Bodysnatched!: Screening Invasion of the Body Snatchers

20 Feb

This week is Innovative Learning Week at the University of Edinburgh. According to the official blurb, ILW will “be used as an opportunity for experimentation and innovation in areas which may normally be constrained by the curriculum.” The American History 2 course team have organised a series of film screenings relating to different periods in American history. We’ll be showing Glory (the Civil War), O Brother Where Art Thou? (the Great Depression), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the early Cold War), and Full Metal Jacket (the Vietnam War.)

My part in all of this is to introduce, screen, and then lead the discussion on Body Snatchers. And here’s what I plan to say! (warning: this is about 900+ words, so the longest post I have yet done on this blog!)

An Introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Released in 1956 and directed by Don Siegel – based on the 1955 magazine serial The Body Snatchers by American science fiction author Jack FinneyInvasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the best remembered and probably the most sophisticated of the 1950s ‘paranoia’ cycle of science fiction movies that included Invaders From Mars and It Came From Outer Space (both 1953.)[1]

The film sees a small-town doctor gradually coming to the conclusion that all is not well with his friends and patients. In the years since its release, Body Snatchers has been analysed as both a tale of right-wing paranoia about Communist takeover and a left-wing warning against the perils of McCarthyite conformity.[2] Some historians argue that, in reality, one can never know what a fictional film really means or how the audience interprets the piece.[3] Regardless of how you approach the film, it retains potent core themes of shifting identity and the loss of individuality.

From the filmmakers themselves there are a variety of accounts regarding the nature of the piece. Don Siegel has stated that there was no specific allegorical component to the production, an opinion backed up by the author of the original story, Jack Finney. Given that Siegel would go on to make such films as Dirty Harry – hardly a film that could be categorised as liberal in its tone and content – a suggestion that the film draws from anti-communist fears is perhaps not unreasonable.[4]

It would be difficult – no to say foolish – to decontextualise the film and divorce it from the mood and happenings of the era in which it was made. Senator Joe McCarthy himself had suffered his final humiliation two years previously in the Army vs. McCarthy Hearings and would die the following year at the comparatively young age of 49. Despite his censure by the Senate and loss of his once fearsome reputation as an anti-communist crusader, McCarthyism continued to cast a long shadow over the American political and public landscape.

To briefly recap, Joseph McCarthy had burst on to the national political scene in February of 1950 with a famous (and also infamous) speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. In this peroration, he claimed to have the names of 205 card-carrying communists working in the U.S. State Department (all the while holding aloft a sheet of paper allegedly containing the alleged names.) His position – alongside the junior Congressman Richard Milhous Nixon – as one of the premier communist hunters of the era grew and solidified through the early 1950s.

It is important to note, however, that McCarthy was not the be all and end all of anti-communism in America. The movement to which he eventually gave his name had been going strong for several years prior to his speech at Wheeling. And, despite his prominence, he was far from the most notable of the nation’s “red baiters.” That signal honour must belong to the long-term chief of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.[5]

And, as Ellen Schrecker has noted, “McCarthyism” was not a single phenomenon. There were many “McCarthyisms” encompassing ultra-conservative patriotic groups, liberal versions where anti-communism was supported but sanctions against non-communists rejected, and – of course – the political partisanship and bandwagoneering purveyed by the likes of Nixon and McCarthy himself.[6]

The downfall of McCarthy came when he chose the wrong target in the form of the U.S. Army. The televised Congressional hearings showed McCarthy up as a bellicose bully, unconcerned with matters of common decency, courtesy, or indeed fact. His brief few years in the limelight came to an end and he would die shortly after, a victim of alcoholism.

Even with the death of McCarthy, anti-communism did not cease to be a prominent facet of everyday American life. The international posturing of the Cold War, rising domestic unrest over such issues as civil rights, and the continued fear of infiltration and usurpation by communist agents made sure that paranoia and fear hung around for a good time to come. Many innocent people would continue to find themselves persecuted, hauled before various committees based on spurious evidence, and fired from their jobs with little or no explanation.[7]

The film you are about to see – no matter how you interpret or explain it – is a key cultural touchstone from a vitally important period in American history. After the screening there will be time for any questions you might have and debates that might arise.

[1] John Brosnan, The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film (London, 1991), p.77

[2] John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (London, 1993), p.625.

[3] Andrew J. Falk, Upstaging the Cold War: American Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy, 1940-1960 (Amherst, MA, 2010), p.218.

[4] Brosnan, p.78

[5] Ellen Schrecker, ‘McCarthyism: Political Repression and the Fear of Communism’, Social Research, Vol.71, No.4 (Winter 2004), p.1043.

[6] Ibid, p.1043.

[7] Ibid, pp.1041-1042.

4 Responses to “Bodysnatched!: Screening Invasion of the Body Snatchers

  1. Keary Birch at 1:09 pm #

    As a follow up it might be worth recommending Good Night and Good Luck.

    • malcolmcraig at 1:12 pm #

      Interesting you should mention that particular film! Last academic year, it was one of the films we used in an informal series run by me and one of my tutoring colleagues. Although I think it is a wonderful piece, it was not particularly well received by the students!

  2. Scott Dorward at 1:41 pm #

    Nice piece, and it’s reminded me how overdue I am to watch that film again.

    And can I just say how gratifying it is to see John Brosnan referenced in a piece of academic writing.

    • malcolmcraig at 1:45 pm #

      Cheers. Our discussion in London reminded me that I should recover my copy of The Primal Screen from the friend who had it on loan. And I’m glad I did, as it enabled me to include his work in this very piece.

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