1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited in the Trump Era
I had seen the 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” many times while growing up. A staple of late night television around Halloween, it was recognized as a classic horror film. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I became aware of the potential subtle messages woven in the film. It was in a political film class that the professor said the film was about how communists were secretly infiltrating the United States by questioning American morals and wiping out individuality. His main proof was the scene about two-thirds through the film when the hero, Dr. Bennell, and his love interest Becky Driscoll, are hiding an office, look outside, and see military-style trucks pull up and deliver “pods” to the citizenry, while the police give out orders as to where the pods are to go. This was meant to mimic the anti-Soviet Union propaganda being used in the United States at the time which often showed Russians gathered in “town squares” while listening to town leaders speak, such as in this classic photo.
Further evidence was that the director, Don Siegel, was not bashful about his extremely conservative viewpoints. Films that he has made over the years include, but are not limited to, “Dirty Harry,” “Escape from Alcatraz,” “The Killers,” “Hell is for Heroes,” “Crime in the Streets,” and “No Time for Flowers” (which was a blatantly anti-communist film). The movie also was filmed at the height of the McCarthy hearings, when Hollywood was under scrutiny by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led in part by future President Richard Nixon.
But I learned years later there was a problem with the professor’s hypothesis: the screenplay writer Daniel Mainwaring was an unabashed lefty who had been censored by the Committee on Un-American Activities and was forced to work under an assumed name for a while. Additionally, the movie is based on a three-part Collier’s Magazine serial by Jack Finney in 1954 that was so popular, he turned it into a novel in 1955. Mainwaring, Finney and Siegel are all on record as saying that the original story and the film did not have any political overtones.
But it may have had social overtones. In the Criterion Laserdisc release of the film, critic Howard Suber said Don Siegel often referred to the studio heads as “pod people,” a term he used for decades afterwards for any corporate person who wanted to make all films “the same.” He believed there was an inherent evil in corporations in that they quickly quash originality in favor of marketability. With Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he had good reason to be angry; the beginning and ending segments were tacked on after the studios thought the original cut was too disturbing and would therefore drive audiences away. Originally, the film started with Dr. Bennell arriving in town and ending with him running through traffic screaming “they are here!” The tacked-on beginning and ending softened the film and gave it a potential “positive” outlook. On the DVD release of the film (non-Criterion — honestly, Criterion, when are you going to release a Blu-Ray of this????), actor Kevin McCarthy is quoted in an extra interview as saying that he interpreted the film as being a write up of “Madison Avenue,” the marketing and media industry that makes us all want to desire the same things, think the same way and act and dress the same. In essence, he too believed Siegel saw the film as a critique of corporate managers. And main actress Dana Wynters also is on record as saying she believed the film was a commentary on society.
This interpretation seems to be widely accepted. As Maurice Yacowar wrote for the Criterion website, “The film evokes the terror we may all have felt when we dreamt — or experienced — a loved one suddenly turning cold and unfeeling towards us. What makes this movie so chilling is that the aliens here are not foreign creatures but our intimates, our loved ones and most familiar friends. The film is so unsettling because it depicts threat and psychological violence within the nuclear family. After all, the ’50s were also a period of ‘Togetherness,’ when happy family sitcoms ruled TV-land. The film’s locale of Santa Mira is just this kind of Americana — and we witness its exposure.”
So, if we accept that the film is a social commentary, what can it tell us about the modern turmoil that our communities have gone through in the past year. In the film, we see that it’s basically about a group of outsiders who literally tap into our social consciousness, claim that their way of thinking will magically make our fears go away, and then gain power by convincing others to make everyone the same. And is that not exactly what the Trump movement is all about?
Trump’s entire campaign was to tap into the baseless fears that “America” was being changed by non-conformists, i.e. black people, gays, women, and foreigners who he said had destroyed the America that he knew. He promised to bring back long-dead industries such as coal mining, to turn back any progressive reforms earned by the LGBTQ+ community, to turn back the tide of “rapists and murders” from Mexico, and to strip women of any protections earned over the years. In fact, his campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” which in itself is an argument that America was once great, but no longer is because it had changed. Trump argued that ethnic minorities, women, and others who were not white “Christians” were the reason America was no-longer great and that he would turn the clock back to pre-civil rights America where white Protestants set the moral codes, everyone else was forced into hiding, and everything just seemed great because our issues were no longer visible in our Protestant households. After all, if you can’t see a homeless person dying on your street corner, that probably means the person doesn’t exist, right?
