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.

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