Cold War, Hot Films

The Cold War proved to be a real, but different, expression of total war. In previous wars, the economic, material, and political strengths of a nation suffused the military industrial complex and were realized in traditional military capacity in the form of navies, armies, and air forces. Military operations and therefore military strategy were crucial to the conduct of war. However, in the Cold War, as a result of the introduction of nuclear weapons, sophisticated delivery systems, and the success of deterrence strategies, direct military confrontation was not the expected extension of diplomacy. Future Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger wrote in 1965, “The traditional mode of military analysis which saw war as a continuation of politics but with its own appropriate means is no longer applicable. Policy and strategy merge at every point.” (Kissinger, Henry. The Theory and Practice of War, American Strategic Doctrine and Diplomacy, 1965). It is this new, strange method of conducting international and domestic policies that will concern us here. How did these policies and strategies affect Hollywood and by extension the culture of America in the era known as the ‘Cold War’?

Hype and Hysteria: Hollywood and the House Un-American Activities Committee

History tells us that the United States has, twice in its short history, been gripped in the cold and icy clutches of a ‘Red Scare’; that is to say, a nation-wide fear of Communism and its canons. The first wave occurred between 1919 – 1921, when Russia was overtaken by Communism. The second would appear at the end of World War II and the termination of the United States’ alliance with the Soviet Union. 1945 would prove to be more than just the final culmination of ‘the war to end all wars’; it would mark the beginning of a whole new kind of war, one where the battles took place in the hearts and minds of every man, woman and child who lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It would be the beginning of a Cold War and a renewed fear of Communism in America -Russiaphobia.

Russiaphobia reached its apex with the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1938. When HUAC was established by Congress its purpose was to investigate people suspected of unpatriotic behaviour. What constituted as ‘unpatriotic behaviour’ was highly subjective and open to interpretation by the members of the committee. Under mandate from the House of Representatives and Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House was responsible for spotlighting suspected communists.

A period of inactivity for the committee described the years of WWII but HUAC was revitalized under the leadership of New Jersey Congressman, J. Parnell Thomas in 1947. Investigations targeted virtually every area of American society but none was more legendary than the Hollywood Trials. By capitalizing on a society fascinated with Hollywood, the committee achieved instant exposure. Because the committee was aware of the number of Hollywood producers, directors, screenwriters and actors who had joined or aided the Communist Party during the Depression of the 1930s, it was assumed that Communists would and had infiltrated the motion picture industry and were using it as a vehicle for propaganda and misinformation. Film in America had always been regulated in one way or another but by 1947, HUAC had become directly involved with the regulation. The investigation of the ‘Communist Infiltration of the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry’ would eventually deny the film trade of much of its talent by ‘blacklisting’ many humanitarian idealists or supposed ‘Communists’ as well as actual members of the Communist Party.

September of 1947 saw many actors, directors, producers and writers, labelled ‘friendly witnesses’, testifying before HUAC. Known friendly witnesses included Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Ronald Reagan, and Walt Disney. These men brought mass publicity and answered questions openly, willingly and honestly. They were treated with respect and many read pre-written answers. These friendly witnesses were at no time under suspicion of sedition. Immediately, out of the 41 subpoenaed witnesses, the committee singled out nineteen known, leftist directors, producers, screenwriters and actors as ‘enemies of the state’ or communists. They were declared to be ‘unfriendly’, meaning they would refuse to answer questions about their political beliefs. Eleven of the nineteen were questioned about their connection with the Communist party. Due to the highly public nature of the suspicious and accusatory hearings, their lives and careers were, in many cases, destroyed. Bertolt Brecht, the German emigrant playwright, was the only person of the eleven “unfriendly” witnesses who answered questions while on the stand. After claiming he wasn’t a communist, he immediately returned to East Germany. The remaining ten “unfriendlys” acquired the name “The Hollywood Ten”. Claiming their Fifth Amendment rights at the stand, they refused to answer any and all questions about the allegiance, alliances or beliefs.

The 5th Amendment to the US Constitution


No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Article [I.] Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ‘Committee for the First Amendment’ (CFA) (Article [I.] Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances)

This amendment was established to counter what some claimed were baseless attacks on Hollywood by the HUAC. The committee of 50 Hollywood writers, producers and actors chartered a plane to Washington, D.C. on October 24, 1947 in order to lend support as the eleven unfriendly witnesses were called to testify. The CFA tried to protect the rights of the Hollywood Ten but failed in their effort to protest the violation of the Constitution. The only thing achieved by the CFA was negative publicity for its members. Humphrey Bogart, as a member of CFA, discovered his defence of ‘impertinent subversives’ to be damaging to his heroic image. In a desperate attempt to salvage it, he published a piece in ‘Photoplay Magazine’, March 1948. It was entitled ‘I’m No Communist’ . In it, he admitted being ‘duped’ and said that his trip to Washington had been ‘ill-advised’ , he further he describes himself as ‘foolish and impetuous American’ .

In the beginning it wasn’t clear whether the studios would punish unfriendly witnesses. However, as it became clear that federal law enforcement would back HUAC, the studios’ actions were decided. At the end of November, immediately after the Ten went before HUAC, the heads of major Hollywood studios and fifty executives gathered for a two-day secret meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The situation and their future actions were debated. Recognizing that there would be huge box-office losses no matter what the outcome from the HUAC hearings, they reached a decision. On November 24, 1947, a statement was released that the Hollywood Ten had been suspe
nded without pay. The statement included: ‘We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method.’ Mast, Gerald & Kawin, Bruce F. The Movies; A Short History, Toronto: Allyn and Bacon, 1996 Later the statement became an announcement firing the Ten, effectively blacklisting them, and explaining that they would not be re-hired until cleared by HUAC.

Almost all levels of production in the film industry were affected by the HUAC hearings. As a direct result of the McCarthy led witch-hunts, content of movies became more and more restrained and during the period of 1947 to 1954, Hollywood churned out more than forty films rife with overt anti-Communist propaganda. Although little to no money was made on these films, the studios continued to produce them in fear of reprisals and boycotts.

Myth and Culture

“American culture had been profoundly affected by atomic fear, by a dizzying plethora of atomic panaceas and proposals, and by endless speculation on the social and ethical implications of the new reality.” ‘ Paul Boyer By The Bomb’s Early Light, University of North Carolina Press, 1994

There exists in every culture a series of folk tales and stories, which make up part of that culture’s history. These stories, called myths, often venture into the magical and fantastic, with great heroes battling terrible monsters to save exotic lands. As the human race has evolved, our need to attribute unexplained events to supernatural workings beyond our ken has resulted instead in a culture that places its faith in science and technology instead of a longstanding tradition of myth and religion. It may have seemed that this was especially true in the last century.

The 20th Century was a time of reliance on devices and statistics instead of philosophy or God. In the United Stated over the last 100 years, this reliance has led to a certain moral ambiguity; the lines between right and wrong have blurred. The search for a morality as defined by black-and-white certainty has been replaced by a grey-coloured relativism. In these days of genetic cloning, disease, and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of every Third World dictator, the American people are no longer aware of what defines good or evil, right or wrong. Except, of course, at the movies.

On the silver screen, it is far easier to see who the bad guys are (or at least who they are supposed to be). It has become cliche to say ‘film reflects society’ but that does not make the assertion any less true. With the passage of time comes the opportunity to catch a collective breath and begin the long-term assessment of how the social, cultural and political landscapes of America in the Cold War were affected by the big screen. According to an in-depth feature of Alumni recollections of the Cold War in the University of Toledo’s ‘Alumni Magazine’, the average American absorbed the reality of the Cold War not through government sources but through popular culture. (Reising, Dr. Russell. ‘Oh Brave Cold World: America & the Cold War’, Alumni Magazine, Toledo: University of Toledo Press, Fall, 1996) ‘Popular culture filled us in when no on else would.’

Ever since ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903 and the dawn of narrative filmmaking, audiences have come to expect at least two unifying elements whenever they enter the theatre ‘ a hero (who typically represents the goodness of humanity) and a villain (who typically represents the ills of society). The sinister antagonist can be a person, a machine or an idea, but the idea has remained fundamentally the same: cinematic bad guys have always embodied whatever the American culture fears most.

But what does America fear? From the end of WWII until the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the answer was unequivocally ‘The Russians’. The United States became a country obsessed with sedition and subversion; everyone watched their neighbours wondering if they might be a ‘Red’. Since the creation of the atomic bomb, people in the United States had lived with a collective hysteria about the threats — real and perceived – of nuclear war and fall-out. People feared the bomb itself and the splitting of the atom was a metaphorical representation of the fears plaguing the nation. ‘Americans feared more acutely what they had always feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled. Fragmentation was one fear. The loss of control was another. The bomb symbolized the two fears in one.’ – Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992).