From this framing, the film serves us well, and is worth an academic discussion that reinterprets the film for modern standards. After the tacked-on scene where our hero is first introduced to a hospital psychiatrist, the real beginning of the film shows Dr. Bennell arriving in his home-town of Santa Mira after attending a medical convention. He says, “At first everything looked the same. But it wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” This line alone, could have been the perfect description of the Republican primaries in 2016.
Moments into this scene, as he is driving into town, Jimmy, a small boy, runs in front of his car. During the near-accident, the scene shown through the windshield has a different aspect ratio, making Jimmy look much larger. For many, this might look like a cheap special effect. But this is not a mistake, but rather foreshadowing of something much bigger on the horizon, much like what we all should have seen when Trump first entered the Presidential race. Bennell stops the car and talks to the boy’s mother, who says the boy is upset, and Bennell somewhat dismisses the incident. At the time, both media and political pundits dismissed Trump’s racist and misogynist rhetoric, instead predicting that the race would be between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. No one seemed to understand what was on the horizon at the time.
Fairly quickly, Dr. Bennell learns of two similar cases of people who claim that their relatives are not their relatives. Tommy, the boy who our hero almost ran over, claims his mother is not his mother. He also learns that his love interest — Becky — has a cousin who claims her uncle is not her uncle. “He looks, sounds and acts like Uncle Ira. But he isn’t. There’s something different,” says Wilma, the cousin. How many of us have felt the same way when we encountered relatives during Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner who suddenly started expressing pro-Trump and incredibly racist sentiments. In fact, Dr. Bennell gives Jimmy a drug to calm him down and says “in the words of the poets, I will give you something to make you wise.” This is much like many of us who would self-medicate ourselves with alcohol to tolerate many of these pro-Trump relatives who mindlessly quoted FOX News and what we now know is Russian propaganda passed off as “real news.”
We also quickly learn that Dr. Bennell and Becky are “outsiders” to the moral code of the times. When asked why she returned to town, Becky tells Dr. Bennell “I was in Reno,” a code word for “divorced.” He admits he too was “in Reno” five months ago. In the modern era, they are the very people who Vice President Pence would publicly condemn and probably order into “conversion therapy” for not meeting his strict Protestant views of the world. They are the perfect targets and the antithesis of everything the Pod People stand for, much like how blacks, Hispanics, and LGBTQ+ community members stand for everything Trump supporters hate.
Later, Becky and our hero go to a local restaurant and run into the local psychiatrist — Dr. Kauffman. Kauffman says that he too has run into others who claim that relatives are imposters. He explains it this way: “It’s a strange neurosis. It’s spread all over time town. It’s an epidemic of mass hysteria. Worries about what’s going on in the world, probably.” Interestingly enough, this is nearly identical to all explanations about why Trump did so well during the election and why he won — he tapped into the anger and hostility of uneducated white people who want to blame change and minorities for all of their problems. They are worried about how the world was changing around them. Of course, with the ongoing Russian investigation, we now also know the Russians helped by sending fake news stories to key demographic groups that were designed to split those groups and weaken Hillary Clinton’s support, but ultimately that was all part of the same strategy — make people angry about the changing world and lay blame elsewhere. And the media and many Democratics dismissed this growing group of “mass hysteria” as something that would pass when everyone had gained their senses.
Soon, our hero and his love interest encounter a writer friend and his wife who have found an unformed body in a closet. Their home is decorated with posters from French and Italian films and the main living room is an open bar and pool table, indicating they are educated artist types, the exact type of rabble rousers who would be progressive, and therefore a target of the pod people, or as we can now call them, Trump supporters. Though amazingly, the body, and a second pod discovered, mysteriously disappear. The psychiatrist, Dr. Kauffman, again convinces our hero and his friends that they are crazy. “It’s only in your mind,” he says, a phrase that many liberals were told again and again when it some started to suggest early on that Trump had a chance of winning. (On a side note, the following scene, when the hero goes to his nurse’s home and sees the family putting a pod in the “baby’s crib,” check out the background. There is a giant palm tree that has fronds on it that look like a giant pod. A very nice touch in the movie). (In a second side note, the “gas man” who gives our hero a scare when he is found in the basement checking the meter is, in fact, famed director Sam Pekinpah. Pekinpah was the dialogue director on this film and was given this very small screen part).
