Friday, August 24, 2018

Project Blue Book: UFO, the Motion Picture

The story behind the story may seem familiar. A Pentagon employee takes a new assignment with a government agency secretly studying UFOs. He becomes fascinated with the topic and wants to do more, but frustrated by the government’s stance, he resigns. Shortly afterward he works with an entertainment company, helping them expose two previously classified UFO films to the public. That’s the story of Al Chop, who became the focus of the first factual motion picture about UFOs.

Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers was released May 1956, and its purpose was to tell the authentic story of the UFO phenomenon and its investigation by the United States Air Force. Movie producer Clarence Greene became interested in UFOs after his 1952 sighting, persuading his partner, Russell Rouse, to make a film examining the topic. In the press for the film, Greene wrote how they got started in 1954:
“I learned that Albert M. Chop, who had been the Press Information Specialist for the Pentagon, handling all flying saucer news, was on the West Coast. I had several meetings with him. … 
Through Chop and certain newspapermen, a meeting was arranged with Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, USAF Reserve, former director of Project Bluebook. Together, we went into a lengthy and exhaustive study…” 
The movie took form as docu-drama, factually covering flying saucer events and investigation, using the story of Al Chop’s transition from skeptic to believer as a narrative device. Chop and Ruppelt were technical advisors and script consultants, but they did not receive screen credit, only mentions in the press. Both appeared as characters in the movie, Chop played by a non-actor aviation writer Tom Towers, while Ruppelt was played by actor Robert Phillips. 

Screenwriter Francis Martin with Albert M. Chop & Edward J. Ruppelt

What the film did not have was the participation or approval of the Air Force. They thought it was poison. Captain George T. Gregory of Project Blue Book wrote a memo on May 17, 1956 stating the concern that the UFO movie could be incendiary, and called meeting with Dr. J. Allen Hynek and others review the AF explanations for the UFO cases featured in the movie: 
This film may stir up a storm of public controversy similar to that which USAF was subjected to in 1952 with regard to UFOs, as a result of the unwarranted sensationalism generated by so-called “UFO experts”, writers and publishers...
In conferences held with Lt Col Johnson of General Samford’s office, Dr. Hynek, Prime UFO consultant, Scientific Advisor’s office and other pertinent personnel, it was agreed by all that ATIC should review this film before any wide-scale release to the public, for purposes of “countermeasures", that is, the preparation of some official comment to be kept in readiness to queries which will undoubtedly arise.
The 40-page file in Project Blue Book relating to the UFO movie contains a range of documents from news clippings and reviews of the film, to internal AF correspondence and relevant UFO case summaries. Captain Gregory’s position was that the film was deceptive by ignoring the investigations and explanations, and instead was exploiting solved cases as UFO mysteries. In a memorandum to the Scientific Advisor dated May 21, 1956, Capt. Gregory wrote:
In each instance of the portrayal of a case, the film dramatically, and with great suspense, presents the incident and circumstances surrounding the sighting, then abruptly drops the matter… calculated to let the viewer form his own (influenced) conclusions.
The firestorm Captain Gregory expected fizzled, partly due to the low-key approach of the film. UFO was modestly successful commercially, but it didn’t rally the public like he’d feared. The press covered it, but reviews were mixed.

The Cincinnati Enquirer May 27 and 29, 1956

Excitement and expectations in the UFO community were high, particularly in regards to the evidence represented by the declassified UFO footage. The UFO Newsletter #4, May 12, 1956, from the North Jersey U.F.O. Group reported:
Most important things in the film are the two actual COLOR FILMS OF UFOS which were kept "top secret" for some time (UTAH AND MONTANA FILMS) and which, with the official assurance that they are not normal objects, are CONCRETE PROOF FOR THE EXISTENCE OF 'SAUCERS.' ...This film is the break saucerdom has needed; it should do the trick, with proper support by those of us who are more interested in the field.
The general public and some reviewers were less impressed with the disclosure of the films.

The Los Angeles Times May 10, 1956

Conspiracy-minded Frank Scully, author of Behind the Flying Saucers, included a mini-review of UFO in his rambling column, “Scully’s Scrapbook,” in the June 13, 1956 issue of Variety.
Variety June 13, 1956

The flying saucer phenomenon was only seven years old when the film went into production, and the story takes us from Kenneth Arnold’s sighting up to the aftermath of the 1952 Washington, DC radar flap, with its “credible observers of relatively incredible things.” UFO takes an interesting approach to the history of the topic by letting us see it through the eyes of US Air Force press officer, Al Chop as he’s drawn into the flying saucer controversy. It’s a drama based on real events, with sequences featuring actual witnesses Delbert Newhouse and Nicholas Mariana recounting the stories of how they filmed UFOs. It’s not a documentary, classified as a docu-drama, dramatized re-enactments of actual events. 
The Cincinnati Enquirer May 30, 1956

The producers, Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse tried to make the film as genuine as possible, and avoided something that would have excited viewers more, seeing flying saucers in the re-enactments of UFO sightings. The closest thing we get is the scene depicting the 1952 Washington, DC, events, and in it, all we see are blips on a radar screen, not flying saucers. Due to this choice, a lot happens off-screen, including the UFO sighting and plane crash that became the centerpiece in the film’s advertising campaign, the fatal flight of Captain Thomas Mantell.

