Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety
Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety
Alien Invasion and Infiltration
Mutants, Metamorphosis, and Resurrection of Extinct Species
Near Annihilation or the End of the Earth
Science fiction films became a major Hollywood genre in the 1950s. Through imaginative narratives and special effects, hundreds (by one estimate, five hundred film features and shorts were produced between 1948 and 1962)1 of science fiction films presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or a Communist invasion of America. These fears were expressed in various guises, such as aliens using mind control, monstrous mutants unleashed by radioactive fallout, radiation's terrible effects on human life, and scientists obsessed with dangerous experiments. Although both government and private groups discouraged criticism of U.S. policies and expressions of fear about national security during the Cold War, the producers of science fiction films were generally left alone by government regulators and the private groups that tried to shape public opinion. Controversy over the development of atomic weapons and potential consequences had been repressed in public debates and in other film genres,2 but it could be recast in stories about mutant ants and grasshoppers, pods that took over people's minds, space travel, and the nuclear destruction of civilizations on other planets. By dislocating the narratives to different times and/or different worlds, the science fiction genre catered to public anxiety about the bomb and communism. In most of the films, scientists and/or the military managed to vanquish the enemy, offering reassurance that these threats could be overcome. In films where destruction had already taken place, the endings offered hope and redemption. Thus the science fiction films of the Cold War era may be generally interpreted as advocating the idea that Americans would be able to cope with external threats to their security.
The science fiction film came into its own as a genre in American cinema in the 1950s with an enormous production rate. According to Joyce A. Evans, "This rapid proliferation [of science fiction films] presents one of the most interesting developments in post-World War II film history, for never in the history of motion pictures has any other genre developed and multiplied so rapidly in so brief a period."3 Hollywood science fiction had been mostly limited to serials in the 1930s and 1940s, for example Buck Rogers (1939) and Flash Gordon (1940). The feature-length Things to Come (1936), based on the novel by H. G. Wells, was a notable exception. But the genre did not really "take off" until 1950, for a variety of reasons. First, if the Hollywood science fiction genre was largely a response to nuclear anxiety, that anxiety received a huge boost when the Russians successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949. Second, science fiction literature, as represented by such figures as authors Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury and editor John W. Campbell, was booming in the early 1950s. Third, the box-office success of science fiction films in 1950 and 1951 led to increased production in future years, as is typical of Hollywood cycles. Fourth, the very successful re-release of King Kong (1933) in 1952 further demonstrated the public's appetite for science fiction—and it may have inflected 1950s sci-fi toward the mutants and monsters subgenre.4
The resulting "wave" of science fiction films addressed thematic concerns of the 1950s and was limited by the technology of the period. However, though dated in many ways, these films have had surprising staying power. They continue into the twenty-first century to be shown on cable television, sold on VHS and DVD, critiqued in popular and scholarly books, and discussed in university classes. Several have been remade, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (twice), The Thing, The Blob, The Fly, Invaders from Mars, and Red Planet Mars. There also have been frequent sequels such as Revenge of the Creature (1955), The Creature Walks Among Us (1959), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), The Return of the Fly (1959), and Beware the Blob (1972).
First and foremost, science fiction is about scientific possibility that explores the unknown. It consists of a story that, in the words of sci-fi literature critic Eric Rabkin, "both warns against and applauds the advance of science and technology [while] it consistently considers the problems and possibilities posed by meeting the new, the unexpected, the alien. Science fiction draws its considerable entertainment value from deep mythic or social wells…. science fiction is a phenomenon that arises wherever modern science and technology make people aware of new problems or cause them to view old problems in new ways."5 Film scholar Vivian Sobchack adds, "If science fiction is about science at all, it is not about abstract science, science in a vacuum. In the SF film, science is always related to society, and its positive and negative aspects are seen in light of their social effect."6
While science was both implicit and explicit in the science fiction films of the 1950s, it was explained simplistically. Scientists were often represented as troublesome idealists or obstructionists because they wanted to save a destructive species or phenomenon in order to study it. Scientists were either represented as responsible for the problems that arose, or they were responsible for finding solutions to whatever was threatening the planet. Government officials and the military were often represented as heroes who fought the enemy; or, conversely, they were portrayed as ignorant of the peaceful intentions of the invaders and often as hotheads who just wanted to obliterate the threat. Aliens were frequently portrayed as superior to earthlings in intelligence and technology, perhaps representing what Americans feared in the Soviets. Likewise, mutants that resulted from atomic radiation, such as gigantic ants and locusts, were represented as socially organized and conforming in ways that many Americans perceived the Bolsheviks to be. A further essential theme was secrecy: scientists, or government officials, or the military, or all three, were hiding from the public the amazing events ultimately revealed in these films.
Many science fiction films were low budget, with a visual style that resembled the semi-documentary look of crime and espionage films of the 1940s and early 1950s. Although the science fiction films had extravagant stories about sensational events, their style tended to be restrained and visually bland. They were usually shot in black and white with flat lighting that gave them a gray tone, and some were in 3-D. As a rule, sci-fi actors were not well known, and some, such as Richard Carlson, Kenneth Tobey, and Jeff Morrow, appeared in several of the decades films. As leading men, they were not particularly handsome and because of their similarity in physical characteristics and acting styles, they could have been interchangeable in their roles. A few films, such as Forbidden Planet (1956), had big budgets and famous actors, and were shot in color and CinemaScope.
Science fiction films created spectacles of the present and the future with sets, models, paintings, costumes, makeup, types of action, documentary footage, and special effects. Some studios hired famous science fiction illustrators to do the scenic back-drops. High quality films, such as The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951), used authentic scientific equipment borrowed from universities and tanks and machine guns on loan from the National Guard. Sets were often simple, but for some films they became quite elaborate. During the filming of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), for example, the sets were closed to keep secret the techniques employed to make the lead character look smaller and smaller. Under the direction of special effects man Clifford Stine, objects were built to super scale, twenty-five to one hundred times larger than normal; for example, a common straight pin was twelve feet long and a pair of scissors was twenty-five feet long. Every time the man shrank, new sets had to be constructed.7 As with the treatment of science, the use of spectacle was generally simplistic. Viewers could distinguish the use of effects: the models and miniatures, the sets based on 1950s modern architecture, and the human actors playing aliens and mutants. Yet this transparency is part of 1950s science fiction's paradoxical charm; the simplicity of the effects highlights the process of turning contemporary fears into indirect narratives or myths.
The key historical point to be made about the science fiction films of the 1950s is that they came about "in direct relationship to the increasing public concern about communism and the fear of a nuclear disaster."8 Phil Hardy, editor of the Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction, wrote "Lurking behind every frame of fifties Science Fiction … is the fear of nuclear Armageddon. So much so that by the end of the decade monsters of all shapes and sizes were introduced with nothing but a muttered comment about radiation as the justification for their appearance."9 The near deluge of 1950s science fiction films was part of a fearful and anxious American cultural climate. As historian Paul Boyer said, "for all its exotic trappings, science fiction is best understood as a commentary on contemporary issues."10
The contemporary issues were, of course, anxiety over the spread of communism and the consequences of a nuclear disaster and radioactive fallout. As Susan Sontag wrote in her famous essay about science fiction films, "The Imagination of Disaster": "there is a historically specifiable twist which intensifies the anxiety. I mean, the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that, from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life under the threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning."11
Although most Americans were euphoric when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, bringing about victory in World War II, it was not long before the advent of the atomic bomb drastically affected the American perception of life and culture. At first, popular culture representations of the bomb were positive and prevalent in songs, cereal box prizes, jewelry, and language. For example, the American public blithely gave the "bikini" bathing suit its name from the atomic tests on 1 and 25 July 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Months later, the public learned that the Bikini tests had caused death from radiation sickness among the hundreds of mice, rats, goats, pigs, and guinea pigs aboard the test ships and the fish in surrounding waters. Publications such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which developed the "doomsday clock," and David Bradley's No Place to Hide (1948), a best-seller by a physician, publicized the grave threat of nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout. Fear and speculation about fallout, genetic mutation, and radioactive sickness were widely discussed in government and the media. Subsequent events, including the Soviet test of an atomic bomb in 1949 and both American and Soviet tests of the hydrogen bomb a few years later, added to the "age of anxiety."
