Cold War Cinema

January 10, 2012

in Movies

Since the Cold War developed as a result of World War II, it didn’t become a popular subject for films until the late fifties. As I researched this blog post, I found films such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), and “The Blob” (1956) included in a list of films about the Cold War.

What? These films are science fiction.

Yet, each film deals symbolically with the Cold War. Only in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is there a direct reference to nuclear weapons. Klattu, the human-type alien who accompanies the giant robot, Gort, is charged by his planet to warn the Earth that it will be destroyed by a federation of other planets if Earth refuses to stop using nuclear weapons.

The other two films rely on symbolism to illustrate the growing threat of either communism or nuclear proliferation. “The Blob” emerges from a downed space capsule and proceeds to roll through a small California town devouring its inhabitants and growing, growing, growing until it’s frozen with carbon dioxide and shipped to the Artic where it will remain frozen. It would be another fifty years before they’d have to worry about the Blob defrosting due to global warming.

“The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” symbolizes the secrecy and deception perceived as the backbone of the Cold War. In the film, alien pods duplicate good citizens while they sleep. This message couldn’t be more clear: stay alert or communism will take over!

“On the Beach” (1961) based on the Neville Shute novel (1957) deals with the aftermath of a world wide nuclear war. Only Australia has been spared the cloud of nuclear waste circling the earth, but it is coming for the folks down under, too.

“The Manchurian Candidate” was released on Wednesday, October 24, 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film is an adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel by the same name. Again, the enemy is unknown and among us, an entire platoon brainwashed by the Chinese, and returned to the general population.

Until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Cold War was primarily secrecy, posturing and political theory. The Russians built a weapon. The US built a better one. The US put a new base in Europe. The Russians build the Berlin Wall (1961). But when the Russians crossed the Atlantic to build missiles in Cuba, the amorphous Cold War changed. So did the films depicting it.

“Fail-safe,” directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, was released in 1964. Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, the film depicts a fictional nuclear crisis eerily like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The 1964 black comedy, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was directed, produced and co-written by Stanley Kubrick and starred Peter Sellers and George C. Scott.

Both “Fail-safe” and “Dr. Stranglove” deal with rogue entities causing nuclear catastrophes. Could it be that no one wants to take responsibility?

In the late sixties, Cold War films move from nuclear annihilation to covert dangers. Enter the spies, beginning with “Dr. No” starring Sean Connery in 1962.

In 1965, Richard Burton starred in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” based on the 1962 John Le Carr novel. Unlike the Bond movies, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” examines the expedient amorality both Eastern and Western powers practice in national security. Films until this point generally focused on a solid good versus an absolute evil. This film (and the novel) casts both sides of the conflict in chilling realism. No longer seeming noble, the Cold War in films takes on the slipperiness of grimy, melting snow.

Of course, the Cold War didn’t end until 1991, so Cold War films continued to be made. Films such as “War Games,” “Red Dawn,” and “The Hunt for Red October” explore other aspects of what I personally believe will always be with us in one form or another: the distrust of governments and peoples we don’t understand. Just because we don’t like it, won’t make it go away.

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