(Essay) Paranoid & Hysterical Hollywood of the 1950’s and 2000s
How did Hollywood address the paranoid, hysterical political climate of the 1950’s and is that being continued in post-9/11 Hollywood films?
“Presenting Reds as ants or aliens served to establish their Otherness…Possession by pods – mind stealing, brain eating, and body snatching – had the added advantage of being an overt metaphor for Communist brainwashing” (Johnston, 2001, pg 73).
In this essay I will be addressing how 1950’s and post-9/11 Hollywood films addressed more than just the obvious political issues. Throughout this analysis I hope to explore not only how the red scare of the 1950’s and the events of September 11, 2001 have been the basis for science fiction films of their respective decades, but also how it was used as a platform to express greater American concerns through the sub-genre of Invasion films. For this analysis I will be using the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) for the purposes of exploring 1950’s Invasion films and The Invasion (2007) for films of the Post-9/11 era.
The essay will begin with a brief history of the cold war era and films that directly dealt with this period in American history, followed by an introduction to genre conventions of 1950’s Horror and Science Fiction. The essay will then critically examine the 1951 Invasion film The Day the Earth Stood Still, exploring how it addressed communism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and advances in nuclear technology among others and how it asserted America as a global super power.
In the second part of this essay, I will explore how the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 (9/11) initiated a resurgence in the Invasion film, linking it to the modern post-apocalyptic zombie film. Through the analysis of The Invasion, I will investigate how this age of terror led to self-censorship and a decade of films that explored the effects of biological warfare, viral epidemics and the loss of humanity in a new war-torn millennium.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Once an ally of America, post-war USSR was considered a threat to America, its values and its way of life. This tempestuous period came to be known as the Cold War. Cold war tensions rose in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, creating much tension between the USSR and the USA (Quart, & Auster, 1984, pg 11). It is during this turbulent political era that panic and fear swept across the world, leading to a red scare and mass hysteria in America, instigated by Senator McCarthy. McCarthy was known for presenting treasonous accusations against others with little to no hard evidence of such activity. This public witch-hunt came to be known as McCarthyism.
Needless to say there were anti-communist films that existed in 1950’s Hollywood, however, most overtly anti-communist films performed poorly. Some pro-HUAC films such as Big Jim McLain and On the Waterfront, received both critical and financial success, however, it was anti-communist films that took place outside of America, dealing with the Korean and Indochina wars, that generally received better reception (Belton, 1994, pg 245-246). One convention that was adopted by Invasion films was the condemnation of communists for their character traits rather than their ideology (Quart, & Auster, 1984, pg 43). Perhaps this is why they were more successful at dealing with the complexities of communism in America.
Genre conventions of 1950’s Horror and 1950’s Science Fiction work together to create the confused sub-genre often referred to as the Invasion film. Horror films of the era often worked to depict that "the unknown", in the case of Invasion films; aliens, as a threat and that order needed to be re-established, whereas Science Fiction presents these aliens as “potentially liberating” (Jancovich, 1996, pg 31-32).
The Day the Earth Stood Still is the story of an alien from another planet, Klaatu, who visits Earth to deliver an important message. He endeavours to reach out to all the world leaders, as he believes that no one man is important enough to receive his proclamation alone. He fails in this attempt and it is only after a boy introduces him to a scientist, Professor Barnhardt, that he is able to deliver his message; the people of Earth need to cease their nuclear progression or an alien police force will be left with no choice but to annihilate the planet.
HUAC served as an authoritative figure to organise and govern American society, not just to protect the country from ideologies it perceived to be dangerous. Biskind states, “ordinary people ‘are not rational enough’ and need to be controlled by experts” (Jancovich, 1996, pg 3, 33). The effects of HUAC are demonstrated in the early scenes of The Day the Earth Stood Still when the spaceship lands. Upon landing, the people in the surrounding area flee in a panic. It is only once the area has been secured and in control of the military, that the people return as spectators. This sequence illustrates HUAC’s purpose of organisation and control. The boundary that has been established by the military figures in the scene, demonstrates that HUAC is there to protect the public from foreign invasion. However, it also serves as a representation of the public response to HUAC; first they fight the totalitarian system, then they accept it despite their residual fear.