As our hero and his love interest try to evade the Pod people who have taken over the city, Dr. Bennell comes to a realization that I think is prescient to today’s situation: “I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away, but slowly, not all at once. We harden our hearts, stay callous. Only when we fight to stay alive, do we realize how precious it is to be human.” And how true is that. It wasn’t just Trump that suddenly turned our family and friends and our Republican colleagues into Pod People. Rather we could see the changes in our aunts and uncles, cousins, mothers and fathers and friends over the years as they absorbed the fake news and lies spread by FOX News and right-wing radio hosts, all while at the same time that the legitimate media such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, CNN, etc. etc. etc. cut back their staff, reverted to shorter stories, mostly abandoned long-form journalism and chased ratings over the public good. Trump did not happen in a vacuum, he was the creation of a long-term plan to undo any and all progress gained since the start of the great social experiments of President’s Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson, as well as the progress of the civil rights movement and the public education movement. And, as we now know, he also had lots of help from the Russians.
“Less than a month ago, Santa Mira was a town with people full of problems, then out of the sky, a solution occurred,” the now pod-like psychiatrist Dr. Kauffman tells our hero near the end of the film. Much like Trump, he seemed like a “solution out of the sky,” to the world’s problems, when the “problems” were actually a realization that the world itself was changing and the old rules no longer applied. The Pod People, much like Trump, want to turn back all that change, back to a world where “everyone is the same,” as is stated in the film. “You are reborn into an untroubled world,” Kauffman says. In our Trump framing, this “untroubled world” would be a world where we don’t have to see or even acknowledge racism, sexism, poverty, economic inequity, or even the realization that we are all different and don’t always agree. In the Trump world, everyone should agree. Those who don’t are “sons of bitches,” a phrase he recently used to criticize fellow Americans who have tried to raise issues of inequalities that are systematically enforced through police violence and an uneven justice system.
Near the end of the film, even Becky, the love interest succumbs to the pod people. “I went to sleep Miles, and it happened. Stop acting like a fool Miles, and accept us.” And is this not what it takes to become a Trump supporter, to go “to sleep,” i.e. to ignore reality, facts and history and just blindly accept what one is told by FOX News and conservative radio pundits? And just like many Trump supporters, Becky begs our hero to “accept us,” like the messaging we have seen from the white supremacists who have claimed that their “first amendment rights have been violated” because people won’t just “accept” their hate speech.
The film ends with the now famous scene of our hero yelling like a wild man down a busy highway yelling “You’re in danger” and “they are here already and you’re next!” He, of course, is repeatedly dismissed by the drivers with cat calls of “get out of the road” and “you’re crazy,” similar to the catcalls that people protesting Trump policies or police shootings repeatedly seem to receive today. Or, I should say, it originally ended with that, but the studios tagged on a final scene where someone believes our hero and calls for the national guard. Except that we know that the Republican party has so distorted our state elections, this is probably not going to happen. In fact, all predictions say that the Party of Trump will likely retain both houses of Congress in 2018, despite the fact that the Republican Party has not received a majority of votes for more than a decade now. In essence, the original ending is a mirror of our current situation, they are here and we are all next.
It is the non-political nature of this film that has made this and other framings possible. As stated earlier, some see this as an anti-communist film while others see this as an anti-facist film. For me, I have long believed this film was a warning about any social movement that tries to eliminate different opinions or fights any type of change. The movie itself is now considered a classic that is now included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. It also receives a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And while I understand that many Trump supporters will not agree with my framing of this film, it was recently announced that the film is being remade for modern times. So I might not be the only one who has reinterpreted the film for modern times. We shall see.
I also suggest the following reads about the film, if you wish to learn more: