Totalitarianism, Technology, and the Threat of Dystopia in the Early 1960’s: Inspirations for Rising Against Authority

When reminiscing about the 1960’s, many people automatically conjure up images of “hippies” protesting against war in the streets, waving red-painted signs and handing daisies to police officers. While these occurrences likely did take place at some points in the later part of the decade, the early ’60’s – around 1960 to 1965 – were characterized more by fear and anxiety than by a counterculture of defiance. It is for this reason that the existence of such films as Orson Welles’ The Trial and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, both of which portray courageous protagonists who challenge the authority of the societies in which they are trapped, might seem out of place on a list of award-winning films from the time period. However, this apprehension could also be the reason why these two films came to fruition: perhaps, in an age of fixation on totalitarian threats and the rise of eerily intelligent technology, the cinematic agents of social change aimed to inspire activism in place of frightened submission.

The Cold War, which had been surging on since just a short time after the end of World War II, really gained momentum in the early years of the 1960’s. President John F. Kennedy was elected in 1961, and in his short presidency (which ended with his assassination in 1963) he took on the immense responsibility of attempting to overthrow Cuba’s Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, through the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The attempt proved unsuccessful, and it stands in history as a symbol of anxieties about the power of Communism during the period. The failed attack, which greatly weakened the U.S.’s image and thus inspired increasingly bold actions on the part of the Communists, also made way for another landmark event in the Cold War 1960’s: the Cuban Missile Crisis. With fear of the atomic bomb present since the 1950’s, this brief alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union with the goal of launching nuclear missiles in to United States did not quite make for a very comforting news segment.  As a matter of fact, it may be said that this event is the closest the world has come to an all-out nuclear war. Fortunately a naval blockade and some Soviet-U.S. compromise ended the threat, but nevertheless the months of October and November were arguably the most nerve-racking in history.

Nuclear destruction  and Communist or Totalitarian takeover certainly weren’t the only threats presented by the Cold War in the early 1960’s: this was also an age of great technological advancements.  Perhaps urging to compete against the U.S.S.R. in every aspect of superiority, the United States put to work their best scientists – a great deal of whom worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, now known as NASA – and subsequently produced a wide range of inventions, many of which are still used today. These include such household items as the microwave and Teflon (the non-stick coating commonly found on cookware), as well as creations more pertinent to uses outside the common household such as fiberoptics and freeze-drying. A wave of progress in medical technology also occurred with the invention of the pacemaker (in Sweden), advancements in blood transfusion, the development of the oxygenator, and a vaccine for hepatitis. Another hugely important, yet terrifying, invention in technology during the early 1960’s was that of CDC 6600 – a supercomputer. The concept of the supercomputer was first created in the early 1960’s by Seymour Cray, an electrical engineer. Though the CDC 6600 (named for the company under which it was created, the Control Data Corporation) was not Cray’s first invention, it was certainly the fastest of its time. The computer was most commonly purchased and used by universities and physics labs for nuclear research. The sheer intelligence of the giant machines, paired with such memorable 1950’s depictions of technology takeovers as Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Byron Haskin’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds (1953) initiated the spread of what is now referred to as “technophobia.”

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With fears of developing artificial intelligence and the looming possibility of totalitarian governments reigning all nations, it is easy to see why it is suggested that the early 1960’s were, as previously mentioned, an age of increasing apprehension. An even more intense concern that the world might actually succumb to these disastrous fates may not have been so uncommon, and it is to this that the increasing popularity of the idea of “dystopia” might be attributed. Though the idea itself was certainly nothing new in the 1960’s (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) really rang in the concept), there was a visible surge of dystopian pop culture during the decade, particularly in film. Aside from The Trial and Alphaville, the 1960’s also brought Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth (1960), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968). As Chris Darke states in his film guide about Godard’s Alphaville, “Dystopias extrapolate from the present those signs of modernity the promise of which is at best ambiguous and at worse downright frightening” (Darke 25). In other words, each of these films, as well as the novels of Huxley and Orwell during their respective times, reflect their time periods and put into visible form society’s worst nightmares stemming from what is the relevant source of fear at the moment, whether a nuclear apocalypse wiping out all humankind (as in Last Woman on Earth, filmed in the midst of A-bomb anxiety) or the reign of dictating computer systems (as in Alphaville, produced one year after the completion of CDC 6600).

Though there were so many dystopian films produced throughout the 1960’s, Welles’ The Trial and Godard’s Alphaville stand out because of the protagonist in each of the films. Both Joseph K. of The Trial and Lemmy Caution of Alphaville live in versions of dystopia – Joseph under the rule of a totalitarian judicial system and Caution in a computer-controlled wasteland – yet rather than remaining fearsome and passive, they rise up to challenge their respective authority figures for the sake of returning to the pre-dystopian or non-dystopian worlds they know and revere. Given the notion that film often reflects reality, perhaps these films represent an attempt to, instead, make reality reflect film. Not of course in terms of the dystopia (I’m sure not even Orson Welles, who produced fear in the hearts of many a radio-listener with his highly realistic narration of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds would desire to live in a society with the oppression depicted in The Trial), but in terms of the protagonists’ determination and activism. While we cannot accurately say that such films directly caused the hippie counterculture arising in the late ’60’s, it might not be completely far off to imagine that existence of such characters as Lemmy Caution in France and Joseph K. in the U.S. was at least an attempt to inspire a little more courage in the fear-ridden people of the early decade.

 

Written by: Victoria Brathwaite

Sources:

Darke, Chris. Alphaville. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Print.
Thornton, James A. “Parallel Operation in the Control Data 6600.” Computer Structres: Readings & Examples. McGraw Hill, 1971. Web.
Vinas, Michael S. “A Chronology of Medical/Technological Advances.” The Virtual Textbook of Extracorporeal Technology. Perfusion Line, 1999. Web.
Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. Print.

 

 

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