Conservationist Scott MacQueen Interview: Martian Invaders 4K Restoration

Conservationist Scott MacQueen discusses the 4K restoration of Mars Invaders and the extensive process of preserving this sci-fi classic.

Step back and relive one of the most iconic sci-fi movies with the Martian Invaders 4K UHD Restoration. William Cameron Menzies' classic '50s film about a young boy named David teams up with an astronomer and health practitioner to stop a local alien invasion that The alien invasion led to the brainwashing of his parents and many other townspeople.

Jimmy Hunt as David in Invaders of Mars, with Arthur Franz, Helena Carter, Leif Erickson, Hilary Brooke, Maurice Ankrum, Walter Sand, Max Wagner and Milburn Stone also star. The 4K restoration of Invaders of Mars is already a classic in its own right, but it goes a long way in introducing this sci-fi thriller to a variety of new audiences.

In honor of the film's 4K UHD restoration, Screen Rant chats exclusively with film preservationist Scott McQueen about The Martian Invaders, the amount of time it took to get the best version of the cult classic wait.

Scott MacQueen on Invaders From Mars 4K Restoration

Screen Rant: I gotta say, you've been involved in so many amazing restorations over the years, and Invaders from Mars is another great addition to your resume. How did it come about?

Scott MacQueen: Well, it was kind of fun. It's a picture I've loved all of my life, and it's one of my guilty pleasures. When I was at UCLA, I made the acquaintance of Jan Willem Jansen from Ignite Films. Ignite has a library of [niche genre] titles, and they're based in the Netherlands, but all of their library holdings are in America are vaulted at UCLA. So, Jan had taken a meeting, I was called and Invaders was one he was very hard on. He didn't know the history of it, and I explained to him pretty definitely how the film was shot, how it was made and what the problem was. Because nowhere is there, in one place, a contiguous, ready-to-go element, by the nature of how it was made. It was all cut up and assembled, and then it was recut for reissue, and it was a pretty daunting thing, there were elements of everything in the archives. So, it just kind of got tabled, and then by a stroke of luck or happenstance, Jan Willem located the camera negative in a stock library in Los Angeles, where it must have been sold after Eddie Alperson went bankrupt. The camera negative lacks all the titles and all the opticals, because those were made in the printing negatives, which are not known to exist. If it's all straight cuts, it's there, but the minute you go through a transition or something—for many shots that they did opticals within the film, where they did enlargements or flopovers or the dream montage at the end—it's all gone. That's what I had explained to him back then. The camera negative was missing Reel 2, and it was not in the holding, so we were missing eight minutes altogether. We had about 60 minutes out of 78 of camera negative that could be used, which meant we had to come up with about 20 minutes from other sources, and those sources were vintage 1950s supersonic color prints, with all their attributes and flaws and the accretion of 70 years of handling. These were found, one copy at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, one at the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. The sad thing is that there are at least two other original 1953 prints out there that I know of, but they're with intractable private collectors, and we didn't even approach them, because I know that those collectors would never permit their films to be available. That's the downside of private collectors. So, the camera negative print from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and that was the foreign version, or the Continental Version, as I call it. Then, there was another Continental print that Eastman Museum had, and then there's a Cinecolor print of the domestic version that Eastman had, as well. That's one that we weren't told about initially.
I have to backtrack a little bit here. It played in America, and opened in the late spring, by the summer Alperson was negotiating for foreign distribution, and the foreign distributors did not like two things about it. They wanted a longer movie, and they wanted a movie that did not have a dream ending, the way the film was handled in this country. They eight minutes of superfluous, eating-up footage of the doctors and Germany in the observatory about a year later, where he's prattling on about flying saucers. Then they shot a new ending, where Jimmy and the doctors hide behind the Jeep, watch the saucer explode, and they take Jimmy home and put him to bed and tell him that mom and dad are just fine. The hospital called, and they'll be home in the morning, the end. The print at Eastman House and the print in Australia were that version. We did not have the original ending. Another inquiry was made by Janet Schur at Ignite again to ask them, "Are you sure there's nothing else?" and then they admitted, "Well, we do have another print, but it's not in our collection. It's on deposit with a collector." We went back, they stopped the approval, and it was rancid. We had a very beat-up, tattered, Cinecolor print, but it had the original ending. We still were missing one shot. The Ignite [print found] at Eastman House was a 1977 Eastman color print from a dupe negative. Back at that time, then-owner of the library licensed Invaders to someone who cut together the two versions and made a longer, never-seen vanity version, where both endings are there, and the observatory [scene]. But it used one of the very clean Cinecolor colored prints I know that we can't get to, and in that was one shot that was cut for all the foreign prints. It was probably cut because of its comic effect, when the little boy's all upset about his parents having been operated on by the Martians, and the Army figures out how to remove the electrodes in their heads. He turns to Milburn Stone, one of the army officers, and says, "Hurry, please, sir," and Milburn looks at him lovingly, and then pats him on the head. It's a goofy moment, but it's authentic, so we had to take that one shot from a faded 1977 Eastman color print and restore the color and get rid of the scratches digitally, which we were able to do. That's how it got pieced together. Plus, we pulled audio off all the 35mm prints, repaired section by section to the best signal. The sound work on Invaders is not terribly good, because SuperCinecolor didn't use a silver soundtrack like Technicolor; they used a cyan dye layer, which is cyan blue, and it's relatively noisy. But we got the best signal I've ever heard on the film, and we were able to clean it up digitally to remove the noise without harming the high frequencies, so it sounds very acceptable.

