Invasion U.S.A. (1952) -***
Exploitation movies in the second half of the 20th century would have been completely different without the Cold War. Entire subgenres would never have existed, while others would have taken unrecognizable forms. Films that seized the zeitgeist by the throat and choke-slammed it would have been minor oddities remembered only by cult audiences. And even movies or cycles thereof that seem on the surface to have nothing to do with Western civilization’s 43-year nuclear-powered nightmare reveal critical dependencies on it when you dig down just a little. For example, it should be obvious that the Cold War and its attendant anxieties drove the alien invasion, mad computer, and atomic bug subgenres of science fiction all through the 50’s and 60’s, and that they continued to power end-of-the-world and post-apocalypse movies until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Without the Cold War, weightlifters with machine guns wouldn’t have spent the 80’s winning ‘Nam on a do-over, because there never would have been a Vietnam War in the first place. It’s hard to imagine kaiju eiga becoming the international phenomenon that they did without Uncle Joe and his successors to focus Western imaginations on the fate of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, although the original Godzilla was rooted deeply enough in specifically Japanese concerns that it would most likely have been made in nearly the same form anyway. The espionage craze of the 60’s is unintelligible outside the framework of a polarized geopolitics in which the major antagonists can’t afford to antagonize each other by normal means, and must therefore resort to such oddball schemes in the real world that secret armies of martini-sipping dandies with heavily armed sports cars become a fantasy light enough for normal people’s disbelief-suspenders to manage. Now consider the various successive cycles of counterculture movies; would there even have been any beatniks, bikers, hippies, or punks if the institutions of mainstream society hadn’t thoroughly discredited themselves with the compromises, hypocrisies, and corruptions that inevitably followed from decade after decade of living under constant existential threat? So the Cold War looms even larger around here than it seems, so much so that I thought a conscious acknowledgement of its importance was in order at last. And with the 25th anniversary of the East German revolution upon us, this seems like as good a time as any. After all, the Berlin Wall— the breaching of which heralded the triumph of the rebels over the Moscow-backed Communist regime— symbolized like nothing else the Cold War era’s world order. What better occasion can you think of for celebrating its end?
I’m going to start, though, by looking at a film that came closer to the beginning— nine years, in fact, before the Berlin Wall was erected. When Invasion U.S.A. was made, the rupture between the Soviet Union and its former allies in the fight against Fascism was still a raw wound, for both sides. Stalin had been a revolutionary, remember, and he remained one at heart even after he became the next best thing to a czar. While the workers’ paradise promised by Lenin remained, if anything, further away than ever, Stalin hadn’t lost a bit of his taste for smashing institutions to tiny bits. It’s just that now he was looking to smash them in other people’s countries, with the aim of surrounding his own with a buffer zone of tractable client states. And if you look at it from his perspective, it wasn’t an irrational thing to do. Twice already in a history much shorter than a human lifetime, the Soviet Union had been invaded by Western powers— first in 1918, when Britain, Greece, France, the United States, Serbia, Romania, and Italy intervened in the Russian Civil War on the anti-Communist side, and then again when Hitler redirected his pan-European rampage after being thwarted in the skies above England. Japan had been a bad neighbor, too, again during both the civil war and World War II. So it was more than worth Stalin’s while to export Red revolution to China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East if he could at all manage it, whether he gave any actual shits about the plight of the proletariat or not. Meanwhile, the USSR had emerged from the Second World War with arguably the world’s most powerful army, and had pillaged enough documents, equipment, and well-informed personnel from the vanquished Nazis to get a head start on building an air force and navy to match. Soviet expansionism seemed at first to be held back only by fear of the atom bomb, but they had one of their own by 1949. From then until the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no externally obvious reason why the Russians and their allies shouldn’t launch an all-out attack at any time. That urgency— that sense that it’s the summer of 1914 or 1939 all over again— animates all of 1950’s pop culture touching on or sublimating the international situation, but I’ve never seen it treated more forthrightly than in Invasion U.S.A.
The scene is a bar in Manhattan, where a small group of patrons wish Tim the bartender (Tom Kennedy) would turn off the TV so that they can get their drink on without having to listen to the news anchor prattle about what the goddamn commies are up to today. Then in walks a different newsman from the same station, Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr, from The Catman of Paris and The Monster and the Girl). He’s gathering vox populi input for his show’s “Question of the Day” segment, which on this occasion happens to be directly relevant to what Tim’s customers were just saying they didn’t want to hear, talk, or think about: Would you support universal conscription for the sake of military preparedness, not just in the sense of a draft for soldiers, but encompassing workforce conscription to meet the country’s industrial and agricultural needs as well? Arizona cattle rancher Ed Mulfory (Erik Blythe) says no. There’s too much government interference in business for his taste already, to say nothing of the frigging taxes. Industrialist George Sylvester (Robert Bice, of It!: The Terror from Beyond Space and Port Sinister) concurs. Why, just the other day, he had a major from the Army in his office, trying to get him to switch his factory over to making tanks instead of tractors. Where’s the sense in that? Tractors he can sell all over the land, to everybody from Pennsylvania Dutch smallholders to the Great Plains agribusiness conglomerates, but there’s only one buyer for tanks. Arthur V. Harroway (Wade Crosby, from The Manhandlers and Red Planet Mars), a congressman from Illinois, says that what his constituents want is not readiness for war, but a lasting and equitable peace. And Sylvester’s beautiful cousin, Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle, of Back from the Dead and The Beginning of the End), whom Vince seems already to know, much to George’s annoyance? She thinks the idea of drafting women is absurd on its face, even if it’s just to play Rosie the Riveter for a year or two.
