Samson and Delilah – the rise of the anticommunist biblical epic.

In 1948, film producer and director Leo McCarey, who was one of the most vocal anti-communist figures in Hollywood, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes.[1]  McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’.  He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence.  McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.

In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself.  After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment.  As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda.  Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost. [2]

McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs.[3]  By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism.  McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he waned Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world.  He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate he strength of his arguments.

On the same page, just below McCarey’s article, was a few notes on the production of a major biblical film called Samson and Delilah (1949).  The film was directed by the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille who followed McCarey’s call for religious films with a message for the audience.  DeMille felt strongly that communism was a dangerous threat to world peace.  In fact Samson and Delilah (1949) had a message which matched his cold war views.  DeMille had been an active anti-communist in Hollywood politics.  He was praised by congressman John Rankin as being ‘literally burned up with the Communist activities of these subversive elements’ in Hollywood.[4]    He was a key player in Hollywood’s anti-communist community.  His films also strongly reflected his anti-communism.  DeMille spoke on the radio before the world premiere:

All the arts for 30 centuries have told the story of Samson and Delilah to all the peoples of the world.  They saw in Samson’s struggle something that is deep in all of us, a desire to be free form fear, tyranny and enslavement, a desire that should be in men’s hearts today.  To keep our liberty and freedom and let no man or men destroy or take them away.[6]

In a speech at Paramount Studios on 27 September 1950, where workers signed a ‘declaration of freedom’, he made his position on freedom clear.

The difference between Communism and freedom is not primarily political – or economic – or national.  It is expressed in one line in the Declaration of Freedom which you are asked to sign today – the line that reads: ‘I believe that all men derive the right to freedom equally under God.’  That is one of the most revolutionary lines that could be written.  Over against it stands the black reaction of the Kremlin, the idea that the creator and lord of human rights is not Got by Stalin.  Today, we make our choice – for slavery under Stalin or freedom under God…[7]

These ideas of freedom were weaved into DeMille’s biblical epics.  Samson and Delilah opens with a globe spinning in a greenish mist and the narrator DeMille saying:

Before the dawn of history, ever since the first man discovered his soul, he has struggled against the forces that sought to enslave him.  He saw the awful power of nature arrayed against him, the evil eye of lighting, the terrifying voice of thunder, the shrieking wind filled darkness enslaving his mind with shackles of fear.  Fear bred superstition, blinding his reason.  He was ridden by a host of devil gods, human dignity ravaged on the altar of idolatry and tyranny rose, grinding the human spirit beneath the conqueror’s free mind.

But deep in mans heart, still burned the unquenchable will for freedom.  When this divine spark inflames the heart of some mortal, whether priest or soldier, artist or patriot, lover or statesman, his deeds have changed the course of human events and his name survives the ages.[8]

The scene was set for conflict between Samson, who was a combination of ‘greatness and weakness’, and the Philistine empire.  The Philistines had held the Israelites in bondage and Samson wanted only ‘liberty for his nation’.[9]  In the Declaration of Independence, the United States was described as the land where the inalienable rights were the ‘preservation of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.  The word ‘liberty’ was a clever and deliberate choice by DeMille and his writers to link the plight of the Israelites with America’s struggle for independence.

On the other side of the fence, the Philistines were depicted an evil totalitarian power, mostly dressed in red.  In one scene the Philistine lord of Gaza looked down at his ant nest and marveled how the master ants dominated the slave ants.  For the Philistine emperor, this was the natural order, just as the Jews were to be dominated by the Philistines.  The emperor instructed a guard on the merits of the social organisation of ants and how they should follow them.

The Philistines were a strong military power, but it was the spiritual strength of the Danites that eventually overcame the tyrants.  In one scene, Samson fought and destroyed the Philistine army with the jaw bone of an ass.  Samson’s strength was derived solely from God and when he chose the beautiful, but deadly, Delilah over the virtuous, but plain, Miranda, the source of his strength was betrayed and he was captured and tortured.  In the final scene, Samson was led into a huge temple where the massive statute of the false Philistine God Dogan stood.  Blinded and humiliated by the Philistines, Samson called on God and then demolished the temple singlehandedly.  The God of the Philistines, Dagon, was sent crushing down and all of the Philistines in the huge temple were destroyed.  The slaves had defeated the masters.