This sounds like an incredible journey Make this a reality.

Scott MacQueen: It's one of the most complex restorations I've done. The only ones that come close to it are Voice in the Wind, and White Zombie and Phantom of the Convent, where we had to puzzle together pieces from multiple copies. At least we didn't have any 16 millimeter, which I've had to deal with in a couple of instances, where the only way it's shot, or a sequence might survive, is in 16, because that's very hard to match to 35 for the grain.

With all these moving parts you have, how long do you think it will take to put all these parts together?

Scott MacQueen: It was in process probably for a year, as we had to wait to have other elements located. My initial step was to look at video proxies of each copy, which are low-res, timecoded, frame-accurate video files, and then map them against my master plan for the film, which, gosh, at this point in time, the only thing I could grab ahold of was a German YouTube file that was complete. Though, it did ridiculous things like adding, I think it was, a Fortner Symphony, or some other music. Anyway, it was frame accurate, and we used that to work into, and then made a basic editor's EDL list, with the time codes in, time codes out, shot by shot with the five sources on where we were pulling things from. Some of them were experimental, because the first print from Eastman House that we received scans of had a lot of movement in it, and it was jumping due to perforation damage and shrinkage, to try to repair that and stabilize it is very expensive, and a bit of a compromise. So, while it may have had fewer splices, and other things, we elected to only use that where we absolutely had to, and we used another one of the Cinecolor copies that perhaps had more damage to it, but was easier to address. Now, Invaders had interesting issues even when it was new, it was apparently too short to make a feature-length runtime, and they had to add footage to the American release before they had to do the same on the foreign. They went back and got Army stock shots of tank maneuvers and soldiers, and they repeated them ad infinitum throughout the film just to pad the length. They all appear at least once and might appear twice, and then they went into the chase in the catacombs with the Martians, they repeated a lot of that footage. So the Martians run right to left, and then 40 seconds later the very same shot is flipped, they run left to right. It's particularly funny, because there's one pot-bellied Martian who you can't mistake, he's shorter than the other ones, he's got this big rotund tummy. So, every time he comes on, you say "Aha, there he is again!" So that's the physical assembly of it, and then we had to get down to the nitty-gritty about the artistry, about the actual issues and condition of the film. The Cinecolor press had objectively poor color, so the color was an odd process, it didn't last very long. I think it lasted maybe two years before they went bankrupt, it came out of the two colors in the color process, which had been used throughout the '30s and '40s, for largely low budget westerns, it was blue and orange. This was their attempt, once Eastman color negative was available, to stay in business with a rival, three-color process. But, they shot Eastman color negative and then made the separations out to master positives, and then duplicate negatives, and the dupes became the printing sources. That's where all the obstacles and titles were cut in, was in those two negatives. Unfortunately, we didn't have those, so where we had these prints of the police station, is a good example, the walls in the police station. They veer, in the Cinecolor prints, toward a pale magenta, and the walls are meant to be a cool white. The flesh tones were brighter, they tended to be more yellow, we made them look much more natural. I've known that picture for a half century, I've seen it in so many color incarnations. In fact, when I was in college, a buddy of mine rented it for when it became available in color in 16 for a movie series at his college. I went over and introduced it and then I was so taken by a certain color, I borrowed the print from him and I rented it four times that weekend. So, that was immersion by fire, and I didn't see it again in color until it came out on LaserDisc in the late '80s, early '90s.

Not only have you re-watched it so many times, but now you have helped make a remake, what do you think? It just continues to resonate with you and so many viewers.

