Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956)


Science fiction has long held an honorable place in the entertainment industry. Gulliver’s Travels was written as a satire on Society in Swift’s period, but its theme is essentially science fiction. The books of Jules Verne are noteworthy for featuring much of the scientific knowledge about submarine and space travel current at his time. A broadcast of H.G. Wells “The War of the Worlds”, which started with an announcer unwisely declaring that the Martians had landed, caused a major panic in the 1930’s; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, “The Lost World” was later made into a remarkable film featuring the dinosaur era. But the rapid evolution of films of this genre in recent years is most clearly seen in the case of space travel. When I was young space travel still seemed several generations away, and films featuring it were mostly low budget and quite unsophisticated. Today we have only to think of Independence Day or the Star Trek saga, to realise how completely this situation has reversed. Only very high budget films with extremely sophisticated special effects have any credibility with young people today. Such films do not have a great appeal for me, but I can really enjoy the nostalgia of re-watching some of the early films I first saw when a youth. Their appeal is probably limited largely to people of my age (and perhaps to film historians), so such films are likely to become increasingly difficult to see as time passes. We should be grateful to the Space TV channel (and occasionally one or two of the others) for dusting off some of them for us to watch again.

I found one recent TV revival of this film to be a really delightful piece of nostalgia. Viewers were left in no doubt that it was pure nostalgia right from the opening shot which is in black and white and shows a passenger in a propeller driven airliner settling into his seat and lighting a cigarette. For my generation this quickly brought back memories of traditional Saturday afternoon cinema matinees. In the U.K. town where I then lived admission cost 9d (about the equivalent of 10c Cd today). Clearly at such prices the films shown were all very low budget productions that are easy to criticise today, and obviously viewers much younger than myself are unlikely to share my delight at the rare opportunity to see such films again. This film is not currently listed by Amazon, and I am not sure if it was ever available in video tape format, so there is clearly little ongoing demand to view it. Audiences today have a relatively sophisticated appreciation of space travel and would never accept the scenario of a spacecraft landing on a planet of Jupiter and finding gravity, climate and vegetation very similar to that at home, followed by the further improbabilities associated with finding English speaking inhabitants who were somehow transported there from Atlantis when this terrestrial continent sunk into the sea. However at the time that I first saw this film I would have judged the probability of successful space travel in my lifetime as extremely low; and it is important to appreciate that to my contemporaries, once we had accepted the basic improbability of space travel, all the other assumptions in the script shrank into insignificance. A few of its many incongruities have been identified in other viewers comments, but it can be quite fun to watch this film with the aim of listing as many more as possible.

Once the space travel premise had been accepted, we were left with a whimsical and rather appealing little story which flowed very smoothly. The fire maidens danced gracefully to well known ballet music and there was nothing to really jar in this marshmallow soft tale which passed an afternoon very smoothly. This may be why the Fire Maidens are still remembered nostalgically by many of us whilst most of the numerous other similar low budget epics produced around this time faded into obscurity within a few weeks of their first Saturday afternoon showing. Their audiences were not sophisticated cinema goers but chiefly adolescent teen youths for whom a cast of nubile young women was a prerequisite; and a decade or so after this film was released it became almost obligatory for such low budget films to find an excuse for requiring them to shed their raiments at some point in the story. Perhaps, for all but today’s teenage youths, one of the attractions of the rare revivals of this film is the fact that it predates this requirement.

It is fascinating to see how such a story could be filmed with virtually none of the special effects we always expect today. In fact, apart from some non-burning flames and a grotesque head mask suitable for a Mardi Gras parade, it is hard to think of any. The shots of the rocket ship, both on the ground and when taking flight are quite impressive, and it is almost charming to see a long wooden ladder being used to board this relatively sophisticated looking spacecraft.

If you do not remember it and have the chance to see this film, my advice is put your critical faculties aside, sit back, and enjoy it. I doubt if it will soon be possible to buy a copy, but I would urge that a DVD version should be made available. It should not only sell to filmgoers of my generation but also become a valuable part of the film library in every training college or cinematographic club, where it would become recognised both as an interesting precursor of today’s space travel films and as a noteworthy example of an ultra-low budget production.