The era was also haunted by the threat of communism. The threat was rooted in reality, for the Soviet Union had subsumed Eastern Europe, violently squashing resistance wherever it arose. At home, Alger Hiss, who was suspected of being a Communist spy, was convicted for perjury and imprisoned in 1951; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953; Senator Joseph McCarthy emerged as a powerful demagogue in the early 1950s, creating a widespread "Red Scare." Legislators, judges, military officers, university administrators, clergy, journalists, and politicians joined the cause of trying to exorcise communism. Many science fiction films of the 1950s present allegorical treatments of communism as a plague, a form of mind control, an invasion, or a loss of identity.
Other contemporary events that inspired science fiction filmmakers were UFO sightings and the beginnings of space travel. UFOs were reported as early as 1947 near Roswell, New Mexico, and in Washington State, and the sightings continued throughout the fifties. A feature-length "documentary" on the subject, Unidentified Flying Objects (released by United Artists, 1956), stated that 15 percent of the sightings were unexplained. Travel in space became a reality on 4 October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. This demonstration of scientific and technological prowess by the Soviets began a new wave of panic and paranoia in the United States. It also suggested that in some areas, at least, the line between science fiction and science fact was relatively narrow. Space travel was possible, and therefore the many dreams and nightmares of science fiction deserved serious consideration.
The popularity of science fiction was also influenced by the activities of the scientists' movement. The Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAC), the organization established by scientists to halt further development of atomic weaponry, played a large role in molding the public's fearful attitudes toward the bomb and the consequences of a nuclear war. The FAC advocated an international movement to control atomic weapons and attempted to educate the public through magazine and newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, cartoons, information packets, and lectures. Historian Alan Winkler believed that the Federation of Atomic Scientists inspired artistic creations, including the fifties science fiction movies.12 Science fiction writers, said Isaac Asimov, were "salvaged into respectability" as science fiction stories, books, and films were propelled into popularity.13 Film producers responded to the popularity of science fiction. For example, when in 1950 the number of science fiction magazines increased from eight to twenty, Howard Hawks decided that the time was right to make The Thing, one of the first major science fiction films of the fifties.
Because the Hollywood industry had suffered economic reverses due to anti-trust decisions and the popularity of television, smaller studios and independent production companies found it easier to raise finances for the relatively small-budget projects. Although big budget science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still were marketed to adults, low-budget films were aggressively marketed to teenagers and drive-in movie theaters. More science fiction films were shown in drive-in theaters than any other genre.14 Independent filmmakers like Roger Corman identified teens as the primary audience, releasing science fiction films as double features. Although Hollywood's historic audiences no longer patronized movie theaters, a new and specific teenage audience for science fiction films emerged. Samuel Z. Arkoff, a producer at American International Pictures, understood the tastes of this new teenage audience and made science fiction films to both cater to and form those interests.15 The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) survey conducted in 1957 found that 21 percent of movie audiences were between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Fifteen percent were between ten and fourteen. Teenagers were the primary audience for drive-in movie theaters.16 The teenage culture after World War II was characterized by suburbanization, disposable income, and consumerism. According to Barry R. Litman, "In the 1950s, as drive-ins sprang up across the country, the "B" picture was adapted to its new audience, which included older teenagers who had access to the family car. Instead of horse operas, science fiction films became the standard "B" movie fare at drive-ins. [The science fiction films] included content that attracted this older, teenage audience."17 Reviewers also noted that science fiction films catered to teenage tastes. A 1956 Variety review of It Conquered the World referred to teenagers as "moppets" who "loved the gore, and continually shrieked avid appreciation."18 The same publication noted in 1958 that The Blob had dialogue "tailored to the teenage set."19
Four major themes can be seen in the science fiction films of the fifties: (1) Extraterrestrial travel, (2) Alien invasion and infiltration, (3) Mutants, metamorphosis, and resurrection of extinct species, and (4) Near annihilation or the end of the Earth. Each of these themes related, at least indirectly, to the world events of the 1950s and reflected the fear and anxiety of the atomic age and the Cold War. The themes were Hollywood's version of a nation coming to grips with its postwar knowledge that humanity could destroy itself as well as the paranoia that had resulted from the red scare, in which Communists appeared to be infiltrating and subverting normal American life and values. Victorious in World War II, Americans now feared failure in the face of atomic and nuclear energy in the hands of the enemy. Science fiction films tended to merge the fear of a Communist takeover with the fear of annihilation, particularly in the form of invasion from outside forces.
The low-budget science fiction films of the 1950s tended to be about terrible threats and workable solutions; whereas, the more ambitious science fiction films presented a range of attitudes toward the perils of the new era and the human ability to cope with them. The more expansive productions presented the conflicting views of the military and scientists, federal and local government, and hope and despair. Many of the films were set in America's heartland, often in small Western towns where local law officers may or may not be able to overcome the difficulties of invasion by mutants or aliens. The desert was frequently used as a setting, perhaps because this was the actual setting for atomic testing. Expeditions, whether to the jungle or to other planets, were inevitably dangerous; disaster lurked in the unfamiliar. Life on Earth was presented as more desirable than life on other planets, but the problems experienced on other planets provided lessons to be learned about protecting civilization on Earth. When the films' settings were urban, buildings, bridges, streets, automobiles, and people were destroyed in plots about disastrous mutant invasion or cataclysmic destruction from a nuclear holocaust. Another inherent theme was tampering with nature, which led to threatened or realized catastrophe. Religion, if included at all, tended to be quite subtle, with a belief in God assumed on the part of the audience.
Two of the pioneer science fiction films released in May and June 1950 were Rocket-ship X-M, produced by Robert Lippert and co-produced, written, and directed by Kurt Neumann, and Destination Moon, a Technicolor film produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel that won an Academy Award for its art director, Ernst Fegte. The two films could not have been more different although both had the theme of space travel.
Destination Moon, loosely based on a Robert Heinlein story, "Rocketship Galileo," is about three men, a military general, an engineer, and a scientist who, along with a radio engineer, take a privately funded trip to the Moon in a rocket ship fired by atomic energy. Pal employed physicists and engineers as consultants for authenticity and the noted science illustrator Chesley Bonestell for the scenic backdrop. Pal wanted documentary realism for the film, thus it is highly technical and quite prophetic of the actual Moon landing in 1969. In the film, Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker explains the theory of rocket travel in an animated sequence. Heinlein, a major science fiction writer, was given credit as one of the writers, but his story was changed so much it is doubtful that he wrote much of the screenplay. Nevertheless, the film's premiere was held at the Hayden Planetarium in New York for science fiction writers and editors as a tribute to Heinlein.20
Destination Moon was atypical of the science fiction films of the decade in that it was optimistic. The film contains a strong reference to the Cold War, when the General points out that although it is peacetime, there will be a need for a rocket ship one of these days: "We're not the only ones who know the moon can be reached…. The race is on!… The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the earth." This comment was not lost on the press, where reviews of the film had headlines such as, "Must America engage in a race to the moon in self-defense?"21 and references to "iron-curtain jitters."22
Rocketship X-M was the first science fiction film of the fifties to emphasize that humanity could annihilate itself in a nuclear war; however, in this case, humanity was on Mars. An American expedition on its way to the Moon is diverted by meteors to Mars where the crew discovers that a civilization has been wiped out by atomic weapons. The surviving Martians, blind, horribly disfigured, and crazed, have reverted to the Stone Age. The Martians kill half of the crew while the others return to Earth to die in a crash landing, but not before they radio in their discovery. The original script portrayed a different Mars, one that had not had an atomic war, but Neumann changed it to a grim story to capitalize on a topic that was on the minds of the public, the consequences of a nuclear war.23 The film cost $95,000 and made a million dollars in the first few months after its release. The Los Angeles Times reported, "The scientific thriller probably will be a regular part of the program from now on. Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon have proved how successful that type of feature can be."24 The Steven Spielberg film E.T. (1982) contains a similar acknowledgement of the importance of the film: when E.T. turns on the television set, the images on the screen are from Rocketship X-M.
In November 1951, another extraterrestrial flight took place in Cinecolor in Flight to Mars, produced by Walter Mirisch and directed by Lesley Selander. This time four scientists and a newspaperman, played by Cameron Mitchell, make a crash landing on Mars, where the Martians live a luxurious life underground. Although they seem friendly at first, the Martians want the earthlings' spaceship after it is repaired in order to preemptively destroy the Earth because they fear invasion. They speak English as the result of monitoring radio broadcasts from Earth. Three of the Martians warn the visitors of the plot, thus the Earth people escape, taking two of the friendly Martians with them. It was not surprising that Mars, the red planet, would be the home of enemies who feigned friendliness and who knew English from monitoring broadcasts. "Red," of course, was the buzzword for Communists throughout the fifties, and, like the Martians, the "Reds" were different from Americans. The Martians were represented as cold, devious, ruthless, and dangerous, characteristics commonly associated with the Soviet Communists.
Other extraterrestrial travel films were made throughout the decade, but the most lavish and well-made was Forbidden Planet from MGM, in CinemaScope and East-man Color. Released in 1956 and starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen, it was directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, famous for Lassie Come Home. Special effects were by Disney's Joshua Meador, and it may have been the first film to use an all-electronic score, composed by Bebe and Louis Barron.25 Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and written by Cyril Hume, Forbidden Planet takes place in the twenty-second century on the planet Altair-IV, where an American military mission arrives in a palatial flying saucer, the C-57D, to search for survivors of a previous flight from twenty years before. The only survivors on the planet are Dr. Morbius (Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Francis), also known as Alta, who live in a beautiful, high-technology home with an amazing robot named Robby, who has superhuman strength, keeps the house in perfect order, and designs Altaira's clothing. The Americans learn that a super race, known as the Krel, had inhabited Altair-IV but its members were destroyed when their own subconscious ids turned on them. Furthermore, an invisible monster lurks on the planet, killing some of the Americans. The monster, it seems, is a projection of the jealous Morbius's id: a separate creature, his evil self who is stirred into a rage by the commander's attention to Altaira. To protect his daughter, Morbius blows up Altair IV (and himself) while the Americans escape with Altaira and Robby. As Robby pilots the flying saucer, the commander and Altaira watch the exploding planet on their viewing screen. Dr. Morbius represents untrustworthy science, an intellectual destroyed by his own brilliance and abilities who loses to the military. The film ends with the American commander's moralistic words, "We're all part monsters in our subconscious, so we have laws and religion … it will remind us that after all, we're not God." He is essentially saying that our real enemy is not out there but inside ourselves.
Robby the robot was one of the most elaborate robots ever built for a film. Although there were 2,600 feet of electrical wiring in him to operate his flashing lights, antennae, and other gadgets, Robby was inhabited by an actor who was inside the robot case all the time. Unlike the monster robots of other science fiction films, Robby was programmed not to harm a human or let a human be harmed. He was a much-loved figure, and appeared in The Invisible Boy in 1957, partly because the robot had been so expensive to build that MGM felt obliged to use him again.26 He also appeared on several television shows in the fifties.
The films with extraterrestrial travel themes became a major trend in science fiction films for decades to come, fascinating audiences with stories about space and other planets. While some of these films had a semblance of accuracy about space travel, others offered wildly imaginative scenarios about life on other planets. The lessons these films imparted were that Martians were to be feared; it was important for the United States to be first in space; and humans needed to recognize their own imperfections, especially regarding the use of atomic technology.
Invasion films were common27 in the 1950s featuring a variety of aliens portrayed as superior to earthlings both in intelligence and technology. In these films, aliens represent what some Americans feared about the Soviets. Invaders, friends or enemies, and often with the help of robots, either come to warn earthlings or to destroy them with superior technology. Sometimes the invaders use the strategy of infiltration, taking over the minds of the people, making slaves of them, or appropriating their bodies, thus making war unnecessary. Infiltration usually starts with authority figures such as community leaders or parents, who, once taken over by aliens, look just like their former selves but lack emotions and souls. The result of the infiltration is loss of free will, loss of identity, and disintegration of the family and community. The takeover represents what many Americans believed would occur in a Communist invasion.
The invasion films ranged from serious drama such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to drive-in movie fare such as The Blob (1958). Regardless of their quality, most invasion films opened with scenes of civic or domestic calm, with an emphasis on order and certainty that is disrupted by the arrival of something or someone, usually from the sky. A hero (or heroes) discovers the invader and seeks to understand or destroy it. The people doubt the hero's story, resist his or her efforts to organize action, and confusion or panic occurs. If the hero succeeds in eliminating the threat, there is a reaffirmation of the old order coupled with warnings about the future.
Two of the most notable science fiction films opened in 1951. The Los Angeles Times, on 8 April 1951, anticipated the opening of The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still with a headline claiming, "Scientific Thriller to Be Regular Studio Fixture."
The Thing (from Another World),28 an RKO/Howard Hawks production, was the "first to link inhuman, devouring, alien beings with the Red Menace."29 Hawks had wanted to produce a Class-A science fiction film for years but waited until the public was ready for such a film. He had purchased a story, "Who Goes There," by John W. Campbell Jr. in 1949 as the basis for the screenplay. For fourteen months, he and a team of researchers verified the story points with electronic engineers, scientists, and university professors. After 400 readings and seventy screen tests, Hawks cast twenty-three little-known actors, including James Arness as the creature, otherwise known as "The Thing." When he budgeted the film at $1.3 million, his colleagues were aghast because he had cast no well-known names. It took the makeup artist, Lee Greenway, five months and eighteen sculptures of the creature before Hawks was satisfied; however, five insurance companies turned him down when he tried to get insurance for the creature. Insurers refused because "The Thing" had to be frozen in a block of ice, hacked by axes, attacked by dogs, set afire, and electrocuted.
The Thing was set in the Arctic Circle to suggest American surveillance of the Soviet nuclear threat,30 but because daylight was available only two hours a day at the North Pole, location work began in Cut Bank, Montana, about fifty miles south of the Canadian border, where the scenery was similar and eight hours of daylight enabled longer work days. Sub-zero temperatures, however, created hardships for the cast and crew, who wore fur-lined pants and parkas as well as fur-lined aviation boots and had to cope with sets destroyed by high winds and frozen equipment.31 Finally, the company relocated to the RKO Ranch in the San Fernando Valley where the most famous scene, the crew forming a ring around the submerged flying saucer, was shot in 100-degree weather. Christian Nyby, a film editor, was given credit for the film's direction, although various sources32 suggest that either Hawks directed or he guided Nyby very closely, for he was on the set every day. The film has Hawks's trademarks—ensemble acting, overlapping dialogue that is at times humorous, and a sharp, assertive woman.
The Thing is about an air force captain and his men, a journalist, a group of scientists, and a secretary, at the North Pole who discover the traces of a spacecraft in the form of a very large circle in the ice. One of the men says, "We finally got one," and the journalist Scotty says, "We found a flying saucer." The aircraft burns and explodes, but there is a "man" about eight feet tall frozen in the ice. He turns out not to be a man at all, but a huge, irradiated, humanoid vegetable ("a giant carrot," quips Scotty) that drinks blood and is able to propagate itself with seedpods. The scientist, Dr. Carrington, marvels at the creature's superiority and begs the captain not to harm it. The creature, however, kills the sled dogs and two of the men while Carrington nurtures its growing seedpods with blood plasma in the base greenhouse. Since bullets do not harm it, the men consider how to kill it. When the captain asks, "What do you do with a vegetable," Nikki, the secretary, says, "Boil it, stew it, bake it, fry it." Burning it with kerosene and a flame gun, however, does not work, so working as a team, they successfully electrocute it, but not before Carrington tries to be friends with it. He rushes up to the creature and gets thrown across the room for his trouble. Scotty sends out his story and ends it with, "Tell the world. Tell this to everyone wherever they are: Watch the skies! Watch everywhere. Keep on looking. Watch the skies!"
