John Whitehead's Commentary
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tale for Our Times
Look! You fools! You're in danger! Can't you see? They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives...our children...they're here already! You're next! -- Dr. Miles BennellThe changes brought about by World War II were swift. They profoundly disturbed people's understanding of life--not unlike that experienced by post-9/11 Americans.
Amid the threat of atomic death from on high, the western world was embroiled in the Cold War. The Cold War scenario, of course, led to the "Red Scare" and the American hysteria over the danger of Communist subversion in the United States. This hysteria culminated in the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where hundreds were called to testify about their so-called Communist affiliations. As a result of the hearings, many lost their jobs and families. Some even committed suicide.
Much like the mass hysteria that has spread over the United States since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, many government officials in the fifties were calling for and enacting extreme measures to combat a perceived threat. The perceived threat of nuclear war in countries such as Iran and North Korea bears an eerie resemblance to those times. The real question at the time--as it is for the present--was whether people would retain their basic freedoms and avoid the dredge of conformity that threatens our very humanity.
Various films attempted to covertly address the anti-Communist paranoia sweeping the country during the 1950s. One in particular, director Don Siegel's 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, captured the ideology and politics of this time period perfectly.
Body Snatchers--now available on DVD and digitally re-mastered--brought respectability to the science fiction genre that emerged in the post-war era. Filmed with only seven days of rehearsal and 23 days of actual shooting, Body Snatchers is still considered one of the greatest science fiction classics. It continues to fascinate modern filmmakers, having been remade twice (1978 and 1994), and has served as a model for a myriad of films and television shows. It has also become one of the most analyzed films of its kind.
Body Snatchers is set in a small California town, which has been infiltrated by mysterious pods from outer space that replicate and take the place of humans and become conforming non-individuals. Miles Bennell, the main character in the film, is a local doctor who resists the invaders and their attempts to erase humanity from the face of the earth.
The film invokes, at the least, a double meaning. It was both a mirror of a particular moment in history and a compass indicating the symptoms of a growing societal illness. Following World War II, the atomic bomb and the Korean War, Americans were confused and neurotically preoccupied with international political events--much like they are today. Siegel's film addressed the dehumanization of individuals--a sensitive subject in an age filled with tales of political brainwashing of American soldiers by the Koreans--and the horrifying possibility which arose in the 1950s where humanity could become infused as part of the machine.
Central to the film is one key speech by Bennell. While hiding from the aliens, he says, "In my practice, I see how people have allowed their humanity to drain away...only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind.... All of us, a little bit. We harden our hearts...grow callous...only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is."
Thus, in reality, it is not the Communists or terrorists who are the villains. We are the villains. Communism at the time was a scapegoat, an imaginary villain reflecting the fears and tensions of the Right. "If the pods in Invasion seem to incarnate the popular image of a communist totalitarian state," Al LaValley writes in his book on the film, "it is only because the government-dominated, bureaucratic, and conformist fifties was itself creating an America like this picture of Soviet Russia."
The only resistance to the perceived repression, Body Snatchers tells us, is an embattled individualism. There is hope in the defiant individual. The conflict between society and the individual is a perpetual one. And the villains are not so much on the other side of the world as all around us. The real enemy, therefore, is invasive state measures--something we now see happening across the country--and, thus, totalitarian conformity. And resistance must be against all government measures that threaten our civil liberties and against all kinds of conformity, no matter the shape, size or color of the package it comes in. If not, the enemy lulls us into giving up our individuality, not merely taking up an alien cause.
Because of the Red Scare and the HUAC hearings, Body Snatchers also presents the fascistic pod people as the American majority: the central government, law enforcement agencies and communication regulators that dictate America's political line. Government officials, therefore, not the Communists or terrorists, pose the true threat. These are the pod people who search out rebels like Bennell who refuse to conform to what has been newly defined as the "American Way." The mob hysteria, sense of paranoia, fascist police and the witch hunt atmosphere of the film mirror the ills of a 1950s America that is all too applicable to present American society.
While Don Siegel admitted that his film showed the conflict between individuals and varied forms of mindless authority, he denied an anti-Communist motive. In defense of Body Snatchers, he stated, "I think the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them." He also believed that humans had lost much of their sensitivity because of the advance in military weaponry and the atrocities of recent wars. Siegel explained the pod's representation:
People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you...of course, there's a very strong case for being a pod. These pods, who get rid of pain, ill-health and mental disturbances are, in a sense, doing good. It happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in. It's the same as people who welcome going into the army or prison. There's regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions.... People are becoming vegetables. I don't know what the answer is except an awareness of it. That's what makes a picture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers important.