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Kimmo Ahonen
University of Turku, Finland

Red Planet Mars (1952) as a Cinematic


Manifestation of the Anticommunist Crusade

his paper deals with the B-budget science fiction film Red Planet Mars

T (1952). 1 I intend to focus on the ideological content of the film by


comparing it to the anticommunist writings of its time, to other science
fiction films, as well as to other anticommunist propaganda films. In what ways did
Red Planet Mars contribute to the anticommunist crusade? How did it define the
“otherness” that Communism represented in the 1950s America? My approach in
studying the ideology of the film is based on the contextualisation, re-examination of
the film within the context of its original production.
The anticommunist crusade, usually identified with the wild accusations and
rough tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy, dominated American politics during the late
1940s and 1950s. In anticommunist rhetoric, Communism was described as a disease,
a germ, or a form of mind control. Science fiction films contained elements that were
similar to this black-and-white worldview: alien invasion, dehumanization and
brainwashing were typical plot devices in science fiction films, which effectively
exploited the common fears and hopes of time period. The popularity of science
fiction magazines, the flying saucer phenomena, the fear of atom bomb, and the
tensions of Cold War influenced the formation of the genre. However, most of the
science fiction films were not overtly political. On the contrary, they avoided explicit
political messages. Red Planet Mars was an exception: it was one of the few overtly

1
Red Pla net M ars. USA 1952. M el ab y Pic tu res/United Artists. Direc to r: Harry Horner, Producers:
Anthony Veiller and Donald Hyde , Script write rs: John L . Bald erston ja Anthony Veiller, Cast: Peter
Grav es (C hri s C ron yn), And rea Kin g (Lin da C ronyn ), Herbe rt Bergh of (Franz Calder), Arjenian
(Marvin Miller), Willis Bouchey (President), John Tops (Borodin ) Mo rris Ankrum (Sparks).
174

and blatantly anticommunist science fiction films of the era. Consequently, it is


almost impossible to understand the film without considering the political context of
the Cold War culture.
It seems that even in the Post-Cold War era, the issue of Communism and
anticommunism brings scholars to the barricades. In the established “revisionist”
interpretation American anticommunism was something more than just opposition to
Communism; it was an ideological system that controlled American political life
during the Cold War era. McCarthyism was the most widespread and long-lasting
repression in American history. According to this interpretation, anticommunist
narrative was a tale, an ideology which had surrounded itself with a mythic universe,
in which the basic struggle was between American goodness and Communist evil.1
However, many “traditionalist” historians (e.g. John Earl Hanyes, Richard Gid
Powers) have recently challenged the revisionist approach. 2 They have tried to
rehabilitate anticommunism by arguing that the negative consensus about
McCarthyism should not be the entire image of the 1950s anticommunism.
According to them, anticommunism not just a false hysteria, but a closely argued
opposition toward an ideology that was regarded hostile to American values. Thus,
the widely held notion that Americans were so obsessed with Communists that the
hysteria ruled the land for a decade, would be just a myth. As we can see, the
scholarly debate over anticommunism is very moral in its nature, and thereby reflects
the contemporary cultural war between American liberals and conservatives.

1
Joel Ko vel: Red Hunting in the Promised Land. Anticommunism and the Making of America. Cassell
, London and Washington 1994.

2
John E. Haynes: Red Scare or Red Menace. American Co mmunism an d Anticommunism in the Co ld
War Era . Iv an R . D ee, Ch ig aco 1 9 9 6 . Ric hard Gid Po wers: Not Without Honor. The History of
America n Anticommunism. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1998.
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Re d P lanet Mars and the Anticommunist Propaganda Film in


Hollywood

“The Soviet imperialists have two ways of going about their destructive work. They
use the meth od of subve rsion a nd internal revolution, and they use the method of
external aggression.”
– Harry S. Truman, 1951 State of the Union speech.1

In this quotation President Truman defined the two-dimensional nature of the


communist threat. In the beginning of Cold War the major threat was external
aggression, the fear of Soviet military invasion. When the Soviet Union exploded an
atom bomb in 1949 and the arms race really started, the threat also changed. Now the
hot issue was the internal subversion, where the communists – with the help of
“fellow-travellers” and “pinkos” – worked ceaselessly to advance the world
conspiracy of their masters in Moscow. HUAC 2 led the hunt for subversion in
Hollywood, and from 1950 through 1954 ruthless senator McCarthy personified the
search of Communist influence throughout American life. Nonetheless, McCarthyism
encompassed much more than just a career of Joe McCarthy, since Richard Nixon
and other communist hunters differed from McCarthy more in style than in
substance. The loudest red-baiters constantly claimed that the threat to American
security came not from without but from within.
The Cold War required an anticommunist consensus, a sort of negative
ideological mobilization. Cultural products – and films in particular –were
considered as vital tools in the fight against totalitarianism. In 1948, Richard Nixon
had suggested that Hollywood join the power struggle against Communism by
making films with the anticommunist message.3 The film moguls of Hollywood
proved to be faithful to the anticommunist cause. The studios rapidly produced and

1
Th e State o f the Un ion: M essage by th e Presi de nt to the C on gress, Janu ary 8, 19 51 . American
Foreign Policy. Basic Documents 1950–1955, Vol.1, 19–20.

2
Hou se Committee on Un-Am erican Activities. HUAC was established in 1938, and was very active in
Hollywood from the beginn ing. HUAC hearings in Hollywood started in 1947. First the “friendly”
witnesses told ho w communist influence had increased in Film Industry. Thereafter, the “u nfriendly”
wit nesses, soon known as “Hollywood ten”, were questioned about their alleged memb ership of the
Communist Party or another “Un-American” organisations. The HUAC efforts against Hollywood
radicals and liberals were the most visible part of its action s.

3
Larry Ceplair & Steve Englund: The Inquisition in Hollywood. Politics in the Film Community 1930–
1960. University of California Press, Berkeley 1983, 340.
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distributed a series of anticommunist films, which were low-budget for the most part.
It has been estimated that between 1948 and 1954 Hollywood released some 40
anticommunist films. Nevertheless, most of them failed commercially. According to
film historian Thomas Doherty, the anticommunist film cycle was a straightforward
ideological mission radically at odds with the established ideological function of
most Hollywood films.4
Red Planet Mars (From now on the RPM) has often been considered as one of
the most ludicrous example of the anticommunist film cycle. It is interesting to
compare it to Leo McCarey’s My Son John, which was also released in 1952. My Son
John was one of the few A-budget films with a serious anticommunist message, and
it has been conventionally understood as the cinematic manifestation of the
anticommunist witch-hunt. Leo McCarey was one of the first “friendly” witnesses of
HUAC and a devoted anticommunist. Undoubtedly, My Son John represented his
personal vision of the communist menace. In respect of RPM, the ideological content
of the film can’t be easily reduced to the intentions of its inexperienced director,
Harry Horner, who was better known as an art director. Rather, it can be said that the
real “auteurs” were scriptwriters John L. Balderston and Anthony Veiller.5 In an
interview Veiller explained the cast of comparative unknowns by claiming that the
absence of big film stars was to the film's benefit: this way the story itself would have
got the primary consideration.6 In other words, he believed that the ideological
content of the story would have appealed to the audience. The complicated plot of
RPM was indeed not very conventional:

An ex-Nazi Scientist Franz Calder, working for the Russians, has invented a
hydrogen tube, with which it is possible to make contact with Mars. American
scientists Peter and Andrea Cronyn pick up transmissions from Mars, in which
Mars is described as a utopian planet. Messages from Mars cause economical
crisis in the western world. As the depression reigns, the communist leaders in
Moscow gloat over the threatened collapse of western so cieties. Suddenly the
tone of the messages changes, and w orld learns that Mars is also a Christian

4
Thomas Do herty: ’Hollywood Agit-Prop: The Anti-Comm unist Cycle 19 48 –1 95 4’, Journal of Film
and Video. Vol. 40, No. 4, Fall 1988, 15–16.

5
RPM was based on a play written by John L. Balderston and John Hoare, and Veiller was also the
prod ucer (together with Don ald Hyde).

6
L.A. Daily News 30.12.19 51 . Prod uction files, clippings: Red Planet Mars. Margaret Herrick Library,
Los Angeles.
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society, ruled by a supreme authority. This creates a religious revival on earth


and a new revolution in Russia, where ordinary Russian people overthrow the
Communists and crown an Orthodox patriarch as their new ruler. Calder meets
the Cronyn couple, and claims that he has sent all the messages, as part of his
effort to destroy both the democratic and Communist world. Nevertheless, one
more message comes from Mars, according to which the supreme authority of
M ars is G od h imself. In th e climax Peter and Andrea Cronyn die i n an
“hydrogen explosio n ” , c a u s e d by fu rious C alder. In the fina l scen e, the
president of the United States gives a speech, in which the Cronyn couple are
praised as martyrs of the New W orld order.

Even the brief summary indicates how many different elements were squashed into
the plot structure. It is quite hard to understand what kind of objectives Veiller and
Balderston may have had when they wrote a script like this. They were, after all,
experienced and distinguished Hollywood professionals.7 Nonetheless, their script
deviated from the established practice of Hollywood moviemaking in many ways.
Firstly, the script contained a great deal of dialogue, and it had, as one critic put it,
“more switches than a railroad yard”8. Secondly, it was an overtly political script
with a pompous ideological message. Finally, the script contained not only political
but also strong religious preaching. Consequently, it combined many different
themes: anticommunism, the moral responsibility of a scientist, and religious revival.
Considering all this, it was not surprising that RPM was a box office failure. This
mishmash did not please the critics, either. On the contrary, the reception seemed to
be quite negative. According to the Monthly Film Bulletin the film was “an almost
pathological curio” 9 , BoxOffice warned that the “ticket buyers are apt to be
disappointed”, and even the usually positive Variety said that it was “hard-to-take
piece of nonsense”.10 In addition, Pete Harrison, a conservative film critic who

7
Balderston established his reputation in the 1930s, when he was a scriptwriter of many famous horror
films in the Un iversal studio. Veiller had also started his career as a writer in the 19 30s.

8
, BoxOffice 24.5.1952, Production files, clippings: Red Planet Mars. Margaret Herrick Library, Los
Angeles.

9
Monthly Film Bulletin, no 225, Vol 19, October 1952, 140–141.

10
Variety, 14.5.1952, BoxOffice 24.5.1952, Production files, clippings: Red Planet Mars. Margaret
Herrick Library, Los Angeles.
178

praised My Son John, was unsympathetic to the film.11 Why did the critics and
audience reject the film? What kind of ideology did the film represent?

The True Nature of Totalitarianism

My Son John and RPM approached the threat of Communism in a different way. In
My Son John, the threat was an internal subversion, where Communists infiltrated
high places in the government, penetrated the American family and poisoned the
minds of benevolent youth with their propaganda. Thus, the Communist conspiracy
was lurking around the corner, and the American democracy – and American Family
– were in danger. In RPM, the threat was an external aggression, where the
Communists attempted to dominate the world and enslave mankind. They constantly
waited for a sign of weakness to start a war and “to build the New World in the ruins
of West”.
In a way, RPM captured the essential features of anticommunist rhetoric. In
RPM, The Soviet regime is portrayed as repressive and totalitarian. In a revealing
scene, a Soviet General plans the mass transplantation of population:

“It is possible that another mass transplantation of population may be necessary. We


fostered a famine thirty years ago. We shall foster another. Let twenty or twenty
million of these sheep die, and see how long their religious faith lives”

The scene illustrates that the Communists of Kremlin are cynical oppressors, who are
ready to sacrifice millions of people at the altar of Marxism in cold blood. The image
of Communism as a monolithic, repressive force was very common in the
contemporary public discussion. One of the architects in establishing this image was
diplomat George F. Kennan and his so-called Long Telegram, which he sent from
Moscow to Washington in Februrary 1946. The Long Telegram provided American
politicians with the intellectual framework they would employ in dealing with
Communism.1
In the Long Telegram, as well as in RPM, the Soviet leaders appeared as an
inhuman force, without morality or decency, beyond the appeal of reason, and