Instead of using special effects, the film frightens because the creature is only seen in shadows and claustrophobic darkness, leaving details to our imagination. It resembles a man but has no emotions, no personality. The eerie musical score of Dimitri Tiomkin adds to the chills. The teamwork of the military men defeats the malevolent invader, but they also have to resist the scientist who wants to preserve it for study "because it has so much to teach us." Carrington the scientist, wearing a goatee, a Russian-style fur hat, and, at other times, a silk dressing gown and ascot, looks different, somewhat like Lenin. The men identify him as a Nobel Prize winner and a participant at Bikini, thus linking him with the atomic bomb. He is pitted against the military men because he is soft on the alien, and even helps to propagate it in the base greenhouse. In the end, however, he apologizes for his lack of caution. Scotty, the journalist, has to wait for the captain's permission to take a picture and must withhold his story until he is allowed to release it at the end of the film, thus the press is more or less controlled by the military. The military men save the day despite interference from the scientist, reaffirming the old order but leaving the audience with a stern warning to "watch the skies," suggesting that evil invaders are still out there.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, a Twentieth Century-Fox production, had a cast of established actors that included English actor Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, and Sam Jaffe. The director was Robert Wise and the producer Julian Blaustein. The Los Angeles Times noted two firsts: Twentieth Century-Fox's first science fiction film and the first science fiction film to feature well-known actors.33 Based on a 1940 short story by Harry Bates, "Farewell to the Master," The Day the Earth Stood Still was "earthbound" in that it did not have scenes in space. Darryl Zanuck was pleased because that made the film less costly, although it came in at $1.2 million.34 Dr. Samuel Herrick, a UCLA astronomer, was the technical advisor, and the tanks and machine guns were borrowed from the National Guard.35 Blaustein said, "We ourselves have rockets, jet propulsion, atomic energy. So everything in the picture will really be an extension of known facts."36 Further realism was provided by using the actual location of the Mall and monuments in Washington, D.C., and the voices of four well-known radio commentators, Drew Pearson, Elmer Davis, H. V. Kaltenborn, and Gabriel Heatter. Special effects were limited to the robot's ray vision (a light emanating from his eye slots) and the spaceship, a two-foot miniature with a traveling matte. Two foam rubber suits covered in metallic spray paint were designed for the robot, one with a zipper in the back for the approach scenes and one with a zipper in the front for the retreat scenes. Locke Martin, a seven feet, seven inches tall doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater, wore the suits as Gort, the robot, but he could only stay in a suit for forty-five minutes at a time, thus a statue was constructed for the scenes in which he did not move. The musical score was written by Bernard Herrmann, using electric violins, bass, and theremins.
The Day the Earth Stood Still begins with radio reports of a UFO spotted flying over various parts of the world. It is a pleasant spring day in Washington, D.C., where children peacefully play ball and people have picnics on the grass. A spaceship descends upon this scene, flying low over the monuments of the Mall, landing on a baseball field and causing panic. Almost immediately it is surrounded by soldiers, tanks, and artillery. The spaceman, a scientist named Klaatu, emerges, announcing, "We have come to visit you in peace and good will," but when he reaches into his spacesuit for a gift for the president of the United States, a frightened soldier reacts, shooting him in the shoulder. Gort, a huge robot, appears, melting the weapons with a beam from his eye slot. The soldiers are unable to enter the spaceship or even analyze it.
After Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital, the president's emissary visits him. When Klaatu asks for a meeting of all the world leaders, the emissary replies, "Our world at the present moment is full of tensions and suspicions. In the present international situation, such a meeting would be quite impossible." Klaatu escapes, and because he looks like a human in ordinary clothing he is able to mingle with the people. He befriends a widow, Helen Benson, and her young son Bobby, who takes Klaatu on a tour of Washington, D.C. and the monuments commemorating great men. Bobby tells him about Professor Barnhart, an Einstein look-alike scientist. Barnhart understands Klaatu's warnings of Earth's imminent destruction if spaceships are developed to threaten other planets and arranges a meeting of the worlds scientists and intellectuals. Meanwhile, Barnhart suggests that Klaatu demonstrate his powers, but dissuades him from leveling Manhattan. Klaatu's compromise is nonviolent—he stops everything that depends on electricity all over the world, except hospitals and airplanes in flight, for thirty minutes. Thus the world stands still, not for a day, but for half an hour. Klaatu is shot and killed on his way to the big meeting, but Gort resurrects him. The reborn Klaatu leaves with this message: "If you threaten to extend your violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration."
Producer Blaustein said of Klaatu's desire for an international meeting: "This is a plea for a stronger United Nations with an effective police force. Our man tells us we must do this or the world will be destroyed."37 The Barnhart character, unlike Dr. Carrington, the scientist in The Thing, is a sympathetic and convincing representation of scientists and the scientists' movement. The military represent fear and paranoia, attempting to kill Klaatu rather than to give him a chance to promote peace in the world. The woman and her son represent ordinary people who, together with the scientist, see Klaatu as a superior being who wants to save humanity; whereas, the military is myopic in its quest to destroy him. The media spreads fear and panic without trying to get the real story. Although Klaatu is a messianic figure who assumes the name "Mr. Carpenter" and is killed and resurrected, Robert Wise said he did not intend any religious symbolism: "We were not trying to say that this is a version of Christ's return."38
The Day the Earth Stood Still was a success with movie audiences and critics alike. Variety's critic Frank Scully liked the film because of its intelligence, with its "scientists who try to think their way out instead of generals who try to fight their way out."39 The Los Angeles Times liked its "newsreelish realism" and "the triumph of mind over matter."40 The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still were the two most impor tant invasion films of the fifties, both for their success at the box office and for their quality. They also started a trend of invasion films that lasted throughout the decade.
The invasion films that followed tended to be more frightening, with alien invaders threatening the American way of life. The invaders were often dangerous Martians or monsters with superior intelligence or strength. Even if they meant no harm, the aliens were able to control humans for their own advantage. When they meant harm, they were capable of mass destruction.
It Came from Outer Space was director Jack Arnolds first science fiction film for Universal. It premiered in 1953 and was the first 3-D film on a wide screen with stereophonic sound. Arnold said, "I think science fiction films are a marvelous medium for telling a story, creating a mood, and delivering whatever kind of social message should be delivered."41 Based on The Meteor by Ray Bradbury, the film features a crash landing near a small town in the Arizona desert of a spaceship that looks like a meteor. John Putnam, an astronomer played by Richard Carlson, is the lone witness, but because a landslide has covered the spaceship in a crater, the townspeople refuse to believe him. The aliens are xenomorphs, ectoplasmic beings who are able to assume the identities of others, but in their natural state they look like giant, peeled eyeballs floating inside plastic globes, lunging out of the screen and into the audience in 3-D. Shots of the townspeople are from the point of view of the aliens, thus the people appear on screen through a shimmering, eyelike bubble. The aliens assume the identities of the townspeople so they can repair their spaceship unnoticed but they mean no harm. They just want to fix their spaceship and be on their way after returning the citizens to their original forms. They take other identities because they are afraid of what humans will do to them. Eventually the townspeople catch on and attempt to destroy the aliens, but Putnam protects them in the final confrontation, explaining, "They don't trust us because what we don't understand we destroy."42 At the end, the people gather round Putnam, who says, "It wasn't the right time for us to meet, but there'll be other nights, other stars for us to watch; they'll be back." This film is somewhat unusual in that there are no military forces, only a sheriff, to fight against the invaders, who leave the Earth unharmed.
The aliens in Invaders from Mars, a Twentieth Century-Fox Eastmancolor release in 1953,43 meant to do harm, for they implanted radios in the citizens' necks, turning them into cold, emotionless pawns used to destroy U.S. weapons and research stations and stop atomic rocket testing. The film is seen through the eyes of a child, a twelve-year-old boy named Jimmy, who lives in a small California town, and who awakens at night to see a Martian spaceship land on a nearby sandpit into which it disappears. The Martians are green and eight feet tall, with rigid, unemotional faces and bulbous eyes. They are controlled by a disembodied supreme intelligence in the form of a head in a glass globe. It represents humankind developed to its ultimate intelligence. Jimmy, unable to convince the townspeople that Martians have landed and are taking over people, convinces a psychologist, a scientist, and an army officer; the officer then destroys the Martians and their spaceship with explosives. At the end of the film, Jimmy awakens and we learn that this has all been a dream, and then he sees a spaceship land in the sandpit…. Jimmy is forever trapped in a nightmare world of Martian invaders, atomic rockets, and dehumanized automatons, a life of fear of atomic attack and invasion by brutal and emotionless Martians/Communists.
It Came from Outer Space and Invaders from Mars were set in small towns where aliens penetrated the very heart of America. The apparently secure environment of the small town was no safer than the urban areas where atomic attacks could occur. The invaders were able to assume the identity or control the minds of the townspeople, thus making it impossible to tell the difference between genuine Americans and the enemy. Those who knew about the enemy, whether they were scientists or an innocent child, had a difficult time convincing others of the truth. Each of these themes represents the social and political paranoia of the Cold War era.
This Island Earth, a 1955 Universal Studios film directed by Joseph Newman, featured realistic special effects and Technicolor. Aliens from the planet Metaluna, which is millions of light years from Earth, capture nuclear scientists and transport them back to their home planet, which is disintegrating. A new source of atomic energy is needed to set up an isolation layer around Metaluna to protect it from the continuous attack of the more powerful planet Zagon; however, the aliens and the American scientists arrive too late, for the enemy has exploded nuclear warheads on Metaluna. The Metalunans, though technologically and intellectually more advanced than earthlings, had a regimented social system ruled by a dictator who expected complete obedience. Dissenters were lobotomized, and there was no religion. The devastation of their planet serves as an example of the need for a strong nuclear arsenal as deterrence. The message is "Peace Through Strength," for the kidnapped scientists return to Earth dedicated to the American political system and a belief in a strong nuclear defense capability. The planet Metaluna lacked a strong defense system and was thus ill-prepared to ward off an enemy nuclear attack. The scientists, recognizing the importance of nuclear deterrence, affirm the United States policy of weapons build-up to thwart attack from the Soviet Union.
