Feb 182011
Hollywood And The Bomb – or Trivialising a Nuclear Holocaust 1945-1990 – Part 2.

Voice’s Dave Watt lifts the lid on the somewhat shady influences at work at the highest levels of post-war US government when McCarthyism and ‘Commie plot’ paranoia was rife. Not even Hollywood’s cinematic art was safe, it seems.

This section concentrates mainly on Hollywood and the Bomb in the 1950s and 60s with occasional trips across the Atlantic to compare their treatment of the subject with British filmmakers.

Equally upbeat as per the Cheerful Charlie Reader’s Digest was the film Duck and Cover – a civil defence film/public guidance film which first shown publicly in January 1952.
Made with the help of schoolchildren from New York City who were, needless to say, shown ducking under desks and covering their eyes, it was shown in schools as the cornerstone of the government’s “duck and cover” public awareness campaign.

The movie stated that nuclear war could happen at any time without warning and U.S. citizens should keep this constantly in mind and be ever ready (presumably by carrying a school desk around with them).
This was followed up by another public guidance film called  The House in the Middle [1954] which was a short documentary film produced by the Federal Civil Defence Administration, which attempted to show that a clean, freshly painted house is more likely to survive a nuclear attack than its poorly maintained counterpart. As it turned out, however, this film was actually sponsored by the US National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association so I’d take its nuclear protection advice with a large pinch of salt.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in 1950, the first British Nuclear protestor appeared in the film Seven Days to Noon (beating the first Aldermaston March by a clear eight years).  Starring Barry Jones and Andrew Morell it showed a British scientist, John Willingdon, running away from a research centre with an atomic bomb which he has in a suitcase. He threatens to blow up the centre of London if the Government don’t agree to stop any further nuclear testing. Special agents from Scotland Yard try to stop him with help from his assistant and her fiancé. In a dramatic finish the scientist is accidentally shot a few minutes before the bomb goes off, the hero marries the heroine and everyone lives happily ever after. Nowadays it seems quite a thought provoking item for the time although in the original film blurb Willingdon the scientist was obligingly referred to as a madman.

Back to the US in 1951 there was a sci- fi film called Five which was a  post-apocalyptic US film. The title refers to the number of survivors of an atomic war that wiped out the rest of the human race. Fortunately for the survivors they all lived in the US, spoke English and were within walking distance of each other – just how lucky is that? This was, however, something of a benchmark as it was the first ever film to depict the aftermath of such a catastrophe.

Next film produced by Hollywood with a nuclear war theme was Invasion USA (1952) – basically a pro-military pro-government propaganda film which starts off with a group of anti-government, anti-war people in a bar in Washington decrying  the early military-industrial complex of those days.

However, the film goes on to show that while these misguided peaceniks are chewing the fat the evil robotic Soviets are plotting to attack the US with A-Bombs. The A-bombs duly arrive on American air force bases causing mayhem and after a series of horrifying disasters and the usual heroic resistance the few surviving peaceniks are predictably shown to conclude that their government and military were right after all.

their response to any military face confrontation with the Soviets would be a first strike nuclear attack

And I hope they were all thoroughly ashamed of themselves, too. The Soviets in this film were rather confusingly dressed similarly to Nazi SS men – Mind you it probably wouldn’t be too confusing to modern American audiences over 30% of who think the Soviet Union & Germany were on the same side in World War Two anyway.

There was a gap in Hollywood films involving actual nuclear war over the next few years but quite a few pro-military but specifically pro USAAF films. (Just keep remembering here those horrible, pro-commie, fellow traveller, pinkos in the US Navy have been defeated and the United States Army Air Force is the way to go.)

First of these was: James Stewart in Strategic Air Command [1955] , Stewart plays a USAAF Reserve officer recalled reluctantly to active duty to fly bombers for the Strategic Air Command. The film details the duties and responsibilities of being an Air Force strategic bomber pilot, and the strains such service places on family life. Happily, Stewart overcomes all these and goes on to enjoy his new military career defending the USA from the godless Commie threat.

Similarly in Bombers B52 [1957] Karl Malden plays a US air force sergeant who is tempted by a better-paying civilian job. After much moral deliberation Malden decides that he’s of more value in the service and goes on to enjoy his continuing military career defending the USA from the godless Commie threat.