In one of the first scenes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a television radio announcer states, ‘there is no reasonable cause for alarm, the rumours of invading armies and mass destruction are based on hysteria and are absolutely false’. In my opinion, this could be read as anti-HUAC, emphasising the frenzy and panic caused by McCarthyism and the unfounded accusations of HUAC that were based on rumour and innuendo.
The twist with this film is that it may not only be read as anti-HUAC but actually pro-communist. Klaatu, the alien, looks human but lacks emotion, a common trait believed to be shared with communists at the time. If there was any doubt that Klaatu was a communist, then the words of Mrs. Barley in which she exclaims ‘he comes from right here on Earth, and you know where I mean’ would certainly put them to rest. Klaatu’s goal is to save the Earth from destruction and to create order among its people. The scientists in the film share Klaatu’s ideology, it is the politicians and general population who are irrational. Their 'feelings, interests and desires' which lead to what Klaatu describes as ‘petty squabbles’, are to be repressed if the Earth is to be saved from total inhalation (Jancovich, 1996, pg 41).
It is in fact Klaatu who is the protagonist of the film and with whom the audience sympathises with. Therefore, it can be assumed that the audience comes to a greater understanding of communist ideology through this film and is able to engage with it. Perhaps the blurring of pro-HUAC and pro-communist concepts in this film can be explained by the idea that the practices of HUAC were simply an adaptation of communist philosophy.
The film also depicts America as a global super power and a country that should be looked up to by the rest of the world. (Cornea, 2007, pg 41). With the establishment of the UN in 1945, it was hoped that inter-country relationships would flourish and the world would at last find peace after the brutality of WW1 and WW2 (Quart, & Auster, 1984, pg 11). Both the UN and the aforementioned political tensions are depicted in The Day the Earth Stood Still, when Klaatu requests that Mr. Harley, secretary to the president, arranges a meeting with all the world’s leaders or with the United Nations. In this scene, Harley acts as a personification of America and is portrayed as empathic and genuinely wanting to help Klaatu. The film takes the stance that America is a country of co-operation and that it is actually other world leaders who are difficult and refuse to collaborate. Additionally it flaws the UN itself, stating that the UN doesn’t represent all the world’s nations and implying that it would do little to unite the world during a crisis.
“Hollywood’s science fiction output in the 1950s reflected the tensions, conflicts, and debates playing out in the broader American political landscape…accurately assessing the fears and desires of Cold War America.” (Johnston, 2001, pg 73)
The Invasion film was more than just a statement of Cold War America; it also conceptualised the political issues of nuclear progression, extra-terrestrial invasion (Johnston, 2011, pg 73) and the necessity of religion in a scientifically progressive America. The 1950’s were characterised by an obsession with UFO’s and alien beings. This was no doubt effected by the alleged 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, resulting in an influx of UFO sightings and stories of alien abduction throughout the early 1950’s (Johnston, 2001, pg 77).
The anti-nuclear Invasion films echoed the fear of the nuclear arms race that escalated with the Soviet Union’s launch of their first nuclear weapon in 1949 (Belton, 1994, pg 243). This fear of the atom and hydrogen bomb, was evident through narratives of mutated “ants and spiders” and nuclear modification of the human body (Johnston, 2001, pg 79). The Day the Earth Stood Still however reminds us that nuclear power itself should not necessarily be feared, as it’s practical applications can be used for good. This can be seen when Klaatu explains that nuclear power is used as fuel for his spaceship, but it also reminds us that it can be dangerous when not used responsibly, when Klaatu informs Professor Barnhardt that ‘by threatening danger, your planet faces danger’ (Thompson & Bordwell, 2010, pg 316).