Scott MacQueen: I have no perspective on the film now. It's been so much a part of my life since I was age seven that it's like bumping your shins on the same piece of furniture. It's like Rob falling over the ottoman in the Dick Van Dyke opening; it's always been there. There are some films I see earlier in life, and I go a long way before I catch them again decades later, and they disappoint me, they're not what I remembered, or they belong to their time. This one always fascinated me because of Menzies' artistry, and the dream ending, and the design that poses the entire thing from a child's point of view. As I've gotten older, I realized that theme of the film really is like John Steinbeck's theme for Flight: a boy becomes a man when a man is needed. Nobody will believe him, the entire town is turned against him, and he has to man up and take on the Martian invasion, so he's the one that's able to convince the two protagonists, the female psychiatrist and her friend, the astronomer, that something's really going on. Once they bring the military in, he's kind of working shoulder-to-shoulder with the generals and giving them advice. It's a child's fantasy, about being big and being in control, and for me, the pivotal moment is when the hand grenades are being set off, and they're all trapped underground in the catacombs, and the time bomb to destroy the saucer is set, and they can't get back to the timer. One of the gendarmes starts yelling to the soldier, "Start digging," and this woman says, "What's the hurry, we're sealed in here? There's no way out." Jimmy Hunt says, "There is with this," and out of the rubble, he picks up the Martian ray gun, which is like four-feet long and has a big long tube. Then they said, "Do you know how to use it, David?" "Yes, sir," and so David single-handedly gets them out and metaphorically saves the world. The funniest thing about it, though, is like the English picture, Dead of Night, the famous ghost story picture after the war. When we think it's ended, it hasn't. There's a brilliant montage of all the action of the film, repeated as David runs down the hillside, and the saucer finally explodes in his mind, and we dissolve back to the pillow, and he literally wakes up with the thunder storming outside, awakes his parents and everything is fine.
He gets put back to bed, and then at the same time, you can hear the drone of the saucers that comes over the hill again, only this time, unlike the jet propulsion sound made in the dream. It kind of sounded a bit like a B-52, and when David looks out the window and says, "Gee whiz," this time, the thunderstorm explodes in rain, whereas in the first one, the storm never broke. The movie ends there with the Martian choir singing this incredibly mournful a cappella and it fades out. I mean, that kind of stuff you never forget, it lodges in the back of your head. And the imagery of the good mother and the bad mother, Hillary Brooke, is the sweet blonde mother dressed in a powder blue bathrobe, who then turns up as the Bitch of Buchenwald, dressed in a black suit with her hair in a Teutonic coil, marching in the police station to take David away. These are childhood fears, you know, mommy's good, mommy's bad, daddy's good, daddy's bad. Then you got the surrogate parents in the story and the achievement of power by the child. These are all things that are unspoken, but which I think speak a lot to why we all remember the picture as kids, those of us that saw it back in the day.

Considering you've been involved in so many restorations and remasters over the years, do you wish you'd helped bring the Invaders back in a similar fashion from childhood or early adulthood?

Scott MacQueen: I've worked on many pictures I've known and loved, what else needs to be done that I could put on that shortlist? Gosh, I was at Disney for 10 years, so I worked on a lot of things, at Disney Animation, and UCLA, some of these pictures I've always been fond of, like, Men in War, the Anthony Mann war film, which was about to go bye bye. There's only one element left that was rotting and we got to it in time. Let me think of a pithy answer for you. All That Money Can Buy was the last project I did at UCLA, and that's the original title of The Devil and Daniel Webster with Walter Huston. An impish devil, Mr. Scratch, gets a New England farmer in 1840s to sell him his soul for prosperity. It's a fabulous picture made at RKO, Bernard Herrmann's only Oscar for scoring, William Dieterle was fresh off Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Martin, a magnificent film. I thought about that one for 20 years, knocking on all kinds of doors at UCLA, I finally was able to put it forward with the Film Foundation. It was literally the final movie I did at the archive, I screened the final DCP, got in my car, and drove off into retirement. I was very pleased to have brought that back, the best quality, and finding a couple of extra little scenes.That meant a lot to me, because it's one of still one of my top cherished films.
But that's the past. In the future, I'd love to see a definitive Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, but that's problematic because of the elements. There are more elements now than we knew were there, but they're still scattered around the world. That poor picture's been "restored" by so many different hands for different reasons over the years. I don't know if the marketplace would stand, because that one has version problems as well, and reshooting and missing footage. I don't know that we can ever get back to an authentic version of it. But, if the elements could be found, it would be a great one to try. There's just so many films, there's been so much work done in the field last number of years, a lot of the holes have been filled in. I just noticed today that the Museum of Modern Arts has done a new restoration of the silent Cat and the Canary. That's been done, I think, about three times, once by a private individual, David Shepherd did it for video. Kevin Brownlow and Photoplay Productions did it for their purpose, using European material, which is B-camera negative tapes. While it was the best looking it's look, the shots often didn't work for me, because they were alternate takes, and some of them totally missed the magic of the original. The only other 35 was a diacetate print made circa 1936 that the Museum of Modern Art has, which is from the American camera negative, and they've just done that one. So, I'm looking forward to that.

About Invaders From Mars

Scary memories of this timeless 1953 thriller still haunt the dreams of fans who have never forgotten the story of David McKellen (Jimmy Hunt), a young boy who witnesses an alien invasion. "Invaders of Mars" was shot from a child's point of view, using exaggerated sets and upward angles. It became a modern classic and one of two classic alien invasion sci-fi films of the early 50s (the other being Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still), reflecting Cold War tensions, red scares and paranoid anxieties , which is typical of many American films of the 50s.

Check out our other interview with Invaders From Mars star Jimmy Hunt.

Next page: 10 Classic 50s Sci-Fi Movies That Still Captivate Modern Audiences

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