Several things have happened recently that make me think of old science fiction movies.
First, the US Defense Department announced that the Pentagon has launched a website for declassified UFO information, including videos and photos. The new site has been designed to provide the public with declassified information about the mysterious objects which were sometimes called “flying saucers” but are now called unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs. The information currently posted to the site is what has been declassified “to date.”
Next, The New York Times ran an article headlined Mummies From Outer Space: Mexico’s Congress Gets a First Hand Look. This is on the heels of an earlier article titled ‘Zombie Trout’ Unsettle Montana, Long a Fly-Fishing Mecca.
Lastly, an article in Scientific American boasts that Humans Have Crossed 6 of 9 ‘Planetary Boundaries’.
Given all of this weirdness, it seems like a good time to look back at old science fiction movies – especially the early ones from the 1950s. So here goes.
(Much of the research for this post came from Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety. If this is a subject that intrigues you, be sure to take a read. Movie links take you to Amazon Prime Video. If you rent or purchase a film, Cold War Studies will get a very small gratuity. That said, you’ll never pay more by using our link.)
1950s Sci-Fi Movies and Cold War Fears
If you’re a film buff, or if you’ve read anything about these films, you know that they often reflect the prevailing fears, anxieties, and political tensions of their era, those related to the Cold War and the fear of communism. The movies generally fall into 4 or 5 categories depending on the source. Selected themes include:
- Alien Invasion and Infiltration
- Nuclear Anxiety and Annihilation
- Technological Advances and Paranoia
- Communism as an Alien Threat
- Space Race and Exploration including Extraterrestrial Travel
The fears portrayed in these themes are expressed in various ways: aliens using mind control; monstrous mutants unleashed by radioactive fallout; radiation and its terrible effects on human life; and scientists obsessed with dangerous experiments.
Government officials and the military are either represented as heroes who fought the enemy or are embarrassingly ignorant of the peaceful intentions of the invaders. Aliens are often portrayed as superior to earthlings in intelligence and technology, perhaps representing what Americans feared in the Soviets. Mutants are represented as socially organized and conforming in ways that Americans perceived the Bolsheviks to be.
Many science fiction films were low budget, shot in black and white like the crime and espionage movies of the 1940s. But a few, like Forbidden Planet (1956), had big budgets and were shot in color – or even in 3-D.
One cinema historian concluded:
The key historical point to me 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.’
Historian Paul Boyer said:
For all its exotic trappings, science fiction is best understood as a commentary on contemporary issues.
Many science fiction films of the 1950s treat communism as a plague, a form of mind control, an invasion, or a loss of identity.
Americans were also anxious about the possible consequences of nuclear disaster and radioactive fallout. Here are a few Cold War Studies posts on on how the atomic bomb affected American life and culture: Atomic Fever Goes Viral; Toys for the Atomic Age; and It’s July: Bikini Days Are Here! If you’d like to dig deeper you might want to read Susan Sontag’s famous essay about science fiction films, The Imagination of Disaster. You can read her essay as a PDF here.
Some of the movies you might want to watch are listed below.
Alien Invasion and Infiltration
Invasion films were common in the 1950s featuring all sorts of aliens who were supposed to be superior to earthlings both in intelligence and technology. In the films, aliens represented what some Americans feared about the Soviets. Sometimes the aliens infiltrated, taking over the minds of people and making slaves of them in various ways – just like what some thought would happen in a Communist invasion.
The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing were the two most important invasion films of the fifties. They started a trend of invasion films that lasted for the entire decade.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) was a serious film, the first to feature well-known actors. It begins with reports of a UFO spotted flying over various parts of the world. A spaceship soon lands on a baseball field near the mall in Washington DC and causes panic. It’s immediately surrounded by soldiers, tanks, and artillery. A spaceman announces “We have come to visit you in peace and goodwill,” then is shot by a soldier. After a series of conflagrations, the spaceman leaves saying:
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.
A success with movie audiences and critics alike, the movie was thought to be a plea for a stronger United Nations.
The Thing (from Another World) was released about the same time. Reviewers called it “the first to link inhuman devouring alien veins with the Red Menace.” Made for drive-in movie theaters, The Thing was set in the Arctic Circle to suggest American surveillance of the Soviet nuclear threat. A famous line is “Tell the world. Tell this to everyone wherever they are: Watch the skies! Watch everywhere. Keep on looking. Watch the skies!”
It Came from Outer Space premiered in 1953 and was the first 3-D film on a wide screen with stereophonic sound. A spaceship that looks like a meteor crashes near a small town in the Arizona desert. The aliens are ectoplasmic beings who can assume the identities of others, but in their natural state they look like giant, peeled eyeballs. Only a sheriff is around to fight the invaders, who end up leaving the earth unharmed.
