The vastness of space allows for the projection by scientists of their ideas onto a screen which they can control: time, from the origin to the destruction of the universe, can be expanded or compressed as observations are made of the positions, movements, and speeds of stars and galaxies; mass can be supplemented by dark matter and black holes so that cosmic equations work. Space, then, can reveal, even in the supposedly objective fields of science, the projected ideologies of the experimenter. In the more allegoric and metaphoric genres of film, most notably science fiction, one should almost expect a certain projection onto space of ideologies, anxieties, and desires. In the 1950s, space was becoming a very real place: technology was advancing which could put nuclear weapons on intercontinental missiles, and rockets were being developed which could put a satellite, and eventually a person, into space (Sputnik was launched in 1957). Space, then, was the "space" of both humanity's greatest fears and its boldest aspirations. I intend to show that in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) and Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953), the fear which is ultimately expressed is not a fear of an external other (the Soviet Union or communism), but is a fear of what is constituted as a domestic threat, the shifting roles of women and the increasing presence of the issue of race in American society.
Both of these films map domestic anxieties onto space through the presentation of the threat to the society as being indistinguishable (or effectively indistinguishable) from that society. One reason for this is that the generally low budgets for 1950s science fiction films dictated limited special effects and frequently, story lines which did not leave earth (Sobchack 108); the more human the alien looks, the cheaper the film. However, this overlooks the success and continuing popularity of these films, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and their existence as texts/narratives within a specific cultural moment. It is because of this--the appearance of these films at a certain cultural moment-- mere budgetary constraints cannot be solely responsible for the repeated construction of the alien threat as effectively indistinguishable from a middle class, suburban, white society.
Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both have as motifs the takeover of the human form by an external agent. In Invaders, the alien implants a crystal into the base of the neck of the humans whom it controls. In Invasion, the pods assume and recreate the identities and forms of the humans. Much of the success of these films is dependent upon the fear created within them, which derives from the difficulty in knowing who is or is not the threat. In Invaders, David is the only character in the beginning who can detect that something is not right with his father, and then the police officers; but, it is only when he sees the x-shaped implant cut that he knows his father is not really his father. However, the viewer can tell much more quickly who has had the crystal implants by the robotic actions, blank stares, and the knowledge of whether or not one has fallen into the sand. In Invasion, it is much more difficult to know who is or is not a pod person. At the beginning, Jimmy knows that his mother is not his mother and Wilma knows that uncle Ira is not uncle Ira; Wilma states that the way she knows Ira is not Ira is that there is "no emotion, none, just the pretense." And in this pretense lies the anxiety of the film: if the viewer is to know who is alien and who is human, then s/he must decide which actors are exhibiting true emotion and which actors are exhibiting the pretense of emotion. Sobchack comments on the near impossibility of knowing who has or has not been taken over:
It is this inability to know one's foe--the inability to recognize a difference between self and other--that causes me to associate these films with domestic anxieties as opposed to foreign threats.
The appearance of these films coincides with or follows the Red Scare of 1947-54, which provides evidence for those who argue that these and many other science fiction films of the fifties are allegories of the Cold War and the Senate Hearings on un-American Activities which were chaired by Joseph McCarthy. Fredric Jameson ties the entire genre of 1950s science fiction film to Cold War paranoia, while specifically alluding to Invasion of the Body Snatchers:
This passage by Jameson reads these films rather conventionally, assuming that the alien threat in the film must correspond to an external threat: communist infiltration. What is not permitted in this reading or any of the following is anxiety resulting from a truly domestic source. In a similar manner, Ernesto Laura writes, "it is natural to see the pods as standing for the idea of communism which gradually takes possession of a normal person, leaving him outwardly unchanged but transformed within" (qtd. in Sobchack 122). The weakness in Laura's argument is in the application: following their logic, it would be "natural" to see these films as representing any internalized or separatist ideology. While these films can be read as responding to the Red scare, this overlooks the more subconscious anxieties which seem to be working. Communism was not the only source of domestic anxiety at the time: the role of women in society, especially as mothers, was changing; similarly, racial difference was becoming a much more present issue in American culture.