In one of the last scenes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu announces that his advanced technology can ‘restore life for a limited period’ but the power of life death are ‘reserved for the almighty spirit’ (Cornea, 2007, pg 40). This blending of science and religion, in my opinion, is metaphoric of the separation between science and God that existed prevalently in 1940’s and 1950’s America. With the rise of Christian fundamentalism, perhaps this film was trying to exemplify a co-existence and peace between intellectual and scientific advancement and religion.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is a complex film that deals with many of the key issues of America in the 1950’s. Its multi-faceted approach to these issues is perhaps the reason the film has left such an impact on academics and scholars of film. It worked to not only present an anti-communist or anti-HUAC narrative, but interweaved these concepts with other relevant political issues of the time, in an articulation of narrative that is rarely seen.
9/11 had an unexpected impact on Hollywood film; self-censorship. There were several instances where releases where delayed as post-production worked to remove images of the Twin Towers from their films (Cornea, 2007, pg 263) and in other cases, scenes were dropped entirely as the material was deemed to sensitive to exhibit during this traumatic and grief stricken period in American history. Additionally, the destructive spectacle that was often a crowd pleaser in the genre was virtually non-existent in present day narratives of the time, fearing that they could be perceived as a representation of 9/11 events. Instead, films of the early post-9/11 years presented such destruction in historical and war films (Cornea, 2007, pg 265).
Several years after the events of 9/11, Hollywood saw the return of the Invasion film, often in the form of 1950’s remakes (Johnston, 2001, pg 112) such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Invasion (a remake of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers). These new Invasion films were not just about foreign invasion, like those of the 1950’s, but invasion of the human body by a foreign entity.
The events of 9/11 created a fear of terrorism on American soil, but the subsequent Anthrax attacks, the belief that a key figure in the War on Terror; Saddam Hussein, held biological weapons and the outbreak of Ebola and the SARS virus, lead to paranoia of biological warfare and human mutilation. This paranoia saw an influx of the zombie apocalypse narrative, a branch of the Invasion film, in the early 2000’s that remains today.
The Invasion (2007)
The 2007 film The Invasion is one example of this hybrid Invasion film that looks at both bodily invasion and the threat of an external one. The story follows Dr. Carol Bennell and her best friend Ben Driscoll, as they attempt to save themselves and their loved ones, whilst others fight to find a cure for the mysterious flu that infected the world, shortly after a contaminated space shuttle crashed on re-entry. Once infected, the host is taken over by the alien virus, stripping them of their humanity by rendering them emotionless.
In an opening sequence of the film, the audience is bombarded with imagery of a space shuttle crash, makeshift memorials at the crash site and a series of news headlines reporting the devastation of the crash. It is not difficult to find similarities between this sequence and the events that unfolded during and shortly after the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The space shuttle crash itself could be perceived as the crash of American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 into the Twin Towers. The memorials placed around the space shuttle crash sight are unnervingly suggestive of the memorials established at Ground Zero and the news headlines in the film reminds us of the fact that many of us witnessed the shocking events of 9/11, live on our television screens and the reports that all but took over television broadcasts in the weeks that followed. The film even makes reference to suicide bombers in a later scene.
It is not just this opening sequence that pays homage to the events of 9/11. In one scene we see a woman running down the street crying, eerily reminiscent of the multitude of pedestrians running down the streets of New York away from the carnage. Another more innocent scene in the film that could be read as a message of heroism throughout the events of 9/11, is one where a group of children return home after an evening of Trick or Treating; one is dressed as a superhero, one as a skeleton and another as a fireman. This indeed could be an acknowledgment that the firefighters who worked tirelessly to rescue survivors and recover the dead after the collapse of the Twin Towers, were nothing short of heroes, many of whom died or become severely ill as a result of their efforts.
The Invasion deals with much more than just the events of 9/11, it also delves into the biological scares that followed. Anthrax was of course the buzzword of 2001, but fears of Ebola and SARS were of equal concern in the years that followed, both of which have been addressed in the film. Unlike the original 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people in The Invasion are taken over by an alien virus rather than pods, thus, the symptoms and transmission method is vastly different, reflecting the concerns of the 2000’s.
