Friday, 15 May 2015

The Thing About The Thing

In my essay Alienation of the Individual in Films About Aliens I discussed the ways in which science fiction movies about alien visitations reflected the social anxieties of the era in which they were made. There have arguably been three major cycles of alien invasion films, the first happening in the 1950's, the second in the 70's and continuing into the 80's, and the third beginning in the late 90's and continuing today. All three of these cycles contained very different patterns in how the alien visitors were treated, and in what way they were represented. 50's alien invasion films were characterized by a very pro-authoritarian attitude with the aliens almost always being cast as the villains (aside from a few rare exceptions such as The Day the Earth Stood Still) who served as an allegory for the paranoia of communist influence. These films were made at the height of the Cold War, when to the average American citizen, nuclear warfare was inevitable.

The later cycle involved a very different tone. Aside from a greater presence of movies about friendly aliens, these films were being made following several events in the 60's that had sparked a significant distrust of the government. In the later alien invasion films, the government is at best inaccessible, and at worst it is an active threat. Instead, the focus becomes one of individualism, in which the central characters are civilians who have to stand up against an oppressive government to resolve the situation. As you can see, there is a very distinct change that occurs among these films. The modern alien invasion cycle appears to involve a middle ground between the two extremes, with a positive view of the government but an emphasis the individual playing a crucial role in their victory.

However, there is one movie among the 1950's cycle of alien invasion films that manages to avoid fitting perfectly into the usual patterns of the era: Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World. This was an early entry into the cycle, and at first it appears to fit the standard formula of alien invasion films of the era. The central characters are a group of American Air Force men, who are treated as the voice of reason and who have to rally together everyone in the camp in order to defeat the Thing. This would suggest that the Thing itself is an allegory for the perceived "Red Menace"... the key word being perceived. On closer examination, it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. If anything, this structure is merely a disguise to get past the censors. In actuality, The Thing From Another World is an allegory not just for the fear of communism, but criticizing Cold War politics in general.

While the central character of The Thing From Another World is an Air Force captain who serves as an authority figure, the movie as a whole displays a very critical attitude toward the military. Captain Hendry is not in fact the primary authority figure, he still answers to General Fogarty, and it is the "professionalism" of the military that proves to be a major hindrance in defeating the Thing. This is established early on when the "standard operating procedure" intended to uncover the flying saucer ends up destroying it. Once the Thing is brought into, Fogarty not only prohibits any public knowledge of the incident (and ignores Hendry's pleas to reconsider), but he also repeatedly issues orders demanding the protection of the Thing after it has started to wreck havoc. The only way to save everyone in the base is literally to ignore his direct orders. In other words, Hendry has gone rogue, foreshadowing the anti-authoritarian themes of the second alien invasion cycle.

Considering this realization, the real representative of the American government is the one person who actually tries to listen to the useless orders of General Fogarty: Dr. Arthur Carrington. He and the Thing both represent the two opposing parties: America and Russia, while the rest of the cast represents civilians on both sides who are caught in the middle. The Thing is the obvious, or perhaps more accurately, the perceived danger, when in fact the real threat is something far more local and more familiar, namely Dr. Carrington. Throughout the film, Carrington is stubbornly convinced that "The Thing" is a door to infinite scientific knowledge, to the point where he believes it takes priority over the lives of the men and women in the base and labels anyone who says otherwise as a traitor.

The Thing From Another World was released when the Cold War as at its darkest, largely due to the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even for a time when it was normal to be afraid of the alleged "Red Menace", McCarthy had some very strong opinions on the matter. He was responsible for ruining the lives of many Americans through a series of "communist witch trials" in which people were persistently questioned about ties to communism. This is where the term "McCarthyism" comes from, as it refers to any accusations made against a certain party based on insufficient evidence.

Hollywood in particular was hit rather hard by this practice, with many previously-successful filmmakers losing their jobs based on unsupported accusations. Charlie Chaplin was exiled because he once entertained a friend with ties to communism, and wasn't allowed to return to America until the 1980's. Screenwriter Bertholdt Brecht, despite having shown his support for the American war effort through his film Hangmen Also Die, was also accused of being a communist and left one day after his hearing. It got so bad that the studios eventually created a list of the "Hollywood Ten", a group of screenwriters named for the blacklist so that the government would leave the film industry alone (ironically, some of these blacklisted writers were still able to keep working uncredited, even winning Academy Awards).

