Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Film

Throughout the Cold War, the grand ideological struggle between communism and capitalism raged with particular intensity in motion pictures. During this period, several national cinemas came to challenge Hollywood's dominance. In particular, postwar Italian, French, British, and Swedish films added significant artistic touches to the Cold War film genre. While U.S. films tended toward stereotyping and even mild anticommunist hysteria in the late 1940s and early 1950s, West European films took a more nuanced and introspective look at the times. Most East European films suffered from heavy censorship, with a few notable exceptions.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) shook the U.S. film industry. There were genuine concerns at the time that communists had infiltrated the industry, and congressmen seeking the political limelight found Hollywood to be a perfect foil. The film industry also attracted the most notorious of all anticommunists, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Screenwriters in particular had been notably leftist in their sentiments, and some actors had flirted with the Communist Party in the 1930s. Now all were being called to account for past affiliations, however fleeting and uncommitted they might have been.

Lillian Hellman, a major dramatist, managed to salvage her career with self-serving newspaper editorials and a highly publicized letter to HUAC, despite evidence of past Soviet sympathies. Actors such as Sterling Hayden, José Ferrer, Lucille Ball, and Edward G. Robinson survived their HUAC encounters. Others were not so fortunate, as a blacklist of writers, directors, and actors expanded. The careers of many who found themselves on the list were derailed for a decade or more, and others never found high-profile work again.

Because no Hollywood experience is truly assimilated until it has served as a subject for films, it is not surprising that blacklisting has been the theme of several movies. The Front (1976) featured comedian Woody Allen as a saloon cashier and numbers runner drafted by an old school friend to serve as a front for several blacklisted television writers. In a later film, Majestic (2001), actor Jim Carey played a blacklisted screenwriter suffering from that old radio soap opera affliction, amnesia.

As the Cold War deepened, Hollywood's tendency to stereotype became more prominent. Before World War II, Russians had been portrayed with something akin to veiled admiration as people willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of their homeland. During the Cold War, however, Russians appeared on screen in a very different light. They now were depicted either as sinister figures intent on forcing communism upon the world or as political prisoners through accidents of birth. Even American communists featured in Hollywood films were portrayed as shady, mentally unstable underworld characters.

Comedic films were generally more sympathetic to Russians than were dramatic ones. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) was a lighthearted farce about a Soviet submarine that ran aground on American soil. After a period of initial suspicion, the Russians gain the affections of the locals by rescuing a child dangling precariously from a church steeple. In Moscow on the Hudson (1984) Robin Williams played a Russian circus performer who defects while discovering the delights of American consumerism in Bloomingdale's.

A more serious attempt to convey the Russian character to Western audiences came with Doctor Zhivago (1965), adapted from Boris Pasternak's autobiographical novel. Pasternak was already a martyr-hero in the West because the Soviet government had forbidden him from accepting the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novel outlined the struggle of a sensitive, gifted individual against a ruthless government machine. The film, a smash hit, featured a cast of glamorous actors and a haunting though not very Russian musical score.

In the early Cold War period, Hollywood produced several openly propagandistic films designed to persuade Americans to view the Soviet Union as a menacing threat instead of a former wartime ally. The Iron Curtain (1948), based loosely on the memoirs of a Soviet dissenter, unconvincingly featured Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney as struggling Russians. The Red Menace (1949) engaged in crude propaganda and hyperbole. The Red Danube (1949) was the only film in this group with artistic merit. Ethel Barrymore, Walter Pidgeon, and Janet Leigh headed the cast. The film's German-expressionistic cinematography was exactly right for a tale of the forced repatriation of ethnic East Europeans scattered about postwar Europe.

The Big Lift (1950) was less melodramatic as it portrayed the peril and heroism of the hugely successful Berlin Airlift. Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas were the only professional actors used in the military scenes; the rest were real soldiers filmed on location in war-torn Berlin, giving the film a documentary feel. In the same self-congratulatory category was Strategic Air Command (1955), a patriotic look at the supremacy of U.S. airpower.

As Hollywood embraced the Cold War, screenwriters and directors exploited every film genre. By its very nature, the Western was a forceful declaration of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and the American Way. In film noir, sinister communists replaced gangsters, and double agents took the place of the private eyes who had previously darkened film noir alleys and back streets. Horror films replaced Frankenstein, werewolves, and Dracula with mad nuclear scientists. Espionage became a chief subject for screen thrillers, and science fiction films often featured atomically mutated monsters and alien invaders who represented either internal or external communist subversion. Cinema farces sometimes tried to lighten the mood, assuring audiences that communists were ultimately more bumbling clowns than serious threats, while black comedies encouraged audiences to "stop worrying and love the bomb."

The Cold War produced new grist for film noir. "The city that never sleeps," film noir's familiar setting, became the lair of those who wished ill to America in such films as Walk East on Beacon (1952), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), and The Woman on Pier 13 (1949). One particular film from this genre, The Third Man (1949), quickly became a true classic. With ruined Vienna and zither music in the background, the picture featured Orson Welles as a murderous black marketeer moving between the American, British, French, and Soviet occupation zones and playing each off against the other. The city's serpentine sewers and the Riesenrad—the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater—provided powerful visual symbols.

During the Cold War, several science fiction films highlighted fears of the atomic age. In Them (1954), exposure to atomic radiation creates giant ants that threaten the human race. It Came from Outer Space (1951) showcased well-meaning Martian visitors horrified by the human propensity for violence. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the most durable of these films, featured a wise interplanetary visitor arriving as a peace missionary to Earth.

