If in the final analysis the other 29 articles about Alien that I’m going to write this month mostly constitute an attempt by me to extol the virtues of Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, and the entire creative team behind the film, then let this one article represent Alan Ladd, Jr.’s day in the sun.
While names like Goldwyn, Mayer, Selznick, and Warner echo through cinema history, you may not be as familiar with Alan Ladd, Jr., but his influence on cinema history demands that he be included in that distinguished group. And it was his influence that allowed Alien to come to fruition in the first place.
In the early 1970s, the major Hollywood studios largely looked down on the science-fiction genre. Sci-fi movies had been a popular staple of the silver screen in the 1950s, but even the most successful of these films – movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and War of the Worlds – were essentially B-movies with relatively small budgets and limited box-office expectations. No one foresaw a future in which sci-fi movies would hold the cultural and financial importance that they do today.
That all changed in 1973 when Alan Ladd, Jr., then the head of 20th Century Fox, gave a young filmmaker named George Lucas the opportunity to direct his decidedly out-there pet project: Star Wars. Several other studios had already passed on Lucas’ concept, but Ladd knew talent when he saw it, and in spite of his reservations he allowed Lucas to pursue his vision, remaining steadfast in support of the young director even when others at the studio questioned whether or not the movie would ever get finished. It took four years from the time that Ladd first gave Lucas the green light until Star Wars hit theaters, but the results were unprecedented: critical acclaim, smashed box office records, and new life for science-fiction films.
In the wake of Star Wars, the major Hollywood studios raced to release more high-budget sci-fi movies in hopes of once again catching lightning in a bottle: Columbia Pictures released Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Paramount Pictures turned the planned Star Trek: Phase II television series into 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Ladd’s 20th Century Fox picked up the option on a slasher movie-inspired sci-fi script written by relatively unheralded USC film school grad Dan O’Bannon – Alien.
While all of this was happening in the United States, a young British filmmaker named Ridley Scott was toiling away in Europe. The same month that Star Wars debuted in North American theaters, Scott’s first film, The Duellists, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Although the film won the prize for Best Debut Film, The Duellists underperformed at the box office and represented an inauspicious start to Scott’s directorial career; the film hit American theaters the month after Star Wars, and apparently no one wanted to see a film about the Napoleonic Wars that was heralded mostly for its historical accuracy. Quelle surprise.
It was in this climate that the perfect storm emerged: a studio needing a new hit to follow the most successful movie of all time, a script that brought together sci-fi elements with a slasher horror narrative reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween, an executive willing to take a risk on a promising young filmmaker, and a director eager for a hit and fed up with the art house establishment.
By his own admission, Ridley Scott was far from Alan Ladd’s first choice to direct the film, but he was the first to recognize the promise that the project held. And by any measure, Alien was indeed a resounding success: over $100 million in international gross, almost four straight months as the top film at the U.S. box office, and critical acclaim that has only increased over the years.
The right place and the right time. Sometimes, that’s all a great idea needs.