That leaves just one more customer, a mysterious, oddly accented man named Ohman (Dan O’Herlihy, from Good Against Evil and RoboCop). Rather than answering Potter’s question directly, Ohman psychoanalyzes the answers already given by everyone else. His diagnosis is that everybody wants a strong, prosperous, and free America, but no one is willing to foot their share of the bill for making it so. As for his own answer to Potter’s question, well… Ohman raises his brandy snifter at this point, and begins methodically swishing the liquid around within it. At first, it looks like he’s just stalling to collect his thoughts, but then the attention of all his listeners is captivated by the ripples in the swirling brandy. Ohman’s a hypnotist, and everything we see from here on out is a suggestion that he plants in the others’ minds in the hope of setting them straight.
Tim and his customers imagine in their trances that the man on the TV new drops whatever he was yammering about to interject an urgent bulletin. Arctic early warning radar stations report masses of unidentified aircraft entering Alaskan airspace. Then comes even more alarming news— those planes are dropping thousands of paratroops, overwhelming the limited defenses of Alaska’s airfields and radar posts! America is under attack, and although Invasion U.S.A. never calls the aggressors by name (referring instead merely to “the enemy”), it’s obvious enough who they have to be. Thus begins an impressively dense, broad-ranging, and unflinchingly downbeat story of a conflict the US may be unable to win— which is rendered just a bit less impressive by consisting of probably 60% stock footage. The selfish and self-absorbed putzes at Tim’s bar all realize in the face of the nation’s increasing peril that there’s such a thing as the common good after all, and belatedly bestir themselves trying to contribute to it. But the lessons Ohman aims to teach them naturally require that they all must face the horrors of war in the most personally costly ways before he releases them from his spell.
Invasion U.S.A. is cheesy, ham-fisted, and frequently inept. The acting is wooden, the direction amateurish, the dialogue preposterous. The production enjoyed the services of Jack Rabin and Irving Block, a talented pair of second-string special effects artists, but you’d never guess it until the climactic nuking of Manhattan, because all the big battle scenes are composed almost entirely of stock footage. (A lot of it is really neat stock footage, to be sure, making Invasion U.S.A. a treat for military history nerds.) But in its cracked way, it’s easily the most interesting of the films I’m covering for this look back at the Cold War. That’s because its political stance and its vision of World War III are both totally unlike anything a 21st-century viewer would anticipate or even recognize.
Most startlingly, this is not an apocalypse movie, despite all the atomic bombs that fall over the course of the characters’ hypnotically induced reverie. The enemy here seeks not to destroy America, but to conquer it, and the conduct of the war would not seem incomprehensibly futuristic to a veteran of either of the preceding World Wars. There is fighting on land, at sea, and in the air with conventional weapons as well as nuclear. There are front lines, flanking maneuvers, occupied territories, industrial mobilization, and all the other typical features of mechanized total war. Most of all, there’s a clear prospect of one side or the other winning the conflict, although the cost of that victory will unmistakably be immense no matter who comes out on top. Compare all that to nuclear war as depicted in later pop culture, where the shooting is almost always over in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes, leaving barely anyone alive to pick up the pieces. It’s the timeframe that makes all the difference. When this movie was made, the hydrogen bomb had just been developed, and no thermonuclear weapon would be ready for deployment for another two years. 1952’s nukes could carve out horrid hollows of destruction within cities, but wiping one off the map would require a great many hits. The delivery systems for such weapons, meanwhile, were limited to subsonic bombers and mobile artillery pieces, either land-based or ship-borne. It was realistic, in other words, to imagine a nuclear war in the early 50’s including maneuvers not dissimilar to World War II’s mass air raids or World War I’s shelling of cities by long-range railway guns. Those methods could be defeated by a sufficiently well equipped and well coordinated defense, so nukes alone didn’t necessarily rule out a prolonged war of the familiar type. It would take new technologies like the hydrogen bomb and the ballistic missile to turn all-out war between nuclear powers into the surefire mutual suicide that we know today. In the contemporary military context, then, Invasion U.S.A.’s notion that preparedness would save us was not without merit, however crudely and naively it’s put across here.
The movie’s politics are what really took me aback, however. I don’t even know what to call Invasion U.S.A.’s position, which simply doesn’t exist anywhere on the American political landscape today. It’s jingoistic, authoritarian, and hawkish, all of which read conservative to me. But it’s also strongly communitarian, having no patience for the anarchocapitalist leanings of modern Movement Conservatism. Significantly, there isn’t one New Deal liberal among the recipients of Ohman’s hypnotic wakeup call, unless maybe you want try interpreting Vince Potter that way on the grounds that he’s a journalist. I’m not buying that, though, because the “liberal media” myth was a creation of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign advisors, and thus wouldn’t have been available to the makers of this film even as a form of widely accepted bullshit. So what sort of people come in for scolding here instead? Ed Mulfory is a tax-hating Southwestern cowboy. George Sylvester is a free-market absolutist of the “keep your regulating government mitts off of my profit margins” persuasion. Arthur Harroway represents a constituency of isolationists. And Carla Sanford is an apolitical hedonist. What Invasion U.S.A. therefore seems to be saying is that Birchers are a Communist’s best friends, even if the John Birch Society wouldn’t be formally constituted for another six years. My own politics being what they are, I find that premise positively delicious.
This review is part of a team-up between 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting and Checkpoint Telstar, the proprietor of which shares my queasy fascination with all things Cold War. Click the banner below for a complete list of the films we’re covering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.