ENG 705 – Studies in Visual Cultures
Dr. Monique Tschofen
Ryerson (Unnamed) University
April 20, 2022
“Body Snatchers and Oz: Using the Visual Medium to Create Political Allegory in Apolitical Films”
The original intent of the research conducted was to determine if the visual medium of film enables its creators to create political messages and allegories within seemingly non-political films; that are as potent, or more potent than those within films that are politically explicit. It was intended to be a thematic dissection of four works of film; two that are politically explicit, and two that are not. The impact of each category would be cross referenced with its antithesis, in order to gauge whether or not one had a greater impact than the other. After some advisement on behalf of an instructor, it was decided that the list would be tapered down to only the two films that are non-politically explicit. Spending time establishing a precedent about the impact of politically explicit films would be too great of an effort for the simple matter of proving a conclusion that is widely accepted to begin with. The fact that politically explicit films can have a political impact on a viewer was instead treated as a forgone conclusion, in order to not detract from the remaining body of research. Due to this change in scope, it was unfeasible to attempt to quantify any form of affect induced by the films in question without extensive study involving a large sample group. To adjust to the amendment, the primary research question had to be restructured, and now reads as follows: Does the visual medium of film enable its creators to turn works that aren’t political at surface level, into a form of subliminal political allegory despite no explicit reference? This allows for a more unencumbered analysis of the films in question, while also selecting a more specific avenue of research. As such, research was conducted by examining two films that are completely apolitical in plot, theme, and dialogue. These are Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Each movie was inspected using critical analysis, and several strands of peer-reviewed work that had already formed commentary on the subject in question. This analysis was then cross-referenced against the visual frames from various scenes in each movie, in order to determine their veracity. The following paragraphs contain the final product of this research.
Beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film is an adaptation of a book written by Jack Finney. As is noted by Siegel, Mr. Finney had gone on record after the film’s release to clarify that he hadn’t written the book with the intention of any political significance (63). This statement was necessitated by the fact that the film’s reception involved a number of astute viewers believing that it was a Cold War metaphor. The looming threat of Communism was emblemized within the emotionless seedpod humans that were replacing the people of the earth (63). In spite of this discrepancy, the film is generally regarded as a faithful adaptation of the original novel. The largest change is to the ending, which was amended for the sole purpose of uplifting the audience (64). The other changes, were minute design choices in both the acting at set design; along with some dialogue tweaks for the translation onto the screen. These choices, however small, were the main marquis of difference between the interpretations of book to film. The on-screen emotionlessness of the “pod people,” along with the sameness of their hive-minded tendencies was seen as an allegory for a Communist world of forced equality (65, 66). This is showcased in the Figure 1.1 below.
“Love, desire, ambition, faith… Without them, life’s so simple, believe me.” (2:02). In the scene, the character Dan Kauffman makes a case against some of the main ideals on which Capitalism is based. Take note of the distraught expression on the face of Dr. Miles, and the cool apathy of the two pod people they are pitted against. By creating the antagonist into an emotionless symbol for sameness, and collectivism, the film makes an effective case against the ideology behind the Communism that was burgeoning in 1950’s America. It does this, without a single reference to politics, or any political matters, throughout the entirety of the film’s duration (65).
Mann takes this concept to an extremity (2004). While acknowledging that the film can be interpreted as a McCarthyist, “red scare” film, she also suggests that the messaging can also be interpreted in the inverse. She cites that the film can be seen as a divisionary weapon used to accentuate the separation of marginalized groups within post-war society (49). The dichotomy of pod people to human beings is a representation of the alienation experienced by those who have been annexed from the hegemonistic class (59). The sameness of the pod people can be used interchangeably with concepts of race or gender, to signify a class of individuals who are domineering because of the attributes they possess (60). In the wake of the second World War, various groups of minorities and women had established themselves in society through their efforts towards the alliance. They were then promptly relegated back into a nigh subhuman status after the reintegration of the non-minority men who were fighting overseas (61). The expectation of assimilation, despite the newfound position that had been established by these marginalized groups led to a feeling of alienation from a hegemonistic class. This is allegorically akin to those who fought for their humanity within the film, after the pod people had taken over (63). Even if not purposeful, the movie could be dissected on these metaphorical terms to reveal a perfect depiction of a genuine societal struggle. Again, without once explicitly hinting at real-world political or social issues.
Switching now to The Wizard of Oz, there is a long-standing critical consensus believing that the film is a monetary allegory. The intent behind this allegory, however; is subject to differing interpretations. Rockoff believes that the film is a symbolic representation of the American prospectors in the early 20th century (739). The themes of courage, self-improvement, and achievement are all intrinsic to the meritocracy of the American gold rush. Although this was never explicitly stated throughout the film, alterations to the visual medium created the aspirational wealth that Dorothy would have to work towards, even if her true desires lay elsewhere (742). This is especially true of the film’s set design. In order to clarify this point, refer to the images featured below.