There was an obvious danger to the American People: the Soviet Union. This is what the government liked to paint as the enemy in the 1950's, and to a certain extent it could be argued that the danger was real since both the United States and Russia were pointing missiles at each other. Mutually assured destruction seemed inevitable, but at the same time there was another far greater menace. The threat was not the other country, as people would have been led to believe, but their own  familiar government. McCarthy himself and his persistent efforts to stomp out anyone who had the slightest reason to be suspected of communism was a more immediate danger.

In The Thing From Another World, the obvious danger is in the literal monster, The Thing. The danger it poses to the team is real, as it is trying to kill everyone and consume their blood, but in the end this is not the real enemy. It is actually a decoy, something to keep the protagonists distracted from the real enemy. While The Thing is dangerous, there is a far greater threat in the form of something familiar: a human and seemingly an ally to the protagonists. Dr. Carrington is introduced as a respected scientist, but as the plot develops, he starts to establish himself as a monster no better than The Thing.

Over the course of the film Dr. Carrington becomes obsessed with the Thing, convinced that he can learn from it scientifically. He becomes so passionate about his belief that the monster can be valuable to science that he puts it above the lives of everyone in the camp, going as far as to attempt to sabotage efforts to destroy it. He even goes on to identify any person who disagrees with his view as a traitor to humanity. The rest of the cast, which includes people from different sides, are practically civilians caught up in the pointless conflict between Carrington and The Thing. They also come from two different sides: the military and the scientists, but in the end find themselves on equal footing. This could be interpreted as suggesting that the American and Russian people were not so different from one another, and that it was simply their governments that are the problem.

On discovering this, it starts to become clear that The Thing From Another World is not about the fear of communism, but rather a criticism of Cold War politics in general. Neither Carrington nor the Thing is ever treated as being in the right. Both sides are just as guilty. Carrington himself emphasizes this idea visually when the Thing is first encountered, during which time he wears a hat that looks suspiciously like the types of headgear commonly associated with Soviet Russia, suggesting that the American government is not that much different. Scientific curiosity is used to substitute the government's fears of communism. Carrington's admiration of the Thing is the problem, and it is this ideology that he is pushing on everyone else in the camp, to the point where he will label anyone who disagrees as a threat.

There is one final element that serves to complete the Cold War Allegory. In real life, the Cold War was centered around American and the Soviet Union both pointing missiles at each other. The only thing that prevented a war from happening was the fortunate awareness of mutually assured destruction: that one side would attack, the other would retaliate, and both parties would be annihilated. In The Thing From Another World, the missiles are instead represented by seeds. The Thing is established to be capable of producing seeds that could potentially create more monsters like it and thus prove an even greater threat to humanity. Dr. Carrington also does something similar, creating his own garden and growing similar plants himself. Both sides offer a danger to everyone in the camp: mutually assured destruction.

The idea of mutually assured destruction comes into play at the very end of the film, when Dr. Carrington and The Thing finally confront each other. Carrington attempts, unsuccessfully, to talk to The Thing and is knocked aside. Immediately after, The Thing is also destroyed. The curious element is that the remaining characters seem to be better off when both are out of the picture. The critical wounding of Carrington and the destruction of The Thing represent the elimination of both the American and Soviet governments, and with that elimination the people of both nations are no longer caught in the crossfire of their petty conflict; thus bringing an imagined end to the Cold War. The thing about The Thing From Another World is that it is really quite daring for its time, presenting what on the surface looks like a typical 1950's alien invasion movie, but underneath contains a surprising layer of political commentary.

This Post was written for the Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by This Island RodFerdy on Films, and Wonders in the Dark


  1. Wow a really insightful and thoughtful commentary on this classic. I haven't seen this film in many many years, but your post makes me want to revisit it in this new light. Great job!

    1. If you can find it, that might be a good idea, then you can see if you agree with the thing I've said.

  2. "On closer examination, it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that." Those are the best movies. I like your relating it to the events of the Cold War and the Red Scare.