Science Fiction Films and American Society in the Fifties. Chapter One: Science fiction films and the political climate

I'll take you to the moon, baby. Destination Moon rocket

WHEN the Cold War began in 1947 only two science fiction films were made in the United States that year. The fact that the genre became an effective political tool in the Fifties is illustrated in part by the fact over 200 features would be released throughout the decade. The film makers realised that the ineptness disguised the subversive. It was possible to impart some greater meaning and comment on broad social patterns, and the preoccupation with change that characterises these films was particularly effective in allegorising the political situation of the day.

When Worlds CollideScience fiction is connected both to man’s senses of wonder and of fear;and the films of the period exploited both. Big-budget science fiction usually heralded an optimism for the future, with the films containing a moment which creates and then subdues the extraordinary.

This occurs in When Worlds Collide as a sleek rocket becomes a 20th century Noah’s Ark propelling a small group of people off to the Eden-like planet Syra just before Earth is destroyed in a collision with the star Bellus.

Earth people reach the alien Eden in When Worlds collide

In contrast, low budget science fiction often dealt in pessimism, revealing a visual moment which surrenders to and then destroys the ordinary. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders From Mars shifted people’s attention from the comforts of modern existence and alienated them from the familiar.

Invaders From MarsEarth became the unknown in the low budget. Enemies lurked everywhere, fuelling the paranoia of the era. It is in this respect that science fiction films contain a political message. Whether optimistic or pessimistic they were often a response to some aspect of American life.

Director Jack Arnold said: “I think science fiction films are a marvellous medium for telling a story, creating a mood and delivering whatever kind of a social message should be delivered,” and it was in the Fifties that the genre established itself as an ideological reference point for the dramatisation of public opinion.

The setting for these films was usually domestic and although financial restraints played a part in this, it should not be overlooked that the concern is with the response of Americans to some type of threat.

It's been pishing down in When worlds Collide

It is broadly acceptable to divide the genre into conservative and radical camps. Conservative films typically display a national solidarity in the face of some extreme threat and urge a conformity to authority in society, while radical science fiction revels in exposing the divisions in American society and the different approaches individuals can take to the intrusion in their lifes.

Conservative science fiction films

Conservative science fiction films depicted how the country must be resolute against extremism in any form. Films such as Them! and Attack of the Crab Monsters attempted to scare the country into consensus by presenting the nation in the grip of an emergency that required everyone to unite in a common interest.

I used to have this poster on my bedroom wallIn these instances the threat was giant ants and mutated crabs, and as the conservatives revelled in culture and civilisation the danger was often represented as nature run wild. Whatever abnormally large monster or improbably ugly alien threatened, these creatures were invariably codified extremists, usually of the Communist variety. Aliens from the Fifties seemed like Commies precisely because that’s who Americans were worried about.

Conservatives such as Adlai Stevenson, speaking in the 1952 presidential campaign, felt that: “God has sent us an awesome mission; nothing less than the leadership of the free world.” The conservative science fiction films carried on the tradition of American missionary sentiment and tried to bring democracy not only to this world but to others too.

The 27th DayThis can be seen in The 27th Day, one of the most blatantly anti-Communist films of the period. In it, five people have been given capsules that can destroy all life on a continent by aliens who wish to live on Earth. Two of the five are killed (rendering their capsules useless) and when the Soviets declare nuclear war the remaining three combine to destroy every enemy of peace and freedom.

Democracy is even taken to Venus in Queen of Outer Space when an American expedition inspires the completely female population to revolt against their tyrannical queen.

How you doing, alien Queen of Outer Space

The message of Red Planet Mars seems to be that within every Communist there’s an American trying to get out. The film depicts an advanced Martian civilisation ruled by God and appears to suggest that Christ should issue statements from Mars with the specific purpose of bringing about the downfall of Communism.

Red Planet Mars! commies!

Contact with Mars provokes a religious revival on Earth. After the downtrodden Russian people huddled around the Voice of America radio broadcasts hear the news, they overthrow the caricatured Russian government run by thugs and rugged Red army women. The film is wildly uncompromising in its portrayal of the Kremlin, equating Communism, drink and the Devil.

Invaders From MarsHowever, the obligatory monster or alien could assume the identity of any political Other, thus becoming a big stick with which one domestic political persuasion could hit another, given that the Soviet threat was as much a function of the squabbles between Democrats and Republicans as a reality.

When Worlds CollideConservative science fiction vented itself on Communism, but also everything that did not stem, from the domestic centre. Conservatives identified with the highest achievements of humanity, with the totality of man-made objects, the aggregate of human production, in short, with culture. As the champions of contemporary consensus culture, conservatives deemed that American society of the Fifties was the standard which others should follow.

Although technology was welcomed, the utopianism of advanced civilisations was not, simply because it was not American. Therefore, although the submarine Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea revealed the splendours of the ocean floor, Captain Nemo was cast as a pariah for his dream of living separately from man.

