By Trevor Busch
The 1950s were an era of boundless optimism in North America, where a generation tempered and sobered by the horrors of war now enjoyed the post-war prosperity which exploded across the continent.
But the Cold War was now in full swing, and the very real prospect of global atomic annihilation governed most international conflicts, from the Korean War, to the Suez Crisis, to the crushing of the Romanian revolution in 1956, and the Communist take-over of Cuba in 1959.
Much of this ever-present fear found its way into the film of that decade, but it would be the 1960s and 1970s which would see a real flowering in the post-atomic genre of film making, following hard on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In a general sense, the films of the 1950s still had much in common with past decades, focusing primarily on dramatic or romantic themes — although campy science fiction would also explode on the scene and become a mainstay of cinema in following decades.
Although hardly a comprehensive list, the following is a selection of favourite films of the 1950s which are still well worthy of re-discovery now in the 21st century.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Alfred Hitchcock fans are legion, and this psychological crime thriller that dabbles in film noir elements is a prime example of why the director captured the hearts and minds of so many. Based on the 1950 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, the film traces a chance meeting by two strangers who decide to “exchange” the murders of people in their lives they currently despise. While one follows through, the other isn’t so enthusiastic — with predictably violent results. Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train is Hitchcock at the height of his cinematic powers.
War of the Worlds (1953)
A loose adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, War of the Worlds was the first of five feature film adaptations of the famous 1898 novel concerning an invasion of Earth from the planet Mars. Featuring spectacular special effects (for the 1950s, that is), the film took an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and remains an enduring example of how film makers approached the science fiction genre in a time when effects had to be created physically, or added in post-production, rather that today’s CG magic.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille’s religious classic about the story of Moses from pharoah’s lieutenant and successor to saviour of the Jewish people via exodus across the Red Sea is still as grand a vision today as it was more than 60 years ago. Shot in VistaVision (which gives it a characteristically 1950s look and feel) and at nearly four hours, The Ten Commandments is not for the faint of heart. Launching actor Charlton Heston into the stratosphere of super-stardom as Moses, the film also features stunning turns by Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, and Edward G. Robinson. A huge financial success, taking in $122.7 million in 1956, the film is a partial remake of DeMille’s 1923 silent film of the same name, and was his last and most successful work. It is considered to be one of the most popular films ever made.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
One of many WWII films from this era, The Bridge on the River Kwai is something special, departing largely from the idea of mythical war heros besting the forces of evil, and instead moving into the more gray area of prisoners of war, the nature of slavery, and the ability to maintain dignity in the face of intentional cruelty. Featuring a star-studded cast, this David Lean epic confronted some of the more questionable aspects of the conflict against the Japanese in southeast Asia through the eyes of prisoners of war forced to build a bridge for their Japanese overlords. Widely praised and remembered even today, the film took seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Another war epic, directed by Stanley Kubrick but this time set against the backdrop of the trenches during WWI, Paths of Glory is not your typical war film from the 1950s, and instead focuses on the injustices laid upon the common soldier by the unconsionable indifference of their commanders. Actually something of a courtroom drama, it features a spirited performance by Kirk Douglas as a commanding officer ordered to defend three of his men who have been selected randomly for execution for “cowardice in the face of the enemy”. The film’s title is taken from Edward Gray’s epic 18th century poem Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour — The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
The Blob (1958)
A terrifying science-fiction horror classic, The Blob scared audiences stiff when it hit theatres in 1958 with its tale of a strange, otherworldly substance that craves and consumes human flesh, starring a fresh-faced 27-year-old Steve McQueen in his debut leading role as a teenager. The film was one of a wave of movies released for the drive-in market that consisted of exploitative, cheap fare created for the teen/drive-in genre, and debuted as a B film double bill with the now-largely forgettable I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Despite this, the film is still considered a watershed science fiction milestone, blending elements of horror into science fiction and enjoying a prominent place in the cult film family.
This epic religious-historical drama, again starring Charlton Heston in the title role, needs little introduction. Still tied for the most Academy Awards of all time, with 11 (the others being Titanic and The Lord of Rings: The Return of the King) Ben-Hur had the largest budget ever ($15.175 million) at the time of its production, and featured more than 10,000 extras. The nine-minute chariot race has become one of cinema’s most famous sequences, and the film score, composed and conducted by Miklós Rózsa, is the longest ever composed for a film and was highly influential on cinema for more than 15 years. Widely considered to be one of the greatist films ever made, it was also the second-highest grossing film in history at the time after Gone with the Wind.
Rio Bravo (1959)
Easily ranking as one of the greatest westerns ever made, Rio Bravo features electric performances by both John Wayne and Dean Martin, who come to grips with a powerful cattle rancher and his nefarious crew of gunfighters. Made in a traditional western caste for Hollywood, it is the story and Martins’ and Wayne’s performances which really steal the show in Rio Bravo, rather than spectacular scenery, thrilling dialogue, or outstanding action sequences.