War of the Worlds, a George Pal production directed by Byron Haskin, came out in 1953. It won an Academy Award for Gordon Jennings for special effects. Once again, Chesley Bonestell did the astronomical art. Based on the well-known H. G. Wells novel, the film was located in California instead of England and in 1953 instead of 1890. A spaceship that looks like a meteor falls near a small community, but a famous nuclear physicist named Clayton Forrester guesses that it is a Martian spaceship. Actually, the ship is part of a mass invasion, for meteors fall all over the world, opening up to release flying machines with attached death rays. Forrester, who seems to be pro-military, sends for the army, but no matter how much armament is used against the Martians they are invincible. Martians inside the spaceships control the death rays that vaporize humans and buildings. After trying conventional warfare, the military resorts to atomic bombs, although there is a fear of "radiation danger," but the Martians are unharmed by them. Images of cities in ruins and fleeing refugees are seen, while Forrester and others pray for God to intervene. Religious symbols abound, and the resolution seems to be God-sent, for the Martians begin to die from exposure to the Earth's bacteria. As the Martians fall dead, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, the narrator, says, "After all that men could do, victory came through the littlest things [the bacteria] which God in his wisdom had put on this Earth." Variety commented that "Viewers take vicarious pleasure in the terror loosed in the film—then walk out of theatres relieved to find the world still as it was."44
Some of the teenager/drive-in invasion films were Robot Monster (1953), Kronos (1957), and The Blob (1958). In Robot Monster, a 3-D production from Three Dimensions Pictures, Ro-Man, an actor in a gorilla suit and diving helmet, comes from an unknown planet to invade Earth. He wipes out the entire population save six people, a scientist and his family, who have taken a serum. All sorts of prehistoric monsters come to life in the mayhem, but they fight among themselves.45 Kronos, a Twentieth Century-Fox/Regal Films production directed by Kurt Neumann, features a 100-foot-tall electronic monster, which scours Earth for fresh supplies of energy to replenish the resources of his own planet. Newscasters in the film dubbed the monster "Kronos" after the Greek giant who rose out of the sea. The army attacks with atomic missiles and H-bombs to no avail as Kronos sucks up energy from atoms. A scientist figures out how to short-circuit the invader, which absorbs its own energy and disappears. The Blob from Paramount was sure to appeal to teenagers as the actor Steve McQueen, in his first movie role, leads fellow teens into battle to save their small town from a giant glob of gelatin from outer space that engorges people. Leaking through doorsills and vents, it could devour the entire continent, but the teens save the day by putting it out with a fire extinguisher.
Films with an infiltration theme emphasized paranoia because endless vigilance was required to protect oneself from an enemy capable of subversively controlling minds and bodies. Family members, lovers, and best friends were not to be trusted, for they could be the enemy operating within the self of another. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel for Allied Artists/Walter Wanger production in 1956, was the best of the infiltration films. This film presents the enemy as giant pods that, as a result of atomic radiation, come to Earth to take possession of human bodies in a small California town. The result is a community of people who are calm but emotionless, affecting an aura of normalcy. Friends and relatives who have not yet been infiltrated see that others are not what they used to be, but soon they too are taken over until only two people are left, Dr. Miles Bennell and his sweetheart, Becky Driscoll. Because the victims are still alive but no longer in control of their own minds, alien invasion here is similar to brainwashing, as it occurred in Communist political prisons during the Korean War. Miles and Becky must fight or hide from the aliens, but they also must not sleep, for that is when the pods take over human bodies. Becky does sleep when Miles leaves their hiding place to check on what he thinks is another "real" human. When he comes back and kisses her, her eyes open with a vacant stare, and he recognizes that she too is a pod person. He runs to the highway, trying to flag down cars, but they ignore him. He shouts, "You're next, you fools! You're in danger!" Because the studio thought the film too pessimistic, a prologue and conclusion were added with Miles telling the story in flashback and finally getting authorities to respond to the threat.
Dana Wynter, who played Becky, said that she, Kevin McCarthy, who played Miles, and others assumed they were making an anti-Communist movie: "We took it for granted that's what we were making, but it wasn't spoken about openly on the set or anything like that."46 Siegel said, "This is probably my best film. I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them."47 Siegel, however, did not confirm Wynter's assumption, for he left the question of whether pods were anti-Communist conformists or invading Communists unresolved. The political Right saw the film as the denunciation of Communist mind-control; whereas, the Left saw it as McCarthyites inducing and/or reinforcing stifling conformity on society. A Los Angeles Weekly review (published in 2000) stated, "The result dryly lampoons the spirit of conformity that dominated American life in the Eisenhower era; the menacing sense that one is being invisibly ganged up on can be read as an explicit attack on McCarthyism [or] a rebellion against totalitarianism of any kind."48
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot in nineteen days and cost $300,000, with only $15,000 spent on special effects.49 Most of the scenes are at night, in the dark, in enclosed physical spaces, in small rooms, empty nightclubs, closets, and abandoned caves—suggesting isolation and paranoia. The actors are framed in doorways from low angles creating a sense of claustrophobia. It is an important film that visually and narratively represents the loss of identity and the fear that one's closest friends and relatives are not who they appear to be. What defined humans in the film was emotion, for in other respects the pod people looked like anyone else. This film mirrored the prevalent fear of an enemy within, and it contributed memorable images to American visual culture of the 1950s, especially the image of Kevin McCarthy running down the highway shouting, "You're next!"
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) is a strong film despite its outlandish title. A bridegroom-to-be witnesses the landing of a spaceship on the night before his wedding and is taken over by one of the aliens who assumes his shape. On the honeymoon night, Marge, the bride, senses that something is wrong. Directed by Gene Fowler in 1958, the film can be seen as a feminine analogue to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.50 The wife writes a letter to her mother saying that "Bill isn't the man I fell in love with," and, after following him into the woods where she see his true self emerge from its human shell, realizes that he is an alien. When she turns to the police chief for help, he suggests she go to an asylum because he is also an alien in a human shell. The alien husband and police chief prevent her from contacting higher authorities and keep her from leaving town; thus she is powerless. It turns out, however, that the aliens are impotent, thus the real humans are the men who have become fathers. Marge turns for help to the men with children (note the affirmation of conventional family values) and is able to save humanity and be reunited with her real husband.
The terrible effects of atomic radiation became known after 1952 when both the United States and the Soviet Union began atmospheric tests of multi-megaton thermonuclear bombs. A hydrogen bomb test in March 1954 spread radioactive debris over 8,800 square miles of the Pacific, carrying radioactive poison to the crew of a Japanese fishing boat eighty-five miles away. The Atomic Energy Commission kept this particular instance a secret from the public until the spring of 1955, when the Federal Civil Defense Administration revealed that radioactive fallout was "invisible, insidious, and uniquely dangerous."51 Scientists and physicians announced studies that exposed the hazards of radioactive substances, including leukemia, bone cancer, and long-term genetic damage.52 Panic over the negative effects of radiation provided fodder for many science fiction films. Small insects mutated into huge monsters, people became impossibly large or incredibly small, and creatures long extinct came to life. Scientists in the films were often to blame for experiments that resulted in dreadful changes. Alternatively, atomic explosions released extinct creatures from icecaps or underwater caves, or radiation from the explosions caused the mutation of harmless creatures into terrifying monsters. People in these films were often depicted as bewildered or hysterical, while the FBI and the military remained organized and ready to take on new threats.
A few films featured mutated insects that had become prowling monsters. Them!, a 1954 film from Warner Bros., directed by Gordon Douglas in a semi-documentary style, had an intelligent script written by Ted Sherdeman.53 The film's specific content was kept secret during production, but the pre-release posters featuring gigantic ants suggested the story line. It became Warner Bros.' highest grossing film of 1954.54 Them! was originally planned to be in 3-D and color, but Jack Warner, who did not care for the story, cut Douglas's budget and forced a switch to black and white. It was one of the few films to successfully use a full-scale working model, a twelve-foot monster ant mounted on a boom. Another model with only a head and forequarters was used for close-ups.
