The following is a guest post from Aaron Waagen.
When you think of movies in the 1950s, it would be impossible to ignore the slew of science fiction films of the era; everything from space invaders to giant, terrorizing insects, to horribly mutated animals. What might be less obvious is how these films drew directly on the fear of communism and nuclear war that featured prominently in the era.
Before 1950, the fear of communism and the Soviet Union were a large part of American culture. McCarthyism and Hollywood Blacklists were well in effect since 1947. It’s no wonder one of the first science fiction movies to deal with this fear, commonly referred to as “The Red Scare” at this time, was released in 1950.
In The Flying Saucer, American intelligence learns Soviet agents are searching for (appropriately enough) a flying saucer (a term coined in 1947) in the remote areas of the Alaskan territory. It’s revealed the craft was invented by an American scientist, but that his assistant, a communist sympathizer, is trying to sell it to the Soviets. The overall theme of the movie, of one side having a technological advantage over the other, was already a palpable fear. One that manifested in popular fiction.
On August 29th 1949, the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb. The American people learned of the test in September of that year, cementing the fear nuclear war could be right around the corner. In response to the Soviet atomic test, President Harry Truman ordered the US military to develop the hydrogen bomb, which was theoretically hundreds of times more powerful than the nukes used during World War 2. On November 1st, 1952 the US detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb, which proved to be powerful enough to level an island.
In this age of nuclear energy and atomic bombs, people wondered and worried what other effects radiation might have on the world around us. 1954’s Them! saw that threat brought to the big screen. In this film irradiated giant ants rampage through New Mexico. In the first act, the ants’ nest is located not far from where we learn atomic bombs had been tested. The US army deploys cyanide bombs to destroy it. Our heroes go investigate the remains of the colony only to find that two queens hatched and escaped. They must be destroyed before they can devastate the whole country. The movie also brings up a common fear of communist spies hiding among the populace by using insects that are known to lurk below the surface and move underground as antagonists in the film, as well as touting the dangers of radiation and its mutagenic effects.
Another common fear relating to communism was that of our own technological advancements being turned against us. In 1954’s Gog, a top secret research facility becomes the scene of a series of deadly malfunctions that result in the deaths of many of the facilities 150 top scientists. Dr. David Sheppard, a government agent with the Office of Scientific Investigation, soon discovers that the facility’s two robots, Gog and Magog, are the ones responsible for the malfunctions. They are controlled by the facility’s main computer, which has been receiving signals from an unmanned fiberglass craft flying overhead. It had gone undetected until this point because it wasn’t made of metal. The Soviet Union and communists are never mentioned by name in this movie, but with the technological advancements that both sides were making at the time, and the fear of communist spies and traitors, it’s easy to see the correlations.
Another driving force behind the Red Scare was the fear communism would strip a person of their individuality. To a nation that prided itself on individuality and freedom, this was a terrifying thought. Two movies which covered this extensively were 1953’s Invaders from Mars and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the first, people are controlled by a crystal that is implanted at the base of their skull. In the latter, people are replaced entirely by a plant-based duplicate. Though very different films, the central theme of a mass collective taking control of you and taking away your emotions and passions in the name of peace and the greater good are central.
With the furthering of the Cold War and the push forward in nuclear and atomic weapons advancement, fear and paranoia were common. These movies were no doubt propaganda for the American way of life, whether intentional or not, re-enforcing patriotism through individualism, but this was also a way for people to feel in control of the world around them. They showed people that maybe things weren’t hopeless, and destruction wasn’t assured. Monsters can be defeated, and mankind can work together to build something a better world. These movies let people know that a better tomorrow was attainable.