Figure 1.2 shows the land of Oz, the utopia-like final destination of the protagonist’s journey. The city is designed to convey decadent amounts of wealth and fortune, as is evidenced by the grandiose architecture formed from literal emeralds (743). Figure 1.3 directly contrasts this level of wealth, instead depicting a humble countryside in some kind of farm country. The most eye-catching component of this frame is the yellow brick road on which Dorothy begins her pilgrimage; and is coincidentally the exact path that leads to Oz (757). Given the proper context, Oz serves as a symbol of the means promised to those individuals who prospected in the early 20th century. Often of a lower societal standing, it was the assurance of wealth that drove these individuals through life-threatening tribulations with the goal of riches (758). As such, the lowly farm country from whence Dorothy begins her journey also represents the beginning of their journeys. The land of Oz represents the aspirational class they believed their journeys would lead them to; a splendorous city constructed out of the same jewels that they were searching for (758). This metaphor is finalized at the conclusion of the film, in which the Wizard of Oz is revealed to be a charlatan using smoke and mirrors to gain power. The interpretations of this twist can vary even within the context of Rockoff’s metaphor; however, the main threads read as follows. The individuals who sold the promises and dreams of a Capitalist meritocracy were flawed men, despite their deification. Their lofty guarantees of upper mobility were little more than a masquerade to bolster their own personal standings (760).
Taylor agrees that there is some form of monetary allegory woven into the film’s plot, but believes that the intent is far more indicative of the time at which the film was released (2005). Instead of a symbol of Capitalist meritocracy, the journey undergone by Dorothy is intended to symbolize a call to arms for the second World War (413). The details used to illustrate this message are subtle, and could have only been executed through the medium of film. Taking the road to riches motif of Oz from the first example as a certainty, we can rearrange the narrative elements into something that represents the American public just prior to their second World War participation. Dorothy and her friends represent Americans taking a journey overseas to fight in a battle against the axis of evil (415). The attributes of courage, intelligence, and caring, are necessary acquisitions to join that fight; just as they were necessary to combat the Wicked Witch of the West (416). These American soldiers would have to journey to a faraway place, in order to return to the peace filled utopia that is their homeland, represented by Oz (416). They would be granted with riches, so long as the fight was won, which is analogous to the Wizard’s proposition (423). For further detail, refer to figure 1.4 below.
The flying monkeys are the minions of the Wicked Witch of the West, they are also dressed in a uniform composed of the same black, white, and red that emblemized Hitler’s Third Reich. They are also dawning helmets that are visibly reminiscent of the helmets worn by Hitler’s imperial guard. Dorothy’s outfit itself is a combination of white, blue, and her ruby red slippers; which are akin to that of the flag of the United States (424). These two forces are pitted in opposition, and their fight dictates who gains control over the land of Oz. Due to the fact that these two representative factions represent real-life military forces, the need for Dorothy and her friends to rise to the challenge is a subliminal message for the American populace to do the same (426). In this way, the film effectively communicates the political message of motivated conscription; without once mentioning anything even resembling an explicit real-world political issue.
The conclusion drawn, is that film is an extremely unique medium. It not only enables the film’s creators to turn a seemingly apolitical work into a potent form of political allegory; it also enables a film’s creator to use visual manipulations to alter a film’s political meaning without altering the plot. The changing of Invasion of the Body Snatchersfrom a film that the author hadn’t claimed to be political in any fashion, into a metaphor for McCarthyism is a powerful example of how visual specifics can create differing meanings. The simple addition of an actor’s expression, or a director’s cue was enough to swap the main plot of the film into something surreptitiously political. Furthermore, The Wizard of Oz’s monetary allusions to success in war stands as a striking example of subconscious political infusion. To have such themes and ideals in a movie that is not only one of the most iconic works of all time, but also one that is digestible for all age groups implies that subliminal political imaging isn’t reserved to any particular kind of film. Moving forward, context would have to be looked at before making any certifiable assertions as to whether or not these movies were political despite their appearance. The Wizard of Oz was released in the first official year of the second World War, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released during the height of the Cold War scares. The question needs to be asked about whether or not these works were conceived based on circumstance, or whether or not they were merely interpreted in a certain way based on the circumstance of the time. Surely there were some coincidental works in both periods that were deluded by the heightened hysteria, but whether or not this is verifiable will require further research. What can be extrapolated from this research as it stands, is that even films that are apolitical in their appearance must be understood from a political perspective. The medium of film enables enough variability for the same messages to be added into nonpolitical films, even if they aren’t stated explicitly. Perhaps these films should be heeded to an even greater extent than their more decisive counterparts. They have the potential to turn the average filmgoer into a victim of manipulation, without any platform for prior suspicion.
Fleming, Victor, director. The Wizard of Oz. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1939, Accessed 2022.
Grant, Barry K. “Politics of the Pods.” Invasion of the Body Snatchers, edited by Barry K Grant, BFI Publishing, United Kingdom, 2010, pp. 63–76.
Mann, Katrina. “‘You’re Next!”: Postwar Hegemony Besieged in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’” Cinema Journal, vol. 44, no. 1, 2004, pp. 49–68.
Rockoff, Hugh. “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 98, no. 4, 1990, pp. 739–760.
Siegel, Don, director. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Walter Wagner Productions, 1956, Accessed 2022.
Taylor, Quentin P. “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz.” The Independent Review, vol. 9, no. 3, 2005, pp. 413–426.
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