War of the Worlds (currently unavailable to watch in some areas on Amazon Prime Video) came out in 1953 also. A Martian spaceship that (also) looks like a meteor falls near a small community in California. The ship is part of a mass invasion as meteors fall all over the world, releasing flying machines with attached death rays that vaporize humans and buildings. The military resorts to atomic bombs but the Martians are invincible. The film makes use of lots of religious symbols so that the resolution seems to be God-sent. The Martians begin to die from exposure to earth’s bacteria as the narrator relates:
After all that men could do, victory came through the littlest things [the bacteria] which God in his wisdom had put on this Earth.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is said to be the best of the infiltration films. The enemy is in the form of giant pods that come down to earth and take possession of human bodies in a small California town. The victims are still alive but no longer in control of their own minds evoking the brainwashing reported in Communist political prisons during the Korean War. However, the director (Don Siegel) left the question of whether the 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.
People started learning about the horrific effects of atomic radiation after 1952 when both the US and the Soviet Union began atmospheric testing of thermonuclear bombs. Studies exposed the hazards of radioactive substances and panic over the negative effects of radiation spurred ideas for many science fiction films. Small insects mutated into huge monsters and extinct creatures came to life.
Them!, a 1954 film, takes place in the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos where the US developed its atomic bomb. Ants exposed to the explosion mutate into giant insects but the ants are gassed and wiped out.
The movie was anti-war, anti-nuclear. But the ants could also have been symbolic of the Soviet Union because they are described in the film as “savage, ruthless, and courageous fighters” who use slave laborers in their colonies, evoking images of a totalitarian society.
Tarantula (1955) was also a giant insect film. A scientist injects a tarantula with an atomic mixture that causes it to grow to 100 feet tall. The creature destroys everything in its path until the air force kills it with napalm.
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 the World (1957), and enormous crabs that absorb the knowledge and voices of the people they eat in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). In each case, atomic blasts of radiation bring to life a monster that ends up being destroyed by some use of atomic energy.
The Fly (June 1958) was a metamorphosis film involving a scientist who becomes half human, half fly, and can’t change back to his normal self. He has the head of a fly and the fly has his head. Ads for the film claimed, “The first time atomic mutation of humans has been shown on the screen.”
Critics thought the films showed human beings being diminished by their own atomic technology. Others thought “we had better look to our survival in an Atomic Age.”
Annihilation and The End of the Earth
The most pessimistic 1950s Science Fiction films represented the fear that nuclear bombs would blow up the earth.
The first film to deal with nuclear holocaust and its survivors was Five (April 1951). It tells the story of the last five survivors on earth after an atomic blast. However, rather than talk about destruction, the characters debate how humanity can regenerate itself in a community where all people can live together in peace and harmony.
When Worlds Collide (1951) involves a disaster that leaves New York City completely underwater and a rocket ship that lands on a new planet. The passengers who land on the new planet see it like Earth and believe that they are pilgrims beginning a new life. The director described his scenes:
. . . [they 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.
On the Beach (1959) was a realistic and very sad look at the end of the world via nuclear exchange. The US Department of Defense advised the film’s makers on how nuclear conflict with the Soviets should be presented. The Department also provided some equipment and personnel on the condition that the military be presented in a positive way and the Soviets get the blame for the fiasco. On the Beach portrayed the effects of fallout and the feelings of hopelessness that resulted. The film was a more serious treatment of the dangers of the Atomic Age than films that came before. (You may be able to watch the full movie on You Tube here.)
Space Race and Exploration including Extraterrestrial Travel
Two pioneering science fiction films were released in May and June 1950 – Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon. As their names suggest, both were about space travel.
Destination Moon was unusual in that it was optimistic. Three men take a privately funded trip to the moon in a rocket ship fired by atomic energy. The movie’s premiere was held at Hayden Planetarium in New York.
Rocketship X-M was the first science fiction film of the 1950s to emphasize that humanity could annihilate itself in a nuclear war. An American expedition on the way to the moon is diverted by meteors to Mars where the crew discovers that a civilization has been wiped out by atomic weapons and the surviving Martians have reverted to the Stone Age.
Flight to Mars was released in November 1951. In this movie, Mars, the red planet was the home of enemies who faked friendliness and who knew English from monitoring broadcasts. The Martians were represented as cold, devious, ruthless, and dangerous, just like the real “Reds” – the Soviet Communists of the 1950s.
The most lavish and well-made extraterrestrial travel film of the decade was Forbidden Planet by MGM. Released in 1956, it was based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The movie highlights an amazing robot named Robby, who has superhuman strength and pilots a flying saucer. Robby was much-loved and also appeared in 1957’s The Invisible Boy as well as several TV shows.
Lessons from films with extraterrestrial travel themes included the following: you should be afraid of Martians; the US needs to be first in space; humans need to recognize their imperfections, especially when it comes to the use of atomic energy.
The majority of 1950s science fiction films present a problem that is solved by America’s scientific, military, and political resources. A few of the films provide a religious rather than a secular problem/solution. Most of the films found a way to defeat the alien or monstrous threat, and even when civilization was destroyed a message of hope prevailed.
As Victoria O’Donnell stated in her in-depth piece on the 1950’s new genre:
. . . Whether realistic or fantasy-oriented, these films revolve around fears of nuclear weapons and Communist domination . . . The appeal of the 1950s cycle of science fiction films lies mainly in the outpouring of imaginative renderings of simple and specific fears.
Featured photo (Godzilla and a Flying Saucer): Russ Sidel on Flickr
Readers who are true film buffs will want to check out the following: