Beyond the Red Scare: Invaders from Mars at 70

William Cameron Menzies' sci-fi classic might have its origins in the Cold War, but its message is more expansive.


Christopher Stewardson

1953 was a landmark year for science fiction cinema. Universal stunned audiences with 3D thrills in It Came from Outer Space, Warner Bros. released the hugely influential Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Paramount’s War of the Worlds adapted H.G. Wells’ classic tale with spectacular special effects. But one film in particular captures the decade in a strikingly urgent and frightening manner: William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars. 70 years on, the film remains a haunting nightmare of social reflection and childhood anxiety.

Told from a child’s perspective, the film sees a community rot from within. One night during a storm, young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) wakes to see a flying saucer dipping into the sandpit behind the crooked fence that lines his backyard. His father George (Leif Erickson) heads out to check in the morning, trusting his son’s testimony with warm affection, but when he returns, George is someone else. He’s cold, authoritative, and violent – he even hits David. One by one, nearly everyone in David’s community falls prey to whatever lies beneath the sandpit. With the help of sympathetic Dr. Blake (Helena Carter), and scientist Dr. Kelston (Arthur Franz), David discovers what’s really pierced his world: an invasion from Mars.

The familiar ‘Red Scare’ reading, which interprets ‘50s invader stories as parables of communist infiltration, seems obvious at first; the Martians come, after all, from the red planet. It also isn’t without merit given how utterly baked into the fabric of post-war American society anti-communist rhetoric had become. As William Blum says in his book Killing Hope, by the end of WWII, every American over 40 had been subjected to some 25 years of anti-communist messaging. But this analysis doesn’t provide a full picture either. The film’s strikingly surreal production design (crafted by Menzies himself, who had received the very first Academy Award for Best Art Direction in 1929 for his work on The Dove [1927] and Tempest [1928]) arguably demands that we look with a less conventional lens. It is, after all, a dreamworld of high ceilings, jarring depth, and sparse furnishings, complementing David’s young perspective.

One of the central contradictions of American anti-communist propaganda is that the infiltration, subversion, and manipulative properties it ascribes to communism were the calling cards of US foreign policy in the 1950s and beyond. In the same year that Invaders from Mars was released, the Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup in Iran and furthered another in Guatemala. In both cases the all-purpose threat of communist influence was employed as justification, safeguarding private capital in the process. Further examples run far and run deep, from the millions of Vietnamese lives lost to American intervention, to the US-backed installation of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in 1973.

The Martians, then, appear like an exaggeration of America’s own international reach. With the flick of a President’s pen, people are replaced, removed, or assassinated, their states subsumed within hegemonic goals. This is not unlike the corrosion of community masterminded by the Martians. As much as Invaders from Mars perhaps naturally reads as a clear-cut example of Cold War paranoia, once we situate that anti-communist rhetoric within a historical framework (one which reveals its inherent hypocrisy), the film’s big green monsters seem like caricatures of little green army men.

Of course, we could say this is contradicted by the climax: David is rescued from the Martian spaceship by the military. But do they really save the day? After planting their explosives in the Martian saucer, David and company run from the impending explosion – which never comes. Before a firm and neat resolution can be given, David wakes in his bed. Everything has been a dream, a nightmare. Later that night, he witnesses the same saucer from the beginning of the film; presumably the events play out all over again. This may seem like a contrived ending, but it also denies the assurance of American victory that would otherwise affirm the ‘Red Scare’ parable.

This reminds us of the film’s real focus: David. While historical parallels are useful and fascinating, it is David’s perspective that ultimately gives the film its supreme sense of unease. Invaders from Mars is also a contemplation on growing up. As we get older, we often find that the people we once considered closest to us – like David’s parents and those in his community – don’t seem the same anymore. We grow up and apart and become strangers. A child’s imagination can rationalise these disturbing developments as the work of alien invaders replacing the people we thought we knew, but the film’s ending wakes us – like David – from the dream. It’s frightening to find that your world and the people in it aren’t as safe as the shelter of childhood may lead us to believe – and it’s captured perfectly and painfully in David’s shocked expression when his father hits him.

When the film draws to a close with Raoul Kraushaar’s heavenly choral soundtrack, Invaders from Mars leaves us uncertain. Neither Red Scare paranoia nor reflections of America’s own foreign policy provide easy or total assessment. The revealed dream setting gives only a temporary relief before the Martian saucer returns, and what if it’s all for real this time? The blank, staring Martian faces offer a broad canvas on which to project our fears – be they as expansive as history or as intimate as growing up.

Published 24 Apr 2023

Tags: Cold War Invaders from Mars William Cameron Menzies

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