects budget. It also exceeds Hammer’s, and it was the grasshoppers here I was thinking of.

Not terribly convincing dead grasshopperThis is a terrific story, but the creatures that are pulled out of the spaceship really let it down. They are bright green and glittery and never convince me that they were ever living beings.

When we see the videotape of the Wild Hunt recorded from Barbara Judd’s vision of Mars, it’s a bunch of little figures hopping around in a distinctly puppetty manner. They look silly. No wonder Colonel Breen and the War Office men are unimpressed and prefer to cling to the equally absurd story of Nazi fakes.

Grasshoppers on the march! Black and white photography covers a multitude of special-effects sins, but the creatures in the older BBC version looked more convincing. And the videotape in that version was surprisingly more gruesome, showing Martians getting their heads bashed in.

The effects in this film version that are improved are the spaceship and the ghostly Spirit of the Martians that rises above London once the ship starts to glow. The BBC’s spaceship was a tube-shaped object something like a round-nosed rocket without fins; Hammer’s is smoothly shaped and streamlined and reminds me of Darth Vader’s helmet smushed flat.

When the ship begins to glow and pulse at the ill-advised press conference, it becomes a bright shade of purple with darker streaks like veins running along it.

The ship begins to glow

The buildings in the street around it begin to tremble and fall down, as if there were an earthquake. Debris start flying around, as usual, but the tiles from the walls also fly off and the train rails rise and wave around like a serpent. The reporters and other witnesses rush out of the underground station in a panic; some fall down as the crowd pushes its way up the stairs and more than one person is injured or killed before they reach the street.

Colonel Breen and the spaceship Only Colonel Breen remains behind, kneeling before the glowing ship. (Perhaps for the first time, but not the last, a Julian Glover character chooses poorly.)

The enactment of the Wild Hunt, where reawakened, implanted instincts cause people to destroy those who don’t belong, seems strangely smaller and subdued this time around. Instead of covering all of London in darkness, fire, and destruction, spreading to the suburbs as the ship’s influence spreads, the riot never gets far from its center at Hobbs Lane. We see an “outsider” killed, a hapless nearsighted man caught in an alley between two or three groups, but neither he nor his killers ever says a word during this scene. He doesn’t even scream when they fling large stones down on him.

In the earlier version, the Spirit of the Martians was depicted by the head of one of the prop creatures briefly superimposed over the cloud of smoke rising from the melting ship. Here, it’s an animated figure with a wicked look in its eyes. It appears to be gazing down at the rioting going on in the streets below, perhaps guiding the purge of outsiders. It definitely has its eyes on Dr. Roney and Quatermass as they attempt to defeat it.

Barbara Judd as the Martian's envoy One interesting change from the 1950s television version I make note of is how much more the character of Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) has to do. She’s the one who notices the two different spellings on the street signs and tells Quatermass that Hob is an old name for the Devil. She’s also the first person to make a connection between the periodic outbursts of supernatural phenomena and disturbances to the ground near the buried spaceship. She accompanies Quatermass on most of his investigations after that; if you missed the very beginning of the film, you would assume that she’s working for him and not Dr. Roney.

And while Miss Judd in the TV version spent most of the purge of London lying unconscious on the floor of an abandoned house, she is awake and distinctly a participant here. While the Spirit of the Martians gazes down at her, presumably directing her actions, she presents a major obstacle to Dr. Roney’s and Quatermass’s carrying out their plans.

Dr. Roney, once again doing a very brave and dangerous thing.This version of the plan is enacted in a more spectacular way than it was in the television version. Dr. Roney’s idea is to use something made of iron to ground the energy of the ship and drain the figure of its power. In the television version, he threw some large chains into what was left of the ship and *Fwoom!*. This time, he aims a whole enormous steel construction crane (seen in the background since the beginning of the movie) at the beastie and the electrical burst is proportionately bigger.

Quatermass’s speech at the end is missing from this version. The film concludes with the devastated professor and Barbara Judd in the flaming and ruined remains of Hobbs Lane as the credits roll up over them.

As I said at the beginning of my first review, this is the version of the story I grew up with. But, while it has its good points, overall I think the television version is better. Aside from the special effects, its longer running time gives it ample opportunity to explain what’s going on adequately.

Barbara wonders about the clawmarks on the wall. So do I.The only point which it doesn’t explain, that I was hoping it would, was the mysterious claw-marks on the walls inside the “haunted” house.

These marks appear in both versions of the story and I assume they have something to do with the Martian manifestations, but how exactly they got there is never gone into.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.