A Hollywood Perspective of the Cold War

Ayn Rand claimed in her 1950’s Screen Guide for Americans that “the purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism…[but] …making people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication.’ This statement illustrates the fact that during this period, fear combined with politics limited the scope of films made by Hollywood. The movie industry became a part of the Cold War in 1947 when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) descended upon Hollywood. HCUA’s hearings resulted in ten filmmakers going to jail for contempt of Congress. In addition, hundreds of actors, writers, and directors were put on an unofficial industry blacklist. The result was an environment where many film producers felt it was safer to produce films without any political or economic themes or implications at all. However, while some producers focused much less on producing films about social problems, others embraced the new regime.

For example, between 1947 and 1954 almost forty explicitly propagandistic anti-Communist films were made in Hollywood. It was not until the 1960’s after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the end of blacklisting, that Hollywood created a more sophisticated view of the Cold War. When audiences were growing, the banks loaned money for film projects often. However, after the war audiences began to turn to television instead of movies. This meant that films did not necessarily make a profit. Thus, as the banks became more cautious, they got more involved in monitoring the content of films, pushing for conservative, safe ventures. However, other forces were working against censorship and tight studio control. Imported foreign films and independent productions distributed through Hollywood began to bypass the Production Code Administration. As films seen in the United States were produced increasingly by non-Hollywood workers, their content changed. Distributors, whether Hollywood studios or not recognized that these films would make a great deal of money. The showing of these movies in turn created new and separate interests in the audience as it splintered from one mass group into several smaller specialized groups.

Hence, movies like Dr. Strangelove, and Fail Safe, changed the way Hollywood portrayed the Cold War. This new portrayal also encouraged directors to create movies that took a cynical view of both sides. In this respect, espionage movies such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and From Russia With Love were produced. By this time, it was also possible for American movies to show Russians in a favorable light. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Hollywood movies took the view that only a few renegades threatened world peace and that men of goodwill on both sides could work together towards peace. During this time movies like Red Dawn and The Fourth Protocol were produced. In these films, small groups of people worked to counter or to help communism. Three major themes emerged about the Cold War period of 1947-1987. Film producers explored issues about the potential nuclear holocaust, the tension between military leaders and politicians, and also produced propagandist films presenting American democratic values in direct opposition to U.S.S.R communist values in order to persuade audiences while entertaining them.

The first dominant theme that resulted from the newly founded political freedom in post 1962 film was the worldwide concern of the nature for modern technological warfare. Movie directors were aware that a single or series of flaws in a machine could result in the outbreak of nuclear war. This fear originated from the simple and obvious realization that the Russians would retaliate to any attack that the U.S organized against them.

The movie Dr. Strangelovei illustrates the dangers of modern technology. The film begins with the narrator telling the audience in a straightforward manner that ‘ominous rumors have been privately circulating among high-level western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the Ultimate Weapon, a Doomsday device…’i This doomsday device becomes an increasingly significant factor in the movie when Group Captain Mandrake receives a call from Strategic Air Command General Jack D. Ripper. Ripper has convinced himself that there has been a Russian sneak attack. The theme of imperfect technology becomes evident when Major T.J King Kong is informed of the Wing attack order for Plan R. Major King expresses his disbelief in the order telling his crew ” I don’t want no horsin’ around on the airplane?”i In other words, the very fact that King believes a crew member could make such a joke by tampering with one of the machines demonstrates a huge flaw in technology as it is inadvertently dependent upon the intelligence and maturity of the operator.

The fact that Ripper’s fanatical actions set off the chain of events which may lead to a nuclear war demonstrate the same theme. In the Pentagon, President Muffley is briefed on the situation by General Buck Turgidson Eventually, Turgidson admits that General Ripper “exceeded his authority”i and the President can do nothing to stop the attack. Buck admits that the Plan R “retaliatory safeguard”i lacks “the human element”i. The audience then learns the true nature of the doomsday machine as the Russian Ambassador proclaims,

“…the mad fools…The Doomsday Machine…A device which will destroy all human and animal life on earth… The Doomsday Machine is designed to trigger itself automatically…It is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it… we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race….Our Doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we’d been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a Doomsday gap.”i

