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Commentary. Disinformation and innuendo are weaponized. “Intruders” abound as well, even if they no longer need to take the Greyhound to the backwoods. Today’s agitators work through social media and podcasts.

Roger Corman’s 1962 film ‘The Intruder’ and the crisis of national values

When Roger Corman passed away at 98 this month, film lovers from around the world mourned the director and producer who became known as King of the Cult. Corman built a 300-plus filmography on a steady supply of sci-fi, drive-in monsters, fast cars and caged heat. He proclaimed the legendary thriftiness of his budgets in the title of his autobiography: “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.”

There was, however, at least one exception to that record of low-budget profitability, as he himself admitted in interviews. One movie that lost money was also his only “serious” work, 1962’s The Intruder, a film which has more in common with those of Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison and other directors who at the time began delving into social issues and civil rights. The Intruder ‘s release came a few months before that of To Kill A Mockingbird. In Alex Stapleton’s 2011 documentary Corman’s World, the director says: “I wanted to do something a little bit different. I read the book ‘The Intruder,’ which is about the integration of schools in the South, and I wanted to make the picture.”

“The Intruder” was a novel published in 1959 by Charles Beaumont, a prolific author of genre short stories and many Twilight Zone scripts, part of the generation that included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison. His one novel is inspired by events that had been roiling the Jim Crow South following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, whose 70th anniversary was last May 17.

Stemming from a case in Topeka, Kansas, that 1954 ruling, which found segregation of schools in violation of the 14th amendment, would be followed by a second decision a year later which resulted in a federal mandate for school integration across the South. The landmark rulings would serve as catalysts for the civil rights movement, but it would take more than just the rulings to end the long-established apartheid. Rather, the mandates set in motion a series of confrontations as many Southern states openly rebelled against federally imposed integration.

The episode which perhaps most endures as the iconic embodiment of the constitutional crises of the times, was the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, only achieved when Eisenhower federalized the state’s National Guard in 1957 and ordered the troops to protect Black children’s access to schools. But scenes of irate white demonstrators encircling schoolhouses and berating Black kids trying to go to class were commonplace for months and years in many places, including the East Tennessee town of Clinton. In that small community on the outskirts of Knoxville, the National Guard intervened even prior to Little Rock — in 1956 — to quell the supremacist riots which tried to stop integration. In the years of unrest, the local high school was bombed with dynamite.

The violence in Clinton was stoked by outside agitators bent on making it a flashpoint of segregationist activism. Among these were Alabama racist Asa Carter, who would later be associated with George Wallace’s presidential run, and Ku Klux Klan member John Kasper, who traveled to the South from New York to incite violence with his inflammatory supremacist rhetoric. These were the events which inspired Beaumont’s novel, including the integration by the first Black students (known as the Clinton 12), the riots and the vicious beating of a white pastor who had accompanied the Black pupils to school.

Above all, the titular character of Beaumont’s book, as well as of the screenplay he would later write for Corman’s film, is a composite of Carter and Kasper. The latter was originally from New Jersey, but endeavored to inflame Southern spirits with his rabidly racist rhetoric; the former had delivered an infamous speech at Clinton’s Anderson County Courthouse.

In the film, Clinton is changed to the fictional town of Caxton but the speech features prominently as delivered by the protagonist, here called Adam Cramer, and played by a 29-year old William Shatner. Like Carter and Kasper, Cramer is a virulent racist, in this case  representing a Washington group called the “Patrick Henry Society” and, as he tells the assembled townsfolk, “We’re dedicated to giving people the truth. What I’m gonna tell you is gonna make your blood boil. Because I’m gonna show you that the way this country goes is gonna depend entirely and wholly and completely on you!”

Those words introduce ideas that will be familiar to any 2024 viewer and highlight the discomfiting familiarity of viewing the film from the vantage point of the current national regression into reactionary populism. Kasper uses identity politics to heighten victimhood with the language of grievance and paranoia, casting his audience into an imagined last stand against encroaching change. He also asks them “Are you willing to fight to the last ditch until it’s over?” a not-so-distant echo of the “fight like hell” exhortation Trump lobbed on Jan. 6, 2021, to incite a base he really does not have much in common with.

