Snatching American Politics:
A look into the Multi-faceted film that is Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Many modern-day Americans fear that Russia is corrupting America’s political landscape, but this is not a new concept as Americans in the 1950’s felt a similar sentiment as evident by Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). While the modern fear of Russia stems from liberals who claim that Russia interfered with the 2016 Presidential election, during the early 1950’s it was conservatives who said Russia was fostering a Communist community within America. As a result, the FBI thoroughly investigated the personal lives of many who they believed were Communist sympathizers. Just as in today’s political landscape, this caused a great divide between conservatives and liberals as one side argued Communists have no right to be in America, while the other argued it should not matter to the government what type of political ideology an individual agrees with. In the mid fifties, at the height of the argument, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released and was quickly claimed by conservatives as their flagship model for what could happen if Communists in America were not exterminated. However, conservatives were not the only political group that co-opted the film: Liberals also claimed the film, as they interpreted it as a critique of the anti-Communist ideology created Joseph McCarthy, the senator responsible for starting the Red Scare. But as history begins to repeat itself, the true meaning of the film becomes clear as the gothic element of doubling in Invasion of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers allows for the film to be satire of both liberal and conservative beliefs, as evidenced by the films dual commentary of McCarthyism and the infamous re-edited ending to the film.
Regardless of its political commentary, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a staple in the sci-fi genre, as its “Pod People” have been referenced in pop culture for decades after the film’s release. Set in the fictional California suburb of Santa Mira, a psychiatrist named Dr. Miles Bernell (Kevin McCarthy) examines several of the town’s residents as they claim their loved ones have been replaced by identical imposters. While at first this is explained as a neurosis, as the plot unfolds it becomes apparent that the residents are in fact being replaced by aliens who are identical to the Santa Mira residents, except they are completely devoid of personality. As the film reaches its climax, Dr. Miles is able to escape, but not before the rest of the town is taken over and pods are loaded onto trucks to be taken to other towns. Fortunately, as Dr. Miles explains his story, word that an overturned truck carrying pods is reported and the FBI is sent to investigate.
At face value, Invasion of the Body Snatchers may appear to most audiences as just another fifties sci-fi film, but the use of the gothic element of doubling calls on the audience to examine the film more closely and see what commentary the film is making. Originally described by Freud in his essay on the Uncanny in 1919, “The ‘double’ was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego.” This means that an individual is able to make an imaginary version of themselves in order to look at the replica objectively and pick out what is wrong without having to admit they were the one wrong in the first place. While the Pod People in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are not imaginary, the same concept applies. The narrative of the film makes very clear that the film’s protagonist, Dr. Miles, fears the Pod People because they have “no need for love, desire, ambition or faith”, causing them to be identical in personality. This allows Dr. Miles to realize that collectivism is a bad thing and that people should be their own person. However, even though the negatives of the Pod People are clearly laid out in the film, the interpretation of whom the Pod People symbolize is where groups of different political ideologies disagree.
When Invasion of the Body Snatchers was first released, audiences were quick to assess the film as an anti-Communist film because it appears to support McCarthyism, but over the years other interpretations have been made that makes the film seem like an attack on McCarthy. In his addresses to congress and the public in the early fifties, McCarthy argued that Communists were slowly infiltrating the public and private institutions that held the fibers of American society together. This exact belief serves as the central conflict of the film as Dr. Hill is unable to report his findings of the Pod People to the police since the police force has been taken over by Pod People. This conflict seemingly provides a textbook example of the idea that if America takes too long to exterminate Communists, they will take over the institutions that are supposed to keep trouble out of the country. If this interpretation is to be believed, it is quite clear that the film is pro-McCarthyism. However, the group that pushes for the anti-McCarthy angle of Invasion of the Body Snatchers refutes that the film is not about social institutions being taken over by arguing that in the film, but rather that institutions are already taken over before Dr. Miles arrives in Santa Mira at the beginning of the film. Those that are anti-McCarthy argue that this means evil within the police force, government, and educational institutions already exist at the films start, and the Pod People had been in control for quite some time. If this interpretation is to be believed, then the film is suggesting that the real threat to individualism lies in the elected officials like Joseph McCarthy. This completely negates the argument that the film supports McCarthyism, and instead explains to the audience why McCarthy is corrupting American society.