Closely related to science fiction were apocalyptic films. On the Beach (1959) told a chilling tale of a group of Australians awaiting the deadly fallout from nuclear war that had already exterminated the rest of the world. Stanley Kubrick's outrageous dark comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964) is the recognized masterpiece of apocalyptic Cold War films. Its veiled caricatures of Henry Kissinger, Edward Teller, and Wernher von Braun are no doubt overdone, although audiences savored the performances of Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Keenan Wynn in roles influenced by the clash of military, political, and scientific personalities. General Jack D. Ripper, portrayed by Sterling Hayden, lover of all bombs, is generally assumed to represent General Curtis Le May, whose notable contribution to the Cold War was the development of the Strategic Air Command. Americans and Soviets alike appear either unhinged or inebriated in Dr. Strangelove, with the world unsafe in any hands. The film ends with global annihilation.

The Cold War proved an effective subject for pure thrillers. In From Russia with Love (1963), James Bond dealt with Russian villains and sensual yet sneaky Russian women. Gorky Park (1983) was a convoluted tale of murder and collusion between American criminals and the KGB. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a taut political thriller, a Korean War veteran is cleverly brainwashed by communists and programmed to kill on command so that his buffoonish stepfather, a caricature of Joseph McCarthy, can take over the American government. Alfred Hitchcock made several films against the backdrop of the East-West struggle, including Torn Curtain (1966) in which Paul Newman played an atomic scientist pretending to defect to the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) to uncover communist military secrets.

The cinematic scene in Cold War Europe was markedly different from that in the United States. Postwar Italian movies gained distinction by adopting a documentary-like neorealism in pictures such as Rome Open City (1945) and Umberto D. (1952) that were filmed in demolished cities or among the haunts of societal loners and the poor. Film directors such as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were obsessed by the malaise and decadence of the rich. Italian films tended to reflect the currents of Marxism, existentialism, socialism, and psychoanalysis. Two of Italy's most gifted filmmakers, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, were ardent communists.

French cinema of the time devoted itself mainly to juxtaposing human relationships against changing moral codes and social conditions. A good number of French films dealt with the residue of guilt stemming from Nazi collaboration and were often preoccupied with wartime occupation and liberation. Greatly influenced by the film noir sensibility of American B movies from the 1930s and 1940s, the so-called New Wave directors such as Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut introduced heavy doses of existentialism into their movies. Although intellectuals much admired the New Wave, a group called Communist Travail et Culture spoke of the need to deliver film sophistication to French working-class people, who preferred American escapist movies.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, British movies were chiefly noted for their distinctive comedies, Hammer Studio horror films, and a British New Wave. The British New Wave was the chief domain of the so-called Angry Young Men, whose narratives of drab, working-class lives had distinctly Marxist undertones. Films such as Room at the Top (1950) viewed life in British industrial towns with a grim realism sometimes referred to as the kitchen-sink school of British drama.

Swedish films of the period were dominated by the chilling images of Ingmar Bergman, the ultimate auteur. He was preoccupied by things philosophical and metaphysical rather than sociological. Although they were not overtly political, the films of former Bergman assistant and protégé Vilgot Sjoman explored the seamier side of postwar Swedish life.

East European movies were hampered by Cold War censorship. Adaptations of national classics, sometimes with subtle political messages embedded, competed with scenarios based on popular but innocuous novels. Only after the Cold War thaw was Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland able to bring to the screen her powerful, fictionalized account of events that had transpired in Poland in the early 1980s. Her film To Kill a Priest (1988) was based on the brutal murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko and the persecution of the Catholic Church in Poland.

The Russians had always been celebrated for their cinematic feats, but the heavy hand of state censorship loomed large. Sergei Eisenstein, one of the great geniuses of film history, was forced to suppress his Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958) until after Stalin's death in 1953. The Soviet government tended to demand patriotic films or narratives that faithfully followed the principles of so-called socialist realism. These pictures glorified life on collective farms, extolled factory labor, or celebrated Soviet heroes. Sporadically, however, some Soviet Cold War filmmakers were able to produce a few masterpieces, sometimes even indulging in social criticism under the guise of allegory, parable, or historical narrative. Grigory Kozintsev released brilliant interpretations of Hamlet (1961) and King Lear (1971) based on Pasternak's translations. Sergei Bondarchuk's multifilm magisterial adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace (1956–1967) was one of the most ambitious film projects ever and one of the most successful, too. Equally impressive—and still daring—was Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1971), a historical study of the most famous painter of Russian religious icons.

Internationally, both popular and artistic filmmaking is flourishing, now liberated from Cold War pressures. India is churning out its Bombay talkies, while Japan is using the cinema to reexamine its past and to reconcile tradition with modern life. Performers, directors, and film locations have shifted rapidly from place to place as a truly international cinema scene has emerged in the wake of the Cold War. Still, movies of the Cold War period will offer new audiences key insights into the social, political, cultural, and moral conditions of this critical era in twentieth-century history.

Allene Phy-Olsen


Further Reading
Buhle, Paul, and Dave Wagner. Radical Hollywood. New York: New Press, 2002.; Carnes, Mark C., ed. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.; Nowell, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema: The Definitive History of Cinema Worldwide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.; Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film. New York: Abrams, 2002.; Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
 

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