In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians.  It was no surprise to learn that Arnold Toynbee soon began lecturing on Samson and Delilah.[10]  DeMille took great care in making sure that his films communicated the right political message.  He was anxious that the picture would not be seen to parallel the events around the establishment of Israel.  The word Jew was never used throughout the picture, instead the director chose the word Danites, because Samson derived from the tribe of Dan.[11]


[1] New York Times 12 December 1948.

[2] New York Times 12 December 1948.  When McCarey had an opportunity to write and direct his own anti-communist film, the same criticisms could easily be applied to him.  See discussion on My Son John in blog on anti-communist films.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Congressional Record, 91, part 6, 17 July 1945, p. 7337.

[5] Sayre, Running Time, p. 207.  DeMille’s secretary Gladys Rosson wrote to the foundation on at lease one occasion to find out the political credentials of directors Herbert Biberman, Vincent Sherman, Irving Pichel, and Frank Tuttle.  DeMille Foundation For Political Freedom to Gladys Rosson, 7 April 1947, Box 124, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.

[6] Cecil B. DeMille, Speech before World Premiere of Samson and Delilah, on 21 December 1949, Box 629, Folder 8 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[7] Cecil B. DeMille, Crusade For Freedom, speech to workers at Paramount Studio on 27 September 1950.  Box 212 Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[8] Samson and Delilah, (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Frederick M. Frank.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Houston Post, 8 September 1949.

[11] New York Times, 14 December 1948.

Other approaches of Science Fiction to the fears of the 1950s

Jules Verne science fiction was popular in the 1950s. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Not all of the popular science fiction films of the 1950s were commenting on communism.  Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Creature from the Black Lagoon had little to say about the twin fears of nuclear devastation or the communist threat.  The two top grossing science fiction films of the decade were based on novels by 19th century French novelist Jules Verne whose work was popular during the 1950s in America.  Around the World in 80 Days (1956), based on one of his novels, was also an extremely popular film and was only beaten by The Ten Commandments (1956) as the biggest grossing film of that year.

The films based on Verne’s books attracted American audiences for far different reasons.[1]  Verne saw the United States as a model for development for the future of the world.  His books were full of fantastic journeys and inventions.  He saw the United States as a country of technical and economic progress.  It may have been his positive vision of technology and United States society that helped his popularity.[2]  Nonetheless, it was a vision of technological developments of the past.  A period when such development was not threatening.  Even so, 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea had a contemporary message with Captain Nemo attempting to end warfare by sinking all warships of all nations.  The films ended as a mushroom cloud hung over Nemo’s destroyed island, an image that could have meant nuclear weapons to an audience of 1954.

Creature from the Black Lagoon focuses on the sexual intentions of the creature lurking beneath the deep for a woman scientist and appeared to lack any political dimension. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Of the others listed, Creature from the Black Lagoon focuses on the sexual intentions of the creature lurking beneath the deep for a woman scientist and appeared to lack any political dimension.  The film was an exception as it was humans that were invading the creature’s lagoon.  The central conflict was between the scientists who wanted to capture and study it and those who wanted it to be left in peace.  The creature was no threat as it lived isolated form the world.  Critic Frank D. McConnell has argued that ‘we glimpse in The Creature the central evasion of energy, the central fear of the life-force itself which underlay the witch-hunts and HUAC purges.’[3]  These films were, however, the exceptions , as most popular science fiction films dealt with themes of nuclear annihilation or communist invasion.

The films often had religious themes.  When the crazed scientist in The Fly (1958) is told ‘It’s like playing God,’ the audience knew he was in for trouble for his blasphemy.[4]  And at the end of the film, he was devoured by a spider.  Religion and science were often in conflict in science fiction films, with some kind of apocalyptic revenge for science that had gone beyond natural boundaries.  When realizing the horror that has befallen mankind form the nuclear tests in Them! (1954), Dr Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, mumbled quietly in biblical terms:

And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.[5]

The beasts that had been unleashed by the scientists were nuclear weapons or communists armed with nuclear weapons.  Perhaps the clearest example came from Forbidden Planet (1956) which was based on the idea that humanity’s moral nature had not kept pace with its technological development.  Given complete power, mankind would destroy itself.

The religious ideas contained in the science fiction films were bleak.  War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, The Fly and Them! were depressing views of the nuclear future.  They reflected a great deal of unease about the development of science and a general belief that it had gone too far.  Presbyterian Minister Peter Marshall, who was the subject of the film A Man Called Peter said in a sermon that progresses had its limits.