UFOs and Pod People: Film in the 1950s

‘Look you fools. You’re in danger. Can’t you see’ They’re after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone. They’re here already. You’re next!’ – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

Educational theory from 1945 to 1970 held that young people were essentially social mimics who would imitate whatever behaviour they saw on screen; hence the protagonists of many films were polite, clean-living and extremely one-dimensional.

‘Anyone believing that the 1950s was a time of innocent fun, or that social coercion is a tactic exercised only in despotic faraway lands, will be disabused of the notion after viewing these movies. [T]hey took their cues from the training and propaganda films of WWII. [people] were supposed to believe that what they saw was real and to adopt the film’s point of view.’ – Smith, Ken. ‘Mental Hygiene: The Dos and Don’ts of the Doo-Wop Age’, New York Times, January 2, 2000

So what does this mean in the context of the motion picture? As America reached the century’s midpoint, society was slowly realizing that the question of right and wrong rarely had a definitive answer. The 1950s may be remembered as the last decade of the American Dream, but an undercurrent of cynicism was percolating in the cinema. America’s post-WWII relationship with the Soviets became a fertile playground for the imagination of Hollywood’s screenwriters. The villain no longer wore a black hat (as he literally did in the early Tom Mix silent films); characters of villainy and iniquity were easily established by giving them Russian accents.

Previously, the most common victims of this kind of stereotyping would have been Native Americans; in the future it would be transferred to a revolving door of minorities and eventually to uber-villains like the hyperbolic Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers” (1997), psychopathic girlfriends in “Fatal Attraction” (1987) and “Basic Instinct” (1992) and the suave Hannibal Lechter in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

The deluge of science fiction films in the 1950s has led some to call it the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction,’ and, for the most part, Hollywood’s view of technological progress in the 1950s was positive and optimistic. Although things such as the threat of atomic war and fears about the effects of radiation and nuclear fallout gave American audiences reason to fear technological and scientific advances, other realities, such as paranoia about Communist invasion, post-war advances in medicine and industry and the opening of the space race also gave American audiences reason to celebrate and embrace America’s increasing technological sophistication. To the American populace, advanced technology meant increased global power, wealth, health, security and leisure time. If advanced technology also brought about the threat of global atomic annihilation, then surely it could also be used to solve that problem.

Science-fiction films flourished during the paranoiac Cold War years of the 1950s. As early as1950, the science fiction film ‘invented’ the look of spacesuits, rocketships, and the lunar surface. Many other sci-fi
films of the 1950s portrayed the human race as victimized and at the mercy of mysterious, hostile, and unfriendly forces. Cold War politics undoubtedly contributed to suspicion and paranoia of anything “un-American.” Allegorical science fiction films reflected the collective unconscious (Jung, C.G. [William McGuire, ed.] Analytical Psychology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) and often cynically commented upon political powers, threats that surrounded us (alien forces were often a metaphor for Communism), and the dangers of aliens taking over our minds and territory.

It is Don Siegel’s unforgettable, classic science-fiction melodrama “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) which told of an extra-terrestrial plot to replace humans with emotionless duplicate pods that stands as the greatest allegorical film of its day. A perfect post-McCarthy era film, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” exploited the Red paranoia of the ’50s with chilling fright and warned us of the dangers of conformity and mindless apathy. It can be interpreted as paranoia toward the perceived threat of dangerous ideologies like Communism. It is a thrilling classic science fiction/alien film based upon a story that appeared in ‘Colliers Magazine’ in 1954 in which aliens take over an entire community through the development of clones. Giant seedpods, discovered in a farmer’s field in sleepy Santa Mira, develop into a kind of zombie-like alien invader when a person is asleep. Somehow, the alien is able to transfer the life force and consciousness (including memories) from the person into a new physical vehicle that is completely devoid of all human emotion. The duplicate then eliminates the original and takes over its human counterpart’s life, without personality or emotion.

