When aviator Kenneth Arnold spotted a string of disc-shaped craft blowing past Mt. Rainer at unheard of speeds in June of 1947 it sparked a surge of "flying saucer" sightings around the country and stoked the fires of speculation on the origin of these unidentified flying objects. Were they Russian? Was this some kind of Nazi Doomsday weapon? Or were they something from outer space? That same year, in Roswell, New Mexico, initial reports of an actual crashed UFO really stirred things up, though this "proof" was quickly refuted as a case of mistaken identity.
Then, in 1948, things took a sinister turn with the report that a UFO had shot down a pursuing F-51 Mustang near Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Now, whether that plane piloted by Captain Thomas Mantell was actually shot down or crashed after running out of fuel is still hotly contested to this very day; either way, the overall keen of the public's reaction to these sightings after this deadly incident changed and they wanted answers, which the Air Force tried to provide through several studies and at least three task forces. (Grudge, Sign, and Bluebook.) And then, as the sightings and reports continued to pile up, things really hit the fan in 1952, when over the last week of July, a squadron of UFOs kept buzzing the nation’s capitol and outran any and all pursuit planes, who had Presidential authority to shoot these bogies down if they refused to land as ordered.
That same year, film producer Clarence Greene saw something strange, too. He was leaving a friend's house when his attention was directed to a luminous spherical object in the night sky, which they observed for nearly five minutes as it made several stops and sharp turns before streaking away over the horizon. The next day Greene related the sighting to his longtime partner, Russell Rouse. These two had first teamed up when they co-wrote the switched-at-birth melodrama, The Town Went Wild (1944), but were most noted for a string of film noir features, beginning with the classic D.O.A. (1950) and ending with House of Numbers (1957). In between, the screenwriters expanded into producing (Greene) and directing (Rouse) for Greene-Rouse Productions [The Thief (1952), New York Confidential (1955)]. The two would be nominated for an Academy Award for The Well (1951), and would win one for Pillow Talk (1959) but their luck would run out with the critical and box-office disaster, The Oscar (1966), which essentially ended their careers.
But long before the wheels came off, Rouse was intrigued but skeptical of Greene's sighting. Others weren't as kind. Undaunted, Greene reported the sighting to the Air Force and filed an official incident report. (Turns out he wasn't the only one to see the object that night.) Fascinated by the process, and a little miffed at all the contempt and skepticism he had experienced since 'going public', Greene was curious to know more and was pointed toward Al Chop, the former head of press relations for Project Bluebook, the Air Force's current task force on UFOs. Reluctant to talk at first, Chop eventually warmed up to Greene's sincerity and introduced him to the former director of Project Bluebook, Capt. Edward Ruppelt, who allowed Green access to "a lengthy and exhaustive study of reports, various documents and affidavits of UFO sightings and testimony from radar experts" and "some heretofore top secret motion pictures, in color, of flying saucers." Armed with these sources and background, Greene convinced Rouse that they should make an unbiased documentary about the surge in UFO sightings over the past decade and shed some objective light on the phenomenon.
This resulted in Unidentified Flying Object: The Truth about Flying Saucers (1956), a no-nonsense docudrama centered on Chop (Towers) that begins with a dramatization of Kenneth Arnold's historic sighting. From there, it covers several other major incidents, including the Mantell crash and the Gorman Dogfight in South Dakota (1948), the exposes published by LIFE and LOOK magazines, and the cultural impact these sightings had, while framing the history of Project Sign (the Air-Force's first serious study on UFOs) through Chop's eyes and his growing involvement after being hired on as the public information officer at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.
Skeptical at first, Chop is eventually swayed by the sightings that cannot be rationalized or explained, especially the evidence provided by the amateur films of Nick Mariana (Great Falls, Montana, 1950) and Delbert Newhouse (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1952), which were recently declassified and included in the film as color inserts. (Mariana and Newhouse both appear in the film as themselves to relate their close encounters.) The climax of the film is a recreation of the Washington DC incident, in which Chop played a central role, keeping reporters at bay while watching the UFOs on a radar scope only to watch the blips disappear whenever the interceptors get in range only to reappear when they clear off. And when the film ends, a shaken Chop has come to a decision. When first hired on, he felt this flying saucer business was pure bunk. But now, Chop leaves us with his professing a belief that they are a "real, physical phenomenon of unknown origin."
After the dazzling highs of Apollo 11, the three majors networks were already balking on coverage of the other subsequent moon landings due to NASA's penchant for making space travel about as exciting as reading stereo instructions. There's even an urban legend that by Apollo 17 viewers swamped CBS with complaints over the preemption of some I Love Lucy reruns; a show that had been off the air for nearly fifteen years. UFO: The Truth About Flying Saucers kinda falls into the same trap. Unlike other documentaries of this vintage it fails to really present what its railing against, if that makes any sense. (Think of the presentation of drug use in all those scare shorts. Then think of them as nothing but policemen talking to each other or interviewing witnesses.)
The film itself is very dry as it focuses on button-down men in thin ties doing sciencey things and Air Force personnel efficiently doing what they do and both explaining everything they're doing down to the minutest detail. And while there are some recreations, the film relies heavily on the recollecting of witnesses because it is cheaper to tell than to show. This kind of realism does add some verisimilitude but what good is that if the audience essentially chokes on it?
Personally, I enjoyed the film a lot and can appreciate what Greene was trying to do but, in the end, the film comes off too clinical for its own good. (I believe focusing on some hoaxes could've alleviated some of this.) Therefore, I think it prudent to warn any potential viewers that more than half of you will probably find UFO: The Truth About Flying Saucers extremely tedious and the rest, aside from my fellow UFOologists and cryptid nuts out there, or those looking for something of this vintage and subject matter to make fun of, will find it rather disappointing.
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Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers (1956) Ivan Tors Productions / P: Ivan Tors, Clarence Greene, Russell Rouse / AP: Fernando Carrere / D: Winston Jones / W: Francis Martin / C: Howard A. Anderson / E: Chester W. Schaeffer / M: Ernest Gold / S: Willis Sperry, Nicholas Mariana, Delbert Newhouse, Wendell Swanson, Tom Towers