Numerous Cold War-themed movies were released between the years 1949 and 1991, but none as bizarrely entertaining as the Albert Zugsmith produced jaw-dropper INVASION USA (IUSA). Essentially a World War II picture masquerading as a World War III picture (the bombs may have gotten bigger but the cliches remain unchanged), IUSA is also the progenitor of "Soviet America" cinema, a subgenre whose filmsimagine the United States under Communist domination. Subsequent entries in this niche include the 1962 government short subject RED NIGHTMARE; John Milius's RED DAWN (1984) and AMERIKA, a plodding 1987 TV miniseries featuring Mariel Hemingway as an "outlaw" actress who needles the occupying forces by performing state banned show tunes (really).
There were films preceding IUSA that depicted a more subtle and devious Soviet insinuation into American society such as 1949's I MARRIED A COMMUNIST and THE RED MENACE and 1951's I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI. But it was IUSA that first uncorked the bottle and treated its audience to a full-blown Russian (though the enemy is never overtly identified, the accents are hard to mistake) INVASION complete with paratroopers, mushroom clouds, ruptured skyscrapers and an atomized dam.
Shot in seven days in April of 1952 on a budget of $127,000.00, veteran director Alfred E. Green (THE JOLSON STORY) managed to combine a number of wildly disparate elements into this 74-minute tour de force of "atomic" filmmaking. The formula for IUSA as accurately as can be determined is 30% stock footage, 20% staged newscasts to explain the stock footage, 30% intense and mostly nonsensical propaganda and 20% inappropriate romantic melodrama. Blended together the movie plays like a Joseph McCarthy fever dream.
Despite nearly a half century of undeserved obscurity, it is worth pointing out that it was IUSA, NOT Stanley Kubrick's DR STRANGLOVE that first - albeit unintentionally - made audiences laugh about atomic war. Because, though IUSA may have originally been promoted for its "spectacular" special effects, it is the Robert Smith-written (Smith also co-wrote the Joan Crawford/Jack Palance noir SUDDEN FEAR) dialogue that is most noteworthy today. Indeed, in between all the stock footage and exploding models, reside some of the most hilarious lines in B-movie history. One example among many is this exchange between stars Peggie Castle and Gerald Mohr after the bombs start dropping:
CASTLE: It's a nightmare, this can't be happening!
MOHR: It was a cinch to happen. The last time I met a girl I really liked, they bombed Pearl Harbor.
After a lingering camera shot dissolves into Ohman's glass, the heavy-handed message of IUSA begins to be revealed. Before the film is over each character has learned the hard way that freedom isn't free, eternal vigilance is the price of democracy and that it is extremely difficult to book a flight to Montana during a nuclear war.
The anchoring relationship that grounds IUSA in something vaguely resembling reality is that of glib TV reporter Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr) and carefree debutante Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle). Mohr, who made a career out of playing velvet-tongued hep cats (see GUNS, GIRLS, AND GANGSTERS; A DATE WITH DEATH; and even ANGRY RED PLANET), invests his character with unbelievable cool. Potter manages, after all, to glide through much of World War III without ever mussing his hair or losing his coat and tie. Castle's Carla is a stunning blonde who, after breaking a fingernail at a defense plant in the last war has since given up caring about patriotism. After her Civil Defense epiphany, however, Carla volunteers at the Red Cross and, later, takes a suicidal plunge from her apartment window to escape the amorous advances of an inebriated enemy soldier.
On its surface IUSA might appear to be simply mindless B-movie entertainment. It certainly is that and then some, but it is also actually a rather daring film (for its time) with conflicting agendas and ideas that warrant further examination.
The main civics lesson the screenwriter seems to be imparting in IUSA is that a lazy citizenry invites invasion and occupation. Complimenting this lesson is the notion that the military is only as strong as its civilian support. But why then is the character of Vince Potter the defacto hero of the story? Potter is a rather sorry excuse for a hero after all. He is constantly on the make - even flirting while giving blood at the Red Cross! When he chuckles at Carla's excuse for abandoning her job at the defense plant, the audience is left with the presumption that she has his tacit approval and admiration.
