For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today’s News
1950s Science Fiction and 9/11
  • Melvin E. Matthews, Jr.
Reviews Table of Contents Introduction «Back
Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today’s News. 1950s Science Fiction and 9/11
Sound Bite
Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today's News — 1950s Science Fiction Films and 9/11 is far more than a well-researched summary of science fiction films. Matthews examines one of America’s most popular film forms and provides a thoughtful interpretation that should tantalize not only fans of the science fiction genre but also sociologists, film his¬torians, and politicians.

About the Author

Melvin E. Matthews, Jr. is a freelance writer and a horror movie aficionado who has been studying the genre for fifty years. He is also an Internet business owner. In this work he shares his personal correspondence with film and television star Beverly Garland, and brings together a wealth of detail about the fun and the challenges of the costumes, stunts and special effects, as well as the actors’ and producers’ thoughts on the meaning behind the stories.

About the Book

1950s Cold War-era monsters meet 21st century terrorists: this exploration of sci-fi movies examines the similarities and differences between the political environment and popular culture of two eras. This examination and...

1950s Cold War-era monsters meet 21st century terrorists: this exploration of sci-fi movies examines the similarities and differences between the political environment and popular culture of two eras. This examination and appreciation of 1950s science fiction films includes behind-the-scenes tales about their production and many quotes from those who produced and starred in the films. The author draws parallels between the Cold War fears of the 1950s and 60s and the constant “terrorism alerts” of the September 11th era, exploring how the politics and the psychological climate of the times influences and is reflected in this vehicle of popular culture.

This book is the first of its kind, studying the pop culture genre in the wake of the September 11th tragedy. It shows that, whatever the era and whatever the challenges and crises confronting America, many entertainment themes remain the same, reflecting their respective times and the relevant issues. For instance, Godzilla, the only Fifties-era monster to remain a “movie star” beyond that era, could be fashioned to reflect whatever issues dominate the times, be they nuclear war in the Fifties when Godzilla originated to a Seventies Godzilla film about environmental pollution. Conceivably a Godzilla for the age of terrorism is possible. “Them”! the 1954 atomic mutation classic, is the spiritual ancestor of the 2002 film “Eight Legged Freaks.” The alien invaders of the Fifties signified a Russian invasion of America, while other films of the genre, such as “Invaders from Mars,” depicted aliens utilizing mind control to manipulate humans to commit acts of sabotage, signifying Communist enslavement. If such a film were made now, such invaders could be seen as terrorist masterminds using human slaves to commit terrorist acts. Finally, several Fifties films depicted the end of the world at a time when Americans expected a nuclear war with Russia. The immediate pre-September 11th era witnessed films presenting galactic threats to mankind’s existence (“Independence Day,” “Deep Impact,” “Armageddon”), while the early 2000s witnessed the popularity of the “Left Behind” Christian films dramatizing the Tribulation period in the Book of Revelation.


Introduction

Historically, American terror films became popular entertainment during crisis moments. Undoubtedly, the classic horror films that made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff became popular during the Great Depression because they provided an escape from the genuine horrors of economic suffering. The genre’s popularity...

Historically, American terror films became popular entertainment during crisis moments. Undoubtedly, the classic horror films that made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff became popular during the Great Depression because they provided an escape from the genuine horrors of economic suffering. The genre’s popularity carried over into World War II. Similarly, science fiction was a Hollywood staple during the Cold War, when anxieties about Communist subversion and nuclear war gave rise to stories of extraterrestrials and radiation-sired mutations. Instead of directly facing up to the realities of Communism and nuclear war, Hollywood addressed these issues metaphorically: Alien invaders represented the Russians, while giant ants personified the Bomb, just as Godzilla embodied Hiroshima for the Japanese.

It can be said that the genesis of this book began against the backdrop of the Cold War when I was a first grader at Garden City Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia, during the 1961-1962 school year. Civil defense and fallout shelters were hot issues at the time, and my classmates and I were marched into the school hallway as part of civil defense drills. One day, thinking I was supposed to miss the school bus home as part of a civil defense drill, I walked down Garden City Boulevard toward home. I would have walked all the way, too, if my teacher had not seen me, stopped, picked me up, and driven me home.

