Saturday, 12 May 2012

Propaganda and Social Fears through Science Fiction (Film History)

The genre of science fiction has long served as a method of tackling social worries and concerns since before the dropping of the atom bomb in the closing days of the Second World War. From its early incarnations to modern films, many productions have served as either a moral lesson or an attempt to focus upon fears present at the time of its creation. The best examples of this can be seen in those created during the Cold War and the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” which was the 1950s.
While previous films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis presented futures in which, then current, social problems had only become increasingly worse it was the possibility of nuclear annihilation which caused a boom in the number of films featuring futuristic settings or science having turned rampant. One of the most clear cut and earliest examples of this was 1954’s Godzilla in which a personification of atomic devastation rampages through Japan causing mass devastation. Something which was a constant fear in Japan as a result of the two atom bombs being dropped at the conclusion of the Second World War, and the constant threat of the Cold War.
As noted in Chapman (2006), later examples existed in the UK such as the Quatermass film serials which explored themes of infiltration by hostile powers, spies, racism and xenophobia; and also the early Doctor Who serials. These were described in Roberts and Taylor (2001) as being “an arena for exploring the emerging issues in British life of 1963 and 1989” by Nicholas Cull, and the themes of its episodes ranged from tolerance of alien cultures (The Aztecs) to colonial oppression (The Mutants). In addition to this, its most frequently appearing villains, the Daleks, were creatures which had come into existence as a result of genetic experimentation after prolonged nuclear war. Out of all of these however, Hollywood was the earliest to address the development of atomic energy and rising tensions of the superpowers in the East and West.
While previous science fiction productions during the 1930s and 40s had frequently been earth based such as King Kong (1933) and Frankenstein (1931), films set offworld like the Flash Gordon film serials were in a minority. However, with the dropping of the atom bombs the public began to become more interested in more fantastical science fiction settings and the genre was utilised to promote . One of the most prominent examples of this is the films which sparked the explosion in the number of Hollywood’ science fiction productions – 1950’s Destination Moon.
Destination Moon presented a very pro-nuclear message with the ship, powered by uranium, defying a court order to lift off and land on the moon to begin mining operations. The court order itself is portrayed as having been the result of irrational fear and complete paranoia, overlooking any benefits due to their concern. A clear message that in spite of how atomic and nuclear technology was previously used, fear should not be allowed to hold scientists back from using it in future developments – especially ones which could help counter the “Soviet threat”. This was the first major attempt to use a science fiction film to address public concerns over the Cold War, using its more fantastical setting and distance from real life to explore subjects which were regarded as taboo. It would not be the last and a vast number of science fiction films were soon to follow it with Hollywood producing several each year. Many of these were quick to similarly tackle on-going real world issues and public fears, but very few ever presented nuclear energy in the same positive light as in Destination Moon.
With the Cold War continuing, NATO and the Soviet Union creating more weapons of mass destruction with each passing year, films began to emphasise upon the dangers and threats which came from radiation. Hollywood films frequently featured monsters born from nuclear energy, brought to life or mutated by it, which were major threats to humanity. One famous example of this was Them! from 1954, which featured ants which had been affected by radiation and as a result were rapidly increasing in size. As noted in Film4 it “displays the paranoid flipside to the 50s optimism about a brave new nuclear-powered world”. Its anti-nuclear message was primarily delivered through the characters repeatedly emphasising upon the fact that atomic detonations were to blame for the threat, something summarised by the film’s closing lines:
Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?
Dr. Patricia 'Pat' Medford: I don't know.
Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.
The statements directly link the dropping of the first atom bomb with the beginnings of a horror which comes to threaten humanity years later and questions the results of what other atomic detonations since then. This links the monster threat of the film to the continued development of atomic weapons by both sides. Cementing the idea that they serve as a substitute for the threat posed by radioactive technology and its adverse side effects on living beings as shown by then recent scientific discoveries, as noted in Lev (2003). In addition to this the monsters themselves were noted to have been arguable stand ins for the Soviets with the film noting that the ants are “savage, ruthless and courageous fighters”. Then adding to this point by stating how their society is totalitarian, utilising slave labour and with each member of a colony serving a single specific role and nothing more. A subject of fear which was to be more thoroughly explored in 1956’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers.
The film featured humans in a small town being replaced by copies of themselves, serving an alien power but lacking any distinctive traits or truly human emotions. Unlike Them! the exact message behind this film has been debated as to exactly which social fear of its time it was attempting to focus upon.
As stated in Dirks it is primarily seen as being a film of anti-Communist propaganda and a warning against infiltration, with each person in the town being no greater than any other. Having no dreams, ambitions or individual aspects which puts them above their fellows, and their only task being to serve the unseen force which has control over them. At the same time it has also been regarded as having been a criticism of McCarthyism, the paranoia caused by Communism in America or, to quote Dirks, the numbing of our individuality and emotional psyches through conformity and group-think.” There have been records from interviews and conversations with the director Don Siegel that this was completely intentional, with him stating that the film was “An allegory for Communism and McCarthyism; the traits of being "one of them" is being cold, unable to express emotion or closeness.” What is truly meaningful about this is that this clear political stance created similar trends in films of this time, as stated in Clarens (1968) many other science fiction productions containing themes of dehumanisation and the loss of individual identity. He contrasted this with the original messages in Metropolis with its warnings on the “encroachment of the machine” and considered this to be political commentary on the "the Korean War and the well publicized reports coming out of it of brainwashing techniques".
Together, the above mentioned film and Them! serve as the best example of how widespread political commentary and the addressing of contemporary issues was within science fiction. That films of this time could cover a widespread range of social anxieties. From obvious issues being generated by an ongoing arms race and an impending destruction to criticising the methods of the government and rampant paranoia, even during a continued espionage and propaganda war. That the genre responded to and addressed a wide range of social concerns even as they were taking place.
To conclude, it is clear that science fiction films do frequently serve as a response and projection of social fears. The examples above list how this was a constant presence in the genre’s most predominant age, continually having its films reflect upon issues even at the height of its popularity. This is something which has not lessened over time with many modern films such as District 9 drawing attention to fears such as racism and the past repeating itself. Even those which feature giant monsters and threats which are total fantasy feature villains and situations which can be used to comment upon current social concerns. And, as the introduction details, this was not something purely limited to Hollywood but an aspect of the science fiction genre in every country.

During, S. 2005. The Cultural Studies Reader. New York and Canada: Routledge.
Tarratt, M. 1970. Monsters from the Id. In: Grant, B. 2003. Film Genre Reader III. Texas: University of Texas Press.
Metropolis, 1927. [Film] Directed by Fritz Lang. Weimar Republic: UFA.
Destination Moon, 1950. [Film] Directed by Irving Pitchel. USA: George Pal Productions.
Godzilla, 1954. [Film] Directed by Ishiro Honda. Japan: Toho.
Them!, 1954. [Film] Directed by Gordon Douglas. USA: Warner Bros.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956. [Film] Directed by Don Diegel. USA: Allied Artists Pictures.


Chapman, J. 2006. Inside the Tardis, The World of Doctor Who. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.
Clarens C. 1968. An Illustrated History of the Horror Film.  United Kingdon, Capricorn Books.
Dirks, T. Filmsite Movie Review Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) [online] Available at: <> [Accessed: 22nd March 2012]
Film4’s Them! (1954) [online] Available at: <> [Accessed: 22nd March 2012]
Lev, P. 2006. The Fifties, Transforming The Screen 1950-1959. London, University of California Press. pp. 186
Roberts, G. & Taylor, P. 2001. The Historian, television and Television History. Luton: University.

No comments:

Post a Comment