If you grew up as I did, fascinated with George Pal, Ray Harryhausen, and just about any scifi movie from the 1950’s, you have trouble understanding how folks today can regard them as corny. But we were young then, and just learning to wonder and to dream. Turner Classic Movies recently showed The 27th Day (1957) starring Gene Barry. It’s not available yet on DVD, but watching it again after being enthralled as a young teen fifty years ago was a treat and even led me to reread the book, by John Mantley (1920-2003). My paperback was long lost, but through Amazon I paid a few cents for a used copy, which brought me a hardbound first edition, complete with cracking library plastic cover and those quaint due date hand stamps of yore.
This is a story of alien/human contact. Highly advanced aliens secretly visit Earth, but communicate only with six people around the world. Their home system will go nova soon, and they are looking for a new planet. They give the chosen humans capsules that can be used to destroy large numbers of humans, tasking them to use them or not. If used, of course, then Earth will be largely opened up for colonization. How the six deal with this awesome responsibility and how their lives are driven when the rest of the world finds out about them make up most of the adventure. The critical point here, overlooked by shallower audiences, is that the aliens are quite capable of taking over Earth and just moving in. But they assert that their ethics do not permit this.
Like the movie, the book has a context: the Cold War years. In this context, the western countries are bastions of freedom and Communism is blatantly evil. Joe McCarthy’s excesses had not yet given anticommunism a bad name and “creeping socialism” had only just begun its relentless advance. The plot in this story focuses on the desperate plight of the six humans once their governments find out about them and on a budding romance between the American and British members of this group. Moreover as in many of these mid-century stories, a scientist, also one of the six, gradually becomes the central character and learns things about the aliens and the capsules that make for a plot twist and a nerve-wracking ending.
Although not up to the scripting and production standards we take for granted two generations later, the movie is good fun and—like the book—treats a simple but important theme in a dramatic way. Critics can easily quibble with the story, but romantic realists are invited to set aside such matters and enjoy the ride. In our modern world surfeit with shallow action movies, here is tale of powerful aliens who would rather meet their demise than attack another race. What a concept!
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