Science Fiction Films and American Society in the Fifties. Chapter Two

The Presentation of Conflicting Ideologies – The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing

Anyone know where the nearest gas station is?

An interesting example of the way that different ideas can be discerned from the science fiction films of the Fifties can be found in the cases of The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing. They were released within months of each other in 1951 and both concern an alien that lands on Earth and the way that people react to his presence. In The Day The Earth Stood Still the military are wrong to meet the alien with violence, while in The Thing they are right to do so.

With The Day The Earth Stood Still, producer Julian Blaustein said he wanted to show “that peace was no longer a four-letter word.” The religious implication is vivid as the alien Klaatu descends from above, assumes the name Carpenter, preaches a gospel of peace, is killed, rises from the dead and ascends to the heavens from whence he came.

Implicit in Klaatu’s identification with Christ is the message that humanity is in need of salvation. Furthermore, as his saucer lands in Washington the audience is told that the government needs a new direction.

The alien space ship proved a cracking tourist attraction

The film preaches moderation in an era of suspicion and anti-Communist paranoia. Klaatu announces: “We have come to visit you in peace and good will,” but is nevertheless met with a circle of tanks and soldiers, with weapons trained on his every movement. When a soldier guns the visitor down, therefore violating the sanctity of America’s first shot tradition, the inference is clear. American society is wrong to be on a warfooting.

The soldier also destroys a gift for the President with which “he could have studied life on other planets,” indicating that the unfounded suspicion is self-defeating, much in the same way that most Americans made no attempt to understand the nature of Soviet Communism.

That's the gift from Klaatu that the soldier destroyed. Looks like an egg-whisk to me, I don't see what the big deal was

“There is no reasonable cause for alarm,” a newscaster tell us. “The rumours of invading armies and mass destruction are based on hysteria and are absolutely false.” This is revealed when a woman, Helen Benson, accepts Klaatu for who he is. The fact that the United States needs to reassess its attitude towards the Soviet Union is personified in an intransigent Under-Secretary to the President who says to Klaatu that: “the evil forces that have produced the trouble in our world” come from the Kremlin. He tries to get Klaatu to reveal his mission solely to the President, while shifting blame for him not being able to address all the world’s leader onto the Soviet Premier.

That's Abraham Lincoln in the background by the way. Freed the slaves, dontchaknow

The film is, as Klaatu says, an indictment against the “childish jealousies and suspicions” directed against the Soviet Union, but is also a subtle condemnation of the way American society was prepared to turn in on itself in an anti-Communist frenzy. The doctors who examine Klaatu go to great pains to emphasise he is not anatomically different to humans. When he turns up in disguise to a guesthouse he is shot covered in shadow, which frightens the people watching the panic on television. However, when he steps from the shadows he is revealed as just another person looking for a room.

Although he is not a direct metaphor for the Soviet Union, the message is that it is wrong to fear the unknown, and the connection is implicit.

Hang on a minute! You're leaving me for  an alien?! That's Helen, and her understandably angry boyfriend

To reinforce this, Helen’s boyfriend is pictured as being petty for reporting Klaatu to the pursuing authorities in a blatant witchhunt metaphor. Worthy of mention is the fact that Klaatu is perhaps the only alien in Fifties science fiction films who does not appear different to humans in any way. Other aliens are either monstrously ugly, and the ones who inhabit or copy human forms betray themselves with some unusual mannerisms, usually a menacing glare or stilted conversation. For instance, the aliens in It Came From Outer Space can stare into the sun without blinking. But Klaatu even has the same God, so when he warns of “substituting fear for reason,” the point is that people are just people, wherever they come from. This is indicated at the beginning of the film when Klaatu’s arrival is greeted with a montage of newscasts in various languages from around the world, implying a global simultaneity of experience and human response.

Part of Klaatu’s message is that people must come together and cooperate in mutual life or remain separately hostile and face the certainty of mutual death: “There must be security for all, or no-one is secure.” Don't mess with me  or I'll open my visor!His frustration at being unable to address a joint session of the United Nations mirrors the frustration of liberal America that their country had abandoned the collective security concept visualised in the UN. Instead, it now favoured alliances like 1949’s North Atlantic Treaty, which culminated with Secretary of Sate John Foster Dulles lining up over 50 countries that could take military action against the Soviets.

In a radical departure from, the textbook criticism, Mark Jancovich pegs The Day The Earth Stood Still as an authoritarian film, saying “Its criticism of American society is simply that it is not rational enough.” His argument is that Klaatu and the accompanying robot policeman Gort represent an impersonal centralised authority which governs by threat of force because the people cannot be trusted to behave responsibly.

Klaatu’s farewell speech is held up as proof of this: “Soon one of your nations will apply atomic power to rockets. Up to now we have not cared how you solve your petty squabbles but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth will reduced to a burnt-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”

Gort does an impression of Cyclops from the X-Men

Klaatu’s people have surrendered the upkeep of their laws to a force of infallible robot like Gort, and Jancovich claims the inference is that the interest of the individual must be suppressed in order to ensure the sufficient running of the state.

These arguments are enlightening to a certain degree, but ultimately are flawed because Jancovich fails to understand the narrative nature of Klaatu. The character has a double purpose in that he not only embodies the fear of the unknown that is Soviet Russia, but the response to the unknown that is the anti-Communist paranoia in the United States. The two were inexorably linked in Fifties’ society, so it is fitting that Klaatu should draw both threads together. That Klaatu should be seen in both lights is reinforced by the way he is both Gort’s master and his subject.

