Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.
By far the most popular type of science fiction film in the 1950s were the alien invasion films. The peak of their popularity was in the early to mid 1950s which also matched the most unsettling time of the cold war. The cycle of alien invasion films began in earnest in America with two films in 1951, The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still. These films were remarkably similar in structure but contain almost diametrically opposed ideas. The tension in the films clustered around the relationship between the scientists, military and alien invaders. The scientist was depicted in both films as being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being in conflict with the military in how to deal with the aliens. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien flying saucer landed in Washington with an important message to the people of the world. The politicians didn’t want to talk to the alien as a group because of mutual suspicions and hatreds, while the military just wanted to blast him. The alien Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, seemed to be a sober non-threatening being with exceptional intelligence. He had great power at his command and with a few twirls of the dial of the saucer could bring the world to a momentary halt. The military reacted to this demonstration by wanting him destroyed, while the scientists wanted to hear his message. Klaatu’s message was that the world must stop the spread of nuclear of weapons or face destruction.
Screenwriter Edmund H. North and director Robert Wise played on the sympathies of the American audience by showing Klaatu admiring the Lincoln monument. He told a child that Lincoln looked like a great man, the type of man who would listen to his important message to the world. The child replied that there was a man like that working in Washington called Dr Barnhardt. By using the icon of Lincoln in the film, the screenwriter and director were indicating to the audience that Klaatu’s message was important and correct. North and Wise then linked the wisdom of Lincoln to the scientists. The scientist Dr Barnhardt was obviously based on the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein, who was another icon of scientific and philosophical wisdom in the 1950s. By combing the icon on Einstein, who represented scientific wisdom with Lincoln, who represented political wisdom, the filmmakers were packaging their message for an American audience. Even further, Klaatu was brought back to life when killed by the military, perhaps indicating a spiritual dimension to his message as well.
The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked. Communism was not only a political threat to the United States, but since the development of nuclear weapons, it carried the threat of physical extinction. The liberal vision of a planetary United Nations protecting common interests was one of the few positive images of the science fiction films of the 1950s. The Day The Earth Stood Still belonged with the brief flowering of liberal films of the early 1950s. It argued that nations should meet to thrash out their differences before it was too late. Time and time again, it referred to the world’s ‘petty squabbles’ with a tone to suggest that they were adolescent temper tantrums. The world should grow up and put aside nuclear weapons as ways of resolving disputes. This would mean negotiation and discussions with the Russians which was brave suggestion in 1951. Despite its popularity, The Day the Earth Stood Still did not begin a cycle of science fiction films with liberal leanings. Although It Came From Outer Space (1953) was a notable exception, the vast majority of aliens in popular science fiction films of the 1950s were hostile towards the aliens.
Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world. The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed. A saucer landed in the Arctic near the North Pole and the military outpost stationed there was sent out to investigate. They discovered flying saucer under the ice and a frozen alien. The saucer was accidently destroyed, but the alien was taken back to camp encased in ice.
The crucial conflict in the film was not with the alien but between the military and the scientists over how to deal with the alien. The scientists wanted to communicate with the alien in order to benefit mankind, while the military wanted to destroy it in order to save mankind. The scientists headed by Dr Carrington believed that ‘There are no enemies in science, just phenomenon to study.’ He didn’t realise the enormous threat from the alien, although he described it in chilling terms. IT was a creature without ‘pain or pleasure’ which Dr Carrington envied for having ‘no emotions and no heart’. The communist system in Russia was also viewed as ‘scientific’, a system which worked along rational principles but ignored the role of the individual. Carrington represented all these fears.
Near the conclusion of the film, the tensions between the scientists and the military came to a head as Dr Carrington approached the rampaging alien to talk of peace. Carrington was killed by the alien which then meets its doom at the hands of the military. Screenwriter Ledered and Director Nyby – with the assistance of veteran Howard Hawks – were saying that in times of threat such as during the Cold War, scientists must defer to the military. Scientists had to be geared to national interests. When the scientist joined forces with the military, then the alien forces could be destroyed.
The image of Dr Carrington being knocked aside was one which constantly recurred in films of the 1950s. Horror writer Stephen King believed The Thing was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser. He wrote that for the average America, the scientists were deservedly vilified in American cinema in the 1950s as it was this group which had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age. According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain. Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany which had almost been lost. It was better to fight than to appease. When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms. Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.
The alien in The Thing was a popular depiction of communism. It was a mobile vegetable and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory and they quickly grew. If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the Untied States – it could threaten the world. This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further. In other words, if the alien was not stopped at any early stage, then the threat would simply grow until it became impossible to resist. This was the logic of Cold War containment which drive the United States into the Korean War and later to the Vietnam War. To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies. Keep watching the skies.’
It was the message and the images contained in The Thing that really dominated American science fiction cinema for the next six or seven years. Appeasement meant destruction and appeasers were either traitors or fools who ended getting killed. Despite its low budget, The Thing was one of the most successful science fiction films of the year, narrowly edging out The Day the Earth Stood Still. The success of these two films reflected an uncertainty by Americans on how to deal with the Russians. One film argued that the nuclear threat needed to be addressed and the world should stop its petty squabbles, while the other said the appeasement caused destruction. The popularity of both films indicated both the importance and the uncertainty of the issue in the American mind.
 Ronald W Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, Avon, New York, 1984, pp. 659 – 710 discusses Einstein’s political role in post-war United States.
 The Thing RKO/Winchester (Howard Hawks), (d) Christian Nyby, Charles Lederer.
 Other films latched onto the fear of a society based on scientific principles. In The Street With No Name (1948), gangster Alec Stiles, played by Richard Widmark, wanted to ‘build an organisation along scientific lines.’
 Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, MacDonald, London, 1981, p.173.
 ibid, p. 174.
 The Thing op cit.
 The Thing (1951) made $1.9 million profit, while The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) made $1.85 million. See Hardy, Science Fiction, p. 387.