Geography of Popular Culture 2017 – Blog #5 Posted on September 4, 2017 by saorsa2014 Discuss the ways in which US movies reinforced geopolitical themes during the Cold War. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading... Related
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During the Cold war, culture was greatly influenced by the clashing of the United States’ democracy and the Soviet Union’s communist policies. A constant state of war and fear was revolving around the public, and much of culture, mainly media for instance, cultivated and instigated the confirmation that the people’s fears were very real and very valid. A large subject of the cold war was the Red Scare. Essentially the United States at the time became paranoid of communist intrusion, so laws and mandates were put in place to weed out the communist spies. A culture of constantly looking over your shoulder and never questioning your government at the time were severely stressed. The public were not allowed to question or go against the country’s military and government decisions, otherwise, this would come across as supporting the communist state. Numerous activists and citizens were thrown in jail because of this paranoia. The red scare catalyzed a period in which America questioned everyone, and everything that could possibly be against democratic beliefs and standards. These worries were only fueled more by popular culture and propaganda, that made the dangers of communist invasion much more real. This is not to say the worries weren’t justified, there are numerous accounts of actual Soviet spies crawling around the United States, but the problem was that the wariness was thrown out of proportion and resulted in a catastrophic and detrimental scare. The main factor of this red scare was the idea of McCarthyism, greatly affecting popular culture. McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without any proper evidence. These practices sometimes were demographically motivated and other times just anxious attempts to round up the bad guys that the public thought was there. Communism created an ideological fear more than anything, making the citizens of the U.S weary of situations that would compromise the country. Anti-communism was a huge movement during the cold war as numerous anti-communist films extended from the 1950’s all the way to the 1980’s with films like I Married a Communist (1950), Invasion USA (1952), Red Dawn (1984), Rocky VI (1985), and the Rambo films (1985-1988). The media’s portrayal of certain images of the war became ridiculously out of proportion and sensationalized where it came to the point that the Cold War society became a series of “pseudo-events,” where methods of presentation became more important than the actual topics. Unreality trumped reality among this time. A vast body of literary and cinematic horror and science fiction works produced during the 1950’s echoed the concerns of American society. An alien invasion is the subject of such films like The War of the Worlds (1953), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These narratives were typically introduced as products of Cold War ideology in which alien invasions represented the Soviet aggression. The fictional worlds mirrored the world of divisions between good and evil in which they were produced, teaching audiences to unquestionably defer to the authority of the American government in its war against communism. Spy scandals erupted during the cold war, where novels blended elements of invasion narratives with espionage, where Americans became brainwashed into the ideals of communism. A very familiar example is Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1954), in which the Salem witch trails represent the hunts of McCarthyism, stressing the rejection of conformality and the need to nurse the ideals of America and democracy and stand against the evil of communism. These are only a few examples of several portions of media across every genre and method, that constantly stressed to paint communism as a negative influence. This mission, is not misguided or malicious since it truly did strive to protect the values of America during a stressful time and unite a country under constant threat of attack. However, where these methods prove ridiculous and lack in genuine intention is the ways the media created a monster. Painting communism and the threat of the Soviets greater than they really were. This is not to undermine the great threat of nuclear war, but the media’s portrayal of the facts made the dangers of these threats greater than they needed to be adding additional stress and paranoia in society, fanning the flame of the red scare.
Very well done.
During the Cold War, the United States film industry was utilized as a tool to reinforce geopolitical themes. The idea was simple. It was to make the United States look like the advanced and superior “good guys” while making the Soviet Union out to be the barbaric communist “bad guys.”
