Communists, Monsters, and Forbidden Planets: Science Fiction Films in the Postwar Era

 

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Forbidden Planet [Credit: MGM]

When World War II ended on September 2nd, 1945, the world had been changed.  Europe had been decimated, America emerged as a world superpower, and Berlin was about to split into the East and the West.   The atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan and the Soviet Union had successfully developed their own atomic weapons. The Cold War was about to begin.   Television was only a few years away from becoming mainstream and Hollywood would soon begin to struggle as a (partial) result of the rise of television.   The Red Scare began to take shape with the start of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklisting began.  “Problem pictures” started to fade to the background of Hollywood’s output and the types of films made shifted industry-wide.  Science fiction films had a dramatic shift in the post-war years in thematic approach but would produce some of the most important films in the genre in an era that would become known as the golden age of science fiction.

Monster/Sci-Fi Films From The 1930s

 

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Frankenstein [Credit: Universal]

Proceeding the post-war years, Science Fiction films looked very different than what it would become. The science fiction films of the 1930s and early 1940s were more rooted in serials and monster movies.  The movie serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were fluffy, low budget, fun, escapism and aimed at younger audiences.  The science fiction monster films of the era were deeply rooted in also the horror such as Frankenstein, King Kong, The Invisible Man and The Island of Lost Souls.

Many of these included the tropes of a mad doctor and their fiendish creation.  The mad doctors were always the villains with the monster being portrayed as sympathetic or misunderstood.  The deaths of King Kong and Frankenstein’s monster were tragic events, not joyous ones.    Some of the monsters would be recast as heroes in later pictures like The Invisible Man (whom infamously fought against the Nazi regime in the Invisible Agent).  The monster films were born out the 1920s with actors like Lon Chaney whose grotesque makeup resembled injured World War I veterans.

The Post War Years

 

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It Came From Beneath The Sea [Credit: Columbia Page]

During the postwar era, the films started to take a decidedly different turn.  Science fiction films dropped the low budget serials and embraced a more spectacle-driven approach. In attempts to compete with the growing competition of television, Hollywood began pushing spectacle-driven projects.  Science fiction was no exception.  The budgets grew and special effects took on a bigger focus with stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen rising to prominence (protégé of King Kong animator Will O’ Brian).  Massive monster movies like It Came From Beneath The Sea, Them!, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and imports of Japan’s Godzilla films were big business for Hollywood at this time.  Along with the B-movie low budget counterparts, science fiction was bringing in the money for the studios.

These science fiction monster movies were far different from the monster movies of the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s.  These monsters were not sympathetic; they caused massive amounts of destruction and death.  The decidedly more conservative state of the United States (having fought real-life monsters like Adolf Hitler) was far less sympathetic to the on-screen monsters.  Even British films took this approach where Hammer Studios would remake one of the classic monster movies of the 1930s, Frankenstein, and titled it The Curse of Frankenstein.  Frankenstein’s monster was portrayed as a murderer and violent instead of a misunderstood beast.

The Political And Social Influences Of The Time

 

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Atomic Bomb-Nagasaki (1945) 

 

The monsters of US films reflected the growing fear of nuclear destruction.  These massive monsters were bred by nuclear bombs or radiation.  The fear of nuclear destruction extended to other science fiction such as The Day the World Ended directed by famed low budget filmmaker Roger Corman.  Corman centered the story around after the atomic war where survivors battle it out with mutant monsters.

During this time of the nuclear age, the US Air Force pilots started to break the sound barrier and a countrywide interest in science began to spark.  The public started to get the appetite for space travel (the space race starting in 1957) and films about aliens and space travel became big business.  Films like The Thing from Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Invaders from Mars drove in big bucks at the box office.

The aliens, much like the monster movies of this era, were not typically shown in a positive light.  Gremlins director Joe Dante noted this about the era in the documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue,

“Tells a lot about where this country was and the world was…the political situation at the time there were few quote “liberal” science fiction movies…it was much easier and much more spectacular to do aliens that were out to get us.”

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The Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Credit: Walter Wanger Productions]
The political climate-informed much of the science fiction films of the 1950s.  The most famous example is The Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed Don Siegel and famously starring Walter Wanger.  Unlike the monster movies and alien invader movies, this movie has caused much debate in the decades since its release.  Film critics Leonard Martin and Roger Ebert both thought it was an attack on McCarthyism.  However, BBC’s David Wood said,

“The sense of post-war, anti-communist paranoia is acute, as is the temptation to view the film as a metaphor for the tyranny of the McCarthy era.”

Forbidden Planet

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Forbidden Planet [Credit: MGM]
The most famous science fiction of the era would signal America’s renewed interest in exploration and space travel, Forbidden Planet.  A game changer for the genre, it included a cast Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and then young star Leslie Nelson.  It was directed by Fred Wilcox and considered one of building blocks towards contemporary Sci-Fi and partly adapted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  It took place entirely in space and introduced the idea of faster than the speed of light travel to mainstream thought.  The film’s robot character, Robby the Robert, has since become an icon of pop culture.  The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry has noted the film as inspiration when creating Star Trek only a decade later.

The Death And Return Of Sci-Fi

 

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2001: A Space Oddessy [Credit: MGM]

Star Trek only lasted three seasons of television in the mid-1960s.  The public had grown disinterested in science fiction in both film and the rival TV mediums.  Once the Space Race began the public’s interest shifted from science fiction to the reality of space travel.  Science fiction became largely dormant in the 60s (with only films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes breaking through).  It wasn’t until the 1970s that science fiction made a comeback.

But, with the large amounts of success that Sci-Fi films had in the postwar years, it isn’t hard to understand why many film scholars and critics called it, “the golden age of science fiction.”  An age and lineup of films and filmmakers that fit with the growing political and social attitudes of the era; perfectly suited for the growing appetite for spectacle films, science fiction thrived in the post-war years and would be an era long remembered by filmmakers and moviegoers.

 

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