In addition to how the film depicts Joseph McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatcher’s ending has also been central to the argument of both conservatives and liberals. The original ending of the film was altered after Allied Artists, the company that made the film, saw the final cut and made dramatic changes, making audiences question what the true ending is. In the theatrical cut of the film, Dr. Miles’s account of the Pod People in Santa Mira is initially ignored by the psychiatrist he is telling it to, but after the psychiatrist hears a report that a truck full of pea pod structures was involved in an accident he alerts the FBI of Dr. Miles’ testimony so they can eliminate the Pod People. By having the FBI act as the saviors in the film, conservatives have been able to link communists to Pod People because they too were dealt with by the FBI. The direct connection of the apathetic Pod People to Communists is linked further by the testimony of Danny Peary who in his book, Cult Movies, notes, “Most American children in the fifties were taught that Communists had no feelings – especially concerning life or death – which is why, they were told the Russian/Red Chinese would feel no qualms about going to war and losing much of their population.” With this interpretation, the case that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is anti-communist gains a lot of strength. But the authenticity of Invasion of the Body Snatchers true ending quickly attempts to discredit this evidence. As noted by film historian Andrew Gordon in the publication Science Fiction Studies, there were elements in the final version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that were not in the version screened for Allied Artist Pictures such as, “a framing story, voice-over narration, and a new, happier ending.” The reason these elements exist in the final version is because the studio asked for them to be put in before the film’s release in order to replace the film’s original downbeat ending. The revelation of the film’s original ending leads audiences to question whether or not the film is actually suggesting that the FBI is the cure for the Pod People. In the original ending, Dr. Miles frantically tries to get the attention of motorists on the freeway to alert them of the Pod People’s invasion, but after he is unable to do so, he looks into the camera and yells, “You’re next!” This ending suggests instead that the film is speaking directly to the American audience and warning them that they need to take action to prevent a Pod People-like invasion from happening. If this is the case, then the idea of the FBI coming to save the day is totally absent from the film and it instead warns the audience to take action themselves. This significant alteration would change the film’s message to being anti-government instead of promoting the idea the government will save the day.
While it seems like any argument made by conservatives claiming the film is anti-communist is quickly discredited by liberals, that does not mean both interpretations do not have a place within the film. When comparing the legitimacy of both interpretations of the film, there is difficulty in deciding which one is more substantial in terms of its evidence. While liberals do have a point in saying the Pod People already had hold of Santa Mira at the start of the film, suggesting they represented elected officials, their claim about the films original ending suggesting the audience rise up against the government does not have weight, as at the end of the day it was not included in the final cut. As a result, it can be derived that maybe both anti-communist ideals and anti-McCarthy ideals are represented in the film. The director of the film, Don Siegel, did claim that the film had no political message whatsoever as he stated in an interview with writer Alan Lovell. However, what happens if we entertain the notion that both interpretations are correct? What does the film say if it suggests that being both anti-Communist and anti-McCarthyist is incorrect? Are the two ideas not polar opposites from one another meaning that one has to be correct? Maybe the idea of all of society being wrong is the true point of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As aforementioned, Freud describes that people need to have a double in order to find faults in themselves or their ego will get in the way, hence why the gothic element of doubling exists in so many texts. Perhaps Invasion of the Body Snatchers is set in a near-perfect representation of an American suburb so the audience members of the film can critique themselves. When looking at the film from the angle of self-critique, both interpretations outlined make sense as the real meaning of the film then becomes that there are errors in conformist politics that leads to an us-versus-them battle. At the time of the film’s release, the importance of the message is ironically ignored by the fact that the fifties audience did not recognize it as they were too busy fighting over claim for the film so that they would have a new piece of evidence to use when tearing one another apart.
In conclusion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been fought over by both conservatives and liberals since its initial release over sixty years ago. While it has been previously understood that accepting the anti-Communist view meant disregarding the anti-McCarthy one, and vice-versa, there is an interpretation of the film that allows both to be accepted. This view is, of course, the idea that the film warns America against all forms of conformist politics, whether it be left or right. As conformist politics foster an us versus them battle that compromises America’s wellbeing. Even though the message of anti-conformist politics was overlooked by audiences in the fifties, as evident by the continued battle of hyper-conservatives and hyper-liberals over the film that rages on today, maybe the current generation can learn from the film, as fears of foreign influence are once again sweeping over the country as the us versus them battle is raging throughout the country yet again.
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