In the 1950s, the United States of America were wading through the bowels of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear apocalypse constantly dangling in the minds of the public. On top of this, ingrained in their minds: the image of Bibles burning and their country in flames and complete ruin due to the ‘menace of communism’ (Is This Tomorrow, 1947). For a contemporary member of the public, anxieties were high. It is no coincidence that in Hollywood, the Golden Age of science fiction dawned. Barry Langford (2009) states that ‘Fifties science fiction films… offered American cinema a means to explore, in particular, anxieties about the nuclear arms race that had been largely suppressed in official media.’ One could argue that the most quintessential example of this exploitation of the science fiction genre is Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956). This post will uncover Wilcox’s imprint on the film and the injection of these societal values and concerns of the Post-war era.
Forbidden Planet on surface level is an impressive science fiction which captivates the imagination, but the influence of societal issues is deeply buried within the countless metaphors the film conveys. The most vivid and apparent piece of imagery is used as the main antagonist of the film, the invisible monster. From the first communication with Altair IV and Morbius, in even the opening ten minutes of the film, the audience are informed of an unknown threat and a promise that no one is guaranteed to be safe. The monster, for the largest part of the movie is nothing more than a whisper in the winds – a rumour, but an everlasting presence which stands tall over the characters shrouded in mystery. It is without a doubt that the writers were affected by the ongoing fear of communism when forming ideas on this antagonist and how it should be represented in the film. The United States particularly, under the pressure of tension between Russia and themselves, were – by the time the film was written – deeply weaved into a tangle of anxiety (History.state.gov, n.d.). The government’s plot to contain the spread of communism rapidly grew into fear-mongering on a large scale. The production of Forbidden Planet fits nicely within the period of the Cold War referred to as the second Red Scare. During this time, Senator Joseph McCarthy began to make bold, yet baseless claims that communism was infiltrating the U.S. Department of State (Storrs, 2014). He picked people blindly, pinning them as communists and causing massive uproar (dubbed ‘McCarthyism’). This fear spread much wider than just McCarthy – suspicions that ‘the reds’ had injected themselves into most industries and sections of American culture ran rampant – even teachers were under scrutiny (American Legion, 1951). This evil wave of unseeable enemies, hidden in plain sight – an invisible force. One could argue that these themes link very tightly to the representation of the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet; to some extent the monster represents the American perspective of communism. Every time the monster is addressed in the film, it is presented as a serious threat – and yet is not only literally invisible, it is also only merely referenced throughout the whole film, which is very similar to the way communism must have been interpreted in America, due to government propaganda and McCarthyism. In the concluding portion of the film, there is only one instance of the invisible creature becoming visible – where the creature is caught in the force field device, which illuminates its features. Despite the force field interference lighting up blue – along with the ray gun rounds, turret shots, etc. – the creature is lit up red. Red is not only the primary colour of the communist party, it is also the nickname of followers (the ‘Reds’). This takes the inference about the monster representing – or at least resembling – the American perspective of communism a step further, as the choice of the colour red seems somewhat groundless otherwise.
McCarthyism also infiltrated the film world, causing the attack on the Hollywood Ten – ten major film industry members who were denounced by the House Un-American Activities Committee. A second interpretation is that the Id Monster is an impressively socially aware, metapolitical representation of the second Red Scare itself (i.e despite the filmmakers themselves being clouded by the Scare) and an antagonisation of McCarthyism. This is alluded to, when the ‘innocent’ men shooting at the monster are picked up by the Id (McCarthy) and are lit up red by its grasp. In this interpretation, the idea that people are picked and made red (communist) is a direct metaphor for McCarthyism. William Lorenzo agrees with this interpretation and infers that the monster is a direct criticism of Senator McCarthy:
This Id Monster is an image of McCarthy’s Red Scare, and it is only fitting that the monster itself is red. As this monster terrorizes Adams’ crew, it picks up and throws aside a few crew members. This moment in the film is crucial to the interpretation of Morbius and the Id Monster. When the Id Monster picks up the two crew members, these individuals actually turn red. They are both engulfed by the monster, which marks them as red and eventually destroys them. This is exactly what happened during the Red Scare. McCarthy’s own Id Monster marked certain Americans as communists and they were, in turn, blacklisted and “destroyed” (Lorenzo, 2016).
One may counter this argument with the statement that this choice was purely aesthetic, though the film is otherwise so thoroughly premeditated in terms of plot – for instance its orbit around Freudian psychology throughout – it is not unreasonable to interpret this trait in the aesthetics of the film also. It is, however, without a doubt that the second Red Scare and McCarthyism affected the movies of the time and Forbidden Planet is no exception to this.
In the 1950s, the threat of nuclear war was exponentially increasing due to the ongoing Korean War and anxieties were high. Even with the knowledge of possible mutually assured destruction, American Generals, including General Douglas MacArthur (who once requested 34 atomic bombs be dropped on North Korea) – and even President Truman himself – did not rule out the use of atomic bombs against China, Russia and North Korea (Nti.org, 2005).
[On the use of the atomic bomb] There has always been active consideration of its use. I don’t want to see it used. It is a terrible weapon, and it should not be used on innocent men, women, and children who have nothing whatever to do with this military aggression (Truman, 1950).
