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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Golden Age Motivation

Having thus far watched over 250 sci-fi movies made from 1950 to 1967, it's clear that Cold War themes did animate a majority of the sci-fi of the 50s and 60s. These themes fall into a few shared categories: armageddon imagined, invasion fear, radiation dangers and spy worries. Science fiction movies certainly gave an artistic expression to these fears, but they were not the only movies doing so.

There were non-sci dramas, thrillers and docu-dramas focusing on similar themes. Those films were not included (initially) in this study because they were not sci-fi. No saucers, no aliens, no monsters. Yet, looking back, they seem helpful for understanding the "fire in the belly" that drove much of Golden Era sci-fi. For children who practiced Duck and Cover in school, and families who practiced bomb shelter drills when the sirens blared, the Cold War was not a vague geo-political notion. It was unavoidably center stage.

Non-sci-fi Atomic Angst films fit into similar categories of Atomic Angst themes as did Golden Era sci-fi. These are, briefly:

Armageddon Imagined -- Some films explored the "what if" of a global nuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it. There were pessimists who prophesied doom and optimists who imagined a phoenix among the ashes. Rocketship X-M ('50) was an early example of the former. Five ('51) was more optimistic that some remnant of mankind might survive to rebuild. Classics such as When Worlds Collide ('51) were both.

Invasion Fear -- Some films played out scenarios of enemy invasion -- often with aliens or monsters standing in as metaphors for the anticipated communist hoards. The Thing ('51) kicked off this theme which carried through into the mid 60s. The invaders were sometimes humanoid, but often monsters -- giant dinosaurs, giant bugs, robots, etc. No matter the form, the terror was the invasion.

Radiation Danger -- School children during the 50s and early 60s (the audiences of matinee movies) were routinely shown "educational" films about terrible things radiation could do. Duck and Cover. Build Your Own Bomb Shelter. The movie monsters were outlandish, but even in their exaggeration they expressed the almost crippling fear people felt about the dangers.

Insidious Infiltrators -- Enemy spies and fifth columnists were bringers of all the fearful things mentioned above. Spy themes hooked adults more than children. McCarthyism was more of an adult phenomenon. The most gripping movies in this theme were the alien-takeover stories. Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56) is the classic of this sub-genre. Yet, the theme had such power that it was made, remade and rehashed many times.

Coming Up: The Bad Old Days
Between the upcoming reviews of sci-movies, I will be inserting reviews of related Atomic Angst films. They dealt with the same fears, the same anxieties, but they had a couple other theme categories of their own. There were "Apocalypse Averted" movies, in which mankind pulled back from the brink, and "The Trigger Pulled" movies in which he didn't.

Modern (younger) sci-fi fans place great importance on a movie's special effects. So, they usually kvetch about the older movies. The quality of the special effects was not their prime value consideration. Giving voice to the fear was. Review of these movies can help sci-fi fans born after the mid-60s to better understand the power and magic of old sci-fi.

I hope you'll agree.


AtomicTiki said...

I'm actually really glad you're going in this direction as I feel some interesting Sci-Fi has been missed, not the space aliens and mad scientist sort (that's well represented of course) but some of the more speculative Sci-Fi movies like Panic in the Year Zero.

I actually saw that film a few months ago and I was quite surprised how it treated the subject of nuclear war (far grittier than a film from 1962 usually is), the message was vastly different as well, less about the strength of humanity and more about the weakness of it (the family we follow is out for number one and nothing else, humanity is not to be trusted, maybe even an enemy outside of civilization).

I grew up with the bomb in the 80s, it's easy for me to remember the angst of what a nuclear exchange meant, I remember having that nuclear anxiety as a kid knowing that they took the sirens down because there was nothing we could do even if alerted (15 minutes).

Nightowl said...

Glad you like the additions. Yes, there are several movies which were more atomic dramas than sci-fi. Panic in the Year Zero is certainly one of them. I'd put Beast of Yucca Flats and This is Not a Test in that same genre. They'll be coming, and some others too.

Atomic Angst is a part of Americana that's too easily dismissed as unenlightened silliness nowadays. But, it was deadly real to people back then.