A Book Review by Christopher Weedman.
Steffen Hantke’s welcome new book Monsters in the Machine: Science Fiction Film and the Militarization of America after World War II (University Press of Mississippi, 2016) is an articulate and well-researched socio-political examination of the cycle of science fiction films that arose to popularity on American theater and drive-in screens during the Cold War era of the 1950s. This cycle combined thematic and aesthetic elements from Gothic horror with the period’s fascination with space-age technology and military warfare to create a myriad of alien invaders and radioactive monsters, which caught the cinematic imagination of youth audiences. Epitomized by the “super carrot” (James Arness) in The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951) and the “pod people” in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), these iconic creatures terrorized audiences, who were told to “keep watching the skies!” and be aware that “they’re here already!”
Conventional criticism on this cycle of science fiction films has interpreted them primarily as projections of Eisenhower-era social fears of atomic warfare and Communist infiltration. While he does not deny the merits of these standard readings, Hantke (author of the book Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary Literature: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy and editor of two previous University Press of Mississippi essay collections on the horror genre, Horror: Creating and Marketing Fear and American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium) expands the discourse on this cycle by analyzing how the films frequently confront the past traumas of World War II and the Korean War through narratives situated within the socio-political context of the Cold War. Hantke posits:
It is through this intersection of past and present, of unresolved trauma superimposed upon present anxieties, that 1950s science fiction films acquire topical relevance within their historical context. Just as Anton Kaes’s analysis recognizes [in his 2009 book Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War] Weimar cinema as a belated response to World War I projected onto the unsettling experience of the Weimar years, I am arguing that science fiction films from the 1950s are a belated response to the national trauma of World War II and the Korean War projected onto the unsettling experience of the Cold War. (43-44)
In addition to the scholarship of the esteemed University of California, Berkeley professor Kaes, Hantke’s discussion of how World War II and Korean War trauma is allegorically explored through the genre framework of 1950s science fiction cinema recalls historian David J. Skal’s contention in his 1993 book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror that the World War I traumas of shell shock, disfigurement, and postwar unemployment greatly influenced the horror film genre, particularly the Gothic horror aesthetics of the 1930s Universal horror cycle (Skal 115-116). Both Hantke and Skal demonstrate how Hollywood genre cinema served as fertile ground to explore war trauma in a more disturbing and provocative manner that, as Hantke aptly notes, was typically sanitized in more mainstream Hollywood postwar dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Nunnally Johnson, 1956), which were “designed to omit as much as to represent” (99-101).
Moreover, Hantke’s book analyzes how the frequent employment of military characters and settings in 1950s science fiction provides evidence of the encroaching pervasiveness of the “military-industrial complex” in American culture during this period. This term (popularized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address on January 17, 1961 and subsequently expanded upon by sociologist C. Wright Mills in his 1956 book The Power Elite, who cites it as the “military definition of reality”) refers to the complex and troubling interrelationship between the U.S. military and the capitalistic interests that drives its defense industry. Hantke sees the synthesis of Eisenhower and Mills’ ideas as “a useful tool for reading large political, economic, and cultural trends, playing themselves out in the open arena of political debate and popular entertainment during the 1950s” (23).
Following a well-articulated introduction outlining his thesis and the post-World War II socio-political conditions that gave rise to the military-industrial complex, Hantke divides his study into four chapters. Each of the chapters center around a key thematic element (i.e., military stock footage, traumatized veterans, the southwest desert landscape, and the issue of decolonization) from the 1950s science fiction cycle and analyzes how these tropes served to normalize the ideology of the military-industrial complex in American life. The author uses this framework to provide incisive new readings of cult favorites like the 3-D alien invasion film It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953), the giant ant film Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954), and the first big-screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ fin de siècle novel The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960) (1), as well as, quite refreshingly, lesser-known films like Invasion U.S.A. (Alfred E. Green, 1952) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Gene Fowler, Jr., 1958). Useful allusions to other genre film entries, as well as 1960s television programs like The Outer Limits (ABC-TV 1963-65) and The Time Tunnel (ABC-TV 1966-67), are made throughout.
Among the strongest chapters is Chapter Two, which provides a fascinating reading of director Gene Fowler, Jr.’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space showing the interconnection between its gay subtext (building off the observations of Harry M. Benshoff’s 1997 book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This underrated alien invasion film from Paramount Pictures featured a newly-married housewife (Gloria Talbott) discovering that her husband (Tom Tryon, who later became a writer and penned the popular 1970s horror novels The Other and Harvest Home) is not the man she fell in love with and instead an alien imposter. Hantke reads I Married a Monster from Outer Space as a veiled look at PTSD and how some returning soldiers were unable to re-integrate themselves into hetero-normative relationships with women following the war. “Compared to the rather genteel representation of the veterans’ fractured lives in [The Best Years of Our Lives], which largely omits the sexual consequences of war post-traumatic stress disorder, it is film noirs like Niagara [Henry Hathaway, 1953] and science fiction films like I Married a Monster from Outer Space that dare to take on the thornier sides of the issue,” the author insists. “Perhaps they can operate more freely because the conventions of science fiction – especially the more preposterous tropes executed with B-movie budgets – allow makers and viewers to feign ignorance of what is hidden behind the movie monster mask” (115). Despite the film’s preposterous title (which invokes the memory of Robert Stevenson’s 1949 film noir I Married a Communist and Fowler’s own 1957 cult horror film I Was a Teenage Werewolf), the film is well-worth seeking out in light of these contemporary re-readings.
The book’s conclusion offers an interesting discussion on today’s conflicting perceptions of the 1950s and how the pro-military ideology of the military-industrial complex still lingers on in big-budget films such as Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011) and Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012). “While digital effects have made Hollywood largely independent of Pentagon support, the internal logic of the Hollywood blockbuster, more militarized than ever, now extends to the heirs of 1950s science fiction films,” Hantke asserts. “With or without direct support or explicit approval from the military-industrial complex, the landscape of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster is loud, fast, and heavily armed, a battlefield mapped out by the 1950s science fiction film cycle” (195).
While not nearly as expensive as some books from other university presses, the $60 price tag may, sadly, relegate Hantke’s 202-page study (accompanied by endnotes and a bibliography) to the university library market and, consequently, put it out of the hands of the broader critical readership that it deserves. Nevertheless, Monsters in the Machine is a fascinating contribution to film genre studies that, hopefully, will result in additional critical inquiry on other 1950s science fiction films in the future.
1) An earlier television version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was performed live on the BBC in 1949, but—sadly, like much live television from this period – was not recorded for posterity. Thankfully, the script and a few stills survive. See Don Coleman’s The Time Machine Project website for more information and to see images from this production, https://colemanzone.com/Time_Machine_Project/bbcprod.htm.
Benshoff, Harry M. (1997). Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Kaes, Anton (2009). Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mills, C. Wright (1956). The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Skal, David J. (1993). The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W.W. Norton.
Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor of Film and Pop Culture Studies in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University. His scholarship has appeared in Film International, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) was published in Cinema Retro in January 2017.