Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Invasion Theme

One kind of Cold War era movie is the space invasion film, a stand-in for the threat of attack from the sky by earth aliens (i.e. Soviets.) Whatever actual threat existed, it was government policy to encourage the idea. "In order to make the country bear the burden, " said President Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, referring to the arms race of the Cold War, "we have to create an emotional atmosphere akin to a wartime psychology. We must create the idea of a threat from without."

The "bolt from the blue" was burned deep in the modern American psyche by the devastating surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor. (Hiroshima, some observers felt, was in part a revenge for that attack.) But even before that attack occurred, Americans were nervous about one, as proven by the panic during the '>Orson Welles radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" in 1938, three years before Pearl Harbor.

So it shouldn't be surprising that one of the first and probably the best Cold War era space invasion film was the 1953 George Pal production of "'>War of the Worlds." Since it isn't included in this series---and since I'll be writing about it next week, prior to the Spielberg version's general release-I'll say only that it was the best film of that era in expressing fears of a technologically superior enemy with intelligence so alien and hostile that communication with it was impossible.

The analogies to the Soviet had to do with their surprising technical achievements---they exploded their own atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb far sooner than Americans predicted. American scientists as well as citizens would be shocked again a few years later when the Soviets orbited the first artificial satellite, and rocketed the first man into space.

Add to that the image of the Soviets as incomprehensibly alien. This was partly a product of the Soviets' closed society (few American journalists or visitors permitted inside Russia), partly due to Communism, which was portrayed as an alien system: economic, political, cultural and even in terms of basic beliefs, for the fact that the Soviet Union was officially atheist was often stressed in American descriptions.

It was also partly because of self-serving western propaganda and the dramatic effect of portraying Russians as threatening and even superhuman---when they weren't been portrayed as backward dolts driving broken-down old cars without tail fins. Demonizing the enemy is an old habit that nation states found helpful in galvanizing war efforts, including the U.S. when it mocked and demonized the Germans and Japanese racially. The stupidity if not cynicism of this ploy becomes obvious when enemy nations become our friends, as these did, and as Russia now is.

The theme of invasion by aliens is represented in the TCM festival by several films illustrating different aspects of the genre. "'>Earth vs. the Flying Saucers"(1956) is a pure invasion drama that also takes advantage of the popular phenomenon of UFO sightings, which became prominent as the Cold War began. It features B movie plot and acting but A level visual effects by the master of stop-motion, Ray Harryhausen.

It takes place in Washington, D.C., as did the earlier "'>Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), but except for the location, the trigger-happy soldiers and the fact they're both in black and white, this one has nothing in common with the Robert Wise masterpiece, which unmasked the self-destructive madness of the Cold War just as it was starting. The weapon the earthlings eventually employ is a nice metaphor for the brassy 50s, but its amusement quotient is dimmed by recent news that far more sophisticated sonic weapons are actually being deployed in the Middle East.

Another alien invasion film showcasing the talents of Ray Harryhausen is "'>20 Million Miles to Earth" (1957), with a creature reminiscent of "King Kong" in its basically sympathetic nature, goaded into destructive behavior. Not a memorable film, it suggests a slightly different attitude towards the Cold War.

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