Even his rhetorical flourishes sound eerily familiar like when he says, “People are saying you don’t give a damn, because you didn’t fight!”

Other mainstays of Cramer’s invective are the concept of the “truth” he delivers versus the implicit fakeness of those who would swindle the honest townsfolk (“they’ve cheated and deceived you, filled your heads with filthy lies…”). The speech is infused with the same suspicion of deceiving elites employed today by red state fear mongers and MAGAs, and the evergreen appeal to conspiracy to insinuate suspicion of the other and the foreign.

In the film the agitator turns to age-old tropes of “blood-poisoning” by “Jews and communists” who are abetting the “negroes” in a plot to “mongrelize” the nation. And in another glaring parallel he attacks the judiciary: “They went to the courts (to) Judge Silver who is a Jew and is known to have leftist leanings…” You could be forgiven for thinking you’re at one of Trump’s post-trial press conferences.

Beaumont wrote what amounts to a case study of demagogy and of the power of inflammatory language, he also highlighted the very narrow emotional terrain that separates willing listeners from expressing their worst selves. American propensity for guns and mob violence was inextricably tied to Jim Crow ugliness as it viciously lashed out at attempts to finally eradicate it, a century after Reconstruction.

Arguably divisions in the country were deeper then than even today and they would deepen with the generational rupture brought on by the Vietnam War and the emerging counterculture. Gene Corman, Roger’s brother, recalled how, at the time, the lives of the filmmakers were threatened while shooting on location in Missouri (Tennessee had been deemed too dangerous), “People were driving us out of locations, we had to change motels, it got to be very heavy down there (…) I think we were a little naive at the time.” Nor was the animosity confined to the South. “At the screening preview at Pacific Theater,” recalled Roger Corman, “there was almost a riot. Someone came up, pinned me to the wall and said: ‘You’re a communist, you shouldn’t belong in this country’.”

Even so, the turmoil back then portended great change and progress, marking the beginning of a civil rights awakening that would sweep the land and shape national policies. The feeling today is that the nation stands on the precipice of an epochal involution that could realistically mark the end of democratic experiment as we have known it. Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas marked the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education by insinuating that the ruling may have been unconstitutional. In the current backlash, books are banned and assaults on civil rights are once again cloaked in “states’ rights.” The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been severely curtailed, Roe v. Wade nullified, and the promise of police reform made after the George Floyd protests, quietly shelved.

And in today’s connected landscape, disinformation and innuendo are weaponized and viralized at the speed of the internet, reaching many orders of magnitudes more than simple stump speeches. “Intruders” abound as well, even if they no longer need to take the Greyhound to the backwoods. Today’s agitators work through social media and podcasts. Pundits like Charlie Kirk have given xenophobia a shiny new coat of paint while white suprematists like Nick Fuentes coat their racism in updated eugenic conspiracy theories. Both are young white men radicalized in their respective hate bubbles, much like Kasper was (specifically as a follower of Ezra Pound.)

Abetted by Trump’s GOP, the movement today speaks from governors’ mansions and wields the gavel on the Supreme Court. Crusades against DEI and Affirmative Action are stand-ins for “stopping negroes at the schoolhouse doors.” When African-American studies and critical theory are banned, the intent is as clear as when Cramer asks the good people of Caxton: “Are you gonna sit back and allow integration to go ahead in the whole country!?”

The young provocateurs who are invited to dinner at Mar-A-Lago or given microphones at CPAC rail against “cultural marxists” instead of “reds,” but they are playing Kasper’s and Paxton’s game. Burning crosses may have gone out style, but marches with torches are still very much in vogue as we saw in Charlottesville — the KKK may hold less sway, but others have taken up its mantle of hate, “standing back and standing by” to fight their battle.

As America is once again in danger of succumbing to its worst instincts, the dog whistles today are as loud as they were 70 years ago, and for the first time are amplified by the platform of a major party. There is little question that the GOP which today has closed ranks around Donald Trump has co-opted many themes that would have been commonplace in the segregated South. That party may be funded by interested billionaires, but it is fueled by a base that, like the citizens of Caxton, seem to heed Cramer’s call to “see the country remains free, white and American!”

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