Monsters In The Machine by Steffen Hantke (book review).

March 17, 2017 | By | Reply More

As with many books, Steffen Hantke’s book title, ‘Monsters In The Machine’, has more meaning from its sub-title ‘Science Fiction Film And The Militarisation Of America After World War II’. In his extended introduction, Hantke points out that after WW2, the American public had lost its taste for war films and the film studios turned to other sources. I had a look at my own database of films watched and I only found four that way but changed again in the 1950s. He also points out that outside of horror, Science Fiction films weren’t in abundance but began to grow in the 1950s, often using US military to sort the problems out. Again, that’s also true of the SF B-movies. He’s only vague about the military influence in the futuristic ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) but I would have thought the crew wearing identical uniforms, guns and rank were a bit of a giveaway.

Don’t think this book stops in the 1950s, as he cites some films in the 1960s, too. The repercussions of the effects of the atomic bomb percolate through much of this. Hantke points out that these films didn’t really dwell on the effects on people after a nuclear bomb strike only the creation of giant creatures. Although he doesn’t say it, you have to think of American school children told to roll in a ball under their school desks should a nuke fall to appreciate how much US citizens were kept in the dark about what would really happen. In the UK, the film ‘Fail Safe’ (1964) was actually shown at my junior school for our senior year and although I agree with Hantke it was mostly talkie, the drama of events did not escape us. The only regret was it was the last day of term which meant no one had a chance to discuss it in the days that followed. It took me a few years to find the forgotten title than the impact of solution to a Cold War crisis.

Hantke makes a good observation on how the US military were reluctant to allow modern or current footage of their activities to be used in 1950s SF films, despite them actually being put in a good light. One only has to look at ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (1951) where the National Guard and not the US Army were sent to surround Klaatu’s spaceship. That’s why WW2 military stock footage in the public domain always got repeat usage in that period than anything up-to-date. Quite a contrast to modern day where there’s usually at least one military advisor giving guidance on TV shows and films these days to ensure accurate portrayal and I suspect aid recruitment.

Don’t expect this book to be a film guide because Hantke uses it to explore American history and how it is portrayed. I was interested in his military recruitment statistics for WW2 and how 12% of the 15 million men were rejected as being mentally unfit although a later million on return needed psychiatric care. In some respects it removes some of the myth of recruits that having two of everything you should have gets you signed up. Something that was definitely not shown in the films was how coffins of the dead were unceremoniously dumped without notice on their parents’ doorsteps in the WW2 campaign and better sense happened with the Korean War with a better care of the deceased.

I do think Hantke’s analysis went a little over the top in some places. The one thing American westerns and Science Fiction films from the 1950s had in common was being filmed in desert regions. He cites ‘Them!’ for having a Joshua Tree that wouldn’t have existed in the Mexican Desert, although I suspect director Gordon Douglas would have just seen it as a good field prop to make use of than film around. Filming in desert locations cuts down on outside interference, people walking past and aircraft flying overhead as well as keeping budgets down than purely for any other reasons. It also made sense for alien landscapes as Monumental Valley has been used for over the years. Looking the place up on goggle and it still looks eerily alien today.

I think he read too much into his examination of George Pal’s ‘The Time Machine’ (1960) as a Cold War allegory. It has more to do with one race, the Eloi being a slave race and food source for the Morlocks. You could apply any sort of metaphor to that.

This doesn’t mean I don’t find all of Hantke’s analysis bad. Much of it, especially how it relates to our reality, enlightening and I’m sure you’ll learn something you didn’t know before from it. The films analysed do tend to show that the military is leaned on to save everyone more than scientists but I guess bullets are louder than test tubes. It’ll certainly make you think about some of the myths from that time period.

GF Willmetts

March 2017

(pub: University Press Of Mississippi. 243 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $60.00 (US), £29.82 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4968-0565-2)

check out websites: www.upress.state.ms.us and www.eurospanbookstore.com

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Category: Books, Culture, Scifi

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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