More than anything, films of the 1950s like “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951), “Runaway Daughter” (1953) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) promoted the promulgation of a consensus ideology, one which would strike fear into the hearts of Americans virtually every time they heard the words ‘bomb’, ‘Red’ or ‘Nuclear War.’

Biker Dudes and Robots, Outlaws and Brainwashing: Film in the ’60s

‘You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophy and allegorical meaning of the film — and such speculation is indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level — but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will fell obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.’ – Stanley Kubrick, 1968, interview for Playboy Magazine

The films of the sixties are not a homogeneous body of work and most of them do not feature the cliche associated with the sixties today (longhaired, pot-smoking hippies). The films of this period tell very different stories from those of the previous decade and of the ones to follow. These stories tell of generational warfare, of the glamourization of violence and evil and of the futility of individuals fighting the system.

The motion picture of the 1960s witnessed the outlaw’s comeback. The sixties’ rebel, however, is a loser; the hero is an anti-hero who cannot beat The System (aka The Establishment). The message the Establishment is trying to broadcast comes across loud and clear: nonconformity is suicide. Paul Newman in Stuart Rosenberg’s “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) has to learn this the hard way, ending up just like the bikers in “Easy Rider” (1969), like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) — DEAD, victims of the Establishment. Hollywood in these days would not endorse violence per se … and kills off the rebellious figures at the critical moment.

In 1962, the entire world teetered on the brink of war, as America and the Soviet Union faced a dangerous stalemate over Russian missiles in Cuba. The “Manchurian Candidate” (1962) accomplishes the mammoth task of replicating the feeling of crisis that pervaded the country. ‘The mood of this film masterpiece is paranoiac, surrealistic, macabre, cynical, and satirical — these elements are combined in a traditional, top-notch suspenseful thriller with a nail-biting, Alfred Hitchcock-like climax’ – Box Office Magazine, 1962, Archives

“The Manchurian Candidate” is a story of Cold War intrigue, murky East-West dealings, assassination, and brainwashing. During the Korean War, a party of GIs is captured and brainwashed by a coalition of Koreans, Chinese and Soviets. The next thing the Americans know, they have apparently been rescued from enemy lines by Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who promptly receives the Congressional Medal of Honor upon returning to the United States. The soldiers, including Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), recall fitful images of that mysterious three-day session with the enemy in their dreams. Marco investigates further, a mission that involves probing his deepest psychological fears and those of his fellows. Ultimately culminating in a double-murder and suicide, the film delves into the most deep-seated fear of the Cold War — that normally patriotic citizens could be coerced into performing acts that were explicitly un-American.

One of the greatest films of the era, however was the 1964 spoof by Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. Touted as a ‘satirical and provocative black comedy/fantasy’ (Box Office Magazine, 1964) regarding doomsday and Cold War politics, featuring an accidental, inadvertent nuclear attack, the film gave a cathartic belly laugh to audiences living in the shadow of nuclear war. General Jack D. Ripper has lost his mind, and ‘discovers’ a secret communist plot to rob Americans of their “precious bodily fluids.”

Convinced that he alone can stop this conspiracy, Ripper uses a loophole in the nuclear safety provisions to launch a nuclear strike and destroy the Soviet Union. What no one knows is that the Russians have created a doomsday device that will automatically destroy the planet if the Soviet Union is attacked. With a cast including Peter Sellers as the stereotypical mad scientist, Dr. Strangelove, the ‘free world’ is unable to stop the Doomsday Device. The movie ends with Slim Pickens (Major Kong) riding the bomb as the world disintegrates in countless shots of mushroom clouds set to the light World War II song, “We’ll Meet Again.”

Although “The Manchurian Candidate” depicted matricide and patricide in the final shots, no film had dared to present such mother-bashing as did both “Psycho” (1960) and “Lolita” (1962): The two films feature an attack on motherhood in a way that was previously unthinkable. Matricide presented only a minor issue, mothers had their place in the home but their importance was negligible. Fathers, however, were central to the socio-political arena of the 1950s when conformity was the religion, (remember ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Leave it to Beaver’?) and accordingly, patricide was one of the central metaphors of the 1960’s. conformity was the religion. The period marked a time when any independent attitude or thinking led to charges of subversion.

The sixties’ zest to kill ‘The Father’ was fuelled in part by the reorganization of the film industry: the dismantling of the studio system, the erosion and final abolition of production code censorship and the disassembly of HUAC. This final break with the past fostered an atmosphere of rebellion against the former oppression of father figures, in this case the authoritarian studio moguls and their collaboration with ‘The Establishment’.

