With motion pictures as one of the most powerful instruments to display the enemies’ (i.e. the USSR’s) efforts to destroy the trust of the American people in their country in the mid-1950s, a number of movies by US studios were produced.
The plots centered mostly around Soviet spies, communist agents or Americans, who had lost “their way” ideologically; all of those individuals tried to harm or destroy the United States by either sabotage, subversive activity or terrorist acts. Naturally, the “good” side, the average Joe or the loyal American, always could stop the spies by simply fulfilling easiest patriotic duties.
The movies of this kind simultaneously tried to demonstrate how much superior the American democratic system was over the communist pattern of violently silencing any kind of opposition.
Only a few years after WWII, there was the very real threat of a new war which this time would be nuclear, and distrust and paranoia were present everywhere in 1950s USA, although prospering economy and raising incomes seemed to suggest otherwise. As the USSR and the USA now were no longer allies but Cold War opponents on a global scale with real espionage, propaganda and countless efforts to infiltrate the other nation’s leading positions in politics and economy.
Those movies took on any form, from comedy, science fiction, adventure movies, crime films to cartoons. For when in 1947 and 1951 under the lead of Senator McCarthy the House Un-American Activities Committee started public and almost violent investigations of the film industry– some of it broadcast on TV – American studio executives were eager to show their patriotism by freely giving away names of “suspicious” employees to the authorities, thereby ruining the careers of many directors and actors, both American as well as those with a recent immigrant biography. For McCarthy feared the impact of hidden, subversive and pro-communist messages in motion picture media, be it in movie plots or affirmative presentation of socialist societies of any kind.
Nevertheless, the Communist Party USA did exist, and in fact, the CPUSA was an organization that was interested in the overthrow of the US government, was funded and under orders from Moscow and not few American intellectuals were official or unofficial supporters. J. E. Hoover made the fight against the Communist menace the top priority of the FBI (and simultaneously neglected the fight against the mafia).
The many movies that were produced in the 1950s and 1960s with this thematic background today appear cheap, easily identifiable as propaganda and very biased when it comes to the portrait of socialists, communist, anarchists and anything in-between. Titles such as “I Married a Communist,“ “I was a Communist for the FBI,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Invasion USA” immediately communicate the plot and the anxieties connected with this anti-communist film genre from the beginning of the Cold War.
The book has collected a total of twenty-one essays, edited by David J. Hogan that deal with the genre in many ways. Five parts altogether break down – in essays of varying quality by sixteen authors – communist invasion movies disguised as science fiction films, red mischief and communistic tactics for creating fear and distrust, various forms of betrayal and war against the American public, real war scenarios after a communist invasion, Roy Rogers western movies and future (science fiction) red menace fantasies.
Their plots present almost anything dangerous (to the American way of life) from clearly visible invaders from outer space – i.e. a communistic country – to smallest alterations in your next-door neighbors’ behavior, which made them easily identifiable as ‘traitors and enemies’ to the system…. Luckily, the “good guys,” the American, always won in the end; to quote one of the authors: “In the final reel all ends well; the conventions of traditional film making allowed viewers to walk home unscathed after witnessing such traumatic events, all social norms having been destroyed. But for many, this reassurance was one that the real world could not offer.”
Over 40 movies, some B-films as well some major releases, receive critical attention here and this collection will be informative to genre fans as well as to historians and students of American Studies.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2017
David J. Hogan. Invasion USA: Anti-Communist Movies of the 1950s and 1960s. McFarland, 2017, 258 p.