What does it all mean?
Many of us don’t have time for such lofty philosophical teasers... because we are too busy watching a metric ton of movies. That being said (and questionable priorities notwithstanding) our beloved cinematic pastime is not without its own obscured connotations.
Film, like all artforms, is a conduit for the filmmaker to share various ideas and themes. These ideas needn’t always rest overtly on the surface, and one of the most rewarding aspects of being a film fan is digging deeper and discovering these underlying subtexts. The documentary Room 237, hitting theaters this week, explores the countless theories as to the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (is the movie a metaphor for the violence against Native Americans or a cover-up for the moon landing?). This inspired us to do a little excavating into some of the established metaphors underscoring our favorite classic films:
High Noon— Communism Is Not a Red Herring
Citizen Kane— 99.9% Biopic
Often regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest, Citizen Kane is the story of a powerful newspaper magnate and the efforts to decode the significance of his final words. Though director/star Orson Welles swore his titular character is an amalgam of several different individuals, Citizen Kane is most certainly a parable of the life of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was among the most powerful men in America, founding the country’s largest newspaper and fundamentally changing the face of journalism. In the film, Kane’s home, Xanadu, is directly based on Hearst’s elaborate domiciles and the iconic last word “rosebud” was said to be a reference to Heart’s longtime mistress. In fact, there were so many direct nods to his life that rumor has it Hearst was absolutely enraged upon seeing the film; feeling his life’s story had been stolen.
On the surface, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon could not be more straightforward. It centers on a small town lawman (Gary Cooper) who is about to retire, just as he gets married, when he is faced with the news that a dangerous criminal he put away is being released from jail and is heading back to town for revenge. Though set in the 19th century west, High Noon is actually a metaphor for the politics of the 1950s in which it was produced. Specifically, it is a reproach of McCarthyism and The Red Scare. Once the outlaw looms and our hero is “named,” all the otherwise good people begin cowardly abandoning their beloved lawman. The subtle finger-wag was clear enough that John Wayne initially criticized the film as being “un-American;” interesting choice of words considering High Noon takes aim at the House Un-American Activities Committee.
High Noon— Communism Is Not a Red Herring
Invasion of the Body Snatchers— Fight the Little Green Man, Man
If High Noon figuratively rebukes The Red Scare, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released just four years later, capitalizes on it. The plot of Don Siegel’s Body Snatchers involves giant plant pods from space that breed exact duplicates of the humans they encounter; the alien imposters eventually taking the place of the humans. To put it another way, a threat “from out there” comes into quaint, small-town America and assimilates its freethinking citizens into mindless drones. Need we say more? The swelter of paranoia over a possible communist takeover of the United States is the unspoken underscore of the movie. The ironic thing about this is that Kevin McCarthy plays the character that tries to warn everyone of the threat; it was Senator Joseph McCarthy who begot the aforementioned poisonous political practice that bears his name.
The Day the Earth Stood Still— Passion of the Klaatu
It’s no surprise that the latter half of this list is comprised of sci-fi titles. More than any other genre, science fiction tends to most artfully address the complex social issues of its day, even when disguised in fantastical trappings. 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still begins with a UFO landing in Washington DC, and the alien pilot informing the people that they must cease all warring ways or be destroyed for the good of the universe. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a fascinating case in that it features both Cold War subtext and a Christian allegory. The very title doubles as an apt descriptor for the nuclear stalemate in which America and The Soviet Union found itself post World War II. In the film, the Earth is forced to adopt a forced peace upon threat of destruction — sound familiar? In regard to the Christian symbolism at play, Klaatu comes to our world to save it, preaching a message of peace. He adopts the name Carpenter (Jesus’ occupation) while in hiding, and is even resurrected at one point in the film.
Aliens— Mommie Dearest
James Cameron’s Aliens redefined expectations for sci-fi sequels. Heck, sequels in general. However, while we may have initially been mesmerized by the sheer bombastic entertainment value of Ripley’s second cinematic adventure, a far more meaningful story was lurking in the shadows. Aliens is an exploration of a woman’s complicated relationship with motherhood. Insemination and violent birth imagery are rampant throughout both Alien and Aliens, but it is in the sequel the Ripley must save Newt from the xenomorph queen in her nest of eggs; navigating a minefield of ova to save a surrogate daughter and having to literally confront the mother of an entire race of beings. This parallel is further enforced by a subplot, removed from the theatrical cut, about Ripley’s deceased daughter. The emotional and physical toll of motherhood upon women is therefore the symbolic core of this sci-fi actioner.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]