The lack of films depicting a nuclear exchange is particularly significant during this time as the US military was irrevocably committed to the first use of nuclear weapons under the 1951 New Look Strategy -the concept being that the considerably more powerful Soviet forces represented such a world wide threat to US hegemony that their response to any military face confrontation with the Soviets would be a first strike nuclear attack.

In fact, the next film on the subject was produced well after McCarthy’s decline and is the bleakly realistic 1959 film On The Beach which is set in 1964 in the months following World War III. The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all human life there while global air currents are slowly carrying the fallout to the southern hemisphere. The only part of the planet still habitable is the far south of the globe, specifically Australia but as the film ends it becomes apparent than everyone is either dying about to die.

Predictably the U.S. Department of Defence refused to cooperate in the production of this little item, refusing access to their nuclear-powered submarines and the film production crew was forced to use a non-nuclear Royal Navy submarine, the HMS Andrew.

The US contrived to lose seven nukes in the years after the WW2 which means that they’re lying around somewhere rusting quietly away.

Despite the loan of the HMS Andrew this did not indicate an anti nuclear stance by the British Government and, in fact, the then Foreign Secretary and future Tory Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Hume stated in June 1961 that in their commitment to NATO and the US that “The British people are prepared to be blown to atomic dust if necessary” which must have been news to most of the population.

Following the the international concern over the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the groundbreaking film of’ On The Beach’ and there appeared a reaction to this within the US establishment which contradicted the previously held view characterised by the Rand Corporation’s Herman Kahn ‘On Thermonuclear War’ (1960) which postulated the idea yet again of a ‘winnable nuclear war’.

This public outcry engendered by the Cuban Missile Crisis caused Kahn’s to amend his following books ‘Thinking About The Unthinkable (1962) and On Escalation (1965) backpedalled a bit and produced such delights as his Escalation Ladder (seehttp://www.texaschapbookpress.com/magellanslog41/escalation.htm) which ranges from Ostensible Crisis and Political, Economic & Diplomatic Gestures for 44 stages up to Unmodified Counterforce Attack or Spasm and Insensate War – which apparently means firing off everything nuclear you’ve got in the general direction of the enemy. According to Mr Kahn, 24 of these 44 stages involve a ‘nuclear exchange’.

Next film up was A Gathering of Eagles [1963] a movie about the Cold War and the pressures of Air Force command. Rock Hudson plays a USAAF Colonel, Jim Caldwell, who despite his misgivings is promoted to be a Strategic Air Command B-52 wing commander –. Needless to say Hudson predictably overcomes all the tribulations and pressures of command and like Karl Malden and Jimmy Stewart goes on to enjoy his new military career defending the USA from the godless Commie threat.

This film was heavily supported by the USAAF and SAC commander Curtis Lemay in particular as it showed SAC in the most promising light imaginable as intelligently led, competent and relentlessly efficient whereas they had been receiving a fair bit of flak for several major nuclear accidents. The US contrived to lose seven nukes in the years after the WW2 which means that they’re lying around somewhere rusting quietly away.

the last poignant scene is of nuclear blasts all over the globe as Vera Lynn sings ‘We’ll Meet Again’.

Curtis LeMay may be a name familiar to some of you as a rather deranged US superhawk very keen on using B52s in Vietnam and was extremely miffed when LBJ stopped him dropping a nuke in front of the threatened US marine base at Khe Sanh in 1967. His alter ego, General Turgidson, was played by George C Scott in the next film which is:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb which is a 1964 American/British black comedy film directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, and featuring Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn and Slim Pickens..

The story concerns an unhinged US Air Force general Jack D Ripper who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and follows the President of the United States, his advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an RAF officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse, as well as the crew of one B-52 as they attempt to deliver their payload. The situation is made more critical by the Soviet Union having created a Doomsday Machine which will fire off a huge cloud of radioactive dust which will envelop the earth if a nuke hits the Soviet Union. The bomber eventually hits a tertiary target within the Soviet Union and the last poignant scene is of nuclear blasts all over the globe as Vera Lynn sings ‘We’ll Meet Again’.

A similar theme appears in Fail-Safe (1964) Sidney Lumet’s original 1964 film  employs a stylized and heightened dramatic structure in its nerve-crushing moral tale. When an off-course commercial airplane triggers the Pentagon’s complex “fail-safe” maneuver, leaving an arsenal of nuclear-bomb-carrying jet fighters at the ready, a mechanical error puts the entire world in danger of destruction.