Potter's most "heroic" moment comes when he is broadcasting from a building under siege by the enemy. Holding his microphone like Sinatra at the Sands, the reporter blithely rattles off the impressive acts of courage he has witnessed on the streets of Manhattan ("I saw taxi drivers use their cabs as weapons to mow down enemy troops…"). Prior to this scene Potter's acts of bravery consisted of his trying-and failing-to enlist in each branch of the service. Potter's excuses for being turned away are comically unrealistic, but they are supposed to illustrate the screenwriter's political point that because industry hasn't built enough tanks/ships/Jeeps for the military, last-minute volunteers like our star are out of luck.
IUSA also promotes the concept that Americans are too materialistic and selfish and that these attitudes adversely impact our readiness for war. Ohman's opening barroom monologue chastises the "college boy" who "wants a stronger army AND a deferment for himself" and the "businessman" who "wants a bigger airforce AND a new Cadillac" and "the housewife" who "wants security AND an electric dishwasher." It is ironic that these supposedly anti-Communist declarations criticize Americans for behaving like Americans. But then the movie's unwitting subtext is that in order to defeat the Communists we must be more like them. We must be willing to sacrifice-constantly.
When the enemy finally does seize Manhattan, their first order of business is to spout the party line over the airwaves: "The People's Government of America will take the wealth from the greedy, the speculators, and the capitalistic bourgeoisie and distribute it among the workers whose labor will never again be exploited for the benefit of the war mongers of Wall Street. The People's Government brings the citizens of New York a new freedom. A freedom based on order. A freedom based on loyalty to the leaders of the Party, your Party…" Strangely enough, this new order sounds remarkably similar to Ohman's vision for a stronger America.
Almost as interesting and strange as the movie itself is the manner in which Columbia Pictures marketed it. The IUSA press book and accompanying publicity material is a treasure-trove of old-time Hollywood ballyhoo and paranoid propaganda. Here is one of the suggestions offered to theater owners on how to promote IUSA: "Dress a young man in full paratroop regalia and have him walk through the principal streets of town in advance of playdate with a sign on his back reading HERE'S HOW IT WOULD HAPPEN IF IT HAPPENED NOW! SEE COLUMBIA PICTURES' INVASION USA AT THE STATE THEATER FRIDAY!" Another suggestion was to blast air raid sirens and use Civil Defense workers to help advertise the film. William Castle eat your heart out.
In a 1973 interview, the legendary Zugsmith praised IUSA production manager Ralph Black and director Green as being two "masters of motion picture making" and credited them with teaching him the film trade on the IUSA set. Of his overall experience on the project, Zugsmith recalled in the same interview that, while the movie is "far from perfect, it's the first film I had any control over and I suppose the public responded because the net profits were close to $1,000,000." After making his bones in grade Z cheapies, the flamboyant filmmaker went on to produce the ultimate fifties teen B-picture HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL; Orson Welles's TOUCH OF EVIL; the science fiction classic, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and two of Douglas Sirk's masterpieces WRITTEN ON THE WIND and The TARNISHED ANGELS.By any measure INVASION USA is the ultimate "Atomic" film. It has it all: Scheming Commies, a square-jawed scalawag of a hero, a lovely leading lady and, of course, lots and lots of A-bombs. It is also a fascinating historical artifact from an era when nuclear weaponry was viewed as a desirable battlefield option, not merely a tool of deterrence (an era that may be making a comeback). The film's images of blast seared Manhattan skyscrapers are ones that now possess a disturbing resonance in the post 9/11 world. But enough about reality: Now that you have learned the lesson of INVASION USA, go out there and do your part to fight the Red Menace! Or at least build a tank.
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