Science Fiction Films of the 1950s: Them

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One of the main themes that ran through many science fiction films of the 1950s was the combined fear of nuclear war, nuclear explosions, and fallout. This atomic fear is one large terror that haunted the Cold War world and was developed in many ways in science fiction films.

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One such expression was in the advent of the giant bug movies, which addressed the question of what might happen to  the world after radiation had somehow been released either through detonation of weapons or by accident. In Japan, the consequences of having been the only nation to have suffered the devastation of nuclear bombs, saw the emergence of giant monsters like Godzilla, often seen destroying Japanese cities–a very direct metaphor for nuclear explosions. In America, a similar motif was seen in the proliferation of Giant Bug movies.  This might be considered an early example of ecological concern in cinema.

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Them, a 1954 production by Warner Bros, starred James Arness and James Whitmore. In the beginning of the movie, a little girl was found alone and traumatized, saying only “them, them.” The girl was rescued, but during the investigation, other people were found who have been killed, and the perpetrators were discovered to be giant ants.  The monsters were created when normal ants came upon sugar that had been irradiated by atomic weapons testing.  They reached the height and size of small military tanks and were ferocious killers and hunters.  This film made Americans think about the potential risks from insects that would normally have been viewed, at the worst, as mere pests at picnics.  Radiation had the capacity to distort they way we  interacted with the world.

Eventually, the creatures were hunted down and destroyed by the use of flame-throwers.  As would be the motif in most of the giant bug movies, the world was saved by using technology against technologically-created creatures.  At the conclusion of the movie, a warning was given in solemn tones that we have entered a new world in the atomic age, and we have to be aware of its dangers. These are themes that would be repeated frequently in other giant bug movies.

If you have not seen this one, it is worth a look.  It may not be the best film of all time, but it does introduce important Cold War themes into science fiction cinema. These are themes which frightened many people.

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Science-Fiction Films of the 1950s: The Day The Earth Stood Still

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The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) was a brilliant science-fiction film that set the standards, in many ways, for other following films.  One of the great strengths of the genre of science-fiction as well as horror and fantasy is its ability to comment on direct issues in contemporary society.  In this 20th Century Fox film, the director, Robert Wise uses the arrival of an alien spaceship on earth as a cautionary message about the potential of the human race to cause its own self-destruction through atomic warfare.

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The core plot element is that beings from advanced civilizations on other planets have found people on earth have developed both nuclear weapons and a space program. They have sent an emissary, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, to deliver a gift and a warning to the people of Earth.  The gift, a small box, was destroyed by a frightened soldier who thought it was a threat. In reality, it was a device that would have allowed humans to study the universe. With the gift gone, what is left is a warning that if human beings insist on bringing their atomic weapons and violence into space with them, then earth and its inhabitants will be destroyed utterly. This message is a quietly subversive challenge through what was seen as just a movie to the nuclear states of the world.

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A staple of science-fiction, both cinema and television is the robot.  This kind of machine will figure into film in many ways from the earliest days to recent film.  The Day The Earth Stood Still has such a machine in Gort, a robot that serves as an aide  to the alien Klaatu.  Earth people view it as a threat, as they do everything alien, which is yet another point to the movie.  Xenophobia and bigotry, unfortunate human capacities, were at the forefront of American society in the late 1940s and 1950s.  If someone was different from the so-called norm, then they were somehow bad and immoral.  This will be the main point of the next movie I will examine in this series: Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Day The Earth Stood Still was a critical success and has been named by several film organizations as one of the most important films of American cinema.  If you have not yet seen this movie, and I am NOT talking about the remake, then I recommend it highly.