Walter Matthau gives an uncharacteristic turn as an unpleasantly cold and contemptuous political scientist Prof. Groteschele, apparently based on  Herman Kahn. Henry Fonda plays the American president who manages with the Soviet Premiere to navigate the complex and urgent political trauma and prevent total destruction. As one of the American bombers makes it through to drop an A-bomb on Moscow the only concession the US President can offer to prevent all out war is to drop a similar bomb on New York.

This duly happens (thus incidentally invoking Mr Kahn’s Stage 29 of his Escalation Ladder ‘Exemplary Attack on Population’) and the countdown to the bomb hitting New York involves a series of movie stills taken in the streets of the city.

Back across the Atlantic, The War Game was a 1965 television film on nuclear war. Written, directed, and produced by Peter Watkins for the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand, its graphic depiction of the impact of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain caused dismay within the BBC and in government.

It was scheduled for transmission on 6th of August 1966 but the effect of the film was judged by the BBC to be “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and it was not actually transmitted for 19 years and eventually appeared on the BBC in 1985, Presumably, following this timescale they’ll get around to broadcasting the appeal for Gaza in 2038.

Back in Hollywood the forces of good were still battling for God & Profit but a lot of public questioning was going on about US involvement in Laos and Vietnam and the next film revealed a certain ambivalence in US society.

In The Bedford Incident (1965) Richard Widmark plays the stern and unforgiving skipper of an American destroyer on peacetime patrol in North Atlantic waters as an element of the NATO fleet. He develops an obsessive determination to hunt down a Soviet submarine and as the danger in his compulsive chase develops a fatal incident occurs with the US destroyer firing off its missile and the Soviet submarine retaliating with its nuclear weaponry and both are utterly destroyed.

Part 3  (The 1970s onwards) -next week.

Feb 112011
Hollywood And The Bomb – or Trivialising a Nuclear Holocaust 1945-1990

Voice’s Dave Watt lifts the lid on the somewhat shady influences at work at the highest levels of post-war US government when McCarthyism and ‘Commie plot’ paranoia was rife. Not even Hollywood’s cinematic art was safe, it seems.

Part 1.  Setting the scene – Government and film

First, let me say that films aren’t made in a vacuum. In a way they reflect the needs and desires of the society in which they’re made.

Sometimes they are made to reflect the interests of the ruling elite in that society and sometimes, rather more rarely, they’re made to challenge that elite and its world view.

Hollywood, and to an extent the British film industry produce, in general, films without an overt political message but this does not mean there is no political influence.

In the US, the military’s influence on Hollywood has been increasingly pervasive since the establishment of the Committee of Public Information in early 1917 to present the US’s entry to the First World War as a noble crusade and not as a desperate prop for that country’s massive investment in the failing Allied cause.

Following the Second World War, the Pentagon formally established its ‘film approval’ process and in 1948, set up a special Movie Liaison Office. With the onset of the Cold War, the US military demanded even greater control over the movies it ‘assisted’.

Producers and directors seeking access to military equipment, locations or personnel, or even Department of Defense archival footage, are required to have their work vetted by the Pentagon. Those prepared to reshape their movies in line with Pentagon directives are given substantial financial and technical help; those unwilling to accept its dictates are denied any assistance.

Since then, plot and character changes and outright historical falsification have been the most common demands made by the military, its stated aim being to encourage movies which boost ‘recruitment and retention programs’. Filmmakers are told that excessive foul language, alcohol and drug use, sexism, racism and other bigotry in the armed forces must be toned down and replaced with ‘positive’ portrayals. In fact it is not unusual for the Pentagon to demand entire scenes, even central characters, be deleted.

There’s a very good David L Robb book on the subject, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.

So, bear this in mind as you read on.

Hollywood and the Bomb

My delving around revealed that the first nuclear war film made in Hollywood was a gem called The First Yank Into Tokyo, rushed out in September 1945, which featured a rather large American boxing star Tom Neal being parachuted into the land of the Rising Sun disguised as a Japanese soldier – honestly – to rescue a captured nuclear scientist.

two nuclear bombs have gone off in Japan and very few people in the West know that much about them

Predictably, he rescues the scientist and wins the heroine before the film ends with stirring music and an approving gravelly voice narrating over film of the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima – presumably engendered by work of the rescued scientist.

