Here’s how Invasion, U.S.A. opens:
A bunch of strangers sit in a bar. On the television, a blandly handsome anchorman delivers the news. He talks about foreign wars. He talks about domestic conflicts. One of the bar patrons asks the bartender to turn off the news. Who cares about all of that stuff? All he wants to do is have a nice drink before heading home to his cattle ranch. Can’t he just do that in peace? The bartender agrees and turns off the news…
That’s a scene that gets played out a lot nowadays. No one wants to watch the news. Certainly not me. I guess we all know that we should because it’s important to know what’s going on in the world and blah blah blah. But seriously, people who spend all of their time watching the news inevitably seem to end up going insane and ruining twitter. I’ve got no interest in doing that.
Here’s the thing, though. Invasion U.S.A. may open with a contemporary scene but it’s hardly a contemporary movie. Instead, it was made in 1952 and it serves as proof that we’re not the first Americans to get sick of watching the news and that our current crop of politically minded filmmakers are not the first to try to change our mind with heavy-handed propaganda.
Everyone at the bar has a complaint. The Arizona rancher resents having to pay high taxes just to support the defense department. The Chicago industrialist is upset that the government wants to use his factories to build weapons. Congressman Haroway (Wade Crosby) is a drunk. Socialite Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle) worked in a factory during World War II but she no longer follows the news. Newscaster Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr) is a cynic. Tim the Bartender (Tom Kennedy) is too busy selling cocktails to worry about the communists.
Only the mysterious Mr. Ohman (Dan O’Herlihy, who would later play Conal Cochran in Halloween III) seems to care. While holding a conspicuously oversized brandy glass, Mr. Ohman explains that he’s a forecaster. What’s a forecaster? A forecaster is … oh wait! There’s no time to explain it because the communists have invaded!
Everyone sits in the bar and watches as the news reports on the invasion of the U.S.A. (Everyone except for Mr. Ohman, who has mysteriously vanished.) In the tradition of all low-budget B-movies, the invasion is represented through stock footage. Lots and lots of stock footage. Planes drop bombs. Soldiers run out of a barracks. Cities burn.
When everyone leaves the bar, they discover that America has been crippled by people like them, people who never thought it would happen. Some of our bar patrons die heroically. (Not Tim the Bartender, though. He’s still making dumb jokes and cleaning beer mugs when the bomb drops.) Some of our patrons regret that they didn’t care enough when it would have actually made a difference. The industrialist discovers that, because he wouldn’t let the government take over his factory, he now has to take orders from sniveling little Marxist. The rancher discovers that taxis get really crowded when everyone’s fleeing the Russians. And others discover that better dead than red isn’t just a catch phrase. It’s a way of life.
Of course, there’s a twist ending. You’ll guess it as soon as you see Mr. Ohman with that brandy glass…
Invasion U.S.A. is often cited as one of the worst films ever made but I have to admit that I absolutely love it. I have a soft spot for heavy-handed, over the top propaganda films and they don’t get more heavy-handed than Invasion, U.S.A. There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film. You have to love any film that features character authoritatively declaring that something will never happen mere moments before it happens. Best of all, you’ve got Dan O’Herlihy, playing Mr. Ohman with just a hint of a knowing smile, as if he’s as amused as we are.
Politically, this film is a mixed bag for me. The film argues that you should trust the government and basically, shut up and follow orders. I’m a libertarian so, as you can imagine, that’s not really my thing. At the same time, the villains were all communists and most of the communists that I’ve met in my life have been pretty obnoxious so I enjoyed the part of the film that advocated blowing them up. The only thing this film hates more than communists is indifference.
In the end, Invasion U.S.A. is a real time capsule of a film, one that shows how different things were in the past while also reminding us that times haven’t changed that much. Though the film’s politics may be pure 1952, its paranoia and its condemnation of apathy feels very contemporary.
(For the record, apathy is underrated.)
Seen today, what makes Invasion U.S.A. memorable is its mix of sincerity, paranoia, and Dan O’Herlihy. Unless the communists at YouTube take down the video, you can watch it below!