These latest inventions and discoveries have made war more terrible, and while they have given us many conveniences and comforts, they have made life more complicated.

                        peace more difficult

                                    and the human heart more troubled…

Everyone agrees that we have far more advances in the scientific world than we have made in the world of morals and ethics.

Spiritually, we have not kept pace with or progress in the realm of science and invention.[6]

Some of these films had an anti-nuclear edge to them.  The fear of communism was great in these films but it was also mixed with a fear of nuclear weapons themselves.  It is interesting to note that the monsters which mutated from nuclear sites or escaped form nuclear laboratories were located in or near the United States, not the USSR.

Science fiction films may have been intended to only be simple entertainment, but thy reflected the concerns of a decade.  King called it that ‘paradoxical trick’ of unleashing a community’s fears and then having them destroyed.[7]  That release occurred when ‘the thing’ was electrocuted or the giant ants were incinerated.  In their own way, science fiction films released American audiences from those fears.  They offered reassurance to the fearful American public when it was faced with terrifying enemies with great powers.  The release provided by science fiction may have been only momentary, but it is clear by the popularity of these films that the public wanted and got that release.


[1] For a discussion of the popularity of Verne in America see Ray Bradbury’s introduction ‘The Ardent Blasphemer’ to Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, SF Collectors Library, Corgi, 1975, pp. 1-12.

[2] For a discussion of Verne’s views on the United States see Jean Chesneaux, The Political and Social Ideas of Jules Verne, Thames and Hudson, 1979, pp. 150 – 164.

[3] Frank D. McConnell, ‘Song of Innocence: The Creature form the Black Lagoon’ in Michael T. Mardesen, John G. Nachbar, Sam L. Groff. (ed.). Movies as Artifacts: Cultural Criticism of Popular Film, Nelson-Hall, Chicage, 1982, p. 216.

[4] The Fly TCF, (d) Kurt Newmann, (w) James Clavell.

[5] Them! op cit.

[6] Cathy Marshall, (ed.). Mr Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and Prayers of Peter Marshall, Fontana, 1964, (1949), p. 62.  The sermon was delivered between 1946 and 1949.

[7] King, Danse, p. 28.

Sexual and political tension in I Married A Monster From Outer Space

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne: Australia.

I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) was one of the final efforts in the alien subversion cycle.  The film had many of the elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Aliens had been quietly taking over the bodies of people of a small American town.  The central takeover was that of Bill Farell, played by Tom Tryon, who was newly married to Marge, played by Gloria Talbott.  Marge suspected something was seriously wrong with Bill.  She followed him into the woods to find that he was meeting with his fellow aliens.  Marge tried to contact Washington, but the operator told her all the lines were down, and so she then tried to leave town, but was stopped by a police roadblock.  The aliens had taken over the police force and even her godfather had been replaced.  Eventually she convinced Dr Wayne of her story and he formed a posse to enter the woods.  After a brief struggle, they released the real townspeople who had wires attached to their heads to feed the aliens with their memories.  The aliens were destroyed and order was returned.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space reflected the themes developed in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The plan of the aliens was to mate with earth women and eventually take over the world. There is a clear amount of sexual tension. The above image shows the power less female in the hands of the ugly alien. Again communism is a form of seduction, close to a form of rape.  It was a subtle variation on the themes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The aliens were once again ruthless and emotionless.  They killed when under any kind of threat.  The alien double for Bill even strangled a puppy.  The key scenes in the film were Marge’s attempts to tell people about the aliens.  She found the authorities overtaken by the aliens.  It was perhaps notable that it was the townspeople who freed themselves without the assistance of Washington.  The pattern was repeated less successfully in a number of other science fiction films and it even spawned a short lived television series called The Invaders.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the paranoia of suburbia/communism/ McCarthyism or all of the above.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion.  It was a popular film at the time of its release and his remained one of the most critically acclaimed of the 1950s science fiction films.  Dr Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, returned to Santa Mira, a small town in Southern Califiornia.  His nurse told him that there appeared to be a serious malady in the town and people were saying that their friends and relatives were lacking full emotion.  He saw a few cases with these symptoms and could not find a reason for the malady.  After further investigation, he found mysterious plants which began to resemble people and then take over them while they sleep.  Miles found that the police force had been taken over by these pods.  Eventually he escaped from Santa Mira with pod people following him.  He was found hysterically wandering along a highway screaming ‘You’re next.  They’re coming.  You’re next.’[1]  He finally alerted the authorities and the audience assumed that all will be well as Washington had been called.  For a low budget film, it received solid publicity form Allied Artists whose executives were shattered by the initial viewing.  Producer Walter Wanger insisted on a softer ending which explained the odd first and last scenes.  The ending was still strong, but there was a not of reassurance when a doctor decided to call the authorities.[2]  The changes probably helped the film’s success. The film originally ended with Kevin McCarthy running dazedly down the freeway, screaming ‘You’re next. You’re next.  The original ending in the script had Miles struck by a car.  Miles is found muttering ‘burn them. Burn them!  There’s no escape … No time to waste.  Unless you do, you’ll be next.’  The producers made Siegel tack on an introductory scene and a final scene where Washington is notified.  The ending of the novel has Becky and Miles facing the enemy and deciding to make a final stand against the pods despite certain capture.  They manage to burn some of the pod people by pouring petrol into a ditch.  They are captured but the pods decide that the planet is too inhospitable and fly off into space.  Santa Mira is saved. 

Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The pod people were regimented society and lacked any signs of individuality.  The vegetable metaphor had connotations with the growth of communism in fertile American soil, similar to the alien in The Thing.  The pod people were cold and emotionless with few personal feelings about life.  They do not even wince when a dog was run over in front of them.  Their way of life was extremely organised and authoritarian.

Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism.  The anti-McCarthyist interpretation argues that it is American authorities which are being controlled by the pods.  The pods control the government, law enforcement agencies and communications and enforce the political line of the country.  The pods represented the McCarthyite forces in America attempting to strip away all political opposition.  And the film certainly does mirror the hysteria, the sense of paranoia, the authoritarian police and the witch-hunt atmosphere, but there are too many holes in the argument.  One critical scene was a speech by one of the pod people who talked to Miles about the world under the pod people.  The philosophy was that there will ne no feeling, no free will, no moral choice, no anger, no tears, no pain, no passion and no emotion.  It will mean being ‘reborn into an untroubled world, where everybody’s exactly the same.’[3]  In this world, there is no need for love or emotion.  ‘Love, ambition, desire, faith – without them, life is so simple.’ the alien explained.[4]  The alien of The Thing had resurfaced in human form.  In response, Miles said ‘only when we have to fight to stay human, do we realise how precious our humanity is.’[5]  From this speech it was difficult to see how the film could be read as anything other than fear of communism.  In the pod society, there were no emotions, and while that meant no love, it also ruled out hate, war, and crimes of passion.  It would be a world without discord.  To Americans in the late 1950s, a society which denied freedom of thought – or emotions – was a communist society.  The arguments about Invasion of the Body Snatchers being anti-McCarthyite are clever but not convincing.

Film historian Stuart Samuels’ view was that the pods represented the spectre of conformity in American life.  The popular books of the 1950s were Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, Whyte’s The Organisational Man and Packard’s The Status Seekers which depicted a society that was moving away form rugged individualism to the security of the group.  The group demanded conformity in exchange for economic security.[6]  The film was against social conformity, but it was the conformity forced on a community by an invader.  Samuels’ argument that it was an attack on social conformity ignores one important scene which was almost a carbon copy from the anti-communist film Red Nightmare.  In the scene, the townspeople gathered in the central square to receive their orders for the day.  A jeep drove up and military official handed out orders and pods were distributed.  Noel Carroll in the Soho News described the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the ‘quintessential Fifties image of socialism.’[7]  People were not only stripped of personality, but regimented to take over the rest of the United States.  It was a vision of communism first subverting and then overthrowing the United States.


[1] Al LaValley, (ed.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rutgers University Press, London, 1989.

[2] See LaValley, p. 122.

[3] Ibid p. 88.

[4] Ibid p. 88.

[5] Ibid p. 82.

[6] Stuart Samuels, The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A. Jackson (ed.).  American History/ American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, pp. 203 – 219.

[7] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, p. 157.

Them! and nuclear fears

The themes of fears of nuclear weapons, communist subversion and invasion were continued in Them! (1954). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Subversion, literally having the political ground taken away from you is a constant theme in American political culture. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is an essay by American historian Richard J. Hofstadter, first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964; and it served as the title essay of a book by the author in the same year. The book dealt with these ideas, which he related back through American history.