Washington Post film critic Jeff Hill described it as:

Not only the most racist movie I have ever seen, it is probably quite simply the worst film I have ever seen in any category of any motion picture ever

Needless to say, the real films taken by the US military showing what had actually happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were confiscated by the US government and locked away for 25 years, whilst any reports of the attacks were systematically discredited.

For example, within three days of Wilfred Burchett’s shocking dispatch on radiation sickness, The Atomic Plague appearing in the Daily Express on September 5 1945, the US military had a front page story in the New York Times disputing the notion that radiation sickness was actually killing people. Their news story included this remarkable commentary, “The Japanese are still continuing their propaganda aimed at creating the impression that we won the war unfairly, and thus attempting to create sympathy for themselves and thereby obtain milder surrender terms”.

John Hersey’s 1946 film Hiroshima, which moved beyond generalised images of a destroyed city to offer sharply-etched narratives of six survivors’ experiences, was also predictably rubbished and concealed by the US government as best it could.

So here we are; it’s the late 1940s – two nuclear bombs have gone off in Japan and very few people in the West know that much about them or their effects, and those who do go to great lengths to conceal the facts.

On the other hand, some who did know about the effects of the bombs did act and here we find the first and most unusual band of nuclear protestors.

The Admirals’ Revolt 1948-49

Ofstie’s evidence to the hearings was particularly crucial as his post war assignment was to the US Strategic Bombing Survey of Japan

Admirals are in an unusual position as far as military command goes. Whereas an army commander can be thirty to fifty miles behind the lines and his air force counterpart can be three thousand miles away from the action, an admiral is generally there with the fleet, taking the same risks and seeing the same carnage as the crews of the ships, possibly engendering a greater sense of social realism to war’s horrors.

Whatever the reason, in 1948 and 1949, during stormy congressional hearings on the US Air Force’s ill-fated and unbelievably expensive nuclear white elephant, the B-37 bomber, there appeared what was to be called the Admirals’ Revolt – a group of US senior naval officers consisting of Secretary of the Navy Sullivan, Admiral Denfield, Rear Admirals Ofstie and Radford, and about a dozen others supported by James Forrestal, the then US Secretary of Defence.

Rear Admiral Ofstie’s evidence to the hearings was particularly crucial as his post war assignment was to the US Strategic Bombing Survey of Japan, where he interviewed many surviving Japanese officials and civilians. In 1946 he was detached and was reassigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Evaluation Group and served at the Bikini nuclear tests.

So, here we have a fighting admiral who has seen death and destruction at close hand and knows about indiscriminate bombing and the effects of nuclear bombs. On October 11, 1949 he and Rear Admiral Radford testified before the Combined Services Defence Committee on the effects of nuclear warfare and concluded, ‘Strategic air warfare, as practised in the past and as proposed for the future, is militarily unsound and of limited effect, is morally wrong, and is decidedly harmful to the stability of a post-war world.’

Cue major uproar in the US armed forces and government.

President Harry H Truman, faced with this revolt, had a great deal of soul-searching to do. However, at some point, it was presumably pointed out to him that among the companies who were profiting massively from the B-37 fiasco and would benefit from future huge USAAF contracts, were those who paid his election expenses. The President and his cabinet predictably came down on the side of the USAAF and set the scene for half a century of nuclear brinkmanship.

the deranged and murderous Commies could start a nuclear war any minute

Defence Secretary Forrestal was hounded out of office, suffered a nervous breakdown and later committed suicide in rather suspicious Kelly-esque circumstances. The admirals involved in the revolt were either eased out of service or remained unpromoted until their retirement.

Truman’s eventual decision may also have been influenced by the events of August 1949 when the first Soviet nuclear bomb, codenamed Joe One, was tested in Kazakhstan.

In addition, the setting off of Joe One generated huge levels of paranoia and hysteria in the US which the government and the embedded media tried to use by generating two rather contradictory notions:

– the deranged and murderous Commies could start a nuclear war any minute.

– don’t worry, your government will show you how to survive it.

This dichotomy was to result in a recurring theme in the 1950s and such august publications as Reader’s Digest produced upbeat articles such as You Can Live Despite The A-Bomb and How US Cities Can Prepare For Atomic War, whilst nuclear bunkers were routinely referred to more prosaically as ‘air raid shelters’.

Next week: Part 2 – Films of 1950s and 60s