Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Apocalypse and Radiation Monster Themes

There were two other Cold War Cinema themes not represented in the TCM lineup. One was the Atomic Apocalypse film: stories of civilization destroyed by nuclear war, and how the survivors cope, or don't. These included "The World, The Flesh and the Devil" (1959) and "'>Panic in the Year Zero" (1962) and were forerunners of the "post-apocalypse" films like the Mad Max series, as well as the more substantial films that dramatized effects of nuclear war, like the highly influential "'>On the Beach"(1959 ) or the lesser known but deeply affecting "'>Testament" (1983), and in one prominent case, exposed its absurdity with comedy: "'>Doctor Strangelove" (1964.)

The other probably spawned the most films, and represented perhaps the deepest and most unique fear of the nuclear age. The secrecy of the Bomb's development morphed easily into Cold War lies, particularly about the effects of radiation. From Hiroshima to the hydrogen bomb, and even after that through decades of nuclear tests, officials denied or minimized evident radiation damage to humans. The aforementioned General Groves even told a Congressional committee that death from radiation was "very pleasant."

Nevertheless, reports got out, some quite graphic, from tabloid exposes to serious journalism, like John Hersey's landmark '>Hiroshima. Information included eye-witness accounts not only of the sickness, suffering and death of those exposed to fallout, but of mutations to children born to parents affected by radiation. In a book published in 1954, Dr. David Bradley reported on 406 Pacific Islanders exposed to H-Bomb fallout: nine children were born retarded, ten more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human."

Such information, especially when government officials implied that talking about it was unpatriotic, went underground, direct to the national unconscious. The fears engendered by these new horrors could safely be expressed in the guise of what became known as the "bug-eyed monster" movies.

One of the best examples of the radiation monster genre was one of the first---'>Them!" (1954): Radiation from atomic testing in the New Mexico desert mutated a colony of ordinary ants into a race of giant ants, killing, breeding and preparing to swarm on Los Angeles and other cities, where they could begin their conquest of humanity. (This isn't in the TCM lineup.)

The film is notable today partly because it features so many future television drama stars: James Whitmore ("The Law and Mr. Jones"), James Arness ("'>Gunsmoke"), Fess Parker in a small part (Walt Disney saw him in this film and signed him up to play '>Davy Crockett, the first major baby boomer TV hero) and in an even smaller part, Leonard Nimoy.

But it is also among the most skillfully made of the bug-eyed monster films, and the clearest in its enunciation of the theme. The movie ended with this exchange: "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" asks the Arness character, an FBI man. "I don't know," says the beautiful woman scientist. "Nobody knows," says the elder scientist, her father. "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."

All kinds of mutations would follow: giant grasshoppers, preying mantises, crabs, etc. There were also human mutations---the best film of this variation was another one by Jack Arnold, "'>The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957) from a novel by Richard Matheson (who Original Series Trek fans will recall as author of the "two-Kirks" episode, "The Enemy Within.")

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