The Communist threat shown in the film starts right away with the film’s title card in Them! (1954), the only thing in colour for the entire run of the film, the word Them! which is in brilliant red. Then of course, there is the hive mind, of the ants, and the fact that they now threaten the American way of life! The fears of nuclear weapons, communist subversion and invasion were continued.  It is one film that deals with an amalgam of fears. The film began with a girl in shock, wandering through the desert.  The only thing she would said was ‘Them!’[1]  Police searched the desert and discovered that several people had been killed or were missing and that great damage had been done to houses, cars and caravans.  The local cop on the case, Sergeant Ben Peterson, played by James Whitmore, was soon joined by FBI agent Robert Graham, played by James Arness, and scientists Dr Harold Medford, played by Edward Gwenn, and his daughter Robyn, played by Joan Weldon.  Giant mutant ants, products of nuclear bomb testing were ravaging the area.  Peterson, Graham and Medford found and burned out a nest of ants in the desert.  But the queen ants had already escaped and they were traced to the sewers of Los Angeles.  In the finale, the Peterson and Graham searched the sewer for two boys who were trapped inside.  The boys were rescued and the ants were burnt to death.

In one scene, Dr Medford lectured members of the senior armed forces on the danger of the ants:

Apart form man, … ants are the only creatures on earth that make war.  They campaign.  They are chronic aggressors and they make slave labourers of captors, they don’t kill.  None of the ants previously seen by men were little more than an inch in length.  Most are considerably under that size.  But even the most minute of them have an instinct for talent and industry and social organisation and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison.[2]

He then continued on about the problems of failing to eradicate the ants:

… Unless these queens are located and destroyed before they establish more colonies and heaven knows how many more queens, out man goes as he dominant species within a year.[3]

It is tempting to simply replace the word ‘ant’ or ‘queens with ‘communist’ and the word ‘man’ with ‘United States’, and the word ‘species’ with ‘nation’.  Near the conclusion of he film, the people of Los Angeles were told of their peril:

By direction of the President of the United States, the Governor of the State of California and the Mayor of Los Angeles in the interests of public safety is hereby declared martial law … Curfew is at 1800 hours.  Any persons on the street or outside their quarters by 6 pm will be subject to arrest by military police.  Now for the reasons for this most drastic decision.  A couple of months ago in the desert of New Mexico, a colony of giant ants were discovered.  They are similar in appearance and character to the household ant you are familiar with.  Except they are mutated, ranging in size from more than 12 feet in length.  The New Mexico colony was destroyed but two queen ants escaped.  One has been accounted for and destroyed, but the other has not yet been found.  It is now known to have established a nest in the storm drains beneath the streets of Los Angeles.  It is not known how long or how many of these lethal monsters have hatched.  Maybe a few, maybe thousands.  If new queen ants have hatched and escaped this nest other American cities may be in danger.  These creatures are extremely dangerous.  They have already killed a number of persons.  Stay in your homes.  I repeat stay in your homes.  Your personal safety, the safety of the entire city, is dependent on your full co-operation with the military authorities.[4]

The links between communism and the ants were quite clear.  If they were not destroyed, they would crush the United States.  There was no room for compromise or doubt.  As a scientist, Dr Medford was now firmly in step with the military and there was a need for the suppression of civil rights to fight the monsters.  Before the news became public, one man was a witness to the ants in flight and was locked up in an insane asylum by the Government before he could tell his story to the public.  A doctor asked when could the man be released and was told: ‘The Government will tell you when he is well.’[5]  Individual liberties were quickly forfeited involuntarily when faced with the threat form the ants.  To survive, you must fully co-operate with the military authorities.  That implied co-operation with HUAC or any other government organisation.  A constitutional or human right could not be weighed against survival.

The image of nests of ants festering beneath American cities waiting to lash out and destroy the American way of life was unsettling. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.com.

The image of nests of ants festering beneath American cities waiting to lash out and destroy the American way of life was unsettling.  All was the same on the surface, but a threat existed which grew steadily beneath normal life.  These threats were spreading from city to city. The only way to thwart these dangers was to fully co-operate with the all –knowing authorities.  These authorities may diminish civil liberties, constitutional rights, even human rights, but that is because the threat was so near and so dangerous.  Them! Was one of the most explicit statements by the American Right about communist menace within the science fiction genre.  It stated that the way to fight the communist menace within the United States was to curtail personal freedoms in order to safeguard the nation.

Despite it extreme views, Them! Had a strong anti-nuclear theme.  At its conclusion, Dr Medford, his daughter Robyn and FBI agent Robert Graham watched the burning embers of the giant ants.