The late forties and the early fifties were a time during which the role of "mother" in the family was changing. At first, one might think that maternity could not be a real source of anxiety because birth rates were rising among American women during this time (1940-1957 was considered the baby boom); however, while the birth rate was rising, the role of women in the household was changing drastically. The household of the 1930s was often equipped with electric irons, washing machines, hot water heaters, and central heating, and in these households, women were changing from being producers to being consumers (Olsen 228). While the house was still considered the woman's domain, the amount of time required to keep it up was decreasing. Also, by the late forties, frozen juices, prepared cake mixes, and microwaves (early fifties) had been invented and put on the market (although the microwave's price of $1250 put it out of reach of most consumers) (Olsen passim). Cooking, another one of the domestic chores was requiring less time and energy.
Concurrent with these advances in the home were advances being made by women in the workplace. In 1950, thirty-four percent of all women over fourteen were working, totaling twenty million women (Schneider and Schneider 315). Women comprised twenty-eight percent of the total work force (Olsen 272). And, in many lines of work, between 1940 and 1950, the number of women doubled. A further sign of the increased power and influence of women in the workplace is the founding of the National Committee for Equal Pay in 1952. Given that the number of women in the workplace was rapidly increasing at the same time as birth rates and at the same time that women were getting married on average a full year younger than the previous decade (EASH 210), one can only assume that the role of mother is undergoing a radical transformation, from the woman whose sole responsibility was the home to one whose responsibility was now expanded to include the workplace. The culture was faced with the increasing economic necessity of women in the workplace, yet it still yearned for the mother who would be solely devoted to her family.
The second major anxiety which I am proposing exists in 1950s America, and is expressed in Invaders from Mars, is the increased presence of race as a social issue/problem. Again, just as the increase in birth rates might make one think that there could not be any anxiety related to motherhood in the 1950s, the integrated role of African-American soldiers in World War II might make one think the late forties and the fifties were a period with little racial tension. However, political events of the time clearly reveal the amount of anxiety related to race which existed at the time. In 1948, in order to save a sagging campaign, Harry S. Truman proposed a few civil rights measures to win black support. These measures were a federal law against lynching, an end to poll taxes and other means of voting discrimination, and a law which would prohibit racial discrimination as an employment practice (EASH 205). This rather short list reveals two things: one, these practices were still around in 1948; and two, in 1948, to try and address these wrongs was a major political gamble. These were only the first steps toward real social and political equality; by 1955, three more major steps would be taken. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education that separate but equal was inherently unequal; and then in 1955, the high court ordered public schools to be integrated. Also in 1955, Rosa Parks helped to ignite the Civil Rights Movement when, in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to sit at the back of the bus. Admittedly, Invaders from Mars was released in 1953, before the last three events, but these events did not arise from nothing; for these events to happen in 1954 and 1955, preliminary ripplings must have been moving through the society to enable them. One does not have violent responses to the Civil Rights Movement if deep-seeded anxiety and/or fear does not already exist to some degree within the culture as a whole. Another possible reason for racially motivated anxiety during this period was a marked migration of rural blacks from the south to urban areas in the north and in California. In just a few years following W.W.II, 1.6 million blacks moved from the south (EASH 205). Clearly, African-Americans were not unknown in these cities, but if the much smaller number of communists can be thought of as "invading," then is it really that hard to think that maybe suburban whites were having anxieties about blacks invading?
One key to understanding both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars in light of the social events is setting. Sobchack makes the observation that most science fiction films like these situate themselves in small-town America: :
This description of the towns fits both of these films: we see uncle Ira mowing his front lawn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; the Wilson house in Invaders from Mars has a white picket fence. How can we get any more "Norman Rockwell"? Invasion of the Body Snatchers is set in Santa Mira (Sierra Madre), a foothill community in southern California, near Los Angeles. Invaders from Mars is set in Coral Bluffs, a midwest city of wood framed houses near a military instillation. While both Santa Mira and Coral Bluffs are small towns, they are not rural towns: Santa Mira is a suburb of Los Angeles, Coral Bluffs is a town whose economy is based on military research. It is important that these towns are not rural because this allows for the films to be read as representing anxieties about motherhood and race: women entering the workplace is most evident in urban and suburban areas; during the late forties and early fifties, issues of race were becoming more immediate in urban and suburban America. The anxiety of the fifties is that America is no longer reflecting Norman Rockwell covers, especially in the cities.