Them! takes place in the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed. Several years after the World War II era research, two state troopers find a general store destroyed, the shopkeeper killed, and a six-year-old girl, whose parents are missing, in shock. One officer goes for help, bringing an FBI agent (James Arness) back to the site where they find the other officer dead and a strange footprint in the sand. Two entomologists from the Department of Agriculture (Edmund Gwen and Joan Weldon) arrive on the scene and learn that sugar is missing from the store, and that the storekeeper's and state trooper's bodies are full of formic acid. They recognize the print as that of a giant ant. Also, when one of the entomologists holds formic acid under the little girl's nose, she comes out of shock and screams, "Them! Them!" At that point, a giant ant appears. Together the scientists and the military destroy the New Mexico ant nest, but two queen ants escape, one to a navy ship, where it destroys the crew and sinks with the ship, the other to the huge storm drains under Los Angeles55 where the finale occurs. Two children are being held by the ants, but one of the state policemen (James Whitmore) dies saving them, and the ants are gassed and wiped out.
The genetic mutation of the ants had been caused by lingering radiation from the explosion of the first atomic bomb. Had the ants continued to propagate, they would have taken over the world. Joan Weldon said in an interview, "Them! was an anti-war, anti-nuclear message [that] was very intentional. Ted Sherdeman … decided he was going to write … about how these kind of warheads were going to discombobulate the Earth."56 Reviewers of Them! recognized that the ants were a projection of fear of atomic bombs. For example, the Hollywood Reporter said of the film: "A natural exploitation piece that, from the viewpoint of timeliness, fits in perfectly with the current fears over possible effects of hydrogen bomb explosions…. The story closes with the pleasant thought that there's no telling what further mutations might evolve from subsequent A-bomb explosions."57 The ants could also have been a symbolic enemy, the Soviet Union, for in one scene, the entomologist says that ants are "savage, ruthless, and courageous fighters." He also tells how ants use slave laborers in their colonies, evoking images of a totalitarian society.
Tarantula, a 1955 Universal International film in color directed by Jack Arnold and produced by William Alland, continued the cycle of giant insect films. It is a film about a scientist who injects a tarantula with an atomic mixture that causes it to grow to one hundred feet tall. The creature then proceeds to destroy everything in its path until it is killed by napalm dropped by the air force. Other cinematic mutants of the decade include: radiation-swollen grasshoppers that invade Chicago in Beginning of the End (1957), giant snails affected by radiation that creep into the Los Angeles Naval Station to eat navy personnel in The Monster That Challenged World (1957), an octopus turned monster by radioactivity that nearly destroys San Francisco in Roger Corman's It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and enormous crabs, genetically altered by hydrogen bomb fall-out, that absorb the knowledge and voices of the people they eat in Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). In each case, atomic blasts or radiation have brought to life a monster which was, in turn, destroyed by some use of atomic energy. Normalcy returns as science and technology solve the problems they helped to create.
The films with metamorphosis themes were about people or creatures which completely change their form or structure. The Fly, directed by Kurt Neumann and filmed in CinemaScope for Twentieth Century—Fox with a budget of $700,000,58 premiered in June 1958. A scientist for the Air Defense Ministry experiments with a teleportation machine and has his molecules mixed with that of a fly. Now he has become half human, half fly and is unable to change back to his normal self. He has the head of a fly, and the fly has his head. He realizes that he must destroy his research and equipment and that he will die, sacrificing himself for the good of humanity. He has tampered with the unknown and paid for his efforts. A press release from Twentieth Century-Fox indicated that Dr. Lee De Forest had actually worked on a similar project prior to his death. The Los Angeles Mirror News picked up on this in its review: "How farfetched is this idea of disintegration and reassembling elsewhere? Not as much as you might think. Dr. Frank Creswell, formerly with the Atomic Energy Commission in the flight research program of the Air Force and technical advisor on the film, says the transmitting of matter will probably be accomplished within the next decade…. This was a necessary step toward utilization of atomic energy and, theoretically, can be extended to all solids."59 Advertising copy for the film claimed, "The first time atomic mutation of humans has been shown on the screen."
Yet, the prior year saw at least three films in which humans were metamorphosed, two to giant proportions, the other to minuscule dimensions. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), an Allied Artists release of a Bernard Woolner production, directed by Nathan Hertz, is the story of a woman who is seized by an alien in the desert and irradiated by his touch. She grows to enormous proportions and squeezes to death her philandering husband before she is shot by the sheriff. This film was a double bill with War of the Satellites.60 The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), an American-International release directed and produced by Bert Gordon and double-billed with Cat Girl, was about an army colonel who is burned in a plutonium explosion, regenerates his skin, and grows ten feet a day until he is seventy feet tall and weighs thousands of pounds. His heart, however, does not expand at the same rate, thus he has a mental collapse and causes pandemonium in Las Vegas. He is pursued to Boulder Dam where he is riddled with bullets, plunging over the side of the dam. Neither of these films, however, could match the poignancy of Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a Universal release from Albert Zugsmith Productions. This is the story of an average American man, Scott Carey, who while out boating is exposed to nuclear fallout from a cloud that leaves shimmering white particles on him. This causes him to shrink uncontrollably because his molecules have been rearranged and his growth is reversed. There are no monsters or aliens in the film, only everyday animals and objects such as a cat, a leaking faucet, a sewing box with needles and pins, and a spider, all of which become menacing and dangerous to Scott. Unable to be a normal husband, he is humiliated and filled with self-loathing, yet when he shrinks to one inch and is still shrinking he maintains, "I exist." This is a powerful moment in the film, for even though Scott has become infinitesimal in size, he is still human and aware of his own existence. Critics saw the message that human beings were being diminished by their own atomic technology. Philip K. Scheuer wrote, "it leaves you with at the last—two thoughts, really. One is that we had better look to our survival in an Atomic Age. The other is that even 'the least of these' remains one of God's creatures."61
The Incredible Shrinking Man captures the emotional experiences of Cold War America with its themes of the paranoia, fear, and distrust. It opens with the image of a dwindling human outline as a mushroom cloud grows. Yet, the ending of the film suggests that one can find philosophical and spiritual growth in a difficult time. Arnold, who said he never made a picture without a message, resisted Universal's preference for a happy ending with doctors finding a serum to reverse the shrinking process because he wanted a metaphysical ending with the man accepting his fate.62
An extinct creature brought back to life, usually by an atomic explosion, was the basis for films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Produced by Hal Chester and Jack Dietz of Mutual Pictures of California, a small independent company that was purchased by Warner Bros., and directed by Eugene Lourie, the film was an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story. A rhedosaurus, a fictional Mesozoic beast, is loosed from an arctic icecap by an atomic blast. It is mean, disorderly and ill-tempered, invading New York City, crushing cars, leveling buildings, devouring people, and creating panic among the crowds as it stomps into Times Square. Buildings are destroyed, communications are flooded, and many lives are lost. The National Guard bombards the rhedosaurus with bazookas, cannons, and machine guns, but it disappears, seriously wounded. When the soldiers track it by following large pools of blood, they become very sick and collapse. After blood samples from the beast are analyzed, it is discovered that it contains toxic bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This is the film's metaphor for radiation sickness. An atomic scientist in the film concludes that they must use a radioactive isotope to kill the rhedosaurus. The soldiers then confront the beast at Coney Island where, while the creature is tearing apart a roller coaster, a sharpshooter fires the isotope and kills it. Thus, although scientists created the atomic bomb that unleashed the destructive monster in the first place, a scientist had the knowledge to destroy the beast as well.
Perhaps the most unforgettable prehistoric creature in a fifties science fiction film was Creature from the Black Lagoon, a 1954 Universal International 3-D film produced by William Alland and directed by Jack Arnold, two men who became major contributors to the 1950s science fiction films. The film is about the Gill Man, a half fish, half human, who is discovered by paleontologists in the Amazon jungles. While trying to study him, several members of the expedition are killed, but the Gill Man is attracted to Kay (Julia Adams), and tries to prevent the scientists from leaving. The underwater scenes in which the Gill Man swims beneath Kay, attempting to touch her legs, are both frightening and erotic, creating sympathy and identification with the creature. Arnold said, "He's a living, breathing organism. All he wants is to be left alone. When he's disturbed, he fights back."63 Ricou Browning, a student at Florida State University, was chosen to be the Gill Man in the water because he could hold his breath for long periods of time underwater. Makeup artist Bud Westmore sculpted a full-body mold (reportedly inspired by the Oscar statuette)64 for Browning and stuntman Gil Chapman, who played the creature on land. Two men are suitors to Kay—Richard Carlson plays an ichthyologist, a scientist interested in knowledge that will help people to adapt when they travel to other planets (or in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust), while Richard Denning is his boss, obsessed with the economic windfall the capture of the creature would bring. Denning's character is killed by the Gill Man, who drags him into the depths of the Black Lagoon. The Gill Man subsequently captures Kay, who may actually be attracted to him, taking her to a cave. Carlson saves her and shoots the Gill Man, who staggers to the water and slides in. (Since the creature did not die, there were two sequels, The Revenge of the Creature, in 1955, and The Creature Walks Among Us, in 1957.)
