Science fiction explores communism

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Invaders filled the screens of cinemas and drive-ins across the United States in the 1950s.  Aliens blasted ray guns, rose from the depths of the sea, took over human bodies, mutated in atomic testing sites, flew flying saucers, lurked in swamps and wasted cities in their wrath.  Many films critics have seen the alien invasion films as representing American fears of communist invasion and subversion.[1]  The themes of these films clustered around fears of communist military strength.  The United States had both the biggest economy and enormous military powers, yet it found itself threatened by the USSR armed with nuclear weapons.  Communists were seen as an evil, beyond even religious redemption, and they now possessed weapons which could destroy the United States.  It was a crushing fear that haunted the 1950s.  A fear that science fiction helped ease.

The sheer number of films produced means they cannot be overlooked in any survey of films dealing with communism.  It has been estimated that 154 alien films were released in the United States during the 1950s.[2]  These films were not overwhelming box office success, but the fact that they enjoyed continued popularity indicates that they were striking a chord.

The most popular science fiction films of the decade in descending order (taking inflation into account) were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which finished fourth in 1954 making $8 million in rentals, Journey to the Centre of the Earth which finished 11th in the 1959 making $4.7 million, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms made $2 million in 1953, The Thing finished 47th in 1951 making $1.95 million, The Day the Earth Stood Still finished 52nd in 1951 making $1.8 million, War of the Worlds made $2 million in 1953, Them! Finished 50th in 1954 making $2.2 million, When World’s Collide finished 72nd in 1951, It Came from Outer Space made $1.65 million in 1953, This Island Earth was ranked 75th in 1955 making $1.7 million, It Came from Beneath the Sea was ranked 76th in 1955, Forbidden Planet was ranked 62nd in 1956 making $1.6 million, Destination Moon was ranked 88th in 1950 making $1.3 million.  Other films which made the Variety lists included The Fly (1958), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Rocketship X-M (1950) and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).[3]  The films were not an overwhelming success yet there was, nonetheless, a steady market for them.

Destination Moon (1950), which focused on the first man- made trip to the moon.  It was a simple story and its anti-communist message was obvious.  American industry had to back a space launch to thwart any similar moves by foreign powers.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The first successful science fiction films of the decade owed their popularity to special effects rather than tight script writing, yet there were still strong anti-communist themes.  Producer George Pal’s trademark was his exceptional special effects and his first effort was an uncomplicated film called Destination Moon (1950), which focused on the first man- made trip to the moon.  It was a simple story and its anti-communist message was obvious.  American industry had to back a space launch to thwart any similar moves by foreign powers.  General Thayer explained these ideas to a meeting of businessman called to raise money for he project.

The reason is quite simple.  We are not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached.  We are not the only ones who are planning to get there.  The race is on.  And we will win, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack force form outer space.  The first country to use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the earth.  That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.[4]

An elderly businessman stood up at the end of the Thayer’s speech and said it was the duty of business to support the venture.[5]  Control of space would mean world domination.  The impact of this idea was later seen in the panic that gripped America in the wake of the Sputnik launch in 1957 as people feared nuclear weapons could be launched from space on a defenceless United States.

Destination Moon also suggested that communists were at work subverting the American space program – and by implication other industries.  The moon launch project was hampered by bureaucratic obstacles and the threat of something more sinister.  The scientific group received a telegram from a commission which prohibited a launch, as a protest meeting had been called to stop the launch.  Jim answered that it was ‘propaganda’ and that someone with money and brains was ‘out to get us’.[6]  The underlying tone of the film was that dissent, even democratic dissent, was identical to treason when trying to stop progress.  Jim’s remarkable statement about public opinion equaling propaganda reflected the blinkered approach that the authorities had in dealing with dissent.  Even a protest against an atomic missile launch was organised by malevolent forces out to undermine American security.  The film fitted in neatly with the studios’ anti-communist rhetoric of the early 1950s.

Rocketship X-M (1950) was made after, but was released slightly before, Destination Moon (1950).  It had essentially the same idea about space travel but with a different twist.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rocketship X-M (1950) was made after, but was released slightly before, Destination Moon (1950).  It had essentially the same idea about space travel but with a different twist.  The space crew left earth, were sent off course and landed on Mars.  The crew found that Mars an advanced civilization had been wiped out by nuclear warfare was now inhabited by hostile mutant aliens.  The crew returned to earth to deliver a warning about nuclear warfare.  Unknown World (1950) had a similar bleak message about the world’s future.  Scientist Kilian believed that the world was headed for nuclear devastation and perhaps some hope lay in burrowing beneath the earth’s surface.  The film began with a montage of nuclear explosions and devastation and the voice of Kilian calling for help in finding a safe and secure world.  Headed by Kilian, a small party set off to dig beneath the surface, but the world they found was sterile and they were forced to return to the surface.  If Kilian was correct, then there was no escape from nuclear destruction.


[1] Among others are Peter Biskind, Seeing is believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Pantheon, New York, 1983 and Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982.  Not all critics share this viewpoint see Patrick Luciano, Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1987 for Jungian interpretation of the alien invasion cycle.

[2] The filmography in Luciano, Them or Us, lists 154 films, but it must be treated with caution as Luciano tends to throw in any type of related film to build up his case.  The number can only be used as a guide.

[3] The lists were printed in Variety 4 January 1950, 3 January 1951, 2 January 1952, 7 January 1953, 6 January 1954, 5 January 1955, 25 January 1956, 2 January 1957 and 8 January 1958.  The lists derive from John Fleming, ‘Science Fiction, printed in David Pirie (ed.) Anatomy of the Movies, Macmillian, New York, pp. 272 – 281, which are also based on the Variety lists.

[4] Destination Moon, (d) George Pal, (w) Rip Van Ronkel, Robert Heinlein, James O’Hanlon

[5] Destination Moon op cit.

[6] ibid.

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