Thursday, March 13, 2014


By Ronald Fox
Like many youngsters in the 1950s, I watched science fiction movies. I don’t remember being very scared by the monsters and aliens, but what I do recall is that the films got me, an inquisitive kid for my age, thinking about atomic security—or more correctly, atomic insecurity. I wondered why our glorious A-bombs, which were supposed to protect us from evil, didn’t work so well against invading aliens, who always seemed smarter and more technically advanced than us. The aliens would dish out mass destruction, only to be thwarted at the last minute, not by our weapons, but by the brilliance of some scientist who figured out how to defeat them. This may have produced a happy ending, but it was little consolation for my skeptical mind. My lesson was to worry about our atomic future.

Throughout the early years of the atomic age U.S. security officials went to great lengths to convince the American public that nuclear supremacy would not only protect us from military attacks, but also enable us to control world events, large and small. We would be omnipotent. We were told that atomic weapons were a godsend, bestowed upon the United States, and not our enemies. This numinous quality would prove highly seductive, luring millions of Americans in the early post-World War II period to worship at the altar of nuclear power. In the tightly controlled and conformist Cold War atmosphere of the time, few dared to challenge the pro-bomb orthodoxy. Among the few, however, were science fiction film-makers.

When the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device in 1949, and the McCarthy-era “red scare” helped marry fear of Communism with fear of the bomb, a growing uneasiness spread through America. The U.S. government launched a determined propaganda campaign to ease public doubts and fears and assure Americans that they could trust their government, and our nuclear superiority, to keep us safe. Pro-military and pro-atomic bomb messages were disseminated through planted newspaper and magazine articles, public speeches, government-produced civil defense films, “public service” announcements, songs, radio broadcasts, and through the new medium of television. Not all Americans, however, bought into the all-is-well thesis. Many worried we had entered a revolutionary new age of uncertainty.

One would think that American atomic fear and anxiety would be a ripe topic for novelists, film makers, and other creative artists. This was not to be, however. A government-controlled censorship system descended on all aspects of popular culture expressions, making it virtually impossible to openly challenge the government’s pro-bomb claims, the wisdom of its decisions, or the righteousness of its cause. Censorship was particularly onerous in the film industry where the specter of blacklisting hovered over anyone who strayed from the pro-America, anti-Communist, pro-atomic weapons line.

Still, some creative film makers found ways to raise consciousness about the dangers and paradoxes of nuclear age life. Through the use of allegories, parables, and metaphors, thought-provoking messages could be communicated. Science fiction films became a particularly viable Cold War messaging medium. So, a number of prominent film makers, including Howard Hawkes, and Robert Wise, turned their talents to science fiction, and the 1950s became a golden age for such films.

Science fiction films raised several atomic age concerns. Among the more prominent, were:

Images of Mass Destruction. Several 1950s science fiction films conjured up images of crushed cities, fleeing, terrified citizens, and mass worldwide death, usually at the hands of some monster or alien invader. The destructive demons were often depicted as radioactive. The underlying message in this genre was that man (particularly American man) was morally responsible for the cataclysmic destruction. Films in this category include The Thing from another World (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), X-the Unknown (1956), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1953), Godzilla (1956) and The Giant Claw (1957).  In the Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the mass destruction message is dramatically conveyed when a flying saucer from another planet lands in Washington D.C. and an alien humanoid, Klaatu, emerges to warn the world's scientists that if atomic violence grows and is extended into space, threatening other planets, planet earth would be eliminated.    

Nature’s Retribution. Another popular theme was to depict death and destruction as a consequence of man’s atomic tampering with nature. The message conveyed was that when you disrupt nature you’ve committed a cosmic wrong, and the consequences can be horrific. Nature’s (or God’s) retribution was often manifested as a monster unleashed by an atomic test. These films foretold a perilous future now that the atomic genie was out of the bottle.

Two representative films from this genre are Them (1954), a film about giant ants unleashed by the atomic test in Alamogordo, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which introduces a 98-foot long Rhedosaurus, thawed from the ice by an atomic bomb test. Anxiety about the future was aptly captured in The Beast when the physicist in the film lamented: “What the cumulative effect of all these atomic explosions and tests will be, only time will tell.” Other films that touched on the retribution theme included: The Thing, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Tarantula (1955), X-the Unknown, Godzilla, Rodan (1957), and The Blob (1958).

America Was Neither Morally of Militarily Invincible. Several science fiction films featured alien invaders with far superior intelligence and technological prowess than the U.S. This image clashed with the widespread belief in the superiority of American power and intelligence. The message was that America’s superior power could not prevent the infiltration of evil, which might even result in our total annihilation. In many of these films, our weapons proved ineffective against alien invaders (in The War of the Worlds (1954) even an atomic bomb had no effect). Some films, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), raised doubt about not only the sophistication of our weapons, but our intelligence, technical achievements, morality and rationality. Other films raising questions about our invincibility were: X-the Unknown, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Earth Versus the Flying Saucer (1956), The Giant Claw, Invaders From Mars (1953), and The Terror From Beyond Space (1958).

The Bomb Culture has Changed American Society. Alien invaders were also used to portray a conformist population devoid of morality, human emotions, humanism and civility. These images called attention to negative changes that accompanied the bomb’s injection into American life. They were best showcased in It Came from Outer Space, Invaders from Mars, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The film, When Worlds Collide (1957), and the Twilight Zone episodes, “The Shelter” and “The Monsters on Maple Street” depicted the breakdown of community civility when abject fear triggers selfish emotions.

Atomic Age Ambivalence. The military and police in science fiction films were often quick to the trigger when confronted by an alien, even before they knew the alien’s intent, which wasn’t always to do harm (e.g., in The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space.) Crude military behavior, however, was often contrasted with extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism, as when soldiers faced certain death from a superior enemy. (e.g., The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Earth Versus the Flying Saucer). Similarly scientists were both revered and reviled for both causing (after all they gave us the bomb) and resolving atomic horrors. In many science fiction movies, it was a smart scientist who conjured up ways to destroy the monster or alien invader. (See Them, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Versus the Flying Saucer, Tarantula, X-the Unknown, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, It Came From Outer Space, The Giant Claw.)

In raising troubling images about atomic age life, science fiction films of the 1950s stimulated a cultural discourse about the bomb that helped erode mass support for atomic weapons and the supposedly rational members of the American establishment with authority over their use. A bomb counterculture, which held a far more pessimistic understanding of life in the atomic age, emerged to challenge the trusting, optimistic, consensus culture, which believed the bomb made us invincible. The dissenting culture challenged not only the bomb and future prospects for security, but also the abuse of government power and the tarnishing of American ideals that had accompanied America’s rise as a nuclear power. This emerging culture valued peace, democracy, humanism, non-violence, and ethical conduct. While it would be years before it blossomed into a robust anti-nuclear movement, the questions it raised in the 1950s resonated with other groups, who in coming years would struggle for peace, freedom, equality and justice.

1 comment:

  1. I think that it is instructive to note that the films you cite came out after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon in 1949. As I recall the USSR also exploded an H-bomb in the early fifties, issuing in the era of bomb drills in schools and bomb shelters being sold (e.g., converted gas storage tanks). In England, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament started in 1957. So legitimate fear was there to give your films some cachet. The myth of US superiority really took a hit with Sputnik.


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