At the same time, one of the neighbors on our street, Tiny Thompson, was an on-air personality at the NBC affiliate station WSLS. On Saturday evening, Thompson hosted Saturday Theater, which featured recent science fiction films. Thompson had a gimmick: When hosting the show, he sat with a mynah bird perched on his shoulder. As a youngster, I was too scared to watch these films; I finally sat down and watched the giant ant classic Them! in its entirety. If memory serves me correctly, in 1964 Mom took me and a friend, Al Albany, downtown to the now vanished Jefferson Theater to see two horror films: The Curse of the Living Corpse and The Horror of Party Beach, the latter a ’50s style film combining elements of beach party, motorcycle, and mutation films. Even earlier, my parents took me to another now-defunct film establishment, the Riverside Drive-In, where I saw my first Godzilla film, King Kong vs. Godzilla. During these years, I assembled the classic Aurora movie monster model kits and had a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

The memories of that era faded over time. At the end of the 1960s, they began resurfacing. As a ninth grader, I saw a copy of Life’s end-of-the-decade issue where one page featured a photograph of a family in their fallout shelter. By the time I saw the magazine, that image seemed faraway but then it came back to me. More memories returned when, as a sophomore in High School, I discovered a book in the school library, Frank Manchel’s Terrors of the Screen, which included a brief mention about the science fiction films of the 1950s that Tiny Thompson had introduced on television during my early school years.

Out of all this emerged my interest in the ’50s. For me, the movie monsters and civil defense symbolized a “placid” era that gave way to the chaotic, psychedelic ’60s. In the 1980s I began writing a book about the late ’50s and early ’60s, but then put it aside to get a BA degree in History and Communications. My senior thesis in History dealt with the Cold War’s impact on American cinema in the ’50s. Once college was completed, I wrote two book-length manuscripts on the ’50s, neither of which went anywhere.

Then came September 11.’ An article in Time appearing shortly after the attacks caught my attention. It described how great historical events from World War I onward have shaped popular culture. This gave me the idea for a history of popular culture from World War I to the War on Terror. An editor I consulted suggested that, as my expertise was in pop culture, a history of the ’50s could be tied to September 11, citing concerns over civil liberties that arose during both eras. Thus the book that emerged from that labor is now a reality.

Several people deserve acknowledgement for their contributions to this book: Beverly Garland, star of 41 feature films and nearly 700 television programs and a successful businesswoman, graciously provided comments on her participation in the motion picture It Conquered the World, as well as providing general comments; Mark Dellinger, an attorney, furnished advice without being greedy about his fee; Robyn Schon shared her business expertise in reviewing my contract; Chris Hartness, my computer repairman, helped me master the techniques of transferring WordPerfect documents to Microsoft Word; and Eleanor Levine helped edit the final manuscript. I also thank Algora Publishing for their work in preparing the book for publication; and the staff of Photofest for all their assistance in providing the photographs for the book.

 

 

Prologue

 

“It was like a movie.” Thus did media commentator and film critic Neal Gabler characterize the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001 and the public’s reaction to those events. First there was an explosion and resulting fireball, followed by the collapse of the buildings, “the dazed and panicked victims,” finally culminating in the President’s speech promising action — all of which could have been drawn from a movie. Life again imitated art when the White House press secretary reported threats to the presidential plane, reminiscent of the movie Air Force One.

The plotters who planned the events of 9/11, in Gabler’s view, had drawn from Hollywood images to create their “own real-life disaster movie,” one greater than anything Hollywood could offer and surpassing even the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. When the first of the Twin Towers was attacked, no camera could be expected to be present to record the event; hence the terrorists arranged for a second attack, after sufficient time had elapsed; that second impact would definitely be recorded and replayed from different angles for a good long while.

The planning of the operation seemed to be like a movie as well. One could visualize the perpetrators making their plans “in a series of quick parallel cuts,” stowing knives in bags, then driving to the airports to board the planes; and then jumping from their seats to take over the planes and execute their deadly scheme.

It was at this point that the terrorists’ movie ended. But, for Americans, this was Act I. This would be followed by Act II — the investigation and hunt for the perpetrators — and, finally, Act III — retribution and America triumphant.