The Original UFO screenplay

A copy of the screenplay for UFO by Francis Martin was included in the papers of retired Blue Book head, Capt. Ed Ruppelt. It was written in 1954, but included revisions, “final changes,” dated March 7, 1955. It's from that draft the passages below are taken. Ruppelt along with Al Chop and were consulted for the film to make it as authentic as possible.

UFO Producer Clarence Greene with radar consultant Wendell Swanson and Edward J. Ruppelt.

One thing the Air Force should have been thankful for is that Al Chop and Ed Ruppelt omitted any mention of their nemesis, pioneering ufologist, Donald Keyhoe. But perhaps Keyhoe was being referred to in this narration:
The Air Force was forced to take official cognizance of the "flying discs" because of increasing demand from the public for an explanation, and as a result of certain publications persisting in using a sensational approach, in reporting such items.
Also absent is Keyhoe’s key claim, that there was a UFO cover-up conspiracy by the Air Force. The only thing resembling a cover-up is in the scene where Chop hears the truth about what the public had been told about the closing of Project Sign. It's depicted as typical military secrecy: “We switched the code name to Project Grudge and the investigations continued.”

Dr. J. Allen Hynek is another prominent UFO figure that’s not depicted or mentioned by name, but he is referenced in the film. Dr. Hynek's role in Project Blue Book is presented accurately, and it’s in the scene where Ed Ruppelt introduces Al Chop to Project Blue Book and describes the investigation of a multi-witness UFO sighting:
We now checked with our contract astronomer at a leading university... Our astronomer reported that at the time of the observation, the planet Jupiter was fifteen degrees above the horizon and on the range and bearing of the object. There's no doubt about it. What all these people saw was Jupiter.
Dr. Hynek did become involved with the film, but only in the Air Force’s defense against it, reviewing the cases presented, double-checking the debunking of them.

The movie’s story focuses on the credibility of the witnesses and evidence, not on the origin of the UFOs, but there were a few scenes in the original script suggesting the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs. An early scene has Mrs. Chop asking her skeptical husband about his new job and flying saucers:

DEE: “I'm sorry. But do you really think they might be from Mars, or someplace?”
AL: “Look, honey, don’t you get like the rest of those screwballs that I have in my hair all day. Every time some kid flies a kite, fifty different people see space ships. Come on, let's get to bed.”
Another scene is unspoken, a shot of the Life magazine cover (replica) with the title, “There is a Case for Interplanetary Saucers.” 

The real Life magazine, and the movie’s more dignified stand-in. 

There's also a scene with Capt. Ed Ruppelt repeating Lt. George Gorman’s testimony about his aerial “dogfight” with a UFO:
RUPPELT: “Gorman said he was sure there was an intelligence behind the movements of the lights. He stated, too, that no earth-born pilot could have withstood the G-factor inherent in the object's turns and speed without blacking out.”
There are several interesting differences between the script and the finished film, such as how far they push the ideas of UFOs as extraterrestrial. The original screenplay had the Newhouse and Mariana films shown within the story, and the script ends after the press conference with General Samford about the Washington, DC sightings. The ending narration of the screenplay leaves the nature of UFOs ambiguous, for the viewer to decide:
We shall not attempt to sway you in your judgement. You, as separate individuals, will make your own interpretations of the Newhouse and Mariana films of the unknown objects, as well as the rest of the documented evidence presented in this motion picture. But, could we be on the threshold of a new era? Could we be entering wonderful vistas where problems and fears and prejudices fall into nothingness? Could we be entering a great era of enlightenment?
The final film ditches the narration and moves the footage color UFO films to the end as a grand finale. Just before they are shown, we have a final scene of Al Chop wandering around the city at night struggling to digest all he’s experienced. Instead of the narrator’s voice, we hear Chop’s thoughts about UFOs:

I started to walk through the streets of Washington, the words remaining with me, “credible observers of relatively incredible things.” ...the evidence has crystalized, and so now, in my opinion, there was no doubt as to their existence. Now, so far as I was concerned, it was no longer a question of whether or not there were unknown objects flying in our atmosphere. For me, the only questions that remained were:
What were these objects? Where do they come from?
To me the evidence indicated intelligence behind their control, and by now, the belief that their source was interplanetary was no longer incredible.
The movie did have a pro-saucer bias, and never questions that some UFOs must be structured physical craft of unknown (likely otherworldly) origin. But on the whole, Clarence Greene's UFO was an honest attempt at a factual account, understated, steering clear of sensationalism and speculation. Yet, United Artists' advertising campaign for the movie was another story, and that’s perhaps what got Blue Book’s Captain Gregory so agitated.