It is wrong for the people in the film to hate and fear Klaatu, just as it is wrong for Americans to fear and hate the Soviet Union. However, it would also be wrong for the people in the film to surrender their fate to a well-armed robot police force, just as it would be wrong for Americans to follow the lead of politicians in Washington who offered up their right-wing beliefs as a solution to the Communist problem.

Jancovich also fails to grasp that the character of Klaatu is separate from the message that the actual picture delivers. He is a plot device, not the voice of the film.

Klaatu may come from an authoritarian world, but the overall message is decidedly liberal. The film is not saying Klaatu’s closing speech is right, rather it illustrates the folly of becoming subservient to nuclear technology and centralised authority, both of which are symbolised by Gort.

Any more of yer snash and I'm letting the killer robot off the leash!

Klaatu himself says: “We do not pretend to have achieved perfection,” and the point is that Americans shouldn’t just make a snap decision and substitute one flawed system for another.

The film does not direct the audience towards joining with Klaatu’s world, rather it provokes them into sorting out their problems on their own. This is particularly relevant as the film was released in 1951 when a state of near-emergency was in place over the communist threat, just as the people in the film fled the descending saucer and a panic gripped the nation. The Day The Earth Stood Still was a warning to Americans that they should rationalise their fears and not let themselves be pushed towards the authoritarian solution offered by the likes of McCarthy.

I used to have yon poster on my bedroom wall dontchaknow.

Although The Day The Earth Stood Still advocated non-violence and open communication, The Thing took a different stance by supporting a more forceful reaction towards any threat. While the former encourages the audience to embrace other ideas, the latter adopts a shoot first and ask questions later policy. The film dramatises the conflict within a military and scientific expedition that discovers a hostile alien in the Arctic. The scientists want to open a dialogue with the alien and “learn secrets that have hidden from man since the beginning,” while the soldiers want to destroy it.

The Thing! And not the one from the Fantastic Four!

Unlike in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the scientists are clearly wrong to extend a hand to the alien, for despite their belief that it possesses great intelligence it is depicted as a lumbering brute. However, in The Thing the scientific leader, Doctor Carrington, is clearly identified with central authority. Indeed, Washington agrees with Carrington that the alien is not to be harmed. The Thing is therefore similar to The Day The Earth Stood Still in that it takes issue with the actions of central government, but this time that attack is coming from the far Right. The alien is an allegory of Soviet aggression and the army is correct to obliterate it.

The Thing was released in the penultimate year of the Truman administration, when the Republicans were making political headground by accusing the Democrats of being soft on Communism. In the film, Carrington conspires to aid the alien, he even tries to reproduce it, and the government is a ponderous and out-of-touch institution that issues ridiculous orders. Throughout, the audience is willing the solderers to take firm action, and when they ignore their orders and kill the alien it is seen as a justification for meeting a threat with extreme force.

That scientist is the dumbest smart guy I know

Although Carrington is an American and a respected Noble-winning scientist, the Cold War allegory paints him as a Communist sympathiser who foolishly threatens the security of his country and the world by not taking a hard line against the alien. While he admires it for being “our superior in every way,” the soldiers turn their back on him and set about defending the American way of life. Remembering that Carrington represents central authority, the interest he has in the alien is important. Carrington admires its bland efficiency and its standardised reproductive system. This conjures up the image of a uniform collective that many Americans attributed to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Carrington sees merit in the way the asexual nature of the alien frees it from the irrationality of human emotions. His aloofness is constantly played against the all-American, wise-cracking soldiers, and he is seen a villain for trying to erase deeply personal sexual and emotional freedoms from society. In essence, he is a threat to the American way of life embodied in the soldiers, and which they are fighting to preserve.

All-American goodness!

That Carrington is dangerous is revealed when he discovers the alien is inside the compound but refuses to tell the soldiers. Instead, he sends two of his scientists to keep watch and causes their deaths. He also later sabotages the soldier’s attempts to kill the alien. The film is perhaps covertly questioning the loyalty and politics of Truman’s Democratic administration for not standing up to Soviet expansion and for containing suspected Communist sympathisers.

Both The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing emerged as different responses to the Soviet threat and the way the fear of Communism affected domestic American politics. While The Day The Earth Stood Still encourages greater understanding between nations and among society, The Thing concludes with a famously alarming warning: “Tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everyone, keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

While both films are ideologically at odds with each other, they do clearly illustrate the different concerns Americans held on the way Communism affected their lives.

The Thing! Even Ben Grimm is better looking than you pal!

Gort and Klaatu!


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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3 Responses to Science Fiction Films and American Society in the Fifties. Chapter Two

  1. Geoff says:

    Fantastic stuff! I’m an English teacher putting together a unit on SciFi as a medium for social commentary! EXACTLY what I needed!! Many thanks!!! Cheers

  2. Rob says:

    You make very good links with the Stood Still film and 1950s society, just what i was looking for. My senior media class are examining exactly that – scifi 1950-80s. Also looking at 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Science Fiction Films and American Society in the Fifties. Chapter Three | Bob Mitchell in the 21st Century

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