One scene, recorded as it actually happened during the tragedy of September 11, again illustrated the cinematic quality of the scenario. That morning, immediately after the World Trade Center had been hit, a team of video-journalists was dispatched into the streets of New York City to record, live, as the videocassette of their footage says, “the horror and human drama of the unfolding tragedy.” At 10:28 a.m., the trade center’s North Tower collapsed, unleashing a massive cloud of dust and debris that rolled down the streets. The cloud rolled by what appears to be a coffee shop where one of the videographers happened to be rolling her camera. She was hustled inside the shop, her camera still running. As she continued filming, the dust cloud rolled by the shop window, like a giant blob, shutting out the daylight. “The world just went black,” a voice is heard over the scene saying, “and, at that point, everybody was scrambling to breathe. There was no daylight at all.” Over all this, the videographer is heard hysterically conveying her thanks for being rescued.

Looking at that scene could evoke a feeling of déja vu. After all, it had been a mere three years since the Big Apple had trembled under Godzilla’s onslaught and, 45 years before that, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had wreaked havoc in the same city.

The years immediately preceding 9/11 were saturated with Hollywood images of disaster. Besides the aforementioned Godzilla (1998), aliens had zapped New York, Los Angeles, the White House, and the Capitol Building in Independence Day (1996), while asteroids and meteors slammed into Earth, creating havoc in New York in Deep Impact and Armageddon (both 1998).

Even earlier, during the 1950s (seen nostalgically as Happy Days), America had faced destruction from invading aliens (though occasionally some of these otherworldly visitors were benign) or atomic mutants — the latter the result of man’s nuclear weapons testing. Martians sought to conquer Earth in George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953); alien ships crashed into the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956); giant mutant ants emerged from the New Mexican deserts to menace Los Angeles in Them! (1954).

One film professor has noted that movies help determine how we view the world. In that sense, the science fiction films of the ’50s, “with their depiction of alien attacks against the United States, helped encourage the spread of a paranoid style: a tendency to see conspiracies as the driving force behind political developments.” He notes that scenes of urban destruction have been symbols for forces the public feared. In that sense, Godzilla symbolized Japan’s unease over nuclear weapons, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a metaphor for what Americans perceived as communist brainwashing.

Half a century separates the 1950s from the September 11 era. Comparing the two eras in a New York Times article shortly after the World Trade Center’s demise, Patricia Leigh Brown found similarities and differences between them. Threats of doomsday in both eras attracted entrepreneurs: salesmen peddled fallout shelters door-to-door during the Cold War, while their September 11 counterparts sold gas masks and Cipro — the latter an antidote to anthrax (don’t forget the anthrax scare that immediately followed 9/11). The Cold War-era Federal Civil Defense Administration promoted the publication of bogus newspaper front pages and entire issues of magazines depicting a fictitious post-doomsday world. Civil defense messages were targeted at specific groups. Bert the Turtle taught American children how to “Duck and Cover.” Their mothers were told to supply their fallout shelters with canned foods and other survival items in the same way their grandmothers supplied their pantries, making nuclear war merely another household issue.

In the September 11 world, anxiety prevention counsel is no longer gender specific: an issue of Men’s Health provided its readers with the “25 Best Ways” for men to protect their families, including “leveling with them” and avoiding obesity as “a fit man evacuates his family faster from a burning house.” According to Ladies’ Home Journal reader polls taken after the terrorist attacks, revenge fantasies had supplanted sexual dreams, with 26% of poll respondents saying they had them at least once daily.

Not to be left out, the newly created Office of Homeland Security planned to issue guidelines to help Americans prepare for possible domestic terrorist assaults. The State Department’s online “Reward for Justice” program proclaimed that children of terrorists “often enroll in schools in the middle of the year and may leave prior to the end with little or no notice.”

The similarities aside, a vast difference exists between the America of the early twenty-first century and that of half a century ago. Then, Cold War civil defense measures were meant to prepare Americans for nuclear attack, not for fighting a war. The September 11 attacks convinced Americans that the unimaginable notion of a direct assault on the United States itself was quite possible. Moreover, Americans’ attitudes toward their government have changed radically during the last fifty years. In the 1950s Americans possessed unquestioning faith in what their government told them. After all, this was the era when everyone trusted Ike to look after them. There was a sense of national unity and consensus. Vietnam and Watergate shattered that unity, creating a sense of skepticism that prevails to this day. The anxieties of the Cold War/nuclear age prompted an upswing in American religiosity. The early 2000s have witnessed an erosion of Christianity from the American mainstream in favor of tolerance of other religions and a belief that it is politically correct to accept diverse faiths.