This Island Earth

Similarly, the Metalunans and the Zahgon in This Island Earth had destroyed their futuristic cities with superior nuclear weaponry, forcing the Metalunans to turn to American scientists for aid. In this film, the alien protagonist eventually turns against his own crumbling society in order to save his captives and return them to Earth, the message being that the United States was utopian enough for anyone.

space, man!

Films such as Conquest of Space and Destination Moon are optimistic about expanding the United States into space, but inherent in this is the fact that the danger in these films lies in venturing beyond their country’s frontiers. The giant squid that attacked Nemo’s Nautilus is a manifestation of how it is dangerous to exist outside the geographic limits of the United States, but it is also a punishment to Nemo for daring to be different.

Squid ye look at that!

This is also clear in Forbidden Planet when a reclusive scientist called Morbeus attempts to unravel the seemingly benevolent technology of the Krel but only succeeds in releasing his monstrous id.

Forbiden Planet. And not the comic shop

Having killed all his fellow members on an expedition to the planet Altair IV, apart form his daughter, he tries to warn off the relief ship that eventually arrives. The soldiers on the ship are depicted as all-American boys and are constantly contrasted against the sexual naivete of Morbeus’ daughter Ariel, who has never seen another man. She longs to return to Earth and be with her own kind, and given the incestuous feelings it is hinted that Morbeus has for his daughter, the inference is that Earth (or the United States) is a much safer and saner place to be.

Radical science fiction films

Radical science fiction emphasised all the negative aspects of American life, the paranoia, the conflict and the polarisation. They were often seen from the perspective of someone who walked outside the conventions of society and who was attacked as a loner.

Where the America of conservative science fiction remained innovative, that of its radical counterpart was perpetually invaded, usually in a small-town environment.

Radical science fiction produced both right-wing and left-wing reactions to these menaces. In these films, if you wanted something done then you did it yourself because society was corrupt and no-one could be trusted.

the day the world ended!

The protagonist of right-wing films was often someone who tried to force his community to acknowledge the validity of his private vision. This is the case in The Day the World Ended. A scientist who had prepared for nuclear war survives the destruction and lets another five survivors join him and his daughter in their shelter.

The scientist can now subvert the world to his will and lets the others join him only on his own terms, keeping the key to the food and enforcing his rule with the only gun. The mutants beating at the door represent the breakdown of society.

gill-man!In left-wing films aliens and monsters are depicted as misunderstood victims rather than the enemies of the right-wing film. For instance, in The Creature from the Black Lagoon the gill-man is viewed sympathetically as the American expedition disrupts the serenity of his natural habitat. This occurs even more so in the second sequel The Creature Walks Among Us when scientists perform cruel experiments on him. There is also the ludicrous spectacle of them dressing the gill-man in American clothes, demonstrating the injustice of subverting an individual to the will of authority.

In It Came From Outer Space the hero John Putnam tries to aid the aliens, but warns: “You frighten them, and what they’re frightened of they’re against.”

look to the skies!He himself is viewed strangely by the town for being an astronomer and is never accepted into the local way of life. Initially, no-one believes he has seen aliens, showing that one man’s word is not enough and in the context of the Red scare, the anti-witch hunt sentiment is clear.

The film also condemns the reactionary firebrand sheriff who says: “I’d get some rifles into the hands of some men and clean it up, whatever it is.” It is saying that people should not simply attack what they do not understand.

Yet while the film ends with the hope that man will one day be ready to exist alongside the aliens, the closing shot shows the townsfolk still keeping their distance from John. The message is that the United States still has to reconcile the ideological divisions within it.

About bobmitchellinthe21stcentury

i am a mild-mannered reporter and a part-time bar man. guinness is my drink. john wayne is my hero. i am kind to animals
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6 Responses to Science Fiction Films and American Society in the Fifties. Chapter One: Science fiction films and the political climate

  1. chris says:

    I remember a movie,in the early 60’s,it was on TV often,and I’m sure it was titled “Invasion of the Gill men”,the gill men came from underground,thru the sewers,and held tridents for weapons.I can’t find it anywhere online.Does anyone remember this film?-chris

  2. Bob says:

    Even before the Cold War there was quite a bit of science fiction literature and even radio shows that addressed social issues in an oblique manner. More than the Cold War it was the popularization of science, especially exotic forms of energy and astronomical advances along with technological advances in the motion picture industry that sparked the explosion of science fiction films that as they were increasingly believable.

    Better known to most people since it’s closer to our times, the 1960s, is Star Trek. Most of its early shows addressed human and political issues and trends. It was Roddenbury’s intent to address provocative issues such as slavery, racism, interracial relations, and technology making humans irrelevant. It was Kirk and Uhura who performed the first interracial kiss on TV. Today we think nothing of it, but at the time it was quite a risk for Roddenbury.

    By the way, it’s been said by some that had the ancient libraries at Mesopatamia, Alexandria, and Constantinople not been destroyed we might today be where Star Trek depicts humanity. The scientific knowledge of the ancients in Persia, Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere was far more advanced than most people realize.

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