Corruption greed and lessons from space

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The years immediately following the Second World War represented, in hindsight at least, something of a boom time for liberal and left-wing filmmakers in Hollywood. The war had exposed a number of America's social problems which producers, sensing that topical subject matter would be profitable, were happy to play with on screen. Scriptwriters and directors on the political left used this rare opportunity to advance egalitarian or democratic themes, or to make pictures that, like Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947), dwelt on hitherto taboo issues such as American anti-Semitism.2 The onset of the Cold War and HUAC's hearings in Hollywood in late 1947 by and large put paid to these 'message' pictures. However, while the case of the Hollywood Ten (which included Dmytryk) was making its way through the courts, some liberal opposition remained alive, and a handful of films seriously questioned some of the basic tenets of American society. All the King's Men (1949) and The Lawless (1949), made by the communists Robert Rossen and Joseph Losey respectively, analysed the nature of political and social oppression, while Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (1948) suggested that corruption, greed and murder were at the core of Western society. Frank Capra's political comedy State of the Union (1948) both critiqued American conservatism and espoused one-world internationalism.3

By mid-1952, only one of these directors, Frank Capra, was free to work in the United States.4 Chaplin had been forced into exile by the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, and Rossen, Losey and Polonsky were blacklisted. Dmytryk was effectively on parole. Having been imprisoned for contempt in 1950, he had cooperated with HUAC in 1951, and a year later was hired by Stanley Kramer, whose production company worked under Columbia's banner. Kramer, as we shall see, went on to make some of the boldest, most socially conscious movies to come out of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, and was an early example of the Hollywood liberal who took a sceptical view of the Cold War.5

By the early 1950s, the Cold War and McCarthyism were both in full swing. A small number of filmmakers reacted to this either by expressing concern with the direction American foreign policy was taking, or by highlighting the negative impact anti-communism was having on American society. Sciencefiction movies flourished throughout the Cold War and especially during the 1950s, when seemingly omnipresent images of aliens, giant insects and white-coated megalomaniacs projected the United States as a nation in a constant state of alert. While such images have been submitted to a multitude of interpretations over the years, there seems little doubt that the majority of them dramatised the need for Americans to pull together in the face of internal and external political and social threats. Some science-fiction movies had more obvious Cold War connotations than others. Dozens of films, like Christian Nyby's The Thing (1951) and William Cameron Menzies' Invaders from Mars (1953), made quite overt connections between the danger to national security posed by aliens devoid of both moral sense and emotion, and the threat feared from the Red Menace. Others, such as the slug-like movements of Irvin S. Yeoworth, Jr.'s The Blob (1958), provided an objective correlative for the right-wing fear of 'creeping communism'. Brian Murphy, among others, has argued that the vast majority of these 'monster movies' buttressed the moral and political order: by showing the authorities and scientists collaborating against their abominable foe, by depicting ordinary Americans doing exactly as they were told, and by teaching viewers that there was no turning back the technological clock.6

If most filmmakers exploited for politically conservative ends one of the decade's more artistically exciting genres, a few others used the greater freedom which science fiction — with its fantastic plots and peculiar conventions — afforded for social and political dissent. Boasting a horrific assortment of radiation-engendered mutant monsters which threatened Earth with death and destruction, films like Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) articulated the fears that many Americans had of an atomic age spiralling out of control.7 During the 1940s and 1950s, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations generally took the view that aggressively disseminating atomic information was the best way to offset Americans' fears of nuclear weapons and science. This contrasted with the situation in the Soviet Union and Britain, the two other members of the 'nuclear club', whose governments avoided publicity whenever possible.8 Washington was of course highly selective in terms of the nuclear information it spread; among the material it suppressed (until 1970) was explicit documentary footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, shot by a Japanese film crew in August 1945.9 The government also encouraged a public discourse that made 'disarmament' a dirty word, one synonymous with 1930s-style appeasement, neutralism or even subversion.10

In late 1953, in response to the new Soviet leadership's peace overtures that summer, and growing public disquiet about the arms race brought on by Moscow's recent successful hydrogen bomb test, Eisenhower breathed new life into the US government's nuclear propaganda offensive by launching his 'Atoms for Peace' campaign at the United Nations. A formula that spoke of pooling international atomic resources for humanitarian purposes, 'Atoms for Peace' was one of many imaginative initiatives aimed at enhancing America's status as the world's leading proponent of peace and progress. In the decade following this, Washington produced or financed at least fifty short films for domestic and worldwide distribution showing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.11 Film studios like Disney and other 'private' agencies played their part in this long-running campaign by utilising official information to make movies that, like Disney's Our Friend the Atom (1957), made nuclear energy appear exciting and safe.12 This material came on top of the ubiquitous 'duck-and-cover'

instruction shorts for school children, and other officially sanctioned civil defence pamphlets, broadcasts and films designed to persuade the American people that, by learning the relevant facts and taking elementary precautions, they would be able to cope with whatever Moscow launched at them.13 One of the alleged effects of this barrage of publicity was to facilitate what psychologist Robert J. Lifton calls 'nuclearism', the acceptance of nuclear weapons as part of everyday life.14

Amidst these efforts to allay the public's nuclear fears, Hollywood continued to toy with the relationship between aliens, radioactivity, mutation and death, albeit largely by displacing the anxieties about the Bomb onto the horror film.15 Of particular interest here, however, are those movies in which aliens appeared as benevolent forces, warning Earth of the lunacy of the nuclear arms race, preaching East-West peaceful coexistence, or exposing McCarthyite paranoia and xenophobia.

