THE beginning of the Cold War in 1947 and the technological advancements that accompanied it ushered in the golden age of American science fiction films two years later.
With the release of Destination Moon producer George Pal proved that the atomic age offered a market for science fiction movies. Lasting until the end of the decade, the genre achieved an unprecedented level of popularity that was firmly anchored in the social and political climate of the Fifties.
Hollywood’s interest in science fiction rocketed because its peculiar nature allowed it to flourish as an effective symbolic response to the great technological and social markers of the period, the Bomb and the fear of Communism.
The Soviet threat had emerged but appeared to be contained following the application of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in Europe, and very public victories like the Berlin airlift. The Fifties would emerge as an altogether more dangerous time though.
By late 1949 the American people were horrified to learn the United States had lost its atomic monopoly and with the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and humanity about to venture across the threshold of space came a realisation of man’s insignificance in the universe and the prospect of imminent annihilation if the Bomb fell.
As the new decade began, two events precipitated a shift from the limited anti-Soviet orientation of US foreign policy. The fall of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist China and the intervention of Communist China in the Korean War saw the United States embark on its great anti-Communist crusade throughout the Fifties.
An internal threat of subversion had also emerged in 1950 with the conviction of Alger Hiss, a top-level US government official in World War II, for handing classified documents to the Soviets in the Thirties. The paranoia in the country was heightened when the Republicans won their first election in 20 years by accusing the Roosevelt and Truman administrations of being soft on Communism.
Further, Senators Joseph McCarthy, Robert Taft and Richard Nixon charged the government with being filled by Communists and their sympathisers. The ensuing sociopolitical anxieties stemming from the threats from without and within were explored and expressed in the burgeoning genre of science fiction.
A variety of science fiction films were perfectly placed to gauge, reflect and exploit the social and political climate of the period.
Ever since the Truman administration began stoking up the Red Scare in 1947, Communism had been visualised as a disease, a germ, a form of alien mind-control, and the extra-terrestrial dopplegangers in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders From Mars took up that mantle.
The danger from the Bomb was highlighted in films like Them! and It Came From Beneath the Sea that featured monsters created or awakened by atomic radiation.
The War of the Worlds spoke of the ultimate futility of an ever-escalating arms race and warned that any atomic punishment would fit the crime of neglecting man’s Christian nature.
The House Committee on UnAmerican Activities was subtly criticised by the alien messenger of peace in The Day The Earth Stood Still who preached moderation in an era of suspicion and anti-Communist fervour, while The Thing from Another World adopted a more authoritarian reaction to alien (foreign) advances.
The technological supremacy of the united States was celebrated in Destination Moon and even held up as the country’s means of salvation in When Worlds Collide.
These films were valuable in constructing metaphors around the nuclear threat or the fear of Communism but they also served as a distraction from the more mundane issues of the period, which ironically, they also reflected.
The problem of juvenile delinquency is approached in I Was A Teenage Werewolf and racism is discussed in The World, The Flesh and The Devil. This varied selection of films mirrors the complex ambivalence with which varying sections of American society met the issues of the Fifties. The trademark of the science fiction film though is the distinct manner in which it broached these often sensitive subjects.
Science fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon once said to a group of fans that “Nine-tenths of science fiction is crud.” In reply to the startled gasps he said: “But why not? Nine-tenths of everything is crud.”
It is true that many do only see the nine-tenths crud in science fiction and dismiss the genre as a juvenile exercise in special effects. With their lurid titles and terrific thrill sensations it is perhaps understandable that people only see the films as B-movie pot-boilers inhabited by bug-eyed monsters, malevolent plants, colossal insects, invading spacemen and rampaging dinosaurs; but to do so is to neglect the one-tenth of Sturgeon’s equation that is not crud.
The timing of this first great age of American science fiction films is no coincidence. Following the Second World War the country was relatively unscathed and its people were confident of their position as the dominant political, economic and (due to the atomb bomb) military power in the world.
The conventions and iconography of the genre must be adhered to, and although some films are garish in style and overwrought in atmosphere, a look beyond the mere adventure narrative will reveal a greater depth of meaning and concern.
Yet even when some contemporary critics grasped a deeper meaning, the genre was still derided as having no great merit. In the April 1953 edition of Sight and Sound Penelope Houston looked at the boom in science fiction films and wrote that the “emphasis on destruction, atomic disaster, the end of the world, on watching the skies may well seem to reflect a society living too close to the edge of hysteria,” but still derided the genre as being “a universe that came out of comic strips.”
However, these films provide a critical commentary of American life; it’s just that in the political climate of the Fifties it was not entirely wise to overtly condemn or condone certain aspects of it. The genre was so attractive precisely because the science fiction framework allowed the films to broach important themes and sensitive issues of the decade without causing offence. There is a hidden strength in the absurdity of these films. It is possible to make sense from the insensible, to reveal a high concept behind the low budget.
The conceptual structure of the films allows for metaphorically communicative insights into the issues that confronted American society. By projecting the generic displacement of cultural anxieties into the science fiction landscape, the filmmakers had the ability to address a range of issues as diverse as the Red scare, the McCarthy witchhunts and racism in America without fear of censure.
Just as Time magazine called It Came From Outer Space “a crisp combination of shocker and social commentary” the genre was able to act as a smokescreen for addressing contentious ideas, whether liberal or radical. This perhaps explains why it was not until the Fifties and the Cold War that Hollywood seriously started to call down aliens and monsters.
Science fiction film offered a safe haven for the ideological representation of contemporary ideas that may otherwise have been open to censure or condemnation if aired openly.
Chapter One: Science Fiction Films and the Political Climate