Put simply, the Cold War was a period of tension between the Soviet Union and the United States dating from the conclusion of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. During this time frame, there was a nuclear arms race, a space race, and a general conflict between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc. Cinematic propaganda in Hollywood was a giant contributor to these tensions. For example, films such as Red Dawn (1984, 2012), Rocky IV (1985), and Dr. Strangelove (1964) to name a few prominently display the United States as the overlying protagonist and the Soviet Union as the general antagonist. These films address an array of plots and scenarios, but they share a similar geopolitical theme – the superiority of the United States to the Soviet Union. For instance, in Red Dawn (1984), we see the Soviet Union attack the United States on their own turf, and the whole movie is about a group of American teenagers being caught off guard by the initial attack, recovering, and eventually defeating the Soviets. Interestingly, this film was poorly remade in 2012, but the chief antagonist in the modern version is North Korea rather than the Soviet Union which is temporally accurate and, in my opinion, the best example of cinematic propaganda development in regards to militaristic threats.
Similarly, Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a film that portrayed the Soviet Union as a country with access to weapons of mass destruction and a hate for America. In this stereotypical “doomsday” film, the plot of the movie contains Dr. Strangelove creating a way for America to survive a nuclear holocaust from the Soviet Union. Again, we see the United States assume the role as the victim and the chief protagonist in the Cold War, and we see the Soviet Union portrayed as the aggressors and villains. This is an extremely common geopolitical theme reiterated over and over again by Hollywood during the Cold War era.
However, not all films during this time period relate directly to warfare since after all, the Cold War remained “cold” for more than 40 years. For example, in Rocky IV (1985), Ivan Drogo (How stereotypical can we get with Russian names, am I right?) not only defeats Rocky Balboa’s friend and competitor Apollo Creed but kills him while doing so. Apollo Creed’s name itself is a form of American propaganda being that Apollo was also the name of the first space exploration to put a human being on the moon. This addresses a specific competition between the USSR and the USA during the Col War – the Space Race which the United States “won” 16 years prior to Rocky IV’s release. This is important because Apollo Creed plays the role as the “All American” hero. He is an African American heavy-weight prize fighter who fights Ivan Drogo in an exhibition boxing match in order to promote patriotism. Before Apollo Creed’s defeat and death in the ring, he walks out to the song “Living in America” by James Brown, and Drogo walks out to the Soviet Union national anthem; so of course, the audiences’ attitudes toward the Soviet Union manifest from hatred. From there, the whole movie consists of Rocky Balboa avenging his friend Apollo Creed and more importantly avenging the United States against the Soviet Union. My favorite scene in this movie is the hype split screen, training scene where the audience sees the All-American Rocky Balboa, a white male fighter out of Philadelphia, engaging in humbling and ethical training methods. Then, on the other side of the split screen, the audience sees the Soviet Union fighter, Ivan Drogo, “cheating” by injecting syringes of performance enhancing drugs and using controversial technology to maximize his physical abilities. As you can see, this iterates geopolitical themes and ideas along the lines of the United States being more ethical and harder workers than our Soviet Union counterparts. Not to mention, as you may have guessed, Rocky Balboa is able to defeat the Russian fighter which again reinforces the theme that America is superior to the Soviet Union.
During the years of the Cold War, there was a trend in movies that were released in the United States. Movies of this era had a tendency to have themes of anti-Communist, paranoia of Soviet Union expansion, and nuclear warfare. In this way, Americans were constantly surrounded and instilled with fears that the Cold War induced.
The Cold War, which spanned over four decades, inplanted Americans with fear of a communist expansion and potential communist domination led by the Soviet Union. This led to the creation of many anti-communist movies, including Invasion U.S.A., The Thing, The Manchurian Candidate, and Red Dawn. As communist threats moved from overseas, where the Soviet Union was expanding its reach and spreading its political ideals across Asia, to closer to home, with the practice of McCarthyism and the Red Scare occurring, the movies produced became more and more personal to Americans. At first the Soviets were portrayed as the enemy, but quickly the movies convinced Americans that a neighbor, a friend, or even your husband could be a communist spy agent. I Married a Communist and My Son John are examples of these types of movies. These movies also led to hundreds of people who worked in the movie industry to renounce left-wing political beliefs and turn on one another, causing many people to lose their jobs. There were even movies produced about being on the Hollywood blacklist, The Front, and having to name names of suspected political subversives, On the Waterfront. This type of action did not stop with the film industry. Soon John McCarthy was spreading anticommunist hysteria among government officials. The fear of a communist invasion in the US culminated in the Red Scare, which in turn accounted for thousands of lost jobs and prosecutions across the country. Hand in hand with anti-communist themes were those of family and trust. Themes of this kind helped to sell the “American way” by insinuating that the actions of the US government could be trusted and were good for everyone, even non-Americans.
