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Imagining the Future: Science Fiction Cinema in the Early Cold War

Bachelorarbeit 2012 40 Seiten

Kunst - Kunstgeschichte


Table of Contents

Ideologies in Science Fiction

On the Home Front

Where No Man Has Gone Before



I. Ideologies and Science Fiction

Science fiction is always political as it has the power to stage contemporary problems through the lens of impossible events; popular science fiction imagines theoretical futures arising out of present conditions. The spread of domestic televisions and cinemas extends the visual and realistic medium to a large audience, and in the case of science fiction creates an outlet for ideologies to be disseminated to imaginative youths who are the biggest consumers of sci-fi. The genre presupposes spectacular visuals and exaggerated plots, these in combination with paranoid social attitudes result in the most widely criticised and adored period of early science fiction cinema, the 1950s and early 1960s. The Soviet Union and the United States provide a focus for this study on account of several factors: the Space Race is the impetus for an increase in scientific plots for both countries, the ideological opposition to each other allows for a comparison, and overstatement of hopes and fears in both countries provide unintentional and revealing caricatures of the greater community.

Fanciful dreams of aliens and technological advancements represented in science fiction cinema and literature increased in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s both in the United States and the Soviet Union. However grand and imaginative the plots, cinema remained rooted by the gravity of earthly concerns as both governments toiled to create an ideology aimed against the other. The technological nature of the Cold War is defined by the arms race, although following the disillusionment of WWII and the horrific discoveries about the effects of nuclear weapons, both countries had their eyes turned to the stars in the early stages of the conflict. A large part of American science fiction in the 50s and 60s looked to the stars in fear of alien invasion, while Soviet films dreamed of space exploration and utopia. The Soviet Union never reached quite the same level of Cold War hysteria as the United States, much of the science fiction of the late 50s and 60s focused on utopian futures reached by combination of socialism and technological advancement; while in the US “the Cold War was largely responsible for the prominence of alien invasion and post apocalypse narratives.”[1]

Writing in the midst of Hollywood’s streak with science fiction, Susan Sontag recognises the banality of the repetitive invasion-centred plots and vapid dialogue; she identifies “science fiction films are not about science…they are about disaster” and holds no social criticism.[2] On the contrary, science fiction as a genre is able to engage with sensitive social and political issues using devices like “the parable, the allegory and the grotesque” thereby escaping scandal and censorship.[3] In addition Sontag states the paranoid claims of contemporary science fiction stem from the greater collective nightmare: fears of the unknown, foreign invasion, and enemies from within. However science fiction films were not simply a direct result of collective paranoia, the genre offered social criticism from different political viewpoints: left-wing films valorised the scientist and criticised fear of the amorphous unknown, while films with a right-wing agenda augmented the fear and stressed the importance of the military. Science fiction allowed for an allegorical staging of contemporary problems through the lens of improbable plots, subhuman floods of evil masses, hyperbolized beasts, and unseen threats all represented undesirable aliens and reflected the public’s fear of infiltration, subversion, invasion, and destruction of national welfare.[4] Two opposing views are considered in this essay: whether science fiction films reflected the paranoid social climate of the witch-hunt and foreign infiltration into American homes, or if it dared to hint at liberal views otherwise opposed by HUAC and Joseph McCarthy.

The difficult years of WWII allied the United States and the USSR to fight a common enemy - the Nazis, a collaboration that Hollywood picked up in pro-Soviet films such as Mission to Moscow (1943). This union was short-lived, and at the 1946 speech to Voters of the Stalin Electoral District, General Secretary Joseph Stalin announced communism and capitalism as incompatible systems, the same year George Kennan’s Long Telegram promoted a cautious approach to relationships with the Soviet Union. Political consultant Bernard Baruch in 1947 stated, “we are in the midst of a cold war,” regarding the changing relationship with the USSR, the same year the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) begins investigating Hollywood for communist insurgents they feared were being cultivated there.[5] The trials ended in the successful blacklisting of many filmmakers, and although Hollywood films did not officially filter through government censors before screening, the fear of irreversible public defamation frames films of this period to expressing a particular government-approved ideology.