Although the 3-D appeared awkward at times, the film was a success. Critic Sara Hamilton wrote, "[It is] the scariest apparition since 'Frankenstein' … the underwater scenes are fantastic and the direction smartly placed."65 The film brought out the fear of exploring the unknown and of awakening primordial forces that could not be controlled.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters reflected the nuclear anxiety of both the Japanese and the Americans. Made originally in Japan as Gojira in 1954, the Japanese film was re-edited under the direction of Terry Morse for Embassy Pictures (the distribution company of exhibitor Joseph E. Levine) and released in 1956. Much of the dialogue was dubbed into English, and scenes featuring Raymond Burr as narrator were added. The story unfolds as Burr, playing a newspaper reporter named Steve Martin, witnesses the destruction caused by a once-dormant prehistoric monster that has been given radioactive powers as the result of nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. Godzilla, named after a legendary Japanese monster, is four hundred feet tall and nasty. He devastates Tokyo, spewing flames from his mouth and trampling down skyscrapers, and he is impervious to gunfire and high voltage. The government response is headed by a paleontologist, his daughter, a naval officer (the daughter's boyfriend), and several other scientists. Godzilla finally succumbs to a secret weapon developed by one of the scientists. The film was a box-office success, and therefore Godzilla returned again and again in Japanese-made sequels as well as a cheaply made update of the original film, again with inserts of Burr, made in 1985.
The most pessimistic theme of the fifties science fiction films represented the fear that nuclear bombs would blow up the Earth. Yet most of the films also expressed optimism about survival. Some films suggested redemption, usually Christian in character.
The first science fiction film to deal with nuclear holocaust and its survivors was Five, a Columbia Pictures release of Arch Oboler Productions in April 1951. Written and directed by Oboler, Five is about the last five survivors on Earth after an atomic blast. One by one, three of the characters are eliminated until there remains only one man named Michael, after the archangel who drove Adam and Eve out of Eden, and one woman, Roseanne, who is pregnant with her husband's child, left to build a new world in an agrarian utopia. They return to the city to confirm Roseanne's husband's death and discover a gruesome scene of empty buildings and corpses in cars. Rather than talk about the destruction, the characters debate about humanity regenerating itself in a community where all people can live together in peace and harmony.
When Worlds Collide, a 1951 Paramount release of a George Pal production, was based on the H. G. Wells novel and also on a novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, with the script written by Sydney Boehm. The story concerns a scientist who finds that the planet Zyra will pass so close to the Earth in one year's time that tidal waves, volcanoes, and fires will occur, and then the star Bellus will collide with what remains of the world. With a "Noah's Ark" twist, a rocket ship is constructed to transport forty-four people, animals, and plants to a new planet. The United Nations refuses to support the project, but a wheelchair-bound millionaire offers to pay for it if he can go on the rocket. The travelers are the six people who originated the idea and nineteen men and nineteen women selected by a drawing. The disaster occurs, leaving New York City completely underwater, and, as the rocket ship is loading, mobs rush it. The rocket takes off and the passengers see on a television screen the collision of Earth and Bellus. When they land on the new planet, they see it is like Earth and they are pilgrims beginning a new life. This adult and well-made film was a box office success.66 Pal said that he believed the success of the new science fiction movies was due to World War II rocket and atomic bomb developments. He said, "the subject is the thing, the stars or players are secondary."67 Rudy Maté, who directed the film, said his scenes had "almost newsreel quality. I tried to be as realistic as I could. The story is so incredible that if the audience doesn't believe every word it won't believe anything."68 A sound crew, carefully screened by the FBI, was allowed access to the jet testing building at Lockheed. Under armed guard, they recorded the sound of a jet engine, but Lockheed officials and the U.S. Army would not allow the crew to see what they were recording.69
Red Planet Mars, a 1952 film directed by Harry Homer and produced by Anthony Veiller and Donald Hyde, concerns the safety of the free world and directly references domestic fears about international tensions in the world. The characters say things like, "The whole world's scared; it's become our natural state." There is also a lot of talk about science and religion. Scientists in a laboratory "alive with hydrogen" make contact with Mars via a television transmitter. The Martians are ruled by a "Supreme Authority," a Christ-like deity who taught them to love goodness and hate evil. The Martians have no invasion plans, but an evil scientist tries to take over the laboratory in order to use the knowledge conveyed by the Martians. The scientists blow up the laboratory, killing the evil scientist and themselves. Meanwhile Christian rebels overthrow communism in the Soviet Union, establishing a pre-revolutionary theocracy. Although this film did not depict annihilation, it expressed the fear of it and proposed a Christian solution, for the president of the United States does away with the separation of church and state and creates a Christian government. Red Planet Mars also was unusual in that it directly rather than allegorically presented Soviet communism in the plot.
Roger Corman's 1956 film The Day the World Ended is about the near destruction of the Earth by a giant atomic bomb. Seven survivors, one of whom has a bomb shelter big enough for three people, struggle for scarce food and water and worry about mutants outside. Finally all but two die. The survivors, a man and a woman, go out to see if anyone else is still living. A three-eyed mutant threatens them, but they overcome it. A Los Angeles Times review listed the formula for such films: "Any horror film that hopes to achieve any self-respect must have three elements: A creature—preferably an atomic mutation—a pretty girl and a handsome man. The mutation must pursue the fair damsel but must be thwarted, either by the Lothario or the elements, or by both."70
In 1959, two films took up the theme of nuclear apocalypse in a quietly realistic way, stressing the experience of ordinary individuals rather than mutations, aliens, or other fantasy elements. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, released by MGM in black and white CinemaScope, was directed by Ranald MacDougall from his own script. It presents a post-nuclear war New York City inhabited by only three survivors. Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), a miner who was underground when the bombs hit, escapes from the resulting cave-in after several days and makes his way to New York. He eventually meets a second survivor, a blonde woman named Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens). She is attracted to him, but he insists that they live in separate buildings because "People might talk." Racism and its relation to sexuality thus persists after the apocalypse. Eventually a third survivor appears—Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer), who had been at sea when the bombs fell. An uncomfortable romantic rivalry ensues, culminating in Benson insisting on armed conflict with Ralph to see who gets Sarah. Sarah, who maintains she is not an object to be possessed, intervenes and brings about a reconciliation. In the end, she takes their hands and all three walk away. The ending is ambiguous; perhaps the love triangle has turned into a threesome, or alternatively Benson and Ralph may be fighting again tomorrow. This film's one glaring implausibility is a complete absence of corpses after carnage of unthinkable dimensions.
On the Beach (1959), produced and directed by Stanley Kramer and released by United Artists, was a realistic and very sad look at the end of the world via nuclear exchange. Based on the book by Nevil Shute and adapted for the film by John Paxton, it depicts the impact of a nuclear war upon ordinary people who will soon die of radiation poisoning. With a stellar cast headed by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins, the film was widely anticipated. Kramer acquired expertise from officials at the Department of Defense about how nuclear conflict with the Soviets should be presented. Advice as well as some equipment and personnel was given on the condition that the military be presented in a positive way and that the Soviets bear the onus for the tragedy, although it is not clear that Kramer agreed to such limitations.71 The submarine in the film was modeled after the real atomic submarine Sargo, but what we see in the film is a British submarine revamped to look like the new atomic subs. The State Department had refused Kramers request to photograph an American one.72 Joseph Keyerleber, in his essay on the film, said that the government refused to let Kramer use the real submarine because the assistant secretary of state disagreed that everyone in the world would die. He believed that there would be survivors if a nuclear war occurred, insisting that casualties would be limited to eight or nine million.73 On the Beach had simultaneous premieres on 17 December 1959 in Amsterdam, Berlin, Caracas, Chicago, Lima, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Melbourne, Moscow, New York City, Paris, Rome, Johannesburg, Stockholm, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Zurich.74 It is interesting to note that in Russia, the general public did not see On the Beach. A select group of 1,200 Russians, some foreign guests, and Gregory Peck and his wife attended a private screening at the Soviet Filmworkers Union.75
On the Beach did not detail a nuclear holocaust with bombed-out cities and farreaching destruction, but instead it presented the effects of fall-out and the resulting feelings of hopelessness. Stanley Kramer wanted the film to be quietly unhysterical, revealing the real tragedy of war in the faces of healthy young people.76 The story begins after nearly all the people of the world have died. An American submarine comes to Australia where the survivors await death as a lethal cloud of atomic dust slowly drifts toward them. As they wait, they cling to what they love in life—friends, children, spouses, and lovers. People talk about the unfairness of their fate: as one woman says, "It's not fair. No one in the Southern Hemisphere ever dropped a bomb…. We had nothing to do with it. Why should we have to die because other countries nine or ten thousand miles away from us wanted to have a war?" The film openly challenges the illusions of nuclear supremacy. The war came about, as Julian, the cynical scientist (Astaire), says, "When people accepted the idiotic idea that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn't possibly use without committing suicide." When he is asked to justify the role that scientists played in bringing about a nuclear holocaust, Julian, in a reference to the scientists' movement, answers, "Every man who worked on this thing told you what would happen. The scientists signed petition after petition, but no one would listen." The submarine commander leaves Australia, looking for evidence of life elsewhere. Through the periscope he sees the deserted city of San Francisco, eerily empty streets, hauntingly quiet—no life anywhere. Following a Morse code signal coming from near San Diego, the crew hopes to find life but instead discovers a telegraph key caught in a window shade. It is a horrifying moment that convinces them that the world is doomed. Back in Australia, the submarine captain (Peck), who has lost his wife and children, has a fling with the beautiful Moira (Ava Gardner), and the people begin to line up for suicide pills. The crew of the submarine decides to die in the places they know best, so they set off on their last voyage. In Australia, papers blow in the empty streets, while the wind flaps a banner that says, "There is still time."
Direct, prophetic, technically outstanding, the film was unsettling and controversial. Kramer said, "I only hoped that the emotional impact of what we were presenting would convince people that we'd damn well better do something to assure our survival."77 Nonetheless, the film lost $700,000, which Variety attributed to its "preachy quality."78 The Mirror News, in a story about the disputes over On the Beach, reported that Senator Wallace Bennett of Utah spoke against the film in Congress saying, "In my opinion it paints a distorted picture of what a nuclear war probably would be like." The head of the New York State Civil Defense, Lieutenant General Clarence R. Huebner, said the film "does not do justice to the theory that there is a 'relatively simple defense against radioactive fall-out' and that the end of the war as pictured is not inevitable." In rebuttal, the New York Post editorialized: "That is precisely the point of the movie, except that the producer is suggesting that the best way to avoid the end is to prevent the beginning of the end."79 Bosley Crowther, film critic for the New York Times, also took issue with both Senator Bennett and Lieutenant General Huebner in his column because he said not only were the film's audiences profoundly affected by it, but also the film "has been hailed by various statesmen and scientists" (including Linus Pauling and Freeman Dyson, well-known physicists).80 On the Beach was a more direct and serious treatment of the perils of the Atomic Age than anything that Hollywood had done before.
The number of American science fiction films made in the 1950s and the degree of variation among these films suggest the establishment of an important genre. The films ranged from scientific accuracy to sheer fantasy, from low-budget views of Middle America to elaborate creations of alternate worlds, from simple plots of threat and retaliation to more ambitious variations on the theme of humanity responding to invasion and disaster. The four major types of science fiction films profiled above—space travel; alien invasion and infiltration; mutants, metamorphosis, and long-extinct creatures; near annihilation or the end of humanity—all echoed American anxiety about the Cold War. However, many of the films based on these motifs also offered reassurance and hope for survival. The low-budget films, marketed to teens and preteens and distributed to driveins, stressed monsters and giants and suspenseful action plots. Other, more thoughtful films of the period such as The day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and On the Beach, became classics suitable for both teenage and adult audiences.
One way to chart the surprisingly diverse ideological positions of 1950s science fiction is via the presentation of scientists and the military, stock figures in most of the films. Scientists are sometimes heroic, sometimes misguided; military men either save the world or rashly put it at risk. In The Thing, a scientist (perhaps misguided, perhaps temporarily mad) helps the invading creature to reproduce itself. The soldiers have no illusions about the invader, and they successfully destroy it. This film obviously favors extreme suspicion and the use of force in dealing with the unknown. The day the Earth Stood Still, made in the same year as The Thing (1951), takes the opposite position. Here the scientist Dr. Barnhart is a wise and sympathetic character and the military is trigger-happy. Dr. Barnhart arranges for the alien Klaatu to bring his message of nuclear disarmament to the world; this film is anti-military, pro-scientist, and pro-United Nations. Scientists are foolish and untrustworthy in obvious ways in The Fly and Tarantula; the military comes to the rescue by napalming the spider in the latter film. A more complicated version of the untrustworthy scientist is Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet. This brilliant man cannot control his instincts or emotions (described in the film as the Freudian id), which are magnified by alien machinery until they threaten both the military expedition and the entire planet. Here it is the human personality in general, with its aggressive instincts, which threatens annihilation—an impressively broad theme. However, the military does solve the immediate problem by evacuating the planet so that Morbius (sacrificing himself) can blow it up. Forbidden Planet can be seen, therefore, as both a philosophical allegory and a simple threat/response film.
Though scientists and the military are often in conflict, it is just as common for them to work together. The entomologist Dr. Medford in Them! is so prestigious that he can call on the full resources of the government, meeting with the president, lecturing top officials, and being flown around the country by a general in an air force plane. Dr. Medford provides the knowledge and the military (along with the police) provide the weapons to destroy the giant ants. A scientist and an army officer work together to destroy a spaceship in Invaders from Mars. TWO scientists and one military officer join together to track and destroy the giant octopus in as an added bonus, the female scientist and the officer fall in love. In It Came from Beneath the Sea; as an added bonus, the female scientist and the officer fall in love. In This Island Earth, the kidnapped scientists are unable to help the Metalunans, but they return to Earth with a firm belief in the necessity of American nuclear deterrence, the favored military strategy of the 1950s.
Although the locale for invasion and disorder in the science fiction film was often a small town or the desert, help was usually sought from without. Scientists, the military, law enforcement personnel—all are brought in to repel the alien invaders or destroy the mutated monsters. Most of the films place tremendous emphasis on teamwork and consensus. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally designed as a film that would critique the need for consensus—Miles Bennell cannot trust the other residents of his town because they are all pod people. But Allied Artists evidently found this theme too disturbing, for a framing story was added to show that Miles had found help.
In the great majority of 1950s science fiction films, the solution to the problem comes from America's scientific, military, and political resources. However, a few films give a religious rather than a secular explanation of problem and/or solution. In Them!, Dr. Medford says of the invading giant ants, "We may be witnessing a biblical prophecy come true … The beast will reign over the Earth." When the main character in The Incredible Shrinking Man shrinks to a tiny inch, he still exists for he is one with God. In War of the Worlds, the bacteria that kill the invading Martians are attributed to God's wisdom and foresight. Red Planet Mars combines religion and politics as a solution to the threat of alien science: Christian governments are established in both the United States and the Soviet Union.
Most films found a way to defeat the alien or monstrous threat, but even when civilization was destroyed a message of hope remained. In Five humanity is given chance to regenerate itself with a new Adam and Eve. In When Worlds Collide, the survivors of Earth's destruction are able to start again on a new, Earthlike planet. The Day the Earth Stood Still does not solve humanity's problems, but it does urge a doctrine of peaceful coexistence. On the Beach might seem an exception to the rule, because all humans are doomed by nuclear fallout, but a banner in the deserted streets of Melbourne breaks from the film's plot to directly address the spectator. "There is still time," it says.
If science fiction is, as Eric Rabkin has stated, about "the problems and possibilities posed by meeting the new, the unexpected, the alien," then American science fiction films of the 1950s are a very focused and topical version of this general definition. Whether realistic or fantasy-oriented, these films revolve around fears of nuclear weapons and Communist domination. The films are not all the same, they vary markedly in story, symbolism, and attitude toward the threat, but they are certainly aimed at specific political and scientific problems. The appeal of the 1950s cycle of science fiction films lies mainly in the outpouring of imaginative renderings of simple and specific fears.