Despite the similarities and differences between the ’50s and the September 11 age, one common thread links both eras: the American tendency to dismiss hysteria. During the ’50s, most Americans weren’t stampeding to build fallout shelters and, as Patricia Leigh Brown noted, shortly after 9/11, a sense of calm returned to American life: “Sales of nouveau shelters are on the wane, and having now stashed away drinking water and duct tape, Americans appear to be overcoming their jitters and, lured by bargain fares, are beginning to fly again. . . . And no one has proposed the contemporary equivalent of ‘Bert the Turtle’ — yet.”

Before the ’50s, very few science fiction films came out of Hollywood. Those filmed in the 1930s were mainly British productions set thousands of years in the future, in a world where the inhabitants wore togas and said things like, “Our Brother, the Giver of Power, is yonder.” One critic noted that people of the future wore Tudor attire, looking more like they lived in the past. Science fiction virtually disappeared from the screen during World War II. Then, “a few of the early postwar space movies,” noted film historian Nora Sayre, “suggested a return to the frontier and a revival of the pioneer spirit among those who set off to explore the moon.”

The science fiction boom of the ’50s owed its existence to several reasons: World War II and the advent of the atomic bomb; a change in the public’s attitude toward scientists, which elevated such figures as Wernher von Braun and Albert Einstein to celebrity status; the Cold War between East and West, and Soviet and American competition in rocket technology; anxiety over nuclear war and paranoia over communist subversion; and the “flying saucer” scare. Consequently, ’50s science fiction films were characterized by several themes: the atomic bomb and its consequences; the effects of atomic radiation; alien invasion and alien possession; and world destruction.

Like war films, science fiction films depicted America confronting a crisis situation, requiring everyone to unite together to win — only this time, not just America but civilization itself is at stake. Compared with ’30s horror films, ’50s science fiction movies were more subdued both in atmosphere and in the acting — the latter illustrating ’50s conformity. Washington and science became the saviors of America in science fiction. Science created the monster but also provided the means to eradicate it. Peter Biskind’s The Other featured alien monsters threatening the center. The latter also distrusted utopianism as illustrated by advanced otherworldly civilizations that attacked Earth because they had despoiled their own home worlds.

Many of the themes born of the Cold War also apply to the present War on Terrorism that began with September 11, 2001. As with the alien invaders, America is told that it faces an implacable enemy out to destroy our way of life, and any disunity, any questioning of ends or means, is painted as disloyalty. We once again turn to Washington for guidance and deliverance from the threat. The enemy, they say, seeks to replace our way of life with his own Islamic system. While times have changed, the threat remains just about the same.

Chapter 1. Hostile Aliens: The Thing and The War of the Worlds

 

“I first became aware of a movie called The Thing when I saw the original film,” recalls film director John Carpenter. “It was 1952, and I would’ve been about four or five years old. I think I saw it in a re-release. It was one of those films where, as you watched it, it was so frightening, that my popcorn flew out of my hands....


Table of Contents
Introduction Author’s Introduction Prologue

Introduction
Author’s Introduction
Prologue
Chapter 1
Hostile Aliens: The Thing and The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds
Chapter 2. Hostile Aliens: The Mind Controllers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
It Conquered the World
Chapter 3. Friendly Alien Visitors
It Came from Outer Space
This Island Earth
Chapter 4. Visions of the Apocalypse: The End of the World
When Worlds Collide
The Next Voice You Hear. . .

Chapter 5. Atomic Mutants: Animal and Human
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Them!
Godzilla
Incredible Shrinking and Colossal Men
Chapter 6. The Road to September 11
Hostile Alien Invaders
The Mind Controllers
Friendly Alien Visitors: E.T. the Extraterrestrial
The End of the World
Mutants
The Culture War: Pleasantville
The September 11 Era: Return of the B-Movies
Bibliography

Reviews
CITY Magazine, July 2007 | More »
The Roanoke Times | More »
BOOK NEWS, Inc. | More »
Categories

Pages 180
Year: 2007
LC Classification: PN1995.9.S26M356
Dewey code: 791.43'6150973--dc22
BISAC: FIC021000
BISAC: FIC028032
BISAC: FIC026560
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-497-6
Price: USD 22.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-498-3
Price: USD 29.95
eBook
ISBN: 978-0-87586-499-0
Price: USD 22.95
Available from

Search the full text of this book