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

McCarthyism and Communism – Invasion, Depersonalisation and Infiltration

In the late Forties and Fifties an anti-Communist wave swept through Hollywood, with such figures as American icon John Wayne and president of the Screen Actors Guild Ronald Reagan running alleged subversives out of the business. The industry was hit by the tornado of McCarthyism and the culmination of this was the notorious blacklisting of ten directors that stymied any open expression of liberal tendencies. This though, was merely a facet of the nationwide panic that existed over the threat of Communism.

George Kennan, the US Foreign Service’s foremost expert on the Soviet Union saw Communism as dynamic, expansive and aiming at world domination. The fact that the Soviets wished to extend their influence had already been demonstrated by theit machinations in Iran, Turkey and Greece in the late Forties, but by the Fifties a greater danger had emerged. The Soviet Union could now deliver its atomic stockpile onto US soil and this had Americans terrified. It was never just a matter of physical security though, for throughout its history the United States had been wary of the danger of ideas. Even if the bombs never came, Americans were still frightened of Communist theology.

Kennan warned of “the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity…and the basic unfriendliness of purpose” that came from the Kremlin, and the fear of the subversive Red menace reached fever pitch under the guidance of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his purges. In this atmosphere of paranoia, science fiction films became something of a metaphorical release for society’s anxieties. By the Fifties Hollywood’s fight against Communism, was definitely on and science fiction had been brough into battle.

Fight back, puny humans!

The orthodox treatment of alien invasion films has centred around the assumption that the little green men from Mars stood in the popular imagination for the clever Red men from Moscow. Earth vs the Flying Saucers reflects the fear of outright invasion, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers highlights the potential undermining of America by infiltrators disguised as normal people. A tentacled Martian head that commands slaves through the power of the mind is behind the Invaders From Mars, symptomatic of how a great many aliens of the 1950s are emotionless, insectile, unimaginative, atheistic hive minds, precisely refelcting the US idea of Soviet Communism. Similarly, the credo of the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “Love, desire, ambition, faith; without them life is so simple,” reflects the bland image Americans had of the collective uniformity in the Soviet Union.

These films would embody the neurosis of the Cold War, the danger coming from either a world-wide threat of mass destruction or from a more pervasive enemy that threatens the heart of suburbia. This is unquestionably a facet of these fears, but not to elaborate on the claim is to neglect a deeper allegorical meaning that reflects the complexity of American society. In Washington a series of domestic power struggles was the real catalyst for the wave of anti-Communist hysteria. Just as McCarthy used his initial list of 200 conspirators in the State Department to further his own ambition, the way in which the invading force (Communism) is dealt with reveals some aspect of American life.

For example, the Soviet threat was as much a function of squabbles between Democrats and Republicans as it was a reality. The invading force is often inconsequential in that we are more interested in the efffect the consequences of its actions will have on the American populace. For instance, the giant ants in Them! and the spiders in Tarantula creat such a state of emergency that the films are advocating the need of the consensus, that the people must pull together under the control of the central institutions (represented by the military/scientific establishment) for the good of American society. As a soldier says in Them! : “Your personal safety depends on your cooperation with the military authorities.” On the other hand, in The War of the Worlds the army and the scientists fail dismally in their efforts to halt the Martian advance and the film advocates a form, of devolved personal morality instead of the inadequacy of a bureaucratic centralised authority. This is represented by the strong religious streak running through the film and the harsh condemnation of people who give in to robbing others in the panic. In the end, it is being American and God-fearing that saves humanity.

Giant ants? How about using a giant ant-swatter?

After the Second World War a fear existed in America that the only way to defend against a dominant Eurasian power would be to turn the country into a disciplined, militarised society, which in the name of security, would have to sacrifice democracy and individual liberty in the name of self-defence. It is far better then not to just view the invaders as Soviet aggressors threatening the United States, but to look at the way the Americans depicted in the films react.

Furthermore, as the fear of Communism had a reciprocative effect on the nature of American domestic politics it must be recognised that these films not only have something to say about the threat of Communism but also the response to it. Indeed, more often than not the Communist connection was a red herring, allowing the centre to attack the left and right, and the left and right to attack the centre, all in the guise of respectable anti-Communism.

I used to have this poster on my bedroom wall when I was younger

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the most important science fiction film of the Fifties to deal with the issues of invasion and depersonalisation. It is a deeply complex work that offers up a number of interpretations. It involves a batch of alien pods that land in the small town of Santa Mira. The pods possess the bodies of the locals and turn them into emotionless drones, before proceeding to spread their invasion across the country. This can be seen either as a critique of Communist infiltration or of the danger of McCarthyite conformity. Although director Don Siegel never revealed what the true message was, the film works better as the latter. That Miles is persecuted and hounded by others who wish to force him into conformity is the central tenet of the film, and as such works best as a left-wing parable that damned the witchhunts.

