Note: Please use the drop-down menu to the left to see the lists of reviewed films by year.
The 1940s was of course a decade of great upheaval, as World War II was in full swing, which naturally affected both the moods of the public and the world economy and stability – and all of this was mirrored in the films of the decade. The European film industry unsurprisingly hit a slump with the war, and the US film industry wasn’t economically untouched either, as more and more resources in the latter years of the war were directed towards the war effort. Of the European film industries, Great Britain’s and Italy’s were among those who were able to continue making high-quality films throughout the war and in its immediate aftermath – the same goes for the Soviet Union. The early forties saw films by both Roberto Rosselini and Sergei Eisenstein, which are considered among their greatest works.
Thematically the war and its aftermath branched movies out into two distinct lines: the sombre, patriotic or propagandistic films, like Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), David Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), and Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca (1942), and the fantastical, portrayed by an upswing for melodramas, comedies and to some extent adventure, horror and science fiction – here perhaps best represented by the American cheap serials. Another genre that came into its own in the early forties, perhaps spurred on by the grim times, was film noir, inspired by European filmmakers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang who had fled Germany to Hollywood, and helped make the genre an American staple.
A genre that did not flourish, however, was science fiction. Despite all the material for sci-fi that WWII would later generate, in the forties the war must still have seemed to near to exploit the dystopian and apocalyptic nightmares brought on by it. Neither did the technological and scientific breakthroughs of the early forties, such as the radar, the V2-rockets, the early computers, or the atom bomb find their way into science fiction films – we would have to wait until the fifties for that.
This does not mean that sci-fi as a genre lay dormant during the forties – on the contrary. Some scholars call the period between 1938 and 1950 the Golden Age of science fiction, which is slightly curious, as few great sfi-fi novels or films were made in this day – that is to say novels that are easily recognizable by a broad audience today.
What did happen, though, was that authors who had grown up on the writings of authors like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties, were starting to regard science fiction as a serious subject with real-world implications. Many of these started writing stories for pulp magazines, of which one was Astounding Stories. Astounding Stories changed ownership when John W. Campbell took over the rudder in 1937, and changed the magazine’s name to Astounding Science-Fiction, and redirected its focus on a more mature audience. Among the many authors that contributed to Astounding Science Fiction in the late thirties and forties were Isaac Asimov, Robert E. Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt.
During this time sci-fi became more character-driven, psychological and socially aware. It also saw the popularisation of space opera and the rise of hard sci-fi – and on the other hand a resurgance in religious and spiritual themes, often portrayed in stories of awe and wonder. It was these stories that authors like Arthur C. Clarke read before writing 2001: A Space Odyssey – he has famously complained that WWII cut off delivery of Astounding Science Fiction to Britain. Asimov also formulated the three laws of robotics and laid out the groundwork for his Foundation during this age. But sadly, the market for serious sci-fi was still small in the forties, and the genre was still seen as juvenile, and very little of the writings of the ”Golden Age”-writers found their way to the screen.
If one talks strictly feature films, the forties was an abysmal decade for science fiction. Nazi Germany did make one sci-fi, called Weltraumschiff 1 startet … (Spaceship 1 starts …) in 1940, but after that the German sci-fi was dead for decades. France had abandoned the genre long before the war, and the Soviet realism put an end to a potentially wonderful industry, as had been proven by a few very interesting Soviet sci-fi films in the previous decade. Britain was still stung by the box-office flop of H.G. Wells’ and Alexander Korda’s megalomanic epic Things to Come (1936). Mexico did put out a few sci-fis in their budding sound film industry, spurred on by the horror movie craze that started with the Spanish-language versions of Dracula in 1931. But the Mexican films pretty much went below the radar until the age of internet in much of the English-speaking world. With a few exceptions sci-fi films were an exclusively American affair during the forties, and not much of it made headlines.
The decade started off promisingly enough with Ernest B. Shoedsack’s impressive shrinking man-film Dr. Cyclops, the first sci-fi film in colour, and Universal released a good sequel to The Invisible Man in 1940. But unfortunately, this was only the thirties rearing its head one last time. More so even than in the thirties, sci-fi was strictly a business for second-tier studios’ B-units and poverty row studios, and almost all sci-fi films were mad scientist movies that rode more on their horror than their sci-fi elements. None of them even touched upon the quality of the best mad scientist films of the thirties.
On the other hand were the serials, who were still extremely popular, cheap and simple to make. The third and last season of the hugely influential Flash Gordon serial was made in 1940, and the forties saw new serials like The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1940), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1943), Batman (1943) and Superman (1948). These fell into two categories – superheroes and gadget heroes (or villains). More often than not, these serials tended to take the form of crime/action/mystery serials with minimal science fiction elements apart from a few gadgets. With the discontinuation of Flash Gordon in 1940, it also meant that the space opera-type serials were off the map, and wouldn’t return. Since I have laid out the basics of the sci-fi serials in my reviews of the thirties serials, I will be looking very sparingly at the forties serials.
The end of the decade saw light in the tunnel though, as Britain again prodded the dead genre with a long stick in Counterblast in 1948 and The Perfect Woman in 1949, and Czechoslovakia released Krakatit, based on author Karel Capek’s novel in 1948. The saviour of American sci-fi films of the forties was indeed Ernest B. Schoedsack, who didn’t give up after Dr. Cyclops, but returned nine years later with Mighty Joe Young, an updated take on King Kong (1933), which proved to be perhaps the best of all giant ape films to date. And of course the end of the forties had also put wheels in motion, as a famous incident in 1943 had the country talking of strange disc-shaped alien ships hovering over the Earth, and scientists were now seriously debating the possibility of a manned mission to the moon. 1950 saw the onslaught of no less than two different moon mission films, including the hugely influential Destination Moon, as well as two UFO films. And then the whole thing burst wide open…