When someone says “a science fiction film produced by Dino De Laurentiis,” I’m sure none of the images that come into your mind look anything like Il Disco Volante.
I suppose that’s not an entire surprise as it would be four years before he would make Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella, and eighteen before Flash Gordon.
However, I never made much effort to find the first science fiction film he produced as the only review I saw dismissed it as a silly comedy with its star, legendary Italian comic actor, Alberto Sordi, playing all the people who encounter the flying saucer.
Which is, more or less, true, as Sordi plays four different characters: the overly disciplined, inexpressive Carabinieri Sergeant investigating the saucer stories, an Engineer out on an evening’s dalliance with someone else’s wife, the sad sack (and somewhat drunken) local Priest, and the local count whose tastes do not run towards women (but they do towards Martians!).
Now the remarkable thing about this was that, about halfway through, I was thinking that I hadn’t seen anyone playing multiple roles in the film when it suddenly dawned on me that one of the characters was played by the same actor as the Sergeant, and I quickly guessed who the others probably were, although none of them actually looked much like each other. This isn’t so much a question of the make-up (although I suspect some was involved), but that there was a different personality living inside each of those characters. It is a bit of a tour-de-force, although I suspect Italian audiences may have been in on the joke as he had a number of familiar characters he’d created for his comedies. Some of you might compare him to Peter Sellers, although I myself would point towards Alec Guiness, whose ability to lose himself inside a character was unparalleled.
But this isn’t just a film about a few characters having silly encounters with flying saucers. Instead, there is a lovely little comedy about small towns, a lot of eccentric characters (not all of them played by Sordi) and an absolutely incredible flying saucer.
There is a full-size prop, which, unlike most of the full-sized flying saucer props you’ve seen in the movies, is covered with lots of working bits and pieces — antennas which rise out of the top of the craft, a big, complex central mast, clear domes on the underside filled with working bits and pieces, and a fairly complex hatch and ladder with a lot of working parts.
The shots of it taking off aren’t as impressive as it looks like they were shot in camera with a tiny, revolving model on a wire. It does help that the saucer is always shrouded in lots of mist, and at least they made these shots just a little harder to see.
We also get a lovely set up as we see lots of diagrams of the alien ships and their working parts, and glimpses of the Sergeant’s report, before stepping back in time to a TV journalist covering the first sightings, most of which are obviously highly dubious. But before long, Sordi’s characters start stumbling into encounters with the mysterious aliens.
I am a bit amused, knowing that Barbarella is only a few years in the future, that one of the Martians has clear boob domes on her space suit, revealing naked (probably fake) breasts underneath.
They even get a bit of screentime.
We never really get much of an insight into why they are here, or what they want — or even what the important message they want to give mankind might be.
So, no, this isn’t a random collection of characters reacting to encounters with Martians. Instead, it is a carefully thought-out film, with a pointed message or two, great production values and a stunning set of performances from Sordi. We get a strong picture of this little village and the people in it, some very funny little surprises, and a wicked little twist at the end.
You couldn’t ask for a better flying saucer comedy. It’s a shame that no one knows about this one, and that there aren’t any streaming, DVD or even VHS releases out there. It isn’t exactly easy to find.
But it is definitely worth the effort.
Although you’ll probably end up wondering about all those other people in the flying saucer ward…