Apocalypse Then: 1950’s Movie Visions of the end of the World

What a difference a half century or so can make, right? “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” takes a plot that is almost unimaginable as anything but dramatic in the 1950’s and turns it into the stuff comedy. The apocalypse that has been knitted into the tapestry of irony that is 21st century American film is almost impossible to imagine not being taken deadly serious in its 1950’s counterpart.

When World Collide

Apocalypse in the age of Eisenhower and conformity actually kicked off in the waning days of the President who is the poster boy for the end of the world, Harry Truman. Despite being made barely more than five years after Hiroshima, however, this vision of earth’s final fate has man not making the tools of destruction, but building a modern day ark of species perpetuation. “When Worlds Collide” features groundbreaking special effects, a timetable for building the ark that defies all imagination and an evil industrialist who foreshadows “Dr. Strangelove.” In this case, apocalypse arrives in the form of two planets on a collision course with man’s destiny.

Invasion USA

If it’s the 1950’s, then the apocalypse must surely be the work of those dastardly commies, right? “Invasion USA” is one of those movies savaged by the guys at MST3K that actually can be enjoyed on its own. That enjoyment, it must be noted, is based on one of the few slices of irony to be found in the apocalyptic pie that is 1950’s movies about civilization drawing to a close. This is a dark, bitter 1950’s strain of unintentional irony, however. The film is intended to be a cautionary tale of what happens when Americans are too busy enjoying their freedoms to notice infiltration by the godless Reds. The lesson mandates that victory can only be achieved by putting the needs of the state above individual desires. Somehow, production was completed without anyone recognizing the irony. Or, perhaps what appears to be Right Wing propaganda is actually one of the most insidious examples of how HUAC was right along!

World Without End

 Don’t believe the title. “World Without End” manages to present a 1950’s vision of the apocalypse that strings together time travel, nuclear war, enormous spiders, mutated human beings, reverse gender roles and class distinction.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The world ends not with a bang, but a nap in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The classic original black and white classic is truly an odd duck in the world of apocalyptic movies, whether made in the 1950’s or any other era. The planet itself remains undefiled by destruction and even the human beings who populate it remain intact. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of the body snatchers, if achieved, would be apocalyptic on a global scale, with no genuine native of the highest sentience left.

On the Beach

By the end of the 1950’s, the anti-ironic seriousness of the issue of the end of the world had transformed into respectability. “When Worlds Collide” starred the guy who played Dr. Bellows on “I Dream of Jeannie.” “On the Beach” starred Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. The story tells of a small group of survivors of World War III who can do nothing but wait out the inevitable arrival of nuclear fallout that is slowly devastating the entire planet. This is the point at which the serious attitude taken toward apocalyptic peril actually backed away from irony to move closer to downright pessimistic despair.