Here's a key picture for the '50s that used to run constantly on television before literally disappearing in the early 1970s. Invasion, U.S.A. is a bizarre call to arms against the Communist threat, not some insidious subversion from within, but an all-out military onslaught. The orgy of military stock footage used to depict the Soviet juggernaut is ridiculous but effective, thanks to excellent editing and graphic, if crude, special effects. The strange framing story, with a Criswell-like 'forecaster' cryptically informing a group of bar patrons that their futures will grow out of their present and past behaviors, is rather well-handled, even if the dialogue and characterizations hit the heights of camp hilarity. With Synapse Films' exciting roster of 'explosive supplementary material', this is a strongly recommended DVD, both for jaw-dropping sociology, and group viewing fun.
Cheap, clever, outrageous, but attention-grabbing in the extreme, Invasion, U.S.A. is the key cold war 'scare' picture. Unlike pacifist weepies such as Arch Oboler's Five, also a Columbia release, this show depicts a Soviet Union so aggressive, Senator Joe McCarthy wouldn't recognize it. 1
Beautifully structured, Invasion, U.S.A. centers on a half-dozen stereotypes, broadly impersonated by actors best suited to chewing scenery. The biggest culprit is oily lothario Gerald Mohr, who started out playing gigolos in pictures like Gilda, and kept up the faux-hepster jive all the way to his embarassing stint in The Angry Red Planet. Maybe he's the reason Dan Rather became a newsman - cool anchorman Mohr interrupts his TV duties only long enough to trawl the bars for dishes like Peggie Castle, in her low-cut evening gown.
Referred to as a 'debutante' for who knows what reason, Castle begins as the consort of the tractor manufacturer, and falls for Mohr in what must be the most ridiculous courtship in a science fiction film. Mohr practically dives down her dress when he sees her, and moves in like a Tex Avery wolf. Castle has the bod but not nearly enough sophistication, and comes off as less an actress, than a tough girl who won a wrestling match on a casting couch. They're a lot of fun to watch together.
The other patrons are mostly just serviceable types, who react stoically to the strident screenplay that requires them to be shot down like dogs (the congressman is felled before a statue of George Washington) or, in the case of the luckless rancher, drowned like a rat. When he pulls up to rescue his wife and kids in front of his painted-backdrop ranch, I always want to see the family from the Lassie television show leap into the car for the final, futile dash to high ground.
The touch of genius is Dan O'Herlihy, that little-used actor who can be seen as an IRA killer in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, as Robinson Crusoe in Luis Buñuel's screen version, and, much later, as 'the Old Man' in the first two RoboCop movies. His is a real performance that does set us on edge, a seer who seemingly could hypnotize a bar-ful of strangers. He's the prophet who claims to know the future, and he offers his congregation a look at the George Bailey - like possibilities of things to come, should they not get down to the business of girding the loins of the American defense machine.
The bizarre reality, of course, is that by 1952 American defense spending was growing by leaps and bounds, not hog-tied as implied here. When War breaks out, the exaggeration of enemy capability, and the impression that America is sitting on its hands, waiting for a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack, rates as pretty far-fetched propaganda. In 1952 we had our fingers on more triggers, intimidating more 'enemies' with more sophisticated weaponry (often with darn good reason) than any nation in history. The parallel to today is startling - do you really believe the U.S.A. is incapable of defending itself against a military attack? The government likes to encourage this kind of thinking every time a new budget comes up.
In Invasion, U.S.A., war breaks out without the slightest hint or provocation. Then the show shifts into high gear, with outrageously re-purposed battle combat footage.
The invasion is represented almost 100% by a solid barrage of stock film, from every can in the vault - WW2, Korean War, augmented by a few grainy shots of Soviet MIGS. After a while you don't know what you're looking at - 'Russian' planes are often standard American jets with USAF markings, and the enemy bombers are all our own B29s and B36s. Judging by the evidence here, our war surplus must have gotten wa-ay out of hand.