The United States lost the monopoly on the atomic bomb in 1949 when the Soviet Union conducted the first test for their nuclear warhead; this produced a wave of nuclear war hysteria in the West. The 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage justified a paranoid fear of enemies being fostered on native soil, and also a cautious attitude toward scientists who may lose sight of patriotism for the sake of scientific advancement. The Hollywood blacklist officially started in 1947 after the HUAC investigation to uncover what Robert Stripling, the chief investigator, considered being the Communists attempt to influence the Screen Writers Guild and the content of films. According to Stripling, the studios made no real effort to remove Communists from the industry, but rather had allowed them “to gain influence and power” and to “successfully inject propaganda into films.”[6] The seeds of suspicion planted in 1947 came into fruition in the 1950s, when many writer, performers, and directors were ostracised from the industry. By the end of the 1950s writers like Dalton Trumbo appeared in film credits and retrospectively received credit for work done in the 50s under pseudonyms, however many of the blacklisted actors and writers had difficulty getting work all through the 60s. This ruthless exclusion of talented writers on the basis of revolutionary political sympathies doubtlessly resulted in many less talented writers and film-makers exercising extreme caution and expressing ideas they assume to be acceptable to the anti-communist government.[7]

American science fiction cinema stems from 1930s horror, such as Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), horror films about small-scale disasters affecting towns or individuals. Science fiction films of the 50s and 60s also focus on disaster on a small-town scale, but the stakes are always global – if the heroes fail, life as we know it will seize. The next section explores the theme of invasion and paranoically exaggerated aliens as representative of the Us versus Them binary and the fear of foreign infiltration. Traditionally, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) - a dark comedy and an overt satire - is thought to be a turning point in Hollywood’s paranoid fear of nuclear war and scientific development.[8] Although fear of nuclear destruction and espionage abated in cinema, the fear of invasion by unknown forces remained, and a new fear of travelling to outer space to discover alien worlds to be unwelcoming and dangerous replaced it.

Many of the American films described in this study are produced by American International Pictures, a production company active between 1954-1980 it specialised in independently produced low-budget films aimed at a specific target audience to maximise profit; founding member Samuel Arkoff, postulated the most profitable audience is 19-year old males.[9] Sources are unclear about this, but most likely in 1963-4, the studio acquired a number of Soviet films including Planet of Storms (1962), The Sky is Calling (1959), and Toward the Dream (1963).[10] The first two films were dubbed and remade into Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), and Battle Beyond the Sun (1964) respectively, another remake of the former, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) retold the remade story with additional footage shot by the studio, and additional scenes reused from The Sky is Calling and Toward the Dream. Furthermore, Queen of Blood (1966) heavily relied on the plot from Toward the Dream as well as scenes from The Sky is Calling.

The ideology of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, rather than dwelling on the horror of over twenty million lives lost to the war, focused on science as the vehicle for achieving communist utopia.[11] The belief in scientific success provided a quasi-religious heir for Stalinism in the post-Stalin period, “technological Prometheanism is a suitable philosophy for Soviet authors since it corresponds to the party’s requirement that the writer be an optimist.”[12] In a regime such as this, it is difficult to distinguish free choice from ideology; however there does appear to be a genuine interest in the science fiction genre from all classes and age-groups, even the increasing class of scientists.[13] The genre is consistent with the Marxist – Leninist future-oriented ideology: the goal of the Soviet Union was no less than to achieve utopia which implied total socialism and full realisation of human potential. Prior Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956, renouncing Stalinist oppression, the science fiction genre in literature was considered dangerous because of the potential for concealment of subversive views. Stalin’s fear of obscurity in literature manifested itself in the introduction of Socialist Realism as the underlying ideology to all creative output, which mandated all art to represent Soviet everyday life, to be clear and understandable to the proletariat, and to remain realistic.[14] Science fiction as an inherently fanciful and obscure genre falls under none of the strict rules of Socialist Realism, however because of the emerging need to valorise and encourage scientific study, and re-orientate people toward the future, the genre prospered after Khrushchev came into power. As early as 1921 the People’s Commissariat for Education published on the subjects of art “agitation and propaganda acquire special edge and efficacy when decked in the attractive and powerful forms of art,” a clear statement of intent to inject government ideology into popular forms of art.[15] The simple reality of submitting all films to censors for review before premier ensured that all material viewed in cinema adhered to acceptable ideology and acted as state propaganda, regardless of the director’s original intention.

