Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) have become such an icon of the Cold War that it’s easy to forget that for the first decade of the conflict the United States had little interest in developing or building them. There was simply no need, the American bomber fleet was the best in the world, and the American bases throughout Europe ensured that they would be able to target the Soviet Union with impunity, should they need to. If the United States wanted to spare their flight crew the hassle of flying over Soviet airspace, an intermediate range rocket launched from a base in Germany or France would suffice and those were a hell of a lot cheaper to build than a missile capable of flying anywhere on earth. Combine this geopolitical advantage with a president who regarded (correctly I might add) every dollar spent on defense as “a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed” and you had a recipe for a stagnant missile development program. Throughout the 1950s there was relatively little money going into American missile development, with most of what there was going to the Air Force. The Air Force correctly saw missiles as a threat to their massive strategic bombing departments and consequence slowed up development. In one of the great ironies of the Cold War, Wernher Von Braun and his team of Nazi defectors, the greatest rocket scientists in the world, sat twiddling their thumbs in Huntsville Alabama.
The Russians embraced the development of ICBMs first, as a matter of survival more than anything else. Painfully aware that the US Strategic Air Command could destroy the USSR without skinning their elbows (to borrow from the infamous Curtis LeMay), Khrushchev poured money and resources into the development of the world’s first ICBM: the R-7. While the Test flight of the R-7 garnered some media attention, it was not until the R-7 was subsequently used to launch a small, unmanned satellite into orbit that the frenzy really began to catch on. Called Sputnik 1, the medicine ball sized device created a worldwide scare that neither its creators nor the magnates in the Kremlin could have anticipated. The largely imaginary crisis was fanned by American journalists looking for a juicy story, democratic lawmakers looking to score points against the popular Eisenhower administration, and the oligarchs of the military industrial complex frustrated by Eisenhower’s constant budget cuts. Together they convinced most Americans, and many others around the globe, that the United States was on the verge of falling dangerously behind their Soviet rivals in a vital military field. It was all nonsense of course, but the people were willing to believe it.
Rocket Attack USA is thus a valuable cultural artifact from the period, as it encapsulates all of the most sensationalist and paranoid responses to the launch of the Red Moon. For starters, in the film Sputnik is not just a propaganda coup, but also a full-fledged spy satellite. The famous bleeping is innocent enough when the satellite is over foreign territory, but as soon as it’s over the vast expanse of Russia it starts to send back vital data about the American defenses. Sputnik lets the Soviets know just how far behind the Americans are. Also, for reasons that I can hardly fathom, a scientist in the film insists that an orbital space station is also a crucial step in perfecting ICBM technology. Everyone in real life will understand just how ludicrous that is, because you need an ICBM to launch the satellite in the first place. Anyway, the point is that with launching Sputnik the Soviets have secured a crucial tactical advantage over their American rivals, and for the first time in their history are in the leading position of the arms race. Worse, the political situation inside Russia is highly unstable, and the leaders who favor peace are on the verge of being ousted by a new clique of militarists bent on all-out war with the West.
Now, during the Cold War, the Kremlin really had more in common with a Byzantine court than it does with a modern state; with ministers, generals and viziers all vying for absolute power in the succession crises that came in-between the reigns of strong rulers. After the death of Stalin, the USSR was put in the hands of his lieutenants who dominated the central governing body: The Presidium. However, being survivors of the Stalinist purges, the magnates of the Presidium were, to a man, paranoid, politically savvy survivors, who weren’t afraid of getting their hands a little dirty if it meant clinging to power. As the magnates Beria and Malenkov can attest, coups were commonplace in the USSR of the 1950s. Given this, and the secretive nature of the Soviet state in general, it was not at all that far fetched for average Americans to image that a hither to unknown group of Soviets could seize power. Indeed, such a possibility was so plausible that in real-life Khrushchev ousted his defense minister, the great commander Georgy Zhukov around the time this film was being made. In the film, it’s Khrushchev and his allies (though not named) who are kicked out and the military that seizes power.
The Americans dispatch their top spy, John Manston, to infiltrate Moscow and make contact with their mole Tanya, who has since become the mistress of the Russian Defense Minister. She lets John know that the situation is even worse than anyone in the US could have predicted: The militarists are going to lob a nuke at New York City as soon as the missile is ready. What’s worse is the very public failure of the latest US missile test has convinced them that the Americans have no viable way to retaliate. What about the bomber fleet? Manston asks in a rare moment where Rocket Attack USA bothers to address the real world instead of focusing completely on its own paranoid delusions. Apparently the Russians have also perfected Rocket air defenses as well, which the bomber fleet will be incapable of penetrating. No mention is made of the Intermediate Range missiles that the US has scattered across Western Europe. The only chance that the United States has is for Manston to sabotage the missile before it can launch.
Rocket Attack USA was obviously thrown together quickly to exploit the terror that Sputnik evoked in the public imagination, a fact that remains painfully obvious throughout the film. About half of Rocket Attack USA is stock footage, and it should be alarming that this is by far the more entertaining and interesting half. The sequences that actually comprise the film’s plot, what little there is, are shoddy in just about every way. They consist of bad actors reading lines in generic sets (apartments, offices, one particularly run-down cafe), and are laden with a copious amount of filler. The scene in the café is particularly bad, with a seemingly interminable belly-dancing segment. But, the worst instance comes at what should be the film’s horrifying climax, when the missile is about to fly and destroy New York. We are treated to a countdown, in Russian (with no subtitles or narration to tell us what is happening) that stretches on for several minutes. All the while an especially annoying beep comes along at shorter and shorter intervals. It’s enough to give a man a headache.
That said Rocket Attack USA deserves some small measure of praise, for its daring and its willingness to attack the audiences’ complacency. I can’t think of any other mid-century American films that show the hero not only failing, but also dying horribly once he has failed. Nor can I think of any other films of the vintage, nationality and genre that devote the final third of their run-time to the horrific consequences of that hero’s failure on the average citizens. Indeed, the sequences in New York before the bomb hits are the film’s most powerful, and poignant moment. Everything is so still and commonplace until it isn’t. We watch a couple of men bid farewell to wives as they head off to work knowing that they will never see each other again. The amateur acting here works far better than anywhere else in the film, acquiring a sort of Italian Neo-Realist authenticity. The music dies away completely and we feel like we’re watching a scene from someone’s daily life; but we can see the sword hanging over their unsuspecting heads. It’s a wonderful couple of scenes in an otherwise uninspired film.
Rocket Attack USA failed to secure any distribution when it was first released, thus defeating the whole purpose of trying to cash in on the Sputnik scare. In 1961, when the film had made its way to the theaters it was already a curious cultural relic. By then, even President Kennedy had been forced to admit that there was no missile gap between the USA and the USSR and there had never been one. Indeed it was rather the reverse situation, Russia was still many years away from parity with their Western rival. Now, such a delay in release could be chalked up to the film’s abysmal quality. It’s boring, incompetently put together and so riddled with obnoxious filler that it is basically devoid of any entertainment value. Yet, the equally crappy Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956) had no trouble securing booking, nor did the hilariously bad Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) in an era where love of So Bad They’re Good films had not yet blossomed. Personally, and I have no real evidence to back this up, I suspect that the film was too depressing and too relentlessly horrifying, to be marketed at anyone with fresh memories of the Sputnik launch.