The religiosity and propaganda of 1950s B-Movie cinema 28 August 2012
The 1950s saw a time when cinemagoers were treated to some of the most epic religious movies of all time, with grandiose movies including Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951), Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959). These films helped bring religion, in particular the battle of good versus evil into the realm of modern culture and post-war society, not only portraying the Biblical message and its tales of adventure, violence and morality but also showing the decadence and lavishness of Hollywood movie makers who would employ casts of thousands to support the stars that became household names, such as Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Victor Mature and many others.
However, underneath the glamour of the Hollywood lights a more subversive cinema was present. The B-Movie genre of this time, created essentially to be shown before the main feature and usually on a low budget, have become the object of both cult following and ridicule. However, underneath the ham acting, low budget costume and special effects, garnering endless jokes from Science Fiction fans about flying saucers on strings and men in rubber suits, lies a plethora of analogy and metaphor depicting political, scientific and religious climes of the time utilising the modern and teen cultures to promote the ideals of Western culture.
Post-war America saw a time of unprecedented economic growth that saw it grow into a world superpower and a symbol of wealth and morality, opposed to Soviet Communism. Conservative Protestants (including evangelist Billy Graham, religious editor Carl Henry, and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover) presented their anti-Communist message to countless Americans suggesting that Conservative Protestantism played an influential role in the shaping of American Cold War culture. With this constant fear pervading the U.S. government, paranoia and fear of Soviet attack would generate extreme forms of anti-Communism, with civil liberties trampled in the investigations to unearth “treason, disloyalty and ‘un-American’ activities” mounted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the political right.
Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one of many films from this era that emphasises this paranoia to the audience and the suspicion that all is not what it seems. The film is an allegory for the fear and paranoia prevalent in 1950s America and the threat of Communist invasion exacerbated by McCarthy’s ‘witch hunts’ during the 1940s and 1950s.
Although the film is predominantly a propaganda tool it does raise questions as to the nature of the soul and humanity, in this case the Communists take the form of giant green pods that replicate the body of its intended victim, apart from the most vital part, the soul. As such these pods are represented as cold unemotional beings highlighting the belief that what makes one human is the soul. Barasch explains “people have believed that within everyone of us there dwells a mysterious, yet real, force that, though not visible and not tangible, turns us into the person we are; and when it leaves our body, at the moment of death, we cease to be what we were”. In the film this moment of death is represented while a person sleeps and is taken over.
This is also significant in considering the aspects of propaganda within this film, for not only is the soul taken but it is also a warning for one to always remain alert to an enemy. Whether it be Communists or some form of evil, the film warns of eternal vigilance against perceived evil.
For many in America “Communism was nothing less than a sinister force seeking to subvert Christianity and American freedom and individualism”. As such Communism was not only seen as anti-American but anti-Christian. The view of L. Nelson Bell, the executive editor of Christian Today, was that the ultimate purpose of Communism “is complete domination of the world” and that “America is in the gravest danger in her history”. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the F.B.I. from 1935 – 1972, used more aggressive terms to warn of the Communist threat: “The Communists are today spraying the world with ideological and propaganda missiles designed to create a deadly radioactive cloud of Marxism-Leninism,” with the “deadliest” missiles targeting the “Christian pulpit” to be “liquidated, pitilessly, mercilessly, finally.” Hoover continued to argue that Communism in its rejection of God became “a fanatical, Satanic, brutal phenomenon.”
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was in essence a metaphor for the perceived infiltration of Communism into American society in the 1950s. What is seen in the film is that propaganda was not just a political tool, but also a tool to gain justification for the Christian right against a purported threat from an ideology they saw as oppressive, thus making attempts through cinema to not only show how this ideology was inherently evil but also inhuman.
This sense of inhumanity was intensified in the 1953 film version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which brings to the fore the argument of science versus religion. The film, unlike Wells’ original imagining is embroidered with religious symbology and political metaphor, ranging from the abstract of the Martians to the obvious quoting of the Psalms in the naïve belief that they must be “closer to the creator” due to their superior intellect.
The film’s symbology invokes images of hell linking the intellectual Martians with the serpent in the book of Genesis. Their spaceships are smoldering, radioactive vehicles that suggest fire, sulphur and brimstone resembling snakes, each with a three segmented “eye” of their cobra-like vehicles suggesting some form of diabolical trinity.
As with many films that tackle the issue of science against religion we find that religion generally prevails and War of the Worlds is certainly no exception. From the very outset of the film, we are informed that the aliens not only have a superior intellect but are also “cold and unsympathetic” contrasting intellect to warmth and humanity. However, man underestimates the Martians’ technological advancements and their lack of humanity. This misunderstanding is highlighted when the priest who believes that all creatures are created by God treads carefully towards them reciting Psalm 23:4 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”. Little does he realise that there is nothing remotely human about the Martians as he is immediately reduced to dust. Mankind soon realises that their attempts to defeat the aliens with technological means, including dropping an atom bomb, are futile. With their attempts futile, mankind flees the cities in scenes reminiscent of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt from life of slavery under Pharaoh, to a promised land of safety.
Mark Jancovich, Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia and author of Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s suggests that religion is “the last refuge of the terrified, a sanctuary in which people hide from the horror that stalks their world. It is the definitive painkiller, Marx’s famous “opiate of the masses” in the face of humankind’s inevitable destruction”. However, by the end of the film it is clear that technology is not enough to defeat the Martians so the people resort to prayer. It is here, when mankind’s destruction seems inevitable, that the Martians succumb to germs that their bodies have no immunity to. The narrator returns, again decreeing the religious theme of the film, gravely concluding that “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed by the littlest of all the things that God had put on earth”. Although the defeat of the Martians is described as unexpected, film critic Peter Biskind offers an insightful understanding of post-war America in which many believed “that their country had the endorsement of the Almighty, the Divine Seal of Approval”.
By understanding the social context in which the film was produced it is easy to grasp the religiosity of George Pal’s The War of the Worlds. On closer examination the film reveals that it is more than just a metaphor for a Soviet invasion. Pal and screenwriter Barré Lyndon used religion in an attempt to reinforce the link that featured so eminently in post-war America between this perceived “Divine Seal of Approval” with God on their side and opposition to Communist aggression.
As with the majority of B-Movie cinema there was always an underlying message, whether it was warnings not to play with science, science versus technology, the promotion of Western Christian values or the underlying threat of the Cold War. These messages were exacerbated by President Truman’s administration and Senator McCarthy’s ‘witch hunt’ trials which were a regular feature in the media. These films were designed to dispel the irrationality of ‘status anxiety’. New York Times Deputy Editor, Rick Lyman addresses this issue by suggesting that “Many have cited xenophobia or cold-war fears with spawning a cycle of films in the 1950s and 60s about alien attacks and infiltrating monsters from outer space” later adding that “the era that seems to many to fit the current national mood most closely was the early 50s”. The concerns regarding atomic radiation, monstrous or invisible killers that could steal your soul without your knowing were translated into popular culture.
It can be considered that these films used such allegory as religion, monsters and aliens to quell the concerns of the people amid the threat of war with Soviet Russia. In doing so these film employed traditional storylines such as that from the Bible, or literature and use the language of science fiction to provide an entertaining, and sometimes frightening, view of the modern world, but a world where Western ideals and Christian morality always prevailed.