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.

The evangelical nature of When World's Collide

When Worlds Collide (1951) which dealt with the destruction of the planet Earth.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Nuclear fears of annihilation haunted the 1950s. This depressing view of world destruction continued in George Pal’s next film: When Worlds Collide. Many science fiction films had dealt with the destruction or breakdown of society, but the physical end of the planet was virtually a new area.[1] Cecil B. DeMille had originally been slated for the film in a much earlier period. The rights to the story by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer were originally bought in 1933 by Paramount, when director DeMille was planning a related project called “The End of the World.” DeMille had hoped to rush the project into production after filming wrapped on This Day and Age (1933), but the script was never even written and the studio scrapped the project.

In When Worlds Collide scientists discovered that a new sun and its planet were spinning across the galaxy toward earth.  The planet would move close to the earth, causing tidal waves and mass destruction, and then the new sun would engulf the earth.  The only hope for civilisation was a small spacecraft which could hop planets just before the fatal collision.  The film opened with biblical saying:

And God looked upon the earth and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth … And God said unto Noah, ‘The end of flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and , behold I will destroy them with the earth…[2]

This was remarkably close to the vision of evangelist Billy Graham who, after President Truman had announced a nuclear weapon had been exploded in the Soviet Union, had preached in 1949 that the choice for America was now between religious revival and nuclear judgement.  The choice was between western culture founded on religion, and communism which was against all religion.  The country had abandoned the ten commandments and faced judgement for its misdeeds.[3]  In 1949, he delivered a sermon on the fate of the United States which rang with biblical doom.

Let us look for a moment at the political realm.  Let’s see what is happening – not only in the city of Los Angeles, but in the western world.  The world is divided into two sides.  ON the one side we see so-called Western culture.  Western culture and its fruit had its foundation in the bible, the Word of God, and in the revivals of he Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Communism on the other hand, had decided against God, against Christ, against the bible, against all religion.  Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life – Communism is a religion that is directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against almighty God.  Do you know that the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?  We need a revival.[4]

Just as God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii, and the Roman empire, he would destroy the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, if it strayed any longer or further from the moral path.  The nuclear threat was a biblical judgement for moral failings.  These speeches were the catalyst which launched Graham to become a nationwide media celebrity.

Graham’s apocalyptic vision of nuclear judgement resonated throughout When Worlds Collide.  The conclusion of the film showed the earth burning as it approached the surface of he new sun.  Nuclear-like explosions ripped from its surface as it was absorbed.  This image must have terrified the American public of the 1950s with its connotations of nuclear destruction.  The most chilling part of When Worlds Collide was the inevitable nature of the destruction of the earth, just as the cold war promised an inevitable nuclear conflagration.  The film may have reassured an American public at one level by showing that life would continue in some form after nuclear destruction.  However, with its biblical judgement of corruption and the inevitable nature of the world’s destruction, it was an uncomfortable film to watch.


[1][1] The theme had been used before in a film called The Comet (1910) and two German films Himmelskibet (1917) and Verdens Undergang (1916).  The two German films probably reflected some of the gloom as the First World War dragged on.  A few science fiction films saw the collapse of society such as the British film Things to Come (1936).  See the introduction to Phil Hardy, (ed.). Science Fiction: The Complete Film Sourcebook, William Morrow, New York, 1984 for a discussion of the trend.

[2] When Worlds Collide Paramount (George Pal), (w) Sidney Boehm, (d) Rudolp Mate.

[3] Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America since World War II, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988, p. 65.

[4] William Graham, Revival in Our Time: The Story of Billy Graham Evangelistic Campaign Evangelistic Campaigns, Including Six Of His Sermons, 2nd edn enl. Van Kampen Press, Wheaton, Illinois, 1950, pp. 72-73.

Red 'Indians'

Rio Grande (1950) was released in November 1950, five months after President Truman committed American troops to fight a limited war in Korea.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Westerns provided a commentary on the cold war in other ways.  Film critic John Lenihan has suggested that the attitude towards Native Americans – or ‘Indians’ as they were called – in these films reflected concerns about the cold war.[1]  From the end of World War II through the 1950s, westerns showed fears and concerns about communism by depicting ‘red Indians’ as allegorical communist figures.  His case was based on films such as Rio Grande (1950).  The film was released in November 1950, five months after President Truman committed American troops to fight a limited war in Korea.[2]  Following the invasion of North Korean troops, MacArthur attempted to retake the entire Korean peninsula, but this had triggered a massive invasion by China across the Yalu river.  The United States and its allies had better equipment and training but the Chinese had huge numbers of troops.  The Chinese pushed the UN forces back down the Korean peninsula.  They in turn were slowly forced back.  The conflict became a war of attrition and MacArthur constantly demanded that he be allowed to attack the Manchurian sanctuary.[3]  His plans were equally consistently blocked by Truman and it was this conflict which eventually led to MacArthur’s controversial sacking.

According to Lenihan, the political message of Rio Grande seemed clear.  The apaches were constantly able to defeat the United States Army because they could cross the Rio Grande river into neutral Mexico.  Colonel Kirby Yorke,[4] played by John Wayne, and his commander, wanted permission to cross into Mexico to pursue the Indians.  Yorke argued that the State Department back in distant Washington did not understand what was happening.  The need for military action became more pressing as three tribes gathered on the banks of the Rio Grande.  His concerns mirrored MacArthur’s arguments that Manchuria was a launching place for attacks on the Korean peninsula.  Eventually the General ordered Yorke to illegally attack across the Rio Grande.  He says, ‘I want you to cross the Rio Grande, hit the Apache and burn him out: I’m tired of hit and run, I’m sick of diplomatic hide and seek.’[5]  The political ideas in Rio Grande came from the ultra-conservative screenwriter, James Kevin McGuiness, the founding executive committee chairman of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

Lenihan argued that many westerns also appealed for unanimity in the face of a threat.  One key example was in Escape From Fort Bravo (1953) where Union soldiers who were escorting Confederate escapees back to their prison were ambushed by Indians.  It was only by fighting together that the group were able to survive.  Lenihan argued that The Outriders (1950), Rocky Mountain (1950), Two Flags West (1950), The Last Outpost (1951), Red Mountain (1951), and The Siege at Red River (1954) share the theme of Union and Confederate soldiers putting aside their differences to face the real enemy.  With the resolution of the Korean conflict and an acceptance of negotiation rather than war, Lenhian argued Westerns shifted to a more liberal position reviving the tolerant themes with films such as Taza, Son of Conchise (1954), Sitting Bull (1954), Chief Crazy Horse (1955), White Feather (1956), and Walk the Proud Land (1956).[6]

Nonetheless, Lenihen’s approach is flawed.  Rio Grande was more an exception because it was so clear about its political agenda.  It was also a poor example to use as a starting point.  Screenwriter McGuiness certainly used it as vehicle for his ultra-conservative political views about the Korean war.  But the politics were a sub-plot to director John Ford’s vision of the reconciliation of a military family and this was the dominant theme of the film.

More importantly, a different selection of films shows the opposite pattern of American attitudes to the cold war.  Lenihan’s case looks impressive but his examples were not popular films.  It is easy to build up a different case using popular westerns.  In Broken Arrow (1950), the Native Americans were depicted as sensible and willing to come to a peaceful agreement with the white man.  This film was made near the peak of the red scare, yet was extremely popular.  It was ninth with rentals of $3.55 million by Variety.[7]  Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart, was a cavalry scout who lived with the Apache and prevented the outbreak of a war through negotiation with their leader Cochise.  When he returned to the town with the news that the ‘Indians’ can be trusted, he was almost lynched, just as those who wanted Americans to trust the communists were attacked by the McCarthyite forces.  At the conclusion of the film, the Indians and the white community are living in harmony because of a treaty.  Mutual respect and trust were seen as the cornerstones of a peaceful community.  The screenwriter of the film was recently revealed as Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10, rather than the listed Michael Blankfort.[8]  It is interesting that both High Noon and Broken Arrow, the most popular westerns of the early 1950s, were directed against HUAC and its investigations.

If the Native Americans or ‘Indians’ were equated with communists, it would be logical to assume that there was a groundswell of support for negotiation in the early 1950s.  Yet the most popular western of 1956 was The Searchers which depicted the Native Americans as a dangerous threat to the white race.  Negotiation was not even attempted.  The Searchers finished 10th at the box office according to Variety.[9]  It would be more logical to construct a case using these two films to show a hardening of attitudes towards the Soviet Union from 1950 to 1956.  Indeed this case appears to be stronger than Lenihan’s as few of the films discussed by Lenhinan appear in the top 20 of Variety’s listings.[10]


[1] John H. Lenihan, Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1980, pp. 24 – 54.

[2] Ibid., p. 28.

[3] William Manchester, American Caesar, Arrow, London, 1979, p. 502 – 582.

[4] Some sources spell the name ‘York’.  It is unclear which is the correct spelling.

[5] Rio Grande, (d) John Ford, (w) James Kevin McGuinness.

[6] Lenihan, Showdown, p. 43.

[7] Variety, 2 January 1951.

[8] Phillip French, ‘Decline of the Western: The dwindling trail of a genre’, Times Literary Supplement, 18 September 1992, pp. 18.  In the article, French mentions an example of the theme of communist subversion in a western where in Arrowhead (1953) a chief returns from an Eastern college – read communist training – and turns a peaceful tribe into warriors.

[9] Variety, 7 January 1958.

[10] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts, pp. 19 – 23.

The conservative backlash

The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

The themes raised in High Noon were also picked up by those who supported the investigations.  The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Randolph Scott played a bounty hunter who arrived in the frontier town of Twin Peaks on the trail of three armed robbers.  The townspeople resented his appearance and some with guilty secrets left town.  He had no idea who the culprits were and bided his time.  The townspeople want them to leave because they don’t like the past being dug up.  The people then tried to buy him off but he would not be deflected from his pursuit of the criminals.  The film can be read as a defence of HUAC investigators who had to burrow into the past of respectable people to uncover their dark secrets, no matter what the cost.  Some of the criminals occupied high positions.  One was even sheriff, but the criminals were only able to maintain their positions by blackmail and threats.  By rooting out these criminal elements, true peace was attained in the town.

Director and producer Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were disgusted by Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and the cycle it created and set out to refute it.  Some of that anger can be seen in an interview with John Wayne in 1974 when asked about High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman:

Hawks was convinced that professional law enforcement officers would refuse help, even in a desperate situation.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper rejected the help of two men who offer assistance – a drunk and a kid.  The retired marshal refused to help Kane because he would be a burden.  In Rio Bravo, Chance chose a drunk, a kid and a retired marshal to help him against the gunfighters.  For Hawks and Wayne, authority was responsible and benign.  It defended the weak and attacked the guilty and the best people could do was to simply co-operate with it.  It was not to be questioned or assisted, it was simply to be obeyed.[4]

What about Carl Foreman?  I’ll tell you about Carl Foreman and his rotten High Noon.  Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin and Grace Kelly were in it … It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The last thing is old Coop putting the United States marshall’s badge under his feet and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of town … Here’s the church, supposed to be an American church and all the women are sitting on one side of the aisle, and all the men on the other.  What kind of American church is that?  And all those women are getting out there and fight those killers and all the men are afraid.  What kind of Western town is that?[1]

Wayne was mistaken about the film, Cooper never stands on the badge.  The church also has men and women sitting together on both sides.  These statements indicate that Wayne may have either never seen the film or not viewed it closely.  Nonetheless, having seen it or not, Wayne despised the film.  Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t as violent in his denunciation of High Noon.  He said in an interview about his film:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon … I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally the Quaker wife had to save him.  That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff.[2]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But Wayne and Hawks were able to have their say in the Rio Bravo (1959).  In the film, John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, was the sheriff of Rio Bravo who arrested Joe, the brother of a ruthless rancher Nathan Burdette.  The rancher swore that he would get his brother out of jail and began to gather an army of hired guns to do the job.  In one scene Chances’ friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond, asks him if he needs help.

Suppose I got them.  What would I have.  Some well meaning amateurs.  Most of them worried about their wives and kids.  Burdette has got 30 to 40 men.  All professionals.  The only thing that worries them is seeing their pay … All it would be doing is making more targets to shoot at.  A lot of people would get hurt.  Joe Burdette isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth one of whose who’d be killed.[3]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Its conservative message of the responsibility of authority fitted in with many films of the right.  Perhaps what made this film so popular was that these authority figures demanded that no freedoms be lost while the fight was on.  It was ranked 8th in the 1959 with rentals of $5.2 million.[5]

The persistence of the theme of the relationship between the lone sheriff figure, the violent thereat and townspeople in Westerns from 1952 until the end of the decade showed the relationship between authority and the people was an area of tremendous concern.  The answers given in the films were not consistent and came from all points of the political spectrum.  The films may not have provided the answers for the audience but their popularity showed that the questions about authority and dealing with threats were being asked.


[1] Playboy May 1974 interview by Mike Parkinson in Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York, 1983, p. 244.  A careful examination of the badge throwing scene shows a second badge from an earlier take buried behind his foot.  It appeared that Cooper was standing on the second badge from an earlier take.  Wayne may have heard about this flaw in the film second hand which could have distorted his perception.

[2] Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press, London, 1982, p. 136.

[3] Rio Bravo, (d) Howard Hawks, (w) Jules Furtham, Leigh Brackett.

[4] This point is remarkably close to the position put by Mankiewicz against DeMille about the role of authority.  Adding strength to Elia Kazan’s belief that it was the conservatives that defeated DeMille, rather than the left.  Elia Kazan A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 393.

[5] Stenberg, Reel Facts, p. 22.