Hence, Hollywood proclaims that fear is the driving force behind the Cold War. This idea is further elaborated when Dr. Strangelove, director of weapons research and development in the U.S, explains “It is not only possible – it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday Machine is terrifying.”i Nonetheless, Strangelove demands to know why the Russians kept the machine a secret, because “the whole point of the Doomsday Machine…is lost…if you keep it a secret. Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?”i To this, the Russian Ambassador explains “It was to be announced.”i

The movie Fail Safeii reveals a similar theme and follows a similar yet more serious plot line. The theme of technological warfare is openly discussed in several scenes of this movie. It is first introduced when two aircraft bombers are talking, and one proclaims “the next air planes, they won’t need men…after us, the machines, we’re halfway there already…it eliminates the personal factor…everything’s more complicated now. The reaction time is faster. You can’t depend on people the same way.”ii The theme is addressed once again when the war control room is being inspected.ii

Inspector: I’m sure we’ve got the best that money can buy…these machines scare the hell out of me…

Man #1: You better be sure that thing doesn’t get any idea of it’s own.

Man #2: Machines are developed to meet situations.

Man #1: Then they take over, they start creating situations.

Man #2: We have checks on everything, checks and counterchecks.

Man #1: Yah but who checks the checker, where’s the end o the line…who’s got the responsibility?

Another man: No One

Another man (same time): The President

Man #1: He can’t know everything that’s going on. How can he? It’s too complicated…and if you want to know, that’s what really bothers me. The only thing that everyone can agree on is that no one is responsible.

In the Pentagon, the discussion is limited war, and one man proclaims “we’re talking about the wrong subject…we’ve got to stop war not limit it. The way we fight a war is by making policy. If we say we can fight a limited war without using weapons, all we do is let everyone off the hook…there’s no such thing as a limited war anymore, not with hydrogen bombs there isn’t… …We’re setting up a war machine that acts faster than the ability of men to control it. We’re putting men into situations that are getting too tough for men to handle.”ii When one man asks “What if they launch the first strike against us”ii the only reply is “Then we’d retaliate and we’re all finished.”ii Thus, Hollywood successfully conveys the common fear of the effects of technological warfare.

Another theme explored during the 1960’s was the relationship between military men and politicians. Military men, in general, prefer to take military actions while many politicians would prefer to implement diplomacy and resort to military means in only the most severe situations. To illustrate, in Dr. Strangelove when Mandrake begins to question General Ripper’s actions to send bombers to Russia, the psychopathic Ripper explains “…do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?…He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, fifty years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.”i Hence, General Ripper provides a dramatized version of the view of a great deal of generals of his time.

The tension between the politicians and military men is also evident in the movie Fail Safeii when one General cannot bring himself to give information to a Russian General despite the fact that he has been ordered to do so. The Kernal then tries to convince the General that it is all a trap, the politicians who are deciding what to do don’t care about them, and in order to save the country he must save the men by going against the politicians. Evidently, Cold War movies during the 1960’s explored the Cold War from varying perspectives, suggesting and discussing the consequences of different courses of action.

During the Cold War, both the U.S and Russia had a strong desire to spread their capitalist or communist ideologies throughout the world by demonstrating through the arms race, the space race, and the sports race that their own system worked best. Any weakness that they exposed to the world was a point won for the enemy. The ideological differences between the two countries is evident in the movie The Spy Who Came In From the Coldiii when Lemus, a spy pretending to be a traitor to the U.S, tells a Russian leader named Fedlir, “I reserve the right to be ignorant that’s the western way of life,”iv and Fedlir responds “I could not have put it better myself. You think ignorance a valuable contribution to world knowledge. You fight for ignorance…If I want to kill I can only do it by putting a bomb in a restaurant…but…that’s what I’ll do…The same people die everyday they might as well do so for a reason. What about you?” iv Lemus, the do-gooder American then replies, “If ever I have to break you neck I promise to do so with a minimal force.”iv Thus, the ideological differences that the director Martin Ritt is trying to portray become evident. The Russians see Americans as ignorant yet they will kill countless numbers of people to benefit themselves while Americans will be as gentle as possible in seeking their goals. The constant struggle between the two strong countries to spread their different ideologies is addressed in the movie Red Dawniv when the children ask an American pilot why the Americans and the Russians are fighting the pilot answers, quite simply, “Two toughest kids on the block, sooner or later they gonna fight.”v MGM studios presented the Cold War as an inevitable conflict that had to be dealt with.