The Sensational Selling of Unidentified Flying Objects

From the beginning of the industry, motion picture studios provide exhibiting cinemas with press kits with materials to help direct the market and promote of the film, from advertising campaigns to publicity stunts. Pressbooks can contain advertising slicks, suggested ad copy, and often offered additional specialized pictures, posters or three-dimensional displays theatres could buy to promote the film.

The pressbook for Unidentified Flying Objects stressed to exhibitors that the topic was dynamite, and highly marketable:

“Here’s one right down the exploitation alley” - Film Daily

The advertising made it look like a thriller, and emphasized the frightening truth of the film:

The studio's copy for station break televisions advertisements:
Now! See and hear the truth about flying saucers in actual films of unidentified flying objects… kept ”top secret” until now! See it at the Bijou… the motion picture of the century… Bijou Now!
The legitimate selling point of the movie was the inclusion of formerly “top secret” films of flying saucers. The final segment of UFO showcased color footage of the Nick Mariana 1950 film from Great Falls, Montana, and the Delbert Newhouse 1952 film from Tremonton, Utah.
From the UFO Pressbook

The print advertising almost exclusively focused on capitalizing on the death of Captain Thomas J. Mantell, who had perished while pursuing a UFO on Jan. 7, 1948.


The movie posters featured a close-up of the frightened pilot’s face, “- and then he crashed!”

Imagery on the other promotional material, from lobby cards to print advertising, also focused on the morbid angle. Some depicted saucers blasting the plane, while others showing the fatal crash itself.

It's interesting that the hostile saucers in the promotional artwork do not appear in the film itself, but they closely resemble those featured in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which was released two months later.

Spanish language version from Mexico

The trailer shown as a preview for the movie was likewise exploitative.

YouTube trailer: Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956

Given the message broadcast by advertising and marketing campaign, the Air Force fully expected the movie itself to be “using a sensational approach.” Instead, the UFO mystery was presented by the filmmakers in a pretty realistic manner, as something elusive, and the Air Force comes out looking pretty good in Project Blue Book’s mission to understand the enigma.

In the End
On the whole, Unidentified Flying Objects isn’t a very entertaining movie, but it is an educational and informative one, important in spite of its flaws for the glimpse of history it provides. Despite the worries of the Air Force, UFO wound up giving us the most accurate portrayal of Project Blue Book ever put on screen. The film also gives the audience a taste of what it is like to investigate UFOs, relying on little more than the word of witnesses, blips on radar, and indistinct images on film. It’s fitting that the film leaves us with the protagonist pondering the evidence, but in the end, finds his belief.

. . .


Correcting the UFO Movie Myth-stake about Ivan Tors

Ivan Tors is widely credited as having produced the classic 1956 film, Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers, but that’s not wrong. Tors is best known today for his later adventure and family television shows such as Sea HuntFlipper and Daktari, but at the time, he was busy with his TV series, Science Fiction Theatre, which often featured UFO-related stories. We checked with Robert Barrow who has studied the film since its release, and he stated that he had found no trace of Tors’ involvement with UFO and did not know where that mistake originated.

Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries Motion Pictures And Filmstrips, 1956.

It came from the name, Ivar Productions, the name Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse used to produce UFO, and apparently it was taken from the street where their office was located. Film and Television Daily, 1959 listed their location at "Greene-Rouse Productions. Inc. 1741 Ivar Ave., Hollywood 28, Calif. Hollywood 9-0350." Checking the Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries Motion Pictures And Filmstrips for 1955 and 1956 shows that Ivan Tors was producing films outside his television show, but as “Ivan Tors Films.” 

Somewhere down the line, someone confused Ivar Productions with Ivan Tors. It’s true that Ivan Tors was interested in flying saucers, but he did not produce UFO, that was Greene and Rouse.
. . .

For Further Information

Robert Barrow has written extensively on the classic 1956 film, and we highly recommend his site, UFO: The True Story of Flying Saucers:

The Sign Historical Group hosts a page about Albert M. Chop that includes an interesting interview from 1999 looking back on his days with Project Blue Book:

Edward J. Ruppelt's 1956 book, The Report On Unidentified Flying Objects, is an inside look at Project Blue Book, and a perfect companion to the movie UFO. The NICAP site hosts it free online:

For further details on the Captain Thomas J. Mantell crash, see The Mantell Incident by Fran Ridge at the NICAP site:

Project Blue Book had a 40-page file on the UFO movie and the cases it presented:
"Review of Motion Picture 'Unidentified Flying Objects'"

John Cozzoli’s blog, Zombos' Closet presents scans of the complete UFO pressbook:

The UFO Lobby Cards:

Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers can be found on YouTube, but only with the final scenes in black and white:

1 comment:

  1. Only part of the movie I've ever seen was the end with the color footage, which was pretty wild to stumble across on Turner Classic Movies at six in the morning on a weekday.


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