By this time real violence had reached new dimensions – the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John and Bobby Kennedy, ghetto riots, police raids at Columbia University, riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the escalating Vietnam War kept John Q. Public desperately aware that his world was changing. While news stations kept broadcasting the body count, the film industry attempted to outdo the real with fictitious viole
nce in its newly established B horror genre which extensively (though indirectly) reflected the politics of violence. In “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), for instance, the zombies just look like ordinary people but perpetrate horrible acts of violence.

As the Cold War escalated, it seemed clear that the global nuclear threat was, above all else, a technological problem, and that technology itself could not be its own solution. Man must dominate and control the technology he had created; but what if he couldn’t? Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, (1967), is the finest example for the representation of human beings set against machines. When the computer, H.A.L., determines to pursue the Jupiter mission without his astronaut companions, the audience is compelled to realize that it is the machine who thinks and the man that is the automaton. As the last surviving astronaut destroys the electronic brain and goes about disconnecting H.A.L.’s thinking apparatus, the viewer experiences an uncomfortable sense of loss and a troublesome case of identity crisis. The innocence of human subjects as opposed to the malicious System/Machine is invalidated and we must question the verity of that struggle; one that exists, perhaps only in the dream world of the silver screen.

Visiting the Future, Reviewing the Past: Film in the Seventies

‘You smell that? Do you smell that?…Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’ – “Apocalypse Now” (1979) Francis Ford Coppola (dir)

The seventies were a study in contrast. In an epoch of tumultuous change and stagnant dormancy, America was reeling in the aftermath of the sixties Cultural Revolution. The Vietnam War still going strong; the President was caught in a national scandal; the economy was in a state of stagflation: when inflation and unemployment rise together but the economy remains stalled and stagnant; there was a major oil shortage and disco was king. Then it was out with the old and in with the new, or so Americans thought; but when Jimmy Carter was elected the 38th President and the nation celebrated its bicentennial, relationships with the USSR worsened and unemployment rates continued to rise.

The seventies are the era of the disaster movies and persecution manias, of sci-fi adventures and a yearning for a sweeter, more innocent time. It is the period when American filmmakers took a step back from the decade before and honestly analyzed the major events that had occurred and were occurring. The 70s films frequently suggest that significant changes in the social order are beyond one’s own control. Injustice is omnipresent as in the disturbing 1974 film The Conversation. Focusing on Harry Caul, a detached and paranoid surveillance expert, this Francis Ford Coppola film turns out to be a highly complex statement about privacy, paranoia and table-turning retribution.

The growing technophobia of the sci-fi films of the 1960s becomes full-blown in the 1970s. In these films, the threat of computer technology moves out of the top-secret, Cold War government installations and interstellar spaceships of the 1950s and 1960s and into our everyday lives. Fears about the increasing computerization of the culture reach near hysterical levels in films such as “Demon Seed” (1975) and “Future World” (1978). However, the 1977 release of “Star Wars” marked a return to the ‘gee-whiz’ cinematic celebrations of the 1950s. More important than that, though, is the emphatically ‘soviet-ized’ Darth Vader’s defeat by the brave, altruistic and explicitly republican Luke Skywalker.

The 1970s marked a time of great creativity in the American film industry. The counter-culture of the previous decade had influenced Hollywood to take more risks and to experiment with unconventional, young filmmakers, who did not bow down to the dictates of old Hollywood. Many of the same directors and actors of the late 60s were the ones who supported stretching the boundaries of film even more in this decade. Movies seemed to flourish at the same time that the political and social fabric of the nation was being torn apart, a comment upon the lunacy of war and the dark side of the American Dream (documented, for instance, in the bicentennial year’s “All the President’s Men” (1976)).

Take the ambitious and gut-wrenching epic of “The Deer Hunter” (1978) starring Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken; it follows three sons of immigrants, blue-collar workers who believe in the American dream and who accept America’s involvement in the war. Once in Vietnam, however, their ideas about honour and what it means to be a man — expressed in their home-front ritual of an annual deer-hunting expedition — get blown away in the face of war’s bloody mayhem. Finally, a film that reaches for emotional truths rather than political postures. Essentially, that’s what the films of the seventies were all about. Unlike the movies of the fifties that focused on straight out propaganda or the movies of the sixties that spoke of Cultural Revolution, the films of the seventies focused inward, urging the American people to examine themselves before they could condemn others.