In most Hollywood Cold War movies, particularly those of the 1980’s, Americans are presented as much more righteous, ethical people than the Russians. To begin with, Americans are made out to be far more civil people than Russians. For example, in the movie Red Dawnv the KGB (Russians and Cubans), who take over a large part of America, are made to seem outright evil. The anti-Russian sentiment contained in the movie is likelya result of the fear of being blacklisted, and the desire of the production company MGM studios make a profit as supposed to their desire to get a specific point across. They treat Americans civilians as slaves, put them in ‘re-education camps’, try to rape any girl in sight, and try to kill innocent civilians. In The Fourth Protocolv, Russian Major Ross Petrosky follows the orders he receives to kill an innocent boy who carries his bags for him as well as orders to kill a Russian women immediately after he sleeps with her. The Russian women herself is also made out to be a whore as she sleeps with Ross just moments after meeting him. As well, when Ross asks the Russian women, Urea, about the damage of the bomb they are building she tells him, very casually as if she could care less, that it “I imagine it will kill somewhere between two and five thousand people.”vi Notably, the movie The Fourth Protocolv was also produced by MGM studios.

Many of the Hollywood movies demonstrate the lack of trust which originates from anti-Communism, and, in the case of the Communist, a deep hatred of democracy. One example is in the movie Fail Safeii when American bombers begin to head towards Russian targets and the source of the go signal is still unknown, one man goes so far as to suggest the Soviets are conspiring against them, and trying to make it look like the U.S accidentally set bombers against them as an excuse to retaliate. In addition, when they are discussing the possible courses of action to take, one man claims that the communists will not retaliate because “These are Marxist fanatic’s, not normal people. They do not reason the way you reason…They are not motivated by human emotion such as rage and pity. They will look at the balance sheet and they will see that they can not win.”ii Also, when the President finally contacts the Russian Premier, the Premier has a difficult time believing him and says “how do I know you don’t have more planes flying low so we can’t pick them up?”ii

The same thing occurs in Dr. Strangelove when the President tries to convince Premier Kissof that the planes flying towards his country are a mistake. Dr. Strangelovei also provides the audience with a portrayal of the paranoid side of anti-Communism as the psychotic General Ripper explains his theory about water telling Mandrake “Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face?”i Similarly, the entire plot of the movie From Russia With Lovevi revolves around the idea that if the Specters, who are not Russian or British, kill an important Russian then the Russians will automatically suspect the British. Hence, Hollywood displays how ideological disputes can turn to mistrust and outrageous accusations.

Another consistent theme in Hollywood movies is the portrayal of ethical and righteous American values. Firstly, Americans are shown as loving family men, women, or children. For example, in The Fourth Protocolvi the main character and the hero of the movie, John Preston, is depicted as a family man. There are several scenes where he spends time with his adorable son, and although his wife is dead the audience is shown several pictures of their loving family enjoying happy times together. In the movie Red Dawnv the audience views an incredibly sad scene between the children and their parents who are being kept in a reeducation camp. American patriotism is also a common theme in these movies. In Dr. Strangelovei Major Kong delivers a patriotic speech to his crew shortly before they begin to fly towards Russian bases. Also, at the end of the movie Red Dawnv a women speaks of how in “the early days of WW3…mostly children gave up their lives so that this nation shall not parish.”v At the beginning of the movie Fail Safeii one man speaks about how he would “rather have an American culture survive then a Russian one.”ii Hollywood movies also depict Americans as righteous human beings. For example, in the movie Fail Safeii two men argue over the course of action to take.

Man #1: ‘Now we have to send in fighters. Every minute we wait works against us.;

Man #2: ‘We don’t go in for sneak attacks. That’s what he Japanese did to us at Pearl Harbor.’

Man #1: ‘Do you believe that Communism is not our mortal enemy?’

Man #2: ‘To justify murder?…In the name of what? To preserve what? Even is we do survive what gives us the right?’

Man #1: ‘Yes those who can survive do survive. How long would the Nazis have kept it up if every Jew they met came at them with a gun? What I learned from them, oh I learned well.’

Man #2: ‘You learned so well that now there’s no difference between you and what you want to kill.