With the nuclear attack on Hiroshima happening a mere ten years previous to it and with all this tension between countries, it is without question that Forbidden Planet, like many fifties science fiction films, was influenced by this. One primary theme within the film is the idea that we are all our own enemies. This is presented very literally by the concluding act, where we learn that the Id monster is a formation of Morbius’ own subconscious – he is his own monster. This theme is one that links very closely to nuclear war, despite being obvious perhaps particularly in hindsight. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, while evolving mostly in the sixties, still held its principle during the fifties. The MAD doctrine insisted that if one power were to use nuclear warheads against another, it would amount to suicide, as Josh Clark so eloquently explains:
Because the U.S. and the USSR both had enough nuclear missiles to clear each other from the map, neither side could strike first. A first strike guaranteed a retaliatory counterstrike from the other side. So launching an attack would be tantamount to suicide — the first striking nation could be certain that its people would be annihilated, too (Clark, 2008).
So, while this concept wasn’t explicitly applicable to the early fifties, the time of Forbidden Planet’s production, the destructive power of nuclear weapons, thanks to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was undoubtedly frightening for the American public and the filmmakers – particularly with the knowledge that the Soviets had in fact created and detonated its first nuclear bomb (Atomicarchive.com, n.d.). One could argue that the Id monster and its story is an exploration of this theme, with the monster representing the weapons themselves and Morbius representing trigger-finger American powers, for example General Douglas MacArthur, who’s thoughtlessness could have cost vast amounts of innocent lives, not only in enemy territory, but also in home territory due to counter-strikes. The filmmakers play with not only Morbius’ lack of self awareness of the issue, but also his denial. Drawing a parallel between this and, for example once again, General Douglas MacArthur; MacArthur’s treacherous strategies appreciated no consequences and rejected the idea that they would do more damage than good – lack of self awareness and denial. Forbidden Planet’s play on the idea that a human can be their own undoing, one could argue, links very closely to this idea that a real person held a dangerous amount of control of this much power and could easily cause World War III – perhaps not particularly referencing anyone specific, but more the concept of this. A bolstering factor to this interpretation is the monster itself. The monster is very quick to endanger – and kill – ‘innocent’ people (the soldiers from the space-ship). When Morbius uses the Krell machine to unlock new knowledge, which seems to him a good idea, he also lets out the monster within his subconscious – he is the cause of the death of the soldiers directly due to the repercussions of using the machine. The idea that the filmmakers are reflecting the real state of the Korean and Cold War is highly probable.
Forbidden Planet reflects the threat of nuclear apocalypse that contemporary Americans anxiously anticipated much like many other science fiction films of the time, but in a much more subtle way. The Day The Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951) is a prime, in-your-face example of a criticism of our own dystopia-esque world. The resonating, concluding message of the film, said by the character Klaatu, applies directly to Forbidden Planet also:
It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet. But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer; the decision rests with you.
Forbidden Planet, one could argue, presents the same exact message, in a much more subtle and metaphorical way. Where The Day The Earth Stood Still’s plot revolves around this theme, Forbidden Planet buries this theme deep within its lore. The filmmakers present this threat of apocalypse as long forgotten and in the past to give the audience a more third-person perspective on the dangerous teetering society of the Atomic age. Continuing the aforementioned interpretation that the Id Monster represents nuclear weapons, one could argue that the human race is reflected in the remnants of the Krell race. While the audience is given know direct confirmation of anything about the Krell, from what they were to how they disappeared, the common inference is that they suffered a similar fate to Morbius; the Krell destroyed themselves with Id Monsters of their own. One could argue that this, just like other science fiction films of the time, reflects the anxieties of the public about nuclear annihilation of the whole human race. The Krell represent ourselves and that our future follows the same dark path that their species took. While The Day The Earth Stood Still poetically and optimistically ends on the note that there is still time to solve Earth’s problems, Forbidden Planet takes a different stance. One interpretation is that Forbidden Planet gives a much more pessimistic view – that despite the destruction of the Krell, Morbius, fuelled by pride and to an extent greed, follows suit and destroys himself too. This pessimistic approach serves the viewpoint that humans never change and that as a species, we are doomed by our flaws. On the other hand, another interpretation is a bittersweet approach; the final glimmer of hope is that the soldiers and Altaira all manage to escape, learning this lesson from Morbius and the Krell and potentially breaking the circle, which could represent the audience following the film.
Overall Forbidden Planet is certainly greatly affected by social issues of the time, relating to communism – all it entailed – and nuclear war. The filmmakers have clearly been influenced by the threat and anxiety fifties American society faced and this shines strongly through in the final film. The themes the film presents and the composition of its own world carries incredibly similar social issues to the real world of the time. My perspective is that the filmmakers were not only influenced by these issues subconsciously and coincidentally, but have consciously chosen to reflect these values and important messages from the society they inhabited in order to convey their political opinions and viewpoints on the state of their country. I believe that the imagery used is incredibly significant and details, to a potentially unaware audience, the problems of the world around them. In a world of anxiety, threat and terror, where the viewpoints of most were clouded by politics and danger, I believe the filmmakers set out to diffuse some of this anxiety by expressing an awareness of their own surroundings. Much like The Day The Earth Stood Still attempts to present this viewpoint by directly mirroring the world that a fifties American society knew, Forbidden Planet projects this onto another civilisation, another planet, light years away to create a bond between audience and message which could not be achieved through literal means. Forbidden Planet proves to the audience the dark society that surrounds them: the dangers of our own human flaws, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the injustice of McCarthyism by cleverly seating the audience far from the action, in the hopes that they can take this third person perspective on their own culture also.