ROBERT GRAHAM:If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb, what about all those others that have been exploded since.
ROBYN MEDFORD:I don’t know.
DR MEDFORD:Nobody knows, Robyn.  When man invented the atomic age, he opened a door to new world.  Who knows what we will eventually find in that new world.[6]

The camera panned over the heads of the crowd towards the burning flames coming from the ant bodies.  It was a chilling ending and touched the other central concern of the time – the fear of nuclear weapons.  It was the scientists who had unleashed this new force in the world and it was the scientists and the military who worked in concert to smash it.  To finish the film with a shot of flames underlined where the director Douglas thought nuclear weapons would take the world; into the fire.

  It was the scientists who had unleashed this new force in the world and it was the scientists and the military who worked in concert to smash it. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] Them! Warner, (d) Gordon Douglas, (w) Ted Sherdeman.

[2] Them! Op cit

[3] Them! Op cit.

[4] Them! Op cit.

[5] ibid.

[6] Them! op cit

Communist subversion in alien films of the 1950s: It came from Outer Space and Invaders from Mars

It Came From Outer Space was the last major science fiction to depict a liberal scientist with solutions and the authorities as dangerous.  It also began a minor cycle of films where aliens take over or replace people’s bodies. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Intermingled with the fear of Russian invasion was the dread of communist subversion.  It Came from Outer Space (1953) was one of the first films to focus on it – but in a curious manner.  Patricia Bosworth would later writer in the New York Times on 27 September 1992 that sometime “the anti-Communist message was disguised as science fiction, with aliens from outer space serving as metaphors for the Soviet menace. There were movies like the ponderously mediocre “It Came From Outer Space…”  An alien craft crashed in the desert witnessed by an astronomer John Putnam, played by Richard Carlson.  He told people, but was not believed.  The alien simply needed time and workers to get their spacecraft operating again and were not a threat.  The aliens replaced local people with alien doubles to avoid detection while they moved around.  The doubles behaved almost identically to the humans but were expressionless.  Although the intentions of the aliens in this films were essentially benign – or rather indifferent – the film did touch on the fear that was to be raised frequently that the community could be subverted from within by alien forces.  Just as, supposedly, the American community could be subverted by communism.

The community reacted with McCarthyite paranoia when the truth about the aliens emerged.  A lynch mob was formed because people fear what they ‘do not understand’.[1]  The lynchers tried to destroy the aliens, however, Putnam intervened and the aliens departed before any real fighting began.  It Came From Outer Space was the last major science fiction to depict a liberal scientist with solutions and the authorities as dangerous.  It also began a minor cycle of films where aliens take over or replace people’s bodies.

Invaders from Mars began a cycle of Communist subversion films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Invaders from Mars (1953) had a similar theme but featured malign aliens.  Directed by a respected designer William Cameron Menzies, the film began in a home which was happy and secure with an adventurous and intelligent son David, played by Jimmy Hart, and doting parents.  The boy witnessed a Martian landing on the outskirts of town.  No one believed what he had seen and his mother dismissed it as a nightmare, although his father George McLean said he should report it to the rocket base where he worked as ‘There have been rumours’.[2]  George McLean was later captured by the Martians and emerged from their craft as an impersonal man with a cold stare.

His son sensed the changes and saw that the town was slowly being taken over and he tried to warn the authorities.  In distress, David had run to a police station for help as more and more people were being controlled by the aliens.  A friendly desk sergeant listened amused to his story while the child demanded to see the chief.  The chief appeared and it was clear that he was also under the control of the Martians.  The chief ordered him to a jail cell while he waited for his parents.  The fundamental values of American society were breaking down.  The American child could no longer rely on his family or traditional authority figures.  The tension only increased when it was obvious that both David’s parents were controlled by the Martians when they came to pick him up.  The law was corrupt and even the family has been corrupted by the aliens.  One of the strongest scenes in the film was when a young girl returned home, after being captured by the Martians, and then burned the house down.  The Martians had dehumanized the community.

The picture was one of the earliest examples of the alien invasion cycle where a small town was terrorized and subverted by an external force.  This force could take over any loyal citizen and put them under its control.  The parallel between the Martians and communists were quite clear.  The communists could destroy a healthy community by subversion by taking control of certain sections.  They aimed at controlling people in high places such as police chiefs, rocket scientists and generals.  The people who were overtaken quickly become compliant to the will of their masters and followed any order.  The Martians also intended to rip apart the family as children would burn down houses and parents would destroy their children.  The key idea was that individuals had lost their free will to a greater and malign power.