While many movies portrayed the pressing issue of Communist expansion, many were focused on the nuclear arms aspect of the Cold War. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union led to the development of the massively destructive hydrogen bomb. This created a chronic fear in Americans that at any moment, they could be wiped out by an atomic or hydrogen bomb. Thus, movies about atomic warfare, such as The Atomic Cafe and Blast from the Past began to emerge. The movie Dr. Strangelove paralleled the Cuban Missile Crisis that created a nationwide terror of a nuclear holocaust. To contrast these films, during the years of Nixon’s détente, an American and a Soviet production company worked together to produce The Blue Bird, which portrayed themes of peace and comfort. There was a short period of anti-Soviet relaxation, which was quickly reverted with the election of Ronald Reagan and the end of détente. The production of Rocky IV, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was yet another social commentary of the tension between the US and the Soviet Union.
The Americans used film as a way to disseminate Cold War propaganda, to create the Soviet enemy, and to instill communist fears. Several organizations allowed this to happen. The Catholic Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration controlled and censored a large amount of national media in the years of the Cold War, so that no movies that were politically or morally questionable were released. The Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals also helped in this aspect.
Poulou, P. (2011, December 19). Cold War Films Reflected Shifting US Attitudes. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from https://www.voanews.com/a/cold-war-era-films-reflected- changing-us-attitudes-135919873/162583.html
The Cold War. (2009, December 05). Retrieved November 19, 2017, from https://manspropaganda.wordpress.com/the-cold-war/
History.com Staff. (2009). Cold War History. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history
James Jay Carafano chat comments. (n.d.). The 10 Best Movies to Watch to Understand the Cold War. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2014/4/19/the-10- best-movies-to-watch-to-understand-the-cold-war/6/
Very nice work.
Even before film was a medium, governments have used propaganda to reinforce nationalistic pride. Some forms of propaganda are more direct than others but ever sense the invention of the moving picture, the cinema has been the frontline of forming political opinions. The first film to be credited for widespread use of editing Triumph of Will was hugely political and aimed towards promoting the Nazi’s and German nationalism.
Meta-narratives in film can act similarly to propaganda by purporting narratives that, when repeated enough, can become internalized and change the way people view situations. These meta-narratives often focus on civic nationalism and rely on iconographic images such as the America flag and push institutional normative behaviors. Ideas such as American Exceptionalism and the American Dream help reinforce these ideas. These meta-narratives can also give the American public the idea that a certain group of people are the enemy. For example, films during the Cold War often use Russian antagonists fighting a American protagonists to reinforce the idea that Russians are the enemy in the minds of Americans.
During the Cold War, films like Rambo 3, Rocky 4, and Red Dawn portrayed Russians as the enemy. In Rambo 3, Rambo battles ruthless Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan bent on killing him and his commander. In Rocky 4, Rocky’s best friend is killed when fighting a Soviet fighter and Rocky decides to fight him. In Red Dawn, teenagers in Colorado post-World War III defend their town against Soviet forces. While many of these films are comedic in their blunt attack on Russia, the Russians were viewed at the time as a very real threat to the United States, which gave the United States the feeling that it would be necessary to justify attacking Russia if need be. Overall opinions of these films may have varied, but what American audiences took from them probably did not as much: that Russians are the enemy and that Americans will defeat them.