In both films, one anxiety is that the role of mother is becoming a threatening one. This is clearest in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which ends its second scene with the young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running terrified from his mother (Eileen Stevens). The next day, Jimmy's grandmother (Beatrice Maude) brings him in to see the local doctor, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy):
Motherhood, as it is conventionally portrayed, is not supposed to be threatening, yet Jimmy is terrified. And since this is the first real sign of the pods' infiltration of Santa Mira, it would be critically lax to skip the domestic implications and move right into the more political readings. In a film preoccupied with mothers and reproduction, it seems more than just coincidental that hysteria (Gk. hystera. womb, uterus) should play such an important part. While hysteria is not generally seen as a positive attribute, it is the one sure sign in this film of not being a pod, of existing in the pre-pod era, the time when the only reproduction was via the womb. That evening, the town psychiatrist, Dr. Danny Kaufman (Larry Gates) refers to the entire event as "a strange neurosis, evidently contagious, an epidemic of mass hysteria" (LaValley 48) (this same diagnosis is repeated three times throughout the film). This film is all about hysteria and hystera, the fear of losing that warmth and security which traditionally is assigned to the mother to provide.
In a brief scene which we see from Miles' perspective, through a window into Sally's (Jean Willes) house, we are presented with another insight into the anxiety about maternity.
This exchange is the focus of the scene; the only other thing this scene does is initiate a rather unimportant car chase. In a film such as this, which strives to connect with some fear or anxiety in the viewer, we can assume that such a scene is presented not to merely advance the plot (which it doesn't), but to create fear or generate anxiety. The troubling aspect of this scene is that the "mother" makes her baby into a pod; the youngest and most vulnerable member of society is no longer safe, even from the person who created her. Had Sally allowed Becky's father to do it himself, it would have indicated a passive acceptance; however, Sally instead decides to do it herself, making herself the active agent in her daughter's transformation. By doing this, Sally separates herself from the passive role and becomes the active threat, and at the same time she removes herself from any possible sympathy of the viewer. Everything that our culture teaches us is that mothers are loving and nurturing, not persons who will take away our "humanness."
The aforementioned scene provides a kind of explanation for the earlier scene in Miles's office when Jimmy and his mother are there.
By this point in the film, we are aware enough of the process to know that Jimmy has become a pod, and this knowledge contaminates our viewing of the scene. The hug Mrs. Grimaldi gives Jimmy appears affectionate; Jimmy appears to be happy. We know that they cannot be experiencing love, and yet they appear to; it becomes a disturbing performance of the mother-son relationship. This tableau succeeds if it can connect with some anxiety or fear within the viewer, and given the shifting roles of women during this period, the anxiety would seem to be that "mother" is losing its essential nature and becoming much more of a role. Mothers no longer spend all day at home: can a mother who spends a significant part of her week at work still devote the same time and affection to her home life and family? This film seems to be worried that she cannot.
Near the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Becky tells Miles that she wants to be a mother. "I want to love and be loved. (Miles kisses her to the accompaniment of romantic violin music.) I want your children. I don't want a world without love or grief or beauty. I'd rather die" (89). This statement sounds like the sign that the love story in the film is about to be resolved, but we know that the film ends with her becoming a pod, unable to return the love in the kiss he gives her. The film cannot end with them together because it would validate Miles's marriage with a divorcˇe who neither dresses nor acts like a housewife. As doctor, Miles represents a social/patriarchal position of authority; a "modern" wife such as Becky would represent a challenge to the conventional order. In order to contain the disruption created by the pods, the narrative must purge all threats; it must return to the conventions, traditions, and roles of the past.
Miles undergoes two birth scenes in the film. The first occurs at night in his greenhouse, just over halfway through the film.
Miles is fascinated with watching what he knows is a perversion of his own birth; while he may be horrified about the consequences, he does not let Jack kill them. As the local doctor, Miles has undoubtedly seen many births, but this one horrifies him; it does not adhere to the formulae he has learned or witnessed before. And, only later, after some hesitation, is he able to kill his own pod. In a pod based society, what authority or social position could a doctor have? Would there even be a need for doctors?
The end of the film provides Miles with a birth scene to counter the artificial one which he ultimately aborts. He carries Becky into a long tunnel where they hide in the earth from their pursuers. The womb image, the birth canal, the water with which they wash their faces, all make this a blatant birth symbol. Miles's birth is successful in that he is born into the social narrative that he desires, one in which the authorities can be trusted, doctors have social power and responsibilities, and reproduction is based upon a conventional sense of mother. The final moments of the film validate this birth over that of Becky, whose birth is as a pod, because we are led to believe that the FBI and police will be able to contain and destroy the alien infestation. Order will be restored.
Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars is about the restoring of order to a society threatened from within. While the threat of mother is present in this film, it is inseparable from the issues and threat of race. Invaders from Mars begins with a shot of "space" while a narrator gives a sort of cosmic preamble, setting up the potential threat and the source of the solution:
This passage reveals the privilege afforded science--whether professional or novice--and its power to construct a knowledge of the universe; it is the solution to that which comes from outer space. The threat, inhabitants from other planets, is presented here as "extremely lower" or "dangerously higher" in scale, but the dramatic pause and intonation definitely suggest the latter.
The film focuses on two familial triads, one actual and one substitute: the MacLaines--George (Arthur Franz), Mary (Helena Carter), and David (Jimmy Hunt); and its substitute when the Martians have taken control of George and Mary--Dr. Pat Blake (Hillary Brooke), Professor Kelston (Leif Erickson), and David. At the onset of the film, we see the MacLaines as the stereotypical American family: happy; middle class; small town; educated (scientist) father; blonde housewife mother; and blond-haired, blue-eyed, inquisitive son. This tells us that the threat that will appear will be a threat to the very "essence" of "America." Our first glimpse of the family establishes very conventional roles: the son is eager to learn, which clearly situates him as following in his father's footsteps, the father is a successful scientist, which within the film is repeatedly privileged over a mere university professor, and the mother limits the investigations for domestic reasons.
While this interchange reflects the familial love, it also reflects the domestic order. Mary makes George and David return to bed so that she can sleep, and thus get up to make breakfast, which allows for her to maintain domestic order. However, the arrival of the flying saucer and its heralding by David force George to investigate. Again, the father, like the son, is the investigator, and the mother is not permitted access to the father's knowledge (which the son is-- what he does not know now, Kelston tells him). By not waiting until morning as Mary asks, George is sucked into the sand, and then returns, leading her/seducing her into the sand. She follows, unquestioningly. The roles are clear, and it might appear that this film is a critique of the rigidity of those roles, except that the same roles are repeated by the Blake-Kelston-David "family;" therefore, the roles go unquestioned and the ultimate threat is somewhere else.
The Blake-Kelston-David family bears an uncanny resemblance to the MacLaines. Professor Kelston shares the same intellectual space as George; as an astronomer, his field of knowledge and inquiry is the same. And furthermore, the relationship Kelston has with David is the same sort of intellectual mentoring. Dr. Blake, although she is a professional woman, which is unlike Mary, lacks the knowledge of space to converse with David and Kelston. She repeatedly makes errors about space while David gets the answer correct. While the three of them are looking at the rocket at the base, Kelston tells them about his theory of synthetic mutants created to preserve the Martian species.
Kelston gets the last word in this discussion, a discussion in which he implies that she is not being a scientist by not believing; it seems clear that her knowledge as a psychiatrist is seen as inferior to his knowledge and openness as a "hard scientist." Despite Blake's professional status, she functions more in the role of mother: she consoles, nurtures, and takes care of David (when his parents are at the hospital awaiting surgery, she holds him in her arms, resting her head on his). The integrity of the "American family" is maintained.
For the first two-thirds of the film, the threat is an unseen presence under the sand which sucks certain individuals in, implants a crystal transmitter and releases them. These individuals appear the same, but the actions are much different. Generally, they appear robotic in movement and wear blank stares, such as when George and the two police officers are talking, when Mary embraces David at the police station, and when Cathy Wilson appears at her front door. Unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where these individuals would be described as not being themselves by those who intimately know them, these people are described as not acting like themselves; they have not essentially changed, and therefore the community can return to normal once the threat is removed or destroyed.
This threat is taken very seriously in the film, so seriously that much of the second third of the film is quite nationalistic in its display of military hardware. Between the time the Pentagon is called and the military makes its first effort to blast into the earth, there are at least forty-two shots of tanks, trains transporting military personnel, jeeps, and other personnel carriers; these shots do not include any recognizable characters, and do little to forward the plot. The non-diagetic music which accompanies these shots is a variation on the "Army Song." This excessive show of nationalism heightens the sense of fear: if the United States military is so concerned that it brings out everything and everyone it has, then something very terrible is threatening the American family. And since we do not see the threat until after the buildup, we have no reason not to think it is justified.