[1] It Came From Outer Space (d) Jack Arnold, (w) Harry Essex.

[2] Invaders From Mars Edward L. Alperson, (d) William Cameron Menzies, (w) Richard Blake.

Religious themes in War of the Worlds

George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1952) was an adaption of the H.G. Wells novel about Martian invasion of Earth updated to the 1950s.  The issue of appeasement was raised in a different manner.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1952) was an adaption of the H.G. Wells novel about Martian invasion of Earth updated to the 1950s.  The issue of appeasement was raised in a different manner.  In one scene, three men approached a Martian ship, while one waved a white flag.  The group was blasted to bits by the invaders.  In The Thing, there was conflict between scientists and the military, in War of the Worlds the scientists and the military, in War of the Worlds the scientists were shown to be in concert with the military.  Their attempts to use nuclear weapons failed badly, but it was their failure which showed the power of God.

The religious faith of the people was the ultimate defence against invaders.  In the final scene, people prayed in churches for divine intervention as the Martian war machines that moved inexorably towards them blasting everything to rubble.  The priest led the prayers saying:

… Deliver us from the fear which has become upon us, form the evil that grows even nearer, from the terror that soon will knock upon the door of this our house … Oh Lord, we pray, grant us the miracle of thy intervention.[1]

The words in this speech are interesting.  The Martians are ‘the evil’, ‘the terror’, and ‘the fear’, they are not seen as an invading army.  When the Martians finally fired at the church, they were struck down as the earth’s bacteria and viruses began to take hold.  The voice over says:

After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were defeated by the littlest thing that God in his wisdom had put upon this earth.[2]

God would intervene where everything else had failed, just as it was hoped that God would intervene to save America if needed.  It was a message of reassurance.  The world was in ruins, but they had survived.  Even the strength and technology of the Martians was no match for the power of God.

Scenes of destruction were quite common in alien invasion films.  In Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956), the attack on Washington reminded the audience of the destructive potential of an all-out Russian nuclear attack.  The film was released at the time of the Sputnik launch and it had a resonance far greater than its makers and probably realised.  Stephen King remembered the impact it had on him as a child.  Just before seeing the film, it was announced to the audience that the USSR had launched Sputnik.

Scenes of destruction were quite common in alien invasion films.  In Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956), the attack on Washington reminded the audience of the destructive potential of an all-out Russian nuclear attack. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Those greedy, twisted monsters piloting the saucers are really the Russians; the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Capitol dome, and the Supreme Court – all rendered with graphic eerie believability by Harryhausen stop-motion effects – becoming nothing less than the destruction one would expect when the A bombs finally fly.

And then the end of the movie comes.  The last saucer has been shot down by Hugh Marlowe’s secret weapon, an ultrasonic gun that interrupts the electromagnetic magnetic drive of the flying saucers, or some sort of similar agreeable foolishness.  Loudspeakers blare from every Washington street corner, seemingly: “The present danger … is over.”  The camera shows us clear skies.  He evil old monsters with their frozen snarls and their twisted-root faces have been vanquished.[3]

For King, the paradoxical trick of cinema had worked.  The horror had been taken in hand, and used to destroy itself.  The deeper fear of the threat of the Russian Sputnik had been excised.[4]

In a time of fear, audiences were drawn to films with monsters with incredible powers.  The defeat of these monsters in the film was an important psychological victory for the audience.  In horror films, it was vital that the monsters were gruesome, powerful and dangerous.  The more gruesome and the more dangerous, the better.  For if these monsters could be destroyed, then the United States could face the worst horrors created by the Russians.  The horror element of science fiction films was crucial to their success as it provided the momentary release from people’s fears.  As the 1950s progressed, the aliens tended to be more and more belligerent.  This may have been due to the influence of studios wary of any taint of liberalism in their films.  But that would be unlikely, as science fiction, like westerns and musicals, were seen as simple entertainment, and provided there was no overt political message, the writers and directors could do pretty much as they pleased.  It was more likely that audiences of the 1950s wanted scary aliens and they got them.


[1] War of the Worlds, (d) Byron Haskin, (w) Barre Lynon.

[2] War of the Worlds op cit.  The line was from the original H.G. Wells novel War of The Worlds.

[3] King Danse, pp. 25-27.

[4] Ibid., p. 28.