11
Harrison’s Reports, 17.5.1952. Harrison’s Reports and Film Reviews. Volume II, 1992.
1
Frank Costigliola: 'Un cesing Press ure for Pen etration . Gen der, Pathology and E motion i n Ge orge
Ken nan’s Co ld W ar’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No 4, March 1997, 1331–1333.
179

compelled to strive for world domination. Kennan portrayed Kremlin as a regime of


unparalleled ruthlessness and jealousy. In RPM, the Soviet leaders were equally
portrayed as cynical elite, who felt contempt for the common man. They treated all
those who opposed their efforts to the world conquest as enemies, and they used
terrorism and violence to promote their ends.
This conception of ruthless Communists aiming at the world domination was
constantly repeated by many politicians, such as John Foster Dulles, who was the
Secretary of State in Eisenhower administration. He discussed the nature of
Communism already in his book War or Peace (1950), and the rhetoric he used was
strongly suggestive of the message that RPM was trying to deliver. According to
Dulles, the real enemy was not the Russian people, but the relatively small,
“fanatical” Soviet Communist Party, which had “despotic political power in Russia
and elsewhere” and which pursued to “extend that power to all the world”.2 Also in
RPM, the main adversary is the Communist elite, not the ordinary Russian people.
They are described as noble and religious peasants, who are eagerly listening to the
Voice of America. Inspired by the messages from Mars, they start a revolution
against Communist dictatorship.
In anticommunist films Communists often took the place Nazis had previously
occupied as villains in wartime propaganda films. RPM contained both stereotypes:
the arrogant, gangster-like Nazi and the cynical, ruthless Communist. The film also
pointe d out th at Nazi wa r criminals were – unwillingly – working for the
communists. The association between the Communists and the Nazis was an
essential part of the Cold War rhetoric, in which Communism was described as “Red
Fascism”, the ideological obverse of the Nazism.

The Religious Revival

The beginning of the 1950s was a time of religious revival in the United States. The
most visible figure in this new boom of religion was probably evangelist Billy
Graham, who frequently discussed the contest between Christian America and
atheistic Russia in his sermons. Graham declared that traditional American values
were the most effective shield against Communism, which was “Satan’s version of

2
John Fo ster Dulles, War or Peace. Macmillan, New York 1950, 5–6.
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religion”.1 RPM embodied values that should have pleased Graham and other
crusaders of anticommunism, since it defined the conflict of Communism and
American values in religious terms.
RPM was not the only science fiction film that stressed the religious questions.
Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) told a story about Christ-like
alien, who came to earth to warn mankind about the consequences of arms race. It
was one of the few science fiction films with – at least on the most immediate level
– a liberal political message. However, the religious subtext of The Day the Earth
Stood Still was quite different than in RPM. Wise' s film overtly criticised Cold War
confrontation, whereas RPM strove to escalate it. RPM constructed an almost utopian
view of the New World order based on religious leadership.
In RPM, the contrast between faith and unfaith is crucial, and it is established
between scientist Chris Cronyn and his wife, Linda. As Cyndy Hendershot has
pointed out, Linda Cronyn is a bastion of religious belief, and, at the same time, a
liberated American woman. Hendershot claims that the worst embodiment of evil in
film is not a Communist but a Nazi. Nazism has incorporated Christian faith into its
political ideology and is demonstrated in the film as even more dangerous threat than
Communism. In the end, Calder goes into raptures and declares that his God is
Lucifer, which reveals the evil forces behind Nazi ideology.2
The polarity of faith and unfaith was also crucial in the anticommunist rhetoric.
Conservatives – and many anticommunist liberals – defined Communism as an attack
on traditional American values, like religion, patriotism, and civic society. John
Foster Dulles emphasised that Soviet Communism “starts with an atheistic, godless
premise”. He rejected Marxist materialism and stressed the significance of spiritual
faith in politics and society: “We can, and must, reject totally the Marxian thesis that
material things are primarily and spiritual things only secondary”. Instead of this

1
Stephen J. Whitfield: The Culture of the Cold War. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore &
London 1991, 80–81.
2
Cyndy Hendershot: 'Anti-Communism and Ambivalence in Red Planet Mars, Invasion USA, and The
Beast of Yucca Flats', Science Fiction Studies, Vol 28, Part 2, July 2001, 252.
181

materialist approach, America needed “righteous and dynamic faith” to carry on its
mission as the leader of the free world.3
Dulles was not alone in his effort to resist the – often very loosely defined –
Marxist ideas. In his book God and Man at Yale (1951), young William F. Buckley,
Jr, who later on became one of the leading ideologists of American conservatism,
depicted the contradiction between “American” and “collectivist” values. Buckley
announced self-confidently:

“I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important
i n t he w or l d . I f u r t h er b e li e v e t h a t th e s t r u gg l e b e t w e e n i n d iv i d u a li s m a nd
collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” 4