One of the most commercially successful examples of this sub-genre was Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space (1953), which used the hostility shown towards a group of harmless visiting aliens by their hysterical small-town hosts to condemn contemporary America's fear of the Other. Scripted by a former Communist party member, William Alland (who also produced the film), and Ray Bradbury, the libertarian sci-fi author and fervent critic of the blacklist, It Came from Outer Space stridently defends society's non-conformists through its support for the lead character John Putnam (played by Richard Carlson), who helps the pod-people to escape from the mob-like authorities. By depicting parts of the United States as narrow-minded and virtually barbarous, it also suggests that the 'civilised' West might have more to learn from the Other Side — terrestrial and extraterrestrial — than prevailing discourse would allow. Alland later argued the film carried the Rooseveltian message that all the human race had to fear was 'fear itself ... If you fear the Communists, we destroy ourselves'. 'I think science fiction films are a marvellous medium for telling a story, creating a mood and delivering whatever kind of social message should be delivered', opined Jack Arnold, a social democrat who had previously produced government documentaries. 'If ten per cent of the audience grasped it, then I was very successful.'16 Arnold went on to make an Ealing-esque international relations satire, The Mouse that Roared, in 1959 for Columbia's British offshoot, Open Road Films, with the blacklisted writer-producer Carl Foreman. The project had languished for years in the United States, with prospective backers and distributors claiming that the script's lampooning of great-power diplomacy lay outside the American public's then politically limited sense of humour.17

Two minor films, Burt Balaban's Stranger from Venus (1954) and Herbert Greene's The Cosmic Man (1959), both concocted versions of the alien Other to emphasise the destructive power of atomic weapons and humankind's paradoxical blind allegiance to the false ethic of deterrence.18 But it was Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which carried Hollywood's most powerful intergalactic liberal message of the decade, as well as providing a counterpoint to the crude anti-communist nationalism of movies of the period like Walk East on Beacon. The Day the Earth Stood Still came at the very end of a period, between 1945 and 1951, when a small body of films had questioned the morality of nuclear weapons, and before the debate about nuclear matters on screen was effectively emasculated for the rest of the 1950s by the switch to 'creature-features' aimed at the increasingly large but limited teenage market.19 Based on a short story, 'Farewell to the Master', by Harry Bates, published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1940, The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first 'A' treatment given to a science-fiction theme by a major studio (it cost $1.2 million).20

The movie told the tale of a spaceman, Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie), who lands on Earth in his flying saucer with an indestructible robot. Klaatu has been sent on an interplanetary peace mission to break the Cold War deadlock and so save the whole universe from a nuclear catastrophe. Gort, the robot, has the power to destroy Earth if humankind does not come to its senses. Scriptwriter Edmund H. North and producer Julian Blaustein were mainly responsible for the film's political message. North wove his pacifist beliefs into a number of screenplays throughout a long career, which included the Oscar-winning Second World War drama Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1969) and Race to Oblivion (Robert Churchill, 1982), a documentary made for the anti-nuclear group Physicians for Social Responsibility.21 Blaustein had made military training films during the Second World War, before being appointed a producer at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1949. He had just made Broken Arrow (1950), an account of the first peace pact between white settlers and the Apaches in nineteenth-century Arizona, told, unusually, from the Indians' viewpoint. His new film was, he told journalists, 'a plea for a stronger United Nations with an effective police force', and was intended to show that 'peace is not a dirty word'.22 Robert Wise, the director, had gained prominence in the early 1940s as the editor of Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), and was not regarded at any point in his long career as a political filmmaker. Despite this, his involvement in The Day the Earth Stood Still was risky given his close association with many on the Hollywood left who had recently been blacklisted.23

The head of Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl Zanuck, strongly supported The Day the Earth Stood Still but, with one eye on HUAC and the other on his friends in government, watered down what he saw as the dangerously radical aspects of North's early scripts. Zanuck persuaded North to make a number of substantive political changes. First he told North to modify an early scene in which Harley, a White House official, tells Klaatu that the United Nations had already proven to be a failure. This would have weakened Washington's professed support for UN-brokered arms controls, not to mention its claim to be fighting in Korea on the organisation's behalf. Zanuck also warned that a later scene, in which Klaatu (using the adopted name Mr Carpenter) and his human confidant Helen (Patricia Neal) agree that the great powers' continued unwillingness to relinquish sovereignty was ruining prospects for international peace, 'might be misconstrued'.