It becomes clear that Americans considered themselves quite different from the Russians. Unlike the Russians, Nazis, and Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Americans believe they can justify their actions as defensive actions. The same attitude prevails in the movie Dr. Strangelovei when President Muffley insists that he does not want to “…go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.”i In the movie Red Dawnv when the one member of the Wolverines, the free and fighting American children, kills one of the other members for being a traitor, another member shouts “what’s the difference between us and them!?”v Finally, in the movie The Spy Who Came in From the Coldiv the head spy explains “our work as I understand it is based on a single assumption, the West is never going to be the aggressor. We do disagreeable things, but we’re defensive. Our policies are peaceful, but our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition… Occasionally we have to do wicked things…but you can’t be less wicked than the enemy simply because your government policy is benevolent.”v Obviously, the director Martin Ritt wanted to show the audience that America would defend itself.

Some important aspects must be taken into consideration when studying the Cold War from a Hollywood perspective. First and foremost, all films are subject to the bias of the director or writer. Although the same constraint may apply for the writers of books, newspapers or any other primary or secondary resource, film directors are able to use their imaginations in order to create scenes, costumes, write the script, and inform the actors of exactly how they should act in a certain situations and how they should portray a particular person. The director is able to show the audience something that appears to be real, and the audience’s imagination is not necessarily required at any point. In the case that the audiences imagination is required, one can not be certain that they will make the right presumptions, as even one’s imagination is subjected to their own personal bias.

One must also keep in mind the type of movie that they are watching. The American films are entirely different from the way that a Russian movie may portray an event in the cold war and are subject to the bias of an entirely American culture. For example, the movie Dr. Strangelove was directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. The movie demonstrates to the audience that Kubrick himself had a comic yet mysteriously serious outlook on the Cold War. The film was originally a humorless novel called Red Alert by Peter George, and was also originally going to be a serious film but Kubrick felt that in the stressed atmosphere at the time a comedy would be more popular amongst the audience. Kubrick was able to take this approach to the Cold War largely because he produced and directed the movie himself. He did not have to deal with the regulations that might have been set upon him had he been part of a large movie corporation.

As an illustration, the movie Fail Safe also produced in 1964 follows a very similar plot line to Dr. Strangelove. However, unlike Dr. Strangelove the movie deals with the Cold War and the Russians on a much more serious note perhaps because it was produced by the large corporation Columbia Tristar Studios. Obviously, in the 1960’s people had a much more casual outlook on the Cold War than they did in the 1950’s because movies such as these, which involved an envisioned threat to America’s security, could be produced successfully without causing a social or political uproar. Similarly, the espionage movies From Russia With Love (1963) and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) were also produced in the 1960’s. Both movies were based on British novels, but produced by American producers. The popular James Bond movie From Russia with Love was produced by MGM studios and provides the audience with a British perspective of the Cold War but at the same time allows the audience to view the conflict from a neutral perspective because the Specters, the bad guys, are neither British nor Russian. On the contrary, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold presents the Russians as cold hearted ruthless human beings with a sick ideological philosophy.

This movie does not cohere to the casual and somewhat neutral attitude evident throughout most of the 1960’s. However, the movie was directed and produced by the American producer Martin Ritt who was blacklisted early in the 1950’s. Thus, the movie has an anti-Russian sentiment which most likely results from the fear of the director/producer. The movies Red Dawn and The Fourth Protocol were both produced in the 1980’s. Large studios produced both of these films resulting in Americans being presented as patriotic, good human beings and the Russians as being cold-hearted with few morals or values. In The Fourth Protocol every Communist is involved in a deceptive backstabbing plot aimed at destroying capitalism. In Red Dawn Russians take over an American city and show very little mercy towards all the do-gooder Americans. Hence, it is evident that the 1980’s were a time when the anti-Russian sentiment was high.

In conclusion, Hollywood undoubtedly does a fantastic job conveying many of important sentiments and ideas that contributed to the Cold War from an American perspective. While some movies are funny and others serious, each touches upon a multitude of much deeper and more important issues. Audiences learn about the fear, trust, politics, patriotism and intense struggle for power which made up the Cold War. The movies provide Americans with the unique opportunity to look back to a time when misunderstandings brought the world to the brink of disaster.