Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

1950s Science Fiction Cinema's Depersonalisation Narratives in Britain

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

1950s Science Fiction Cinema's Depersonalisation Narratives in Britain

Article excerpt

Contrary to Wheeler Winston Dixon's claim that '1950s British audiences wanted horror, not science fiction' (88), national film periodicals such as Picturegoer and Picture Show catered to interest in the genre through a wealth of previews, reviews and articles. The plots of features such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel US 1956) and Devil Girl from Mars (MacDonald UK 1954) were retold in short stories and storyboards. Letters from sf fans were frequently published. Picturegoer even awarded Invasion of the Body Snatchers its Seal of Merit. However, as Dixon's comment suggests, this British interest is now often overlooked and 1950s sf cinema is most frequently discussed in relation to American Cold War anxieties. In particular, films that feature a depersonalisation narrative, in which aliens possess or duplicate human bodies, are routinely read as expressions of US unease about communist infiltration. Peter Biskind, for example, claimed that 'possession by [alien] pods - mind stealing, brain eating and body snatching - had the added advantage of being an overt metaphor for Communist brainwashing' (140) in America. Similar arguments have been made by a number of other scholars (Booker 65; Grant 63-9; Rawlinson 48; Young and Young 197; and McRoy 96-7). Indeed, claims that the genre reflected contemporary US anxieties have become so prevalent that Lincoln Geraghty, echoing Mark Jancovich, has termed them a 'critical orthodoxy' (American 20). However, in Britain, Soviet infiltration manifested in public debate in different forms than in America, raising the possibility that these films acquired divergent and as yet undocumented meanings on this side of the Atlantic.

Recent writing about British sf of this era has often sought to differentiate domestic productions from their American counterparts by focusing on their relationship to national concerns with, for example, gender, race and the experience of the Second World War rather than the threat of communism. I.Q. Hunter argues that 'in the 1950s and 1960s ... British science fiction films' chief source of anxiety was not Communism, as it was for American films, but the growing assertiveness and independence of housewives and career women' ('British' 40). Steve Chibnall notes that these films 'began to feature humanoid extraterrestrials with all the signifiers of femininity and desirability' while also providing 'literal examples of inter-planetary miscegenation' (62). Ian Conrich observes 'a return to wartime images' (88) within 1950s British monster movies, while Lincoln Geraghty notes a similar tendency in the era's sf literature when he argues that 'catastrophe seemed entirely plausible and indeed imminent after the Second World War and the development of the H-Bomb, thus British science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s ... merely reflected this fear of death, destruction and decay' ('Visions' 108). As Hunter summarises, 'while American science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s reverberated with fears of Communism, British science fiction was fixated on the imagery of war and the theme of national decline' ('Deep' 34). While these authors highlight the distinctive character of British sf cinema itself, this article draws attention to the ways in which British audiences might also be differentiated from their US counterparts in terms of their national contexts. Communism may not have been the dominant concern of British sf, but it was certainly a concern for its audiences and this concern was not a simple mirror of that felt in America.

To begin addressing the ways in which 1950s depersonalisation narratives were framed by the sociopolitical context of their British release, this article locates two such films within the British public debate about communism. Newspaper reports provide particularly useful insight into these debates as they were widely available, readily consumed and were one of the primary means by which information about domestic and international affairs was disseminated. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.