The Soviet regime, as a myth-making ideology, crafted and disseminated flattering stories about leadership, military feats, and industrial success; the science fiction genre offered carte blanche for myths of cosmic proportions. Prior to the popularisation of what in Russian is called ‘science fantasy’ or science fiction, a proto-genre translated as ‘science fictional literature’[16] developed. These were stories about real scientific discoveries or speculations on scientific developments often written by scientists to educate public. This genre, although under close watch from censorship committees, gained a niche following of scientists who read for educational purposes. Although the stories aimed to be fictional, a real or believable scientific development always served as the foundation for speculation; frequently other members of the scientific community would write to journals correcting mistakes in the science and proving speculations unfeasible.[17] These stories included theoretical applications of contemporary discoveries, as well as accounts of scientists achieving extraordinary feats in the present day. Despite the long history of science fiction in the Soviet Union, beginning with Aleksander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel The Red Star, about a socialist utopia on Mars, and one of the earliest films about space travel Aelita (1924), the 1930s had a low output of traditional science fiction literature due to Stalin’s distrust of the genre: it demands freedom to imagine which was not fostered under Stalinism, and did not promote productive socialist activity such as building cities and working in factories integral to Socialist Realist ethos. In the 1940s and early 1950s writers dwelled on the subject of the war and Soviet wartime heroes, only in the mid 1950s with Khrushchev’s cultural thaw foreign science fiction literature gained popularity and Soviet science fiction writers gained an audience.[18] The All-Russian Conference on Science Fiction and Adventure Stories held in 1958 celebrated the achievements of science fiction writers, but underlined the need for science fiction to remain realistic, “plots were not permitted to defy the known limits of science,” therefore serious engagement with time travel and parallel universes was discouraged, and not seen in films until 1973 with Moscow-Cassiopeia and Ivan Vasilevich Changes Profession which both use time-travel to drive the plot.[19] Science fiction as any other artistic genre in the Soviet Union had to adhere to the rules of Socialist Realism, and to remain ideologically party-oriented (the concept of partiynost’). However, it is naive to think of Soviet science fiction as being strictly fabricated by government-produced ideology, neither is it solely dictated by social and technological changes. Science fiction, especially in the graphic depictions of film, acted as a conveying mechanism - the embodiment of the state’s mythological promises of the future; social and technological changes also reflected on science fiction films, but only insofar as they reflected on ideology.[20] A similar point is true for American science fiction, although it was not closely controlled by the state, it reflected an ideology rooted in a combination of social and political attitudes, stemming both from authorities and popular outlook. Ideology, in this study, is not purely a product of the ruling classes, but a combination of social and technological effects on the ruling apparatus that in turn creates a mediated ideology.

The turning point for Soviet optimism in space exploration and technologically achieved utopia was July 1969, when Apollo 11 became the first manned mission to land on the Moon. After this event Soviet science fiction films were limited to stories aimed at children and young teenagers, and later philosophy with the coming of Andrei Tarkovskiy and Konstantin Lopushanskii, while American science fiction finally looked to space as a setting for adventure stories rather than unspeakable horrors. In 1975 the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project marked the end of the space race, as both countries collaborated on a joint space flight. Therefore this research tracks the changes in attitude toward space exploration in the very early stages of its technological and ideological development.

The paranoia of alien infiltration into American homes, as well as fear of invasion represented through exaggerated monsters is analysed in section II. Section III explores fear of galactic travel in American science fiction and Soviet utopian narratives, with a close inspection of the two remakes: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Battle Beyond the Sun (1964).


[1] Booker, Keith. "Science Fiction and the Cold War."A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. David Seed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 171.

[2] Sontag, Susan. "The Imagination of Disaster."Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present. Ed. David Denby. New York: Vintage, 1977. 266.

[3] Marsh, Rosalind J. Soviet Fiction since Stalin: Soviet Politics, and Literature. London: Croom Helm, 1986. 228.

[4] For more on fears of immigration explored through science fiction see

Novoa, Juan-Bruce. "Paradigms of Attitudes Toward Immigration: Science Fiction Films as Allegories in the Mid-Century."Aesthetic Practices and Politics in Media, Music, and Art: Performing Migration. Ed. R. G. Davis, Dorothea Fischer-Hornung, and Johanna C. Kardux. New York: Routledge, 2011.

[5] Radosh, Ronald, and Allis Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left. San Francisco: Encounter, 2005. 53.

[6] Radosh and Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood. 141-2.

[7] It is difficult to draw a definite conclusion that the difficulties actors and writers had in the 1960s are a result of paranoia of infiltration by Communists, or an issue with the job market and the ten-year gap in their working history during the years of the official blacklist. For more on the Hollywood blacklist consult Radosh and Radosh, Red Star over Hollywood.

[8] This view is shared in several texts, and closely inspected in Keith Booker’s Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

[9] McGee, Mark. Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984. 15.

[10] Планета Бурь (1962), Небо Зовет (1959) and Мечте Навстречу (1963)

[11] Krivosheev, G. F. Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century. London: Greenhill, 1997.

[12] Marsh, Soviet Fiction since Stalin. 137.

[13] “The genre of science fiction – both Soviet works and translations of foreign writers such as Stanislav Lem, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – has achieved greater popularity in the USSR than in almost any other country in the world.” Ibid. 138.

[14] The Soviet aesthetic was defined by Socialist Realism as early as 1932 in an article in the Literary Gazette, which stated “the masses demand of an artist honesty, truthfulness, and a revolutionary socialist realism in the representation of the proletarian revolution.”

Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Art under Stalin. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1991. 89.

[15] James, C. V. Soviet Socialist Realism; Origins and Theory. New York: St. Martin's, 1973. vii.

[16] ‘научно художестенная литература’

[17] For more detailed engagement with science fiction literature in the Soviet Union consult: Griffiths, John. Three Tomorrows: American, British and Soviet Science Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1980.

[18] The popularity of science fiction in the Soviet Union cannot be underestimated, after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956 “Major publishing houses formed divisions devoted exclusively to Science Fiction, both original … and translated. SF titles were produced in print runs of more than 100,000 copies a year. Collections came out devoted mainly or exclusively to SF….At the peak of this boom, various writers’ organizations formed separate sections of SF authors; SF clubs, conducting conferences for readers and writers, appeared in many cities…published serious discussions on the nature of the genre. With the exception of poetry, science fiction stories exceeded all other literature in popularity; and in the unfolding ideological struggle, the genre had an importance second only to Samizdat’s [underground publishing]” Nudelman, Rafail. "Soviet Science Fiction and the Ideology of Soviet Society."Science Fiction Studies 16.1 (1989). 49.

[19] Moscow-Cassiopeia (Москва-Кассиопея) followed the adventures of teenage cosmonauts whose spaceship falls into a black hole taking them 27 years into the future. Although time-travel is critical to the plot it does not gain a philosophical scale because Soviet Union of the future is not shown, and the black hole is used only to drive the plot forward. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession (Иван Васильевич Меняет Профессию) is based on time-travel to the past, this also avoids being problematic because it is a comedy. Therefore time-travel, even in later periods of Russian fantasy, is made harmless through juvenile audience and comedy.

[20] Nudelman, "Soviet Science Fiction and the Ideology of Soviet Society." 60.


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Titel: Imagining the Future: Science Fiction Cinema in the Early Cold War