Fear Of A Red Planet

Fear Of A Red Planet
By Brendan James

At the peak of the Korean War, sixty miles north of Seoul, U.S. soldiers claimed to do battle with an alien spacecraft.

As one GI described it, the ship in question appeared as “a jack-o-lantern come wafting down across the mountain”. The American invaders, having recently gained the upper hand over North Korean and Chinese troops, felt confident enough to open fire, only to see the bullets bounce right off. Then came the counterattack: the UFO, the soldiers claim, microwaved them with a raybeam that poisoned them for life. It was not the last reported sighting by U.S. troops.

At that same moment, in the early 1950s, Hollywood began pumping out a series of genre movies that plumbed the fears and anxieties of the new and not-so-Cold War. Many of these flicks dramatized the novel and terrifying power of the A-bomb. Others focused on aliens from a distinctly Red planet invading — or for budgetary reasons, quietly infiltrating — our decent and prosperous homeland. The collectivism and “brainwashing” that Americans read about in East Asia was excellent material for science fiction. The true cultural legacy of the supposedly “forgotten” war in Korea may not be M*A*S*H or The Manchurian Candidate, but these tales of alien terror.

Invaders From Mars, though less well-known than other Red Scare classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or The Blob (1958), set the standard: William Cameron Menzies’ Martian masterpiece arrived in 1953, while the aforementioned U.S. army boys were still “policing” the hills of Korea.

In the best tradition of B-movie hustle, Menzies fast-tracked the production to beat out an upcoming adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and thereby seized the honor of delivering the first look at evil aliens in glorious color. As some have pointed out, Invaders’ modest budget forced Menzies into a kind of storybook expressionism, featuring glorious matte paintings, miniatures and inventive camera trickery. Ignite’s new restoration captures the rich SuperCineColor greens, blues, and, of course, the reds.

The film’s story itself supplies all the hallmarks of what would soon become a sci-fi subgenre of anticommunism: Our young hero David (Jimmy Hunt), the classic boy scout-type, witnesses a flying saucer land in his hometown. Despite the boy’s best attempts to alert his complacent community, the alien presence begins to convert the townsfolk into cold, emotionless automatons controlled by a secret hive-mind. Like a good American, David informs on his now-converted family — but the police chief has also joined the conspiracy, leaving it up to the kid to convince the U.S. military to disrupt the sinister mind-waves coming from the subversive creatures underground.

Invaders delivers it all. We have the signature Cold War militarism; we’re treated to more than one stock footage sequence of America’s big, beautiful tanks rolling to a triumphant march. We have the not-so-subtle juxtaposition of American individualism with a monolithic ‘Other’ — new planets confronting curious Earthlings stand-in for scary new regions of the globe opposing the American empire. One can’t help but notice that during his analysis of the alien threat, our hero’s helpful astronomer pal (Arthur Franz), gestures ever-so-slightly toward the eastern side of his map of the solar system.

And, of course, we have the brainwashing, a brand-new concept in the 1950s, which sprung directly from the fallout of the Korean War. The steady stream of American soldiers coming home depressed, subversive, and even sympathetic to communism demanded an explanation. The myth of Chinese and North Korean “brainwashing,” which U.S. Army studies debunked (internally, of course), provided an explanation to the public. In the late 1950s, Ronald Reagan himself lent his talents to what we’d now call a “disinformation” campaign, in a hybrid documentary/drama called The Ultimate Weapon. 

Years before Body Snatchers — and for that matter, Manchurian Candidate — Menzies’ Invaders gave moviegoers a chilling portrayal of this insidious method, of seeing family and friends altered and controlled by groupthink. Perhaps these scenes in Invaders resonated with those Americans confounded by their shell-shocked buddies back from the latest tour of East Asia: whether blamed on Martians or Communists, the mystification of postwar behavioral disorder is the same. The first thing David’s father does after staggering back home from conversion is to strike his son and verbally abuse his wife. Turns out collectivism doesn’t just destroy your individuality, it makes you a real jerk, too!

The ending of Invaders is pitch-perfect for Menzies’ lo-fi, dreamlike imagery: An apocalyptic confrontation between the American military and the Martian headquarters triggers a nightmarish montage in David’s mind that jolts him awake. The red planet’s grand invasion was all a bizarre fever dream…or was it? Tucked into bed again, the story begins all over as David spies the saucer landing outside his window once more — looking exactly like those real-life GIs in Korea described: “a pulsating blue-green brilliant light.” 

A few months after Invaders’ release, the United States submitted to an armistice in Korea. But did America ever really wake up from its Cold War fever dream? If you have your doubts these days, you could watch the news. Or, you could always watch the skies. 

Brendan James is the co-host and producer of the podcast Blowback, whose third season on the Korean War is available at Blowback.show.