The alien presence is comprised of the Martian, its mutants, and the control devices planted in the necks of citizens which have specific knowledge, power, or access. Given the narrative preamble and the technology which Dr. Blake says is required to implant the crystals, we would assume that the Martian is an advanced being. However, the mutants are large oafish figures who run around like apes (both the colonel and one of his men make this observation) and wear green velvet outfits. Sergeant Renaldi, under the control of the Martian, tells David and Dr. Blake that the mutants are the Martian's slaves. The Martian is an golden entity whose head is as large as its body, has tentacle-like appendages, and is contained entirely with a glass bulb (about thirty inches in diameter). The close- up of the Martian's face reveals that the actor whose head is used is African-American: the structure of the nose and lips and the coloration of the white parts of the eyes, all make this fact very clear to the viewer. This is one of the few extreme close-ups, and it is because of the close-up that the "race" of the Martian can be determined.
The use of the terms "slaves" and "ape-like" in conjunction with the use of an African-American actor for the Martian's head make the issue of "race" a present but unmentioned aspect of this film. In the United States, "slave" has as a primary referent the status of most African-Americans in the South prior to 1865; given that this film was made during a period when civil rights were becoming a major issue again, one cannot just dismiss this term. Similarly, the term "ape-like" is not dissimilar to numerous epithetical references to African-Americans, most of which are based on the racist ideology that African civilizations were in some way sub-human. Given the potential loaded nature of this language, to have an actor who is clearly African-American (and the extreme close-ups seem designed to make this point clear) play the role of Martian, when no one in the town or in the military is identifiably African-American (despite the gains of W.W. II and the migration out of the South around this time), explicitly highlights "race" as the source of the anxiety.
The stereotypes of brute violence and sexuality are likewise exploited within this film. Under the control of the Martian, George strikes David very hard, knocking him down, about which David later says ". . . my dad, today he acted like somebody I never saw before." Later, and still under Martian control, George leads Mary into the sand; while this does not appear to have much sexual threat to it on its own, when paired with the attack on Blake, these two attacks highlight a cultural anxiety about miscegenation as well as any interaction between African-American males and white women.
The attempt to implant the crystal into Blake's neck forefronts a sexuality which is unspoken and unacknowledged within the film. For much of the final third of the film, we are watching Blake lie on the table as a tiny drill approaches her very white neck. The continuous shift in shots from the Martian's face, to the drill coming out of a cylinder which is coming out of an even larger cylinder, to the white of Blake's neck forces the viewer to see this as a form of sexual violation. And it is clear that the association is, at least subtextually, between the African-American male and the young white female. Furthermore, the mutants are running about the caverns, which have egg-like formations covering them, while they wield, waist high, a long heavy ray gun (which turns stone red and bubbly). This entire underground maze is about sex and the threat of sex. An interesting note about the outcome of the underground part of the film is that order is returned and everyone is saved when the young boy wields the ray gun. In a Lacanian sense, the phallus has been passed down to him, but also, it has been taken away from the alien. Society, as it is conventionally constructed, is secure and the proper social roles are reestablished.
The ending of Invaders from Mars, David's waking from the dream and his sighting the alien ship, could be seen as an undermining of the structures. However, since the appearance of the flying saucer exactly duplicates his dream, we can assume that the entire dream will play out, ending with the reestablishing of the conventional hegemony.
Both films, Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are repeatedly read as allegories of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, as are most science fiction films of this period. However, even if these are allegories, that does not preclude them from representing countless other anxieties which existed during the 1950s. Furthermore, a visibly expressed anxiety may function to repress yet another. If one looks at these films simply as texts, one can see anxieties regarding women and African- Americans. By examining them more closely and trying to connect them with contemporary events, one can see that these anxieties are, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, related to the changing role of mother, and in Invaders from Mars, related to the increased presence of issues dealing with African- Americans, namely civil rights and migration out of rural communities and into urban ones. Space remains one of the few sites left to map out our anxieties.
Invaders from Mars. (1953) 20th Century-Fox. DIR: William Cameron Menzies. SCR: Richard Blake. PH: John Seitz. (Cinecolor)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (1956) Allied Artists. DIR: Don Siegel. PROD: Walter Wagner. SCR: Daniel Mainwaring; from a story by Jack Finney. PH. Ellsworth Fredericks. MUS: Carmen Dragon.
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