Just as telling is the fact that when Miles escapes Santa Mira he is confronted by a disbelieving public. He tries to stop some cars on the highway to warn them of the danger the pods represent, bu no-one stops to listen. This is important as Siegel intended the film to end here before the studio intervened and ordered a more upbeat finale. However, Siegel was attempting to illustate the pessimism in America. The people in the cars are not yet pods but their minds are closed to Miles’ suggestions and the point is that even outside the drama of Santa Mira all of America reeks of conformity. This and other films such as It Came From Outer Space are saying that one man’s word isn’t enough, and are compelling comments on the McCarthyite era and intelligent allegories on the loss of identity in society.

Who flies around the universe in a giant golf ball?

In It Came From Outer Space another individual, John, is flying against society, alleging aliens have duplicated people’s bodies. His girlfriend Ellen tentatively sides with him, but in a revealing allegory she is warned that her job as a teacher could be under threat for doing so. This relates to the way witchhunts disrupted the family and social life of those accused. When a posse attacks the benevolent aliens the film tries to show us that we as people are afraid of anything that is different from us. If it’s different, we hate it, we want to destoy it. That’s our failing as human beings. Through the actions of the posse we are told that citizenship is exclusive in the United States.

Essential to the impact of the depersonalisaition films is their domestic setting. They all occur in small towns where everybody knows each other’s names and greet each other warmly as they pass by on the street. When the townsfolk Miles has known for years turn on him this illustrates that the uneasiness of most body snatcher films, in which the aliens pose as mom and apple pie Americans, also has a lot to do with the distrust fostered by the Anti-Communist activities of Senator McCarthy. The film is saying that Americans must be vigilant, because although people may seem the same, their thoughts can be corrupted, forcing a community to turn on sections of itself.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Siegel wanted to show how easy it is for people to be taken over and to lose their souls if they are not alert and determined in their character to be free, amd the images of people that Miles once trusted are especially frightening because they were blissfully unaware of the changes wreaked upon them. They simply went to sleep and woke up different, emphasising the susceptibility of Americans to unwarranted interference in their lives. That the townspeople are outwardly the same but changed within is the key element to the film. With the threat of subversion, many Americans did not know who to trust, and even housewives and children are a threat in Siegel’s world. Miles is is forced to admit that even: “the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction,” illustrating how pervasive conformism threatened every aspect of American society.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

Siegel firmly had his finger on the pulse of American life and shows why people were wrong to be attracted to conformism. The pods are depicted as authority figures and it is clear it is wrong for them to tell people what to think, as something clearly evil has taken possession of the town. Miles is cast as the voice of liberal America, a spirited individual who resists the calm reasoning but inexorably forceful ideology of the conformist pods. Sooner or later Miles will have to sleep and he’ll be reborn into an untroubled world where everything is the same. He warns against the regimentation, a lack of having to make up your own mind and face decisions. People are becoming vegetables but the danger is that once people become pods they are completely satisified.

In a McCarthyite slant the possessed people report on the free individuals, and even attempt to persuade them to join. This mirrors how some Americans saw a security in being part of a collective with one uniform purpose. In a sense, being on McCarthy’s very public side absolved Americans from suspicion, just as the pods felt a profound sense of legitimacy. The exploitation is there to be seen though, with Miles saying: “We harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realise how precious it is to us.” To Siegel, staying human equates with staying free Americans and like the pods, conformity is a malignant disease spreading through the whole country.

No point running sweetheart, you get it in the end

Significantly, the pods assumed control of Santa Mira’s public institutions first, putting their people in positions of authority. The police are one of the first targeted, and When Miles calls the phone company in an attempt to contact the outside world he finds that too has been taken over. In this respect Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a compelling comment on the McCarthy era and an inteliigent allegory on the loss of identity in contemporary society, succeeding as a metaphorical realisation of the angst of modern man living in a technological, bureaucratic and conformist society. The film does work either as a drama of Communist subversion or of suburban conformity unfolding in a hilariously bland atmosphere of hyper-vigilance, but given Siegel’s intended ending it does seem probable that it is to be viewed as a McCarthy metaphor rather than one for the Red menace.

It looks like it should be in a giant stir fry


Chapter One: Science fiction films and the political climate

Chapter Two: The presentation of conflicting ideologies – The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing


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 Three

  1. Muhammad says:

    Gripping stuff. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Great to see another commentator thinking through the deeper meanings of sci fi and the other genres of the fantastic.

  3. bobmitchellinthe21stcentury says:

    Nice one, thanks for dropping by man!

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