Buckley's friend Whittaker Chambers used the corresponding rhetoric in his


memoirs, Witness (1952). Chambers, who had been witness in the sensational spy-
case, Alger Hiss trial, emphasised that the battle between the free world and
Communism was also a battle between individualism and collectivism, between
materialism and free spirit, and finally between atheism and Christianity. Chambers
summed up this antagonism by stating that “Communist vision is the vision of Man
without God”.5
RPM reached the same conclusion. It presented a juxtaposition of Marxist
materialism and Christianity, and emphasised that religious revival was not only
necessary, but fundamental to the New World order. In RPM, The president of the
United States announces that the nation is “following the star of Bethlehem”. Thus,
the divine sanctions supersede the realities of policy-making. The character of the
president is particularly interesting, since the actor picked up to the role, Willis
Bouchey, looks just like Ike Eisenhower. Was this resemblance only a coincidence?

3
Dulles 1950, 251-259.
4
William F. Bu ckl ey, God and Men at Yale. The S uperstitio ns of “Academic Freedom”. Henry
Regnery Company, Chicago 195 1, xvi–xvii (preface).
5
Whittaker Ch ambers (1969, first published in. 1952) Witness. Henry Regnery Company, Chicago 9.
182

In any case, the primaries of the 1952 presidential election were not even started
when the film was in production (it was released in May 1952).6
Instead of the conventional The End, RPM ended up with the words “the
beginning”, as a sign of the New World order. Consequently, it can be argued that
RPM is not really that much about the menace of Communism, but a science fiction
film about the importance of religious revival, about the contradiction between
secular, science-oriented society and spiritual faith. The Communism and Nazism are
external threats to democracy, but the film also seems to suggest that internal
weakness, excessive confidence in scientific progress and lack of faith are the real
challenges to the free world.

What Does the Red Planet Ma rs “Reflect”?

In conclusion, I would like to briefly consider the question of representation. As a


historical source, what kind of generalizations can be made on the basis of an
ambiguous cultural product like RPM? According to Siegfrid Kracauer’s classic
thesis, films reflect the hidden collective mentality of the nation. But what did RPM
actually reflect? What is the “national mentality” it would have reflected? Was the
issue of Communism and anticommunism really such an essential part of the national
psyche in the 1950s America?
RPM has been considered as a hysterically anticommunist film, which it
undeniably is. RPM indeed embodied the Cold War attitudes. However, this approach
should not lead us to the mechanical conclusion that it represented the national
mentality, widely accepted values and attitudes of the time. I would argue that it was,
after all, more of a curiosity piece than a representative of national atmosphere.
Firstly, RPM was a B-budget film produced by a small production company.
Secondly, it was a commercial failure, just like most anticommunist films. It did not
reach the audience, and the critics bashed it. Consequently, RPM was not a typical
6
The critic of Mon thly Film B ulletin noted this detail and wrote th at film hints that the president is
Eisen how er. The Monthly Film Bulletin, no 225, Vol 19, October 1952, 140.
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Hollywood product. It did not try to please the audience and solve ideological
contradictions. On the contrary, it presented a sharp, black and white -worldview. It
demanded that viewer take sides in the universal battle between the free world and
totalitarianism.
RPM certainly reflected the pressures of the time, and it can be seen as a by-
product of anticommunist hysteria. Like My Son John, RPM can be read as a
cinematic manifestation of anticommunist ideology. However, it would be an
exaggeration to claim that it reflected the common attitudes of the era. It certainly
replicated the views of the anticommunist movement, or the attitudes of influential
anticommunist pressure groups like HUAC or American Legion, which eagerly
monitored the ideological correctness of Hollywood films. However, the film
probably embarrassed even those who conceivably agreed its ideological message.
A final word goes to the contemporary critic. The review in Monthly Film
Bulletin compressed the contradictions of the film as follows:

Red Planet Mars (…) is a grotesque, almost insane fantasy, told in deadly earnest, a
crude strip cartoon inflated into allegory and prophecy.1

1
The Monthly Film Bulletin, no 225, Vol 19, October 1952, 141.
Please mention the bibliographic information
when referring to this book:

History in Words and Images. Proceedings of the Conference on Historical


Representation held at the University of Turku, Finland, 26–28 September 2002.
Edited by Hannu Salmi. Turku: University of Turku, Department of History, 2005.
(available as an eBook at http://www.hum.utu.fi/historia/2002)