With the world still in shock over the terrorist attack on America, a new threat would emerge and envelop the world. The 2003 SARS epidemic (CDC, 2012) whipped up mass hysteria globally and left people around the world feeling uncertain and afraid. In 2007, a large Ebola outbreak developed. Though there had been previous outbreaks of the virus, this was the largest Ebola epidemic seen at the time (CDC, 2016).
The virus in the film is transmitted by the exchange of fluids and during the transformation period, the body is covered in a scale like skin. This is indicative of the transmission and symptoms of Ebola, which similarly, is transmitted via a fluid exchange and where the infected may develop a rash (CDC, 2016). The film refers to the virus as a 'flu', the contaminated appear to display signs of elevated body temperature and respiratory problems. Again, this is symptomatic of the SARS virus in which the infected develop flu like symptoms including; high fever, respiratory difficulty and a dry cough (CDC, 2012).
These biological invasions are portrayed in film as a mutilation of humanity and the destruction of humanity itself. The viruses usually turn their human hosts into a zombie like being, stripping them of emotion, the very thing that makes us human. Unlike the 1950’s films, this loss of emotion is not a statement of communist invasion, but that of a population losing their humanity through acts of war and a disregard of human life. This is also a common theme of zombie-apocalypse films. The Invasion however, contradicts this notion by implying that the only way to save humanity is to lose what makes us human.
A key link in between The Day the Earth Stood Still of 1951 and 2007’s The Invasion is the idea that it is humanity that is the problem rather than the invader. In fact, the invasion or invaders are presented as a saviour and solution to world problems.
The Russian ambassador in The Invasion argues ‘civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most…to imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence, well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.’ It is only once the virus has taken over the vast majority of the world’s population, that we see reports of universal peace treaties, a withdrawal of US forces and the end of US occupation in Iraq. In one of the last scenes of the film, after the virus has been cured, Dr. Stephan Galeano reports ‘pick up a newspaper, for better or worse, we’re human again.’ The final scene of The Invasion shows Ben Driscoll reading a newspaper, he turns to Dr. Carol Bennell and inquires ‘83 more deaths in Bagdad, is it ever gonna end?’ solidifying the idea that our humanity is what will lead us to our own destruction.
What is remarkably different in these modern Invasion films is the loss of optimism that the 1950’s films exhibited (Johnston, 2001, pg 112). Advancement in technology could explain the optimistic element of these Invasion films as it provided American’s with more to look forward to; television provided a new form of entertainment, home appliances such as the electronic washing machine were making the lives of millions of house-wives easier, space exploration was at a point were one could begin to imagine being on the moon. On the other hand, Post 9/11 films reflect the pessimistic attitudes of a discontented population of dissent, in an era sometimes referred to as the age of terror. Television bombarded us with images of civilians dying in a war American’s weren’t sure they should be fighting in, viruses were spreading in a global pandemic that could leave your neighbours dead on their doorstep, propaganda had us believe that terrorism was all around us and that a suicide bomber was likely to kill you in your local café while you had lunch.
Through the examination of these two films from very different periods, we can clearly identify the influence that political and societal discord can and will have on films of the time. Hollywood has a rich tradition of exploring social issues through narrative texts, which is perhaps more obvious in the Invasion films. One thing is quickly apparent when looking at films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Invasion, yes political tensions and war will inevitably be referenced, but fear created by mass hysteria, including the fear of viral epidemics, planetary vulnerabilities and scientific progression will not only find their way into Hollywood’s films, but are more likely to resonate with their audience.
Quart, L. & Auster, A. (1984). American Film and Society Since 1945. London, UK: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Belton, J. (1994). American Cinema/American Culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Jancovich, M. (1996). Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Cornea, C. (2007). Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.
Johnston, K.M. (2011). Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction. London, UK: Berg.
CDC. (2012). SARS Basics Fact Sheet. Retrieved from
CDC. (2016). Outbreaks Chronology. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/history/chronology.html