The constant news bulletins plant exposition like, 'The enemy is wearing our uniforms to create confusion' - thus allowing stock footage of our troops to represent the Soviets. When broadcasting mass attacks 'live' from the scene, the news voices talk about 'remote control units' and telephoto lenses, but they must have even better equipment than that, because the 'live' television feed is somehow beautifully edited, too. Invasion, U.S.A.'s battle scenes play like an extended version of the War montage that opens The Road Warrior
Augmented by Albert Glasser's relentless score, the cumulative effect of the very excitingly assembled battles is a mounting feeling of hysteria - we do get a panicky idea of what it would be like to be invaded. News anchors list familiar cities and landmarks as overrun, with deaths reaching into the thousands, a la Howard Koch's famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. The crude imagery works no matter how foolish individual cuts may be; many shots are flopped, with writing on airplanes written backwards, etc. Only once in awhile, in overly familiar shots, does the gag go too far. We see the carrier Yorktown being hit by kamikaze planes, only 9 or so years after the real events ... somebody had to be offended by that.
The enemy is identified as Russian in every way except verbally - the script takes great pains to avoid naming them. Other depictions appear to be skewed for budget reasons - there are no recognizable Soviets in the movie at all. A roomful of Russki generals all wear quasi-Nazi uniforms and speak with accents that sound Russian, German, and Spanish - sometimes in the same sentence! The top general is addressed as, 'Excellency'. The most repeated Russian line is a spirited, 'Bombs a-Vey!
The invasion is credible, if you can for a moment believe that the Russians had the equipment to move millions of men by air, and the Air Force & bombs to pull off a massed sneak attack in the Northwest. Although we're told that they've been stymied by the Pacific Fleet (?), the film chronicles a clean Red sweep of the West Coast, knocking out airfields with Atomic weapons along the way. Even when it pretends that the U.S. had no warning systems for just such and attack, Invasion, U.S.A. makes a lot more sense than the later Red Dawn, a similar but inferior retro take on the same subject.2 Of course, being sillier than this film isn't easy. Just as the Soviet troops are bashing down his door, an industrialist's meek window washer reveals himself to be a deep-cover Commie agent, who can't wait to gloat over his new conquest.
The brief, under-produced scenes of civilian panic raise the concept of Hokum to a wonderful new level. There's a fine confusion among the barflies getting soused at Tim's, as they make wisecracks at the doom reports from the tube. Noel Neill, as a lowly airline counterperson, must have a direct conduit to the latest war info, because at one point she has to tell a woman that there aren't any tickets available to Montana ... because it's been nuked. The rest of the people in line soberly watch the lady stagger away, and you almost expect to hear Neill chirp, 'Next!'
The East coast invasion is wonderfully silly. One of those enemy soldiers in GI garb is unmasked when he doesn't know that the Chicago Cubs are not, 'leetle bears'. But his comrades blast their way into rear-projected Senate building interiors to machine-gun the congressmen ... rather similarly to Mars Attacks! Stoically broadcasting under direct attack, like Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent, Gerald Mohr can't save buxom Peggy Castle from a fat Russian slob who crashes into her apartment, eager for whiskey and some blonde companionship. The goon rips her dress across the shoulder in the censor-approved manner afforded all dream girls in science fiction movies. Savant is disappointed that the 'ravaged look' - carefully ripped blouses and neat dirt smudges on the cheek - didn't turn into a fashion at some point. Poor Carla meets a fate identical to the 'Broadway Baby' of Golddiggers of 1935, only this time there's no kitty cat left behind to mourn her.
The Jack Rabin effects in Invasion, U.S.A. are poverty-stricken but so outrageously ambitious that they work. The nuclear strikes are depicted by superimposing a nighttime bomb blast over various targets, in quick cuts that would be ridiculous, were it not for the iconic power of the mushroom cloud. When NYC is nuked, our lovers are buried alive under a cascade of bricks and masonry, but of course are unharmed. One solitary break-apart model skyscraper is shown to collapse in flames. This year it's a disturbing sight, no matter how crudely visualized. It may be the only model constructed for the film - for we see Castle and Neill posing next to it in bathing suits for a publicity still in the disc extras! Firecrackers and cigarette smoke superimposed over cityscapes are more effective than they should be, due to the hyped-up context. The silly flood that overruns the family fleeing Boulder Dam is a fall-down hoot - with a mountain of gurgly, way out-of-scale water visible through the rear window, the rancher pleads with the driver to go faster!
Synapse's disc of Invasion, U.S.A. is pretty marvellous. It's as loaded with extras as last month's Atomic War Bride / This is Not a Test combo disc from Something Weird.
The transfer looks very good, with almost no print damage. The 1:37 aspect ratio has a lot of dead space at the top and bottom, so Savant tried matting it on his widescreen television. Although one credit screen is too tall and gets cropped off, the framing looks great this way throughout the film - a viewing choice that also helps the stock footage look a little less 'stock'. 1952 is technically too early for films to be composed wider, even 1:66, so this must be the exception. Synapse has thoughtfully windowboxed the picture slightly, which helps keep all the action onscreen - even expensive monitors routinely crop off picture extremes on all sides of the image.
The first extra in this Atomic Special Edition are a trio of charming but amateurishly produced interviews ... A digital video camera is useless unless one has good lighting and sound recording. Dan O'Herlihy is an hilarious, amused man who offers serious words about his political attitudes in the early '50s. William Schallert is repeatedly called 'the Atomic Actor' in the extras section, and it's true, he was associated with almost all of them, while turning up in dozens of '50s sci fi's in general. Noel Neill is a sweet lady but not the greatest interview subject. She keeps trying to compare Invasion, U.S.A. to Pearl Harbor, and the interview doesn't protect her from appearing foolish, a common symptom of inexperience.
The nicely pitched liner notes are by Bill Geerhart of the Conelrad website, which has provided a collection of 100 Atom movies, each accompanied by short comments and a still. Two official defense department audio recordings, The Complacent Americans and If the Bomb Falls, are an enticing pair of titles from the early '60s that Savant didn't audit - but that promise to be a prime resource of Cold War propaganda.
The best extra is saved for last: a 30 minute version of the originally hour-long public information short subject Red Nightmare (aka Freedom and You, aka The Commies are Coming, the Commies are Coming). It was made in 1962 by Warners for the Defense Department - the title of the specific agency onscreen reads like doublespeak dis-information. Jack Kelly, Jack Webb and Andrew Duggan star, and Robert Conrad and Peter Breck show up in bits. It's directed by the famous Wolf Man auteur, George Waggner, here unaccountably billed as WaGGner, and liberally uses themes from paranoid Science fiction movies.
With Jack Webb serving as an omniscient Our Town-like host, we learn of a fake American hamlet replicated behind the Iron Curtain, as a school to train spies, like the ersatz scheme used in the James Garner WW2 film 36 Hours.
Family man Jack Kelly has an It's a Wonderful Life - like nightmare in a hellish alternate reality where his wife and teenagers have become collectivist zombies, worse than the Pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers because they talk incessant commie-speak. Cherished freedoms like attending Sunday School and making a personal phone call are treasonous activities under a Communist takeover more naive than the childish possession fantasy pictured in Invaders from Mars nine years earlier. The show trial part of the proceedings, however, would seem to be a right-on accurate portrayal of practices in dictatorship governments ... even though it equally resembles a McCarthy witch hunt.
Jack Webb returns at the end, still in Our Town mode, to deliver a Ronald Reaganish ode to 'Freedom'. A depressing montage equates Liberty with consumer goods & ugly tract homes. A brief clip from The Pajama Game can be seen in the Americana sequence, if one looks fast.
Synapse's Invasion, U.S.A. is a powerful presentation of one of the weirdest political films ever made, with propaganda that cannot be separated from its entertainment content. The only Cold War anticommunist film that can top it for absurdity, is the inexplicable Red Planet Mars. It really confuses, by adding an utterly insane religious theme.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Recognizing a good thing when it sees it, even Daily Variety's
review of December 4, 1952 sees Invasion, U.S.A. as a perfect 'scare' movie conducive to
boffo boxoffice. The Variety reviews are always fascinating because they so rigorously
divorce a movie's content from its commercial appeal.
2. On the fair side, history-buff writer John Milius wanted Red
Dawn to be much more of a strange fantasy, and cites MGM interference for turning the show into
a throwback killer-Commie movie.