Renegades, Robots and Reds: Film in the Eighties

‘Listen, and understand! The Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead’. – “The Terminator” (1985) James Cameron (dir)

Chernobyl. The Brat Pack. Reaganomics. Challenger. Grenada. Contragate. America in the 1980s was nothing less than a conservative political revolution governing a licentious culture. While evangelical crusades filled tents in every major city in America, the ‘me’ generation was living large and enjoying the hedonism of the day. Schizophrenic best describes the attitude of Hollywood in the 1980s; how could it be anything else? On the one hand, bleak visions of a future dominated by a cold and brutal technology painted a picture of dystopian and pessimistic life in films such as “Bladerunner” (1982) and “The Terminator” (1984). The technological advances (representing the continuing Communist threat) designed to serve humanity end up threatening it. Schwarzenegger’s futuristic cyborg, who kills without fear, without love, and without mercy was a metaphor for the Godless, emotionless Russians who would kill without compunction.

On the other hand, the 1980s saw a deluge of romantic comedies starring robots and computers, in which technology was anything but threatening: “Heartbeeps” (1981), “Electric Dreams” (1984), “Short Circuit” (1986), and “Making Mr. Right” (1987). The growing pervasiveness of computer technology in our everyday lives — a source of great fear, loathing, and gnashing of teeth in the films of the 1970s — made computers more familiar and much less threatening. Computers were no longer enormous, monolithic machines occupying underground government installations or scientific laboratories with ambitions to enslave the human race, but were becoming compact and “user-friendly,” with cute voices and ambitions to fit into human society. But, says Hollywood, never forget, our enemies are still out there and only by building bigger, faster and stronger weapons will we defeat them.

“Red Dawn” (1984) is one of a series of right-wing paranoid fantasies that would pepper the decade. However, this propaganda machine is remembered by many of us who came of age in the eighties as being about independence and freedom. Only when looking back does one realize just how easily this film fit in with the ideals of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan’s half-a-million dollar per minute defense spending. One never knew when the Russians might attack, and one had best be prepared!

In one of the best scenes of the movie, one of the rebels (a group of high school students) is discovered to have betrayed the gro
up to the invading Soviets and Cubans. The leader of the group (Patrick Swayze as a young ‘Jed’) decides that traitor is to be executed. One of the guerrillas asks how they can consider themselves any different from the “evil” enemy they are fighting if they carry out such a heinous action. Jed answers without hesitation, ‘WE…LIVE…HERE!’ Perhaps this scene was meant to show how war reduces human beings to a state of animal existence and as a result how people’s notions of good and evil become irrelevant in the face of day to day survival. However, I can only consider that this one scene represents the Cold War ideology at its apex — if we have right on our side, that is if we are Americans defending America from the threat of Communism, we are justified in whatever action we decide to take. “Red Dawn” perpetuates the myth that has characterized so much of what Hollywood and Washington want you to remember. When the Russians attack, and they will, be prepared. How do you prepare? Be honest. Be brave. Be clean-living. Most of all … BE AMERICAN.

All’s Well that End’s Well

The world watched with bated breath as the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. The single most tangible symbol of the Cold War was being torn down in a gesture of goodwill and brotherhood thus ending the nearly fifty year struggle known as the Cold War. The sheer size, duration and scope of the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union has been unparalleled in the history of mankind. Ending like no other war in history, the borders of nations and the heads of governments were changed without hostile armies or armed revolutionaries swarming over a vanquished foe. The end of the Cold War opened the way for German unification, and the creation of a European Union. For the first time in the history of mankind, technology and political reality met to offer the possibility of a truly unified globe. Hollywood is now faced with a new challenge. Like so many other bodies in the United States its destiny was affected by this war and its aftermath. At least three generations of Americans have lived in the shadow of the Cold War and the estimated twenty-four million veterans who served during this period are only a fraction of the American population who in some way supported, participated in, or were terrified by the Cold War. So what is Hollywood’s challenge? We need a new villain, and we need him now. As was so aptly stated in the 1997 film “Wag the Dog”, ‘there’s nothing that galvanizes a nation like a good war.’

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