Science fiction films of the 1950s are usually noted for containing a social or political subtext relative to their contemporary counterparts. In this, they were similar to the EC Comics, who used genre stories to smuggle messages to readers. The Incredible Shrinking Man is representative of the falsity of 1950s domestic bliss, the monster in Gojira represents fear of atomic holocaust, and The Day the Earth Stood Still is a declaration in favor of world government. One 1950s science fiction film that has been endlessly debated and endlessly remade is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The film begins with protagonist Dr. Miles Bonnel raving hysterically in a hospital, attempting to warn those around him of an invasion by alien duplicates. As is typical in science fiction and horror fiction, the authority figures around Miles do not believe his fantastic story. The rest of the film proceeds in flashback format as he recounts his tale of small-town invasion. Miles has just returned to his hometown of Santa Mira after a medical conference. He soon discovers that many of the town’s residents are convinced that their relatives have been replaced by identical duplicates. Miles eventually discovers that creatures spawned out of giant, intergalactic seed pods have taken on the residents’ identities. He and his old flame, Becky, then attempt to flee the town and warn others. Miles manages to escape, though Becky is transformed into a pod creature, and this concludes the flashback and returns the story to its beginning, in the hospital. The film ends with an injured truck driver being brought into the hospital after being found covered with giant seed pods. Finally believing Miles’ story, a doctor calls the FBI and alerts them that Santa Mira must be barricaded.
The debate has raged for years as to whether the film is a political statement and, if so, what the statement is. Supervising Producer Walter Mirisch denied any intended political message, writing, “neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.” Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was either a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist or a writer who fronted for blacklisted writers. Accounts differ, suggesting he was sympathetic to left-wing politics. One-time communist Richard Collins made uncredited contributions to the story. Collins was blacklisted but later named people he suspected were communists, a decision he came to regret. Director Don Siegel commented on the parallels between his film and the McCarthy era in 1980, saying, “The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.” Siegel half-jokingly characterized Mainwaring as a “nonpaying member of the Communist League.”
Whatever the intentions of its creators, some still viewed Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a conservative, anti-communist film. In 1957, critic Ernest G. Laura wrote,
“Considering the state of public opinion in the United States today…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.”
In 1974 critic Robert Cumbow repeated many of Laura’s arguments, adding,
“The film’s use of sleep as the act of willful submission to the invaders may easily be viewed as a metaphoric reminder to the United States and its citizens to be always vigilant, always ‘awake,’ against communist subversion.”
In J. Hoberman’s book An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, the author compares the film to the western High Noon, another film that was meant to be critical of the Red Scare but which was interpreted as being a conservative film and was even a favorite of several U.S. Presidents.
Those of us on the Left can also find much to appreciate in Siegel’s film. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has spoken positively of the film, comparing it to John Carpenter’s They Live as a classic of the Hollywood Left. Both films deal with hidden infiltrators that have assumed control of institutions in American life. Citing this interpretation, Emmanuel Levy states that the film is “effective as a nightmarish allegory of mass society, one that consists of mindless and emotionless conformists, an interpretation in tune with Marxist and Frankfurt School’s critique of mass society.”
As previously stated, these infiltrators can be read as communists or McCarthyites, but in a socialist reading, they can also be a stand-in for capitalist elites, undermining humanity in the quest for expanding profits. First, consider the origin of the pods. After he is assimilated, Dr. Kauffman tells Miles and Becky that they come from outer space, traveling from planet to planet, incorporating life forms into themselves as they go, a process akin to imperialism. This is much in the same way that capitalists are constantly searching for new markets, even using violence to open them up.One could easily look at the international context of the film in a different way than simply being about the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1953, during Operation Ajax, the CIA had overthrown the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq, due to the leader’s nationalization of foreign oil fields and purported softness on communism.
In Guatemala, almost the same story repeated itself when President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in the CIA’s Operation PBSUCCESS due to his expropriation of land held by the United Fruit Company, and also his alleged closeness to the USSR. These operations taught that independence was a vice to be punished and conformity a virtue to be rewarded, in the same way that characters in the film have their independence exchanged for conformist loyalty to the pod people.
Next, consider the nature of dehumanization in the film. In the sequence where Miles and Becky attempt to eat dinner together, the establishment has replaced its musicians with the jukebox. As the owner remarks, “Business started falling off, so I had to let them go.” A literal machine has replaced the employees at the same time machine-like Pod People will replace the residents of Santa Mira. Another example of the economic effects of the pod’s takeover is that they have pushed the small farmers of Santa Mira out of business, anticipating how industrialized agribusinesses have replaced the family farm. Economic progress under capitalism will lead to dislocation and dehumanization as citizens are turned into cogs in a capitalist machine.
Perhaps the reason Invasion of the Body Snatchers has endured is the applicability of the story to different political ideologies. When Kevin McCarthy’s character warns “They’re after us!” who “they” and “us” are malleable. The recent documentary Queer for Fear posited that the pod people can be read as representatives of heteronormative society trying to force LGBTQ people to live in the closet. Whether one reads the pod people as communists, McCarthyists, or capitalists, they are an effective and frightening metaphor. Happy Halloween.
Featured Image credit: Shed on the Moon; modified by Tempest.
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Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.