Second, Zanuck asked North to tone down his suggestions throughout the script that only internationalist-minded scientists offered the world hope of salvation, rather than, as Zanuck countered, great statesmen such as former US Secretary of State George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, not to mention God himself. To Zanuck, North's suggestions smacked of support for the Atomic Scientists' Movement, a group of scientists (which included the world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein) who had worked on the Manhattan Project and since 1945 had been campaigning for international controls on nuclear weapons. Zanuck did not believe for one moment in 'the idiotic theory that we should have given up all our atomic secrets to the Russians eight years ago, as some "brilliant" scientists recommended'. Most of them had since changed their minds anyway, he argued caustically, 'now that the USSR has made very clear its intentions by aggressive and unprovoked war'.24

Third, Zanuck insisted that Klaatu's shooting by a soldier at the outset of the movie be put down to nervousness rather than trigger-happiness. He also had North delete a line uttered by Helen's son Bobby (Billy Gray) — 'some of the kids always want to play war, but I never do' — which implied American society had become dangerously militarised. Finally, Zanuck challenged North on the negative picture his script painted of the authorities' and the public's hysterical reaction to Klaatu's escape from a secure hospital wing. Zanuck felt that it would be more appropriate to pin the blame for the public's mob-like hunt for the innocent fugitive on the press, and to show the police and FBI trying responsibly to dampen the lynch psychology.25

Even after these changes had been made, both the Production Code Administration and the Department of Defence still regarded The Day the Earth Stood Still as controversial. The PCA insisted that Klaatu's ending speech be rewritten where his 'words seem to be directed at the United States'.26 The army and the National Guard reluctantly provided some soldiers and equipment for the production, since the Pentagon acknowledged that it would be the military's responsibility to confront any sort of threat to the nation's well-being. This assistance, allied to impressive location work in Washington, DC,

A monster with a message: moments after landing on Earth and announcing his peaceful intentions, Klaatu (Michael Rennie, lying in the foreground) is shot and wounded by the US military. The gigantic robot, Gort (Lock Martin), comes to his master's rescue. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Twentieth Century Fox/The Kobal Collection.

the presence of real-life news commentators like Elmer Davis, and innovative technical effects, gave the film a sense of actuality and immediacy.27

Zanuck's and the PCA's interventions did blunt the film's message in some regards, but The Day the Earth Stood Still was by no means neutered. Despite its fantastic plot, the end product patently makes serious and well-crafted points about the build-up of nuclear weapons and the Red Scare. The film conveys the inability of world leaders, including the American president, to compromise; the statesmen won't even meet to discuss Klaatu's proposals on arms negotiations. It portrays the American government as cynical and ruthless, imprisoning the well-meaning Klaatu lest his message causes political embarrassment. It then shows how easy it is for the media to whip up public hysteria, to the point at which Klaatu is tracked down and killed like a wild animal. A few in the audience might even have seen Klaatu/Mr Carpenter as a Christlike figure persecuted for carrying a message of peace and willing to die to save the world.28

Most unusually for films of this era, The Day the Earth Stood Still depicts pacifist intellectuals sympathetically. Klaatu befriends Dr Barnhardt, played by

A meeting of minds: Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and Dr Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) construct a plan for international disarmament. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Twentieth Century Fox/The Kobal Collection.

Sam Jaffe, a well-known non-communist progressive (who would be blacklisted in 1951—2) with a physical resemblance to Einstein.29 Barnhardt, his fellow scientists and other experts from the East and the West who are invited to a meeting with Klaatu are far more open-minded and trustworthy than the US military establishment, which is presented as both ignorant and arrogant. When Klaatu makes 'the Earth stand still' for half an hour by stopping all motors and electricity, thereby exhibiting his power to punish the planet if its nuclear arms threaten its neighbours, Barnhardt is awe-struck, whereas the authorities are stricken by panic. Similarly, when Klaatu delivers his final ultimatum — that if humans fail to coexist Gort will have no alternative but to reduce Earth 'to a burned-out cinder' — Barnhardt's face suggests he still sees the alien as more of an ally than an enemy and that a breakthrough in world relations is finally now possible.30

At the very end of the movie, Helen chooses to remain on Earth rather than leave with Klaatu, arguing that the world's dire predicament is as much her fault as anyone else's and that it is up to everyone to regain effective control of nuclear technology. In this way, the film concludes on a constructive, optimistic note and chooses not to challenge US officialdom as directly as it might. Overall, though, The Day the Earth Stood Still validates a turn to extra-governmental politics, and suggests that for a major social and philosophical change one cannot depend on the political status quo.

In the event, when The Day the Earth Stood Still was released in September 1951, Twentieth Century-Fox's publicity department made conspicuous efforts to play down the film's political overtones. This was not that unusual; studios traditionally argued that overtly political material was box office poison. In this case, however, Zanuck's cautiousness was doubtless heightened by HUAC's return to Hollywood in early 1951 in order to open up a further round of subversion investigations. Financially, The Day the Earth Stood Still performed satisfactorily, taking $1.8 million at the US box office. Politically, though, the movie seems to have made little impact.31

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