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Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Fifties Hysteria and Doomsday Preppers

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Doomsday Preppers in the journal Film International.

As she writes, “on leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a very famous and oft-quoted speech condemning the rise of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower specified that Americans ‘must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.’ Though he no doubt was referring to the escalation of government funding for armaments, the military, and weapons of mass destruction, he would be appalled by the manner in which individual Americans have begun selfishly destroying the environment as they individually prepare for war.

A brief history of Atom Age hysteria films of the Cold War makes evident the through-line to prepping as a form of overcompensation around the fear of emasculation of the nation, from films such as Alfred E. Green’s Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) to more recent television programs such as Doomsday Preppers. Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of a fascinating, almost forgotten genre of post-war red scare films that traded on American fear and hysteria in the Cold War era. It typifies the post-war captivity narratives in which Americans are subject to wholesale Communist takeovers in what amounts to a repetitive psychologically driven compulsive mass hysteria.

While trading upon the crisis of masculinity, the film poster for Invasion U.S.A. promised the exploitational kicks Americans love to devour in their filmed nightmares: ‘See vast U.S. cities vanish before your very eyes.’ Indeed, in a morally objectionable use of stock footage, audiences of the film were barraged with actual documentary war images from World War II; actual air raids, on camera deaths of American soldiers and images of endless destruction and mayhem were disturbingly exploited as stand-ins to portray a massive Communist military invasion of the United States. Invasion U.S.A. is an outright plea for massive spending and expansion of the American military. Repeatedly, the United States is dishonestly depicted as militarily emasculated, ill equipped, and poorly prepared.

Like Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), Invasion U.S.A. is revealed to be a hypnotic dream, or a nightmare that is incurred by the brandy-swirling Dan O’Herlihy, who hypnotizes a bar full of patrons into believing that America has been taken over by an unnamed Communist nation. Red Nightmare and Invasion, U.S.A. were designed to both exploit hysteria and add even more irrational fear to an already frightened nation experiencing a crisis of masculinity.

‘It will scare the pants off you,’ wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for the poster of Invasion, U.S.A. Jack Webb, an ultra rightwing bully, and star of the radio and television series Dragnet, really scares the pants off the audience as the narrator of Red Nightmare. This ‘educational’ film features Jack Webb presenting a vision of an alternative America, a dream scenario proudly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, in which average American Jerry Donavan (Jack Kelly), who is not much interested in civil defense, much less Army Reserve Conferences, gets his just comeuppance in the form of a nightmare sent by macho Jack Webb.

‘Let’s give him a real red nightmare,’ threatens Webb, and indeed Jerry’s character awakens to a frightening captivity narrative – once again, the United States has been taken over by Communist forces. Jerry’s daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell), formerly sweet, feminine, and docile, announces she is going off to work on a collective. The nuclear family falls apart completely; Jerry’s wife and friends turn against him when Jerry is arrested for treason and he has no one to turn to.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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