High Noon and its successors

Riding Shotgun also had anti-McCarthyism themes. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

High Noon had many successors which took up the various themes about McCarthyism in differing ways.  Riding Shotgun (1954) again looked at the political situation in allegorical terms, but with disdain for the hysteria created by McCarthy.  A respected guard on the stage coach Larry Delon, played by Randolph Scott, attempted to warn the town of an impending raid on the town’s ‘Bank Club’ by a gang of criminals.  Delon was almost lynched by the townspeople who believed that he was responsible for the shooting of a stagecoach.  A posse was formed to chase the outlaws who were actually planning to rob the undefended town.  Delon was bailed up in a building throughout the film while the town attempted to lynch him.  Eventually the outlaws raided and Delon foiled the robbery and regained the town’s respect.  The film was not as sharp in its criticism of the worn as in High Noon, but there were some strong scenes where Scott walked through the town with every eye on him, thinking; ‘The city had already tried and found me guilty.[1]  The film was not critical of the law enforcement agencies as the deputy Sheriff was depicted as a sensible man desperately trying to see that no one gets hurt in the town’s desire to lynch Scott.

Unlike High Noon, the film showed that the town was willing to fight, but needed firm leadership.  Without that leadership, the town could turn into a lynch-mob and attack the innocent.  Riding Shotgun was a conservative film that asked for respect for the traditional law enforcement, rather than the hysteria of the mob.

Although not strictly a western, as it was set in contemporary America, Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear cut attacks on the McCarthyite era within the genre.  Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, who was one of the petitioners for Jospeh L. Mankiewicz, and produced by Dore Schary who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.  Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[2]  It was clear that these events had an impact of the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, was a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  His aim was to give to a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years and the townspeople were clearly threatened by his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’  The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno who was a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer to be a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[3]

Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  He manipulated and terrified the people of the town with the crime.  He described Macreedy as a ‘virus’ which had given the town a fever and had to be destroyed.  Very similar to the way, McCarthy depicted communists as an infection of the American political system.  The Sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, was ineffectual and complaint to Reno’s orders, just as McCarthy blustered his way over the legal system.  Others simply tried to ignore the crime and remained in apathetic fear.  When Macreedy faced and defeated Reno, the town was forced to face the collective guilt of their silence.  The conclusion of the film was optimistic as it showed the town could prosper again with the departure of Reno, just as the American community had to realize the enormity of the damage inflicted by the McCarthyite era before it could begin to move forward again.

The Fastest Gun Alive continued the themes of High Noon. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Other films carried similar messages to High Noon throughout the 1950s.  In At Gunpoint (1955) a shopkeeper played by Fred MacMurray killed a bank robber with a lucky shot.  He was called a hero, but his fellow townspeople deserted him when the robbers plotted reprisals.  MacMurray eventually convinced the town to fight and they defeated the outlaws when they return.  In The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), the townspeople cower in a church while a gunslinger threatened to burn down the town unless their reluctant local hero cam out for a showdown.  They eventually forced him out to face the villain.

In The Tin Star (1957), a sheriff had to stand up to a town turned into a lynch mob to re-establish the authority of law and order.  The prisoners inside his jail were clearly guilty and it was certain they would be hanged or jailed.  The film argued that the lynch mob was not the answer.  Only when the leader of the lynchers was stared down, humiliated and then destroyed did peace come to the town.  If the mob was equated with McCarthyism, the legal approach of the sheriff was the best way for American society to go.  The central figure was a man similar to High Noon’s Will Kane who was bitter and resentful about society but at the end of the film, he picked up ‘the tin star’ to renew the fight against criminals.[4]  Law and order depended on the professional pride and determination of law enforcement officers.  Without them, the weak townspeople would be at the mercy of the bandits and agitators.  The central theme of these films was that the town by its inaction or corruption could collapse into lawlessness.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract.  A stranger played by Audie Murphy rode into town and registered at a hotel.  He was John Gant who made his living goading people into a fight and then killing them in self defence.  His appearance caused a slow breakdown of the town as prominent citizens remembered guilty secrets of the past and were afraid that he has been sent to kill them.  Old antagonisms began to rise an people committed suicide or left town or tried to bribe Gant. The films focused on what fear can do to people.  If you were Gant’s target then you were already dead.  The most effective scenes were when a banker with a guilty secret in his past attempted to buy Gant off the trail.  But Gant would not leave the town until his intended victim was dead.  The law enforcement officers can’t stop him as he was too deadly with the gun, and even managed to stare down the entire town when they tried to drive him out.  The atmosphere of paranoia and fear which pervaded the film with Gant’s arrival and Murphy’s edgy performance as Gant make it one of the most effective successors to High Noon.  At the end of the film, Gant ensured that his target was dead, but he was wounded and rode away.  He could certainly return and wreck havoc again.


[1] Riding Shotgun Warner, (d) Andre De Toth, (w) Tom Blackburn.

[2] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 700-716.

[3] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman

[4] One of the sources for High Noon was a story called The Tin Star by John Cunningham which appeared in Colliers on 6 December 1947.  Behlmer, p. 270.