Films like Apocalypse Now dominate the American perspective on the Vietnam War today. It is very difficult to separate your opinion of the war from these films because they are so ingrained in our culture’s understanding of what really happened. These films, however, were not always liked by the United State’s government for their anti-Vietnam War message. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense refused to help Coppola with Apocalypse Now because of it’s anti-Vietnam message. These films defy the meta-narrative approved by the government by depicting the government and military in a negative light.
Today in the U.S., films such as Lone Survivor and 13 Hours continue the trend of representing foreign antagonists against an American protagonist. These films portray our troops as stronger than the enemy and even when faced with great difficulty they continue to fight to preserve our liberty at home. These films largely use the same structure of Cold War movies by portraying American troops in a positive light and by making the bad guys foreign. The enemies may have changed for these films, but the overall meta-narrative has not, namely that American’s are the best and need to defeat the foreign enemy.
Cinema is a medium that evokes perceptions of a time and place not familiar to us while also being able to give insight to the social narratives surrounding fears, hopes, obsessions, and more. American Cinema has consistently plotted central conflict between the American idealism, “democracy, social mobility, capitalist consumption, justice, and cross-class harmony,” and the constant fear of the end of the world. The industry has created this conflict by using as pretext the actual era of the Cold War and interpretation of the threat of a new Cold War.
The portrayal of geopolitical themes in American cinema has a prevalent history throughout the film industry’s development. Geopolitical alignment was depicted as early as post-World War I films as fear of Communism after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution mounted and often depicted the Bolshevik’s as violent and murderous. The American government never needed to play a fixed part in the production of the early Cold War era movies of this time because the studio executives of the early 1900s shared in the government’s aversion to this form of “extremism”. This worldview did not overtly generate government propaganda but subtly reinforced fear of the “other” and championed prevailing American ideals of capitalism and social conservatism.
Cold War themes can be found in post-World War II 1950’s and centered around the fear of Communists infiltrating and converting American’s to their cause. They also played up the fears of Communist spies in the U.S. Examples of both include films like I Married a Communist (1949), The Red Menace (1949), and The Iron Curtain (1948). While communism spread rapidly in Europe following the war, these films and those of this moment seem to reflect the domestic fears post World War II America, that held an ever present threat of another war and use of another atomic bomb. The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and again in 2004) describes America’s fears of being brainwashed and calls attention to the McCarthy era paranoia of terrorism and treason by way of Communism.
Themes portraying a renewal of the Cold War threat of Communism spreading had a resurgence in the late 1970’s and hit its peak in the 1980’s. The common threats were the Soviets and again inevitable world war. Some examples that effectively renew the Cold War or possible third World War are Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985), Red Dawn (1983), and The Hunt for Red October (1984).
The use of geopolitical threats of war from political-economic countries that differ from the U.S will likely continue to be a theme of conflict in American cinema. The use of Cold War threat of Communism will come in and out of style as a major plot narrative depending on the current geopolitical climate between Communist nations like Russia and the United States.
America Cinema and the Cold War, Tony Shaw and Denise J. Youngblood
Cold War Fantasies: Film, Fiction, and Foreign Policy
Mass media, such as movies, has always been used as a tool to convey geopolitical messages since its’ beginning. Although not every movie has a political tone or ideology behind it, there is still a substantial amount that do. Movies that reinforced geopolitical themes were especially prominent during the time period of the Cold War. From the time shortly after the end of World War 2 till the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a very tense rivalry. There was a constant threat of a nuclear attack, the two countries were in a space race, and the general fear that a physical war was going to occur. The United States stood for democracy while the Soviet Union stood for Communism. Propaganda, specifically in cinema and television, played a huge part within the Cold War. Both sides put out films with their sponsored ideological message integrated into the plots. Movies such as “My Son John” (1952), “The Red Menace” (1949), and “The Woman on Pier 13” (1949) are some of the films released during the early years of the Cold War. Their patriotic messages are clear and concise; the United States are the protagonists and the “good guys” while the Soviet Union is the antagonist and the “bad guys.” This is a common theme that can be found throughout plenty of films made during the Cold War. In “My Son John” the geopolitical message is so blatant it is almost obnoxious. A typical all-American family is shocked when their beloved son John comes back from a trip overseas acting differently. He scoffs when his father talks about patriotism, he frequently makes secret phone calls and meetings, and he chooses to skip attending church on Sunday with his family (the biggest blow to his parents!). They soon find out that John is a Communist spy after his mother learns that an FBI agent is following him around. At the end of the film John dies in a car chase, BUT not before he records a message warning his fellow peers at his school that to be wary of the Communist spy recruiters; a gesture that makes his parents proud of his final atonement. This film portrays Communist as going against everything that “good” Americans should stand for: religion, patriotism, and family. By showing that communists go against the very core values of American culture, the cinema makes an enemy out of them. Communists are portrayed as murderous and evil, while Americans are portrayed as the victims who can overcome the enemy through the use of good values. Also films such as the James Bond movies had the Cold War as the backdrop in the films such as “From Russia With Love” (1963) even though the USSR might not have been the main enemy it is still an underlying political tone. Other films such as “Red Dawn” (1984), “Rocky IV” (1985), and “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) are films that also convey a similar geopolitical message of anti-communism that were produced towards the later years of the Cold War. Throughout the years the enemy in films have changed in alignment with who America is in conflict with, as evidenced most recently with North Korea. All these films mentioned made during the Cold War have the same message, and all have the same patriotic outcome: Americans and democracy wins, communists always lose.
Since cinema began, movies and films have been created with themes meant to convey a message to its viewers. This can hardly be more evident than during the Cold War period as cinema became yet another avenue for the US and the Soviet Union to “battle.” The Soviet Union and the United States both produced propaganda films that aimed to persuade the minds of its viewers, both at home and abroad, to believe that they were the good guys, and the others were the bad guys. These films were meant to influence and control public opinion internally and externally as well. However, because there was such a big gap between the American and Soviet film industry, the US was able to much more effectively impact public opinion.
During the forty yearlong Cold War, the US produced numerous movies and TV shows that created the Communist enemy while reinforcing the virtues of capitalism and democracy. These films portrayed themes of the paranoia of USSR expansion and nuclear warfare. With these movies being shown across the US, there was nation-wide fear and tension of what could happen if the Soviets and their communist political ideology continued to expand. With the rise of McCarthyism (the act of making accusations of treason without prior evidence) and the Second Red Scare, there was a rise in movies produced with themes of your neighbor or your co-worker possibly being a communist spy. This theme is evident in the 1949 American film noir, The Woman on Pier 13 (I Married a Communist). Movies like this led Americans to become increasingly paranoid that anyone around them could secretly be a Soviet spy; Americans had to question everyone they knew. This film and others such as Conspirator (1949) and My Son John (1952) created an impression that the country was overrun by spies and created an importance for denouncing friends and family with communist associations. Because of these type films, there was wide-spread prosecutions across the country which led to thousands of lost jobs. Soviet and Western espionage were also evident in movies such as The Hunt for Red October (1990), one of the last cold war movies produced. This film, based off Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, is about a Soviet naval captain who defects to the United States with the Soviet Navy’s most advanced nuclear missile submarine. It displays the fear of nuclear warfare due to the race for technological supremacy, an unhappiness within the USSR which leads to his defecting, and the concept that American has been and always will be the superior nation because of the freedom, democracy, and economic prosperity that accompanies being an American. Other movies that focused on themes surrounding the arms race were Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Fail Safe (1964). Both films portray the Cold War tensions involved in the possibility of a nuclear war. Moves like these further escalated the fears that Americans felt through this period in history.
During the cold war period, the US used cinema in ways to play off of the emotions and hopes of Americans and even those outside the US even if it meant blowing things a little out of proportion, and it is evident through events like the Red Scare that they had an impact on American thinking.
Very nice discussion.
Film has always been an interesting source to examine the social and geopolitical themes regarding the time they were produced. During World War II they were used as propaganda by all nations involved. The United States government funded films such as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, which was massively successful in shaping Americans perceptions regarding the war. While the Cold War didn’t necessarily have many government funded films regarding the Soviets, films of the time reflected both the public’s fear as well as American ideals that distinguished them from the Soviets. The 1950s saw a general rise in fear of communism amongst the public American consciousness due to the victory of communists in the Chinese Civil War, Soviet atomic weapon tests, and the Red Scare. This was exacerbated by senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on US politicians whom he claimed were influenced by Communist subversion.
Through the lens of film, you can examine the changes in American attitudes towards the Cold War. Displayed in the top left of the collage is the 1949 film The Woman on Pier 13, also known as I Married a Communist, displays communism as this temptress that while in some ways beautiful, is destructive and should not be trusted. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), starring one of the biggest American pop culture figures ever in Frank Sinatra, displayed American fears of their loved ones and people around them being potential spies for the communist enemy. The film was released at the height of the Cold War in the very middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis and is an example of the paranoia that was present following the escalation of the arms and space races. As the Vietnam War began, films reflected the idea that America was going to be in and out of the country quickly and decisively. The Green Berets (1968) displayed American marines as glorious and unstoppable and starred the ever-present pusher of American imperialism in John Wayne. The film was berated by critics for being imperialist propaganda but was still a commercial success as Americans believed bad critic ratings as anti-war sentiment.
Following the Vietnam War there was a distinctive shift in many films themes and messages regarding the Cold War. Perhaps the most distinctive of these was Francis Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now. Rather than shrugging away the horrors of war, the film openly embraced and displayed the madness that drove many of its participants. Platoon (1986) is another example of a post-Vietnam film that was critical of war and the American geopolitical presence of the Cold War. Directed by Oliver Stone, it was actually the first Hollywood film to be written and directed by a Vietnam War veteran, so naturally it displayed a more horrifically realistic version of the war. While these films reflected on the errors of Vietnam, other films in the 80s reflected the sentiment that America had emerged victorious in the Cold War as a whole. Red Dawn (1984), The Hunt For Red October (1990), and Rocky IV (1985) all began with the Russians gaining the upper hand initially, but with America emerging victorious in the end. Combined with Reagan’s insistence to Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” and the rise of American neo-conservatism, this era of films bookended American sentiment towards the Cold War fittingly.
Movies, since World War II, shifted their focus from the patriotic, mostly uplifting, themes that brought some entertainment and hope to the country — in the form of musical adaptations of current events with star dubbed casts, elaborated dance/vocals numbers, and special effects to attention given to the now anti-protagonists: whoever did not share our vision of democracy and moral values. In this case, after the sudden rise of the Iron Curtain in Germany and Easter Europe, the Korean War, as well as the continuous communist revolution that began in China in 1922, the “Red Menace” became the focus of attention. The world saw itself entering a new era, the Cold War, and with this new “threat” the need to amplify the “unknown-but-kind-of-known” enemy became a priority in the political agenda of the government at the time.
For the first time the focus shifted from “us”, the “righteous patriotic heroes” saviors of mankind during World War II, to “Them”, the other ones, the ones who did not shared our hypocritical views and values of democracy, morality, and religious freedom. Movies completely dehumanized the “others” and painted a rather gruesome picture of their characters and ideologies, all to promote a high sense of patriotism and morality that was considered the backbone of this country, but was enshrouded already in social and racial injustice. But I digress…
Politicians pushed their agendas and movies were made reflecting the fears and ideology of the time: communism, socialism, and…the Pink/Lavender Scare, were the downfall of humanity and morality.
Let’s discuss the movies in this assignment.
I Married a Communist (1949). — Eva, the wife, a jewish herself that is very anti-semitic. Her husband, Ira a communist. Their lives fall apart as infidelity, social/political status, and religion is tore to pieces in the film. Obviously, the message was to convey that only Christianity and Democracy are the way for a happy life. The movie was at the beginning of the cold war so anything related to communism had to be denounced as a danger the very fabric of society itself: the family nucleus.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962). — Released at the high of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this movie is unnerving because it brings a new fear to people: brainwashing. Not only the tension between the USA and the USSR had reached new catastrophic levels of possible complete nuclear annihilation, but now the idea that communists were brainwashing unknowing American citizens to do their macabre and murderous bidding is pushed to promote more fear and to continue the dehumanizing and demonizing of a whole political/military movement different than ours.
From Russia with Love (1963) — Agent 007 is the womanizing hero that is the target of revenge for a easter European antagonist, the Czech Kronsteen, and the Russians are portrayed as backstabbing double agents not to be trust.
Red Dawn (1984). — A horrible movie then and a horrible move now with the new remake. It is a testosterone driven movie that makes no excuses as to directly portray Russians as invaders that can be defeated by a bunch of American teenagers. This movie was just a slap in the face to the Russian Military Intelligence. The Soviet Union was struggling and slowly the Iron Curtain was beginning to fall apart. What better way to make notice of that making a mockery of them?
The Hunt for Red October (1990). — The dissolution of the USSR was almost in its final stages. A new era was being ushered by political and social movements in former Easter Block countries. Now the shift is focus on promoting the idea that those wanting to leave the communist system could do it. Defection is good and encouraged. It is the opposite of White Nights (1985). White Nights shows the hardship of being back, albeit involuntary, behind the Iron Curtain, and the want to escape the regime, while in The Hunt for Red October a high rank officer makes a go for it because he could not live in the communist regime. Both films began to promote a human side to the conflict. Now we began to see the others as human beings just like us, reflecting the changes in times.
The Cold War and the comparison of the United States’ democracy with the Soviet Union’s communist ideology played an important role in influencing popular culture in both nations. The collectivist attitude of the USSR went against the individualistic ideology of the United States, which scared the American public. The United States and the Soviet Union’s differences were put in the lime light after World War II, and that tension created a very real threat of another war. Both countries competed to be the best in the world, and a portion of it was in nuclear weapons production. This created great fear in the United States, and brought about an anti-communist ideology among people. The tension that was created between the two nations was everywhere in popular culture as another form of propaganda, and was seen on screen in films. The fear of Americans losing their individual freedoms by the suspicious USSR made many people paranoid and it reflected in film culture, as the films portrayed the United States as being the bigger superpower.
During this time often American-made films showed the Americans as the agonists and USSR communists as the antagonists. Common story lines included nuclear war or espionage since both countries were increasing nuclear weapon production, and the paranoia of undercover Russian spies was prominent. United States films were designed to shape the public’s opinion to show that the US is the good guy and the USSR is the bad guy. The nuclear arms race was shown in movies like “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), a comedy about nuclear warfare and the irrational fear that could grip American citizens. Espionage and the Red Scare were seen in spy movies like “From Russia with Love” (1963), “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), and “I Married a Communist” (1949). These movies mirrored the fears some had that people they’ve known for a long time could be Russian spies. The American government fueled this fear by showing the same level of paranoia of the Red Scare. Joseph McCarthy, known for McCarthyism, accused people in power of having communist ties without any evidence. These spy movies created a suspenseful way of showing the Russian enemy in film. The films gave some people unease, but the stories ended with the American defeating the Russian enemy. Meta-narratives in American films usually play toward the individualistic ideology and democracy, and the Russian communists were the perfect opposite to that. Even in movies like “Red Dawn” (1984), where the United States is being invaded by the Soviet Union the ones who stop them are a group of teenage boys in mid-Western America. These suburban boys with a desire to protect their freedom and their town are the perfect representation of how the United States wants to represent themselves vs. the communist enemy. Popular culture, including the visual art of film, allows the public to see a side of current events portrayed in a different way than the news. Films during the Cold War reinforced the individual and democratic freedoms the United States had compared to collectivist USSR.
During the Cold War the American film industry was utilized by many organizations specifically for the purpose of promoting American ideals over all others, particularly those of the communist Soviet Union. Trade organizations, fundamentalist religious groups, and government agencies all had some hand in the approval, productions, and editing of the films coming out of Hollywood at that time. A wealth of what is effectively propaganda films were created during this time which showed many aspects and themes of the Cold War, always supporting American viewpoints and vilifying the communist other. Spy films, films depicting the horrors of conventional and nuclear war, even comedic films were made which held up American ideals over communist ones. Often Americans are shown to be “the bigger man,” tired of Cold War aggression and ready to make peace with its rivals (nowhere is this trope more evident than in the final scenes of Rocky IV.)
McCarthyism and censorship heavily influenced the film industry of America during the Cold War. The Motion Pictures and Distributors of America, forerunner to the MPAA, established the Production Code Administration to which filmmakers submit their films for approval before they could be released. It was through this organization that films could be censored for an American audience. The National Legion of Decency was a Catholic organization that co-opted the PCA and were allowed to further screen films submitted to the PCA for further censoring on moral grounds. Another such organization was the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This group consisted of the conservative elite of Hollywood and their stated goal was to defend America against communist and fascist infiltration. The American FBI was also involved with these groups and, through them, created a pipeling from Hollywood to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which existed to investigate and prosecute individuals who showed subversive or disloyal behaviors.
Good, if a little brief.
In his retrospective review of the 1949 film in the upper left corner of the collage, “I Married a Communist,” film critic Dennis Schwartz wrote that “the story was filled with misinformation: it distorted the communist influence in the country… It attempted to make a propaganda film that reaffirms the American way of life and familial love, but at the expense of reality…” All the films in this collage do the same exact thing in one way or another; they make a geopolitical statement juxtaposing the United States and Soviet Russia (and its influence) but often, just like “I Married a Communist,” they did this at the expense of reality and the embellishment of communist influence stateside.
During the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when tensions between the United States and the USSR were at their maximum, the film “The Manchurian Candidate” hit theaters on October 24th, 1962 and stoked the fires of distrust and hysteria even further. The film is centered around a Soviet brainwashing plot to install an unwitting political assassin on American soil. The following year, another Cold War-fueled thriller and the second in the James Bond 007 series, “From Russia with Love” was released. The movie is intricately tied to U.S./Soviet tensions and even showing how both sides can be manipulated when mistrust and paranoia between enemies escalates. The next film released from the collage was “Red Dawn” which served as much more straightforward war film than relying on espionage and thriller tropes. This movie involves a reality in which Soviets are able to invade the United States and the courage and of a band of high school students to resist the invaders through guerilla warfare. “The Hunt for Red October,” filmed near the end of the Cold War and released after it had ended, is a story of a Soviet defecting Russia and the skill and strength of the U.S. intelligence community to deduce and assist his plot.
These movies (and many more produced during the Cold War era) were intent on “othering” the Soviet Union and its citizens. They were meant to further an “us vs. them” narrative which considered communism and the Soviet way of life to be the absolute antithesis to American values, morals, and the American dream. The earlier films mentioned that were produced earlier in the Cold War like “I Married a Communist” and “The Manchurian Candidate” were more centered on the McCarthy idea of the Russian influence: Russians are everywhere and no one can be trusted. Down the line and near the end of the Cold War, the themes changed from espionage and identification towards military might. “Red Dawn” and “The Hunt for Red October” paint the Soviets as intimidating but ultimately inferior in the face of American military strength and perseverance. This was the natural progression of Soviet themes in American films as it was the progression of the Cold War itself. McCarthyism died out as the interactions between the two nations became more bravado and less paranoid. By the time “The Hunt for Red October,” the writing was already on the wall and the Soviets served as little more than box office tropes.
The Cold War affected all aspects of American life from the end of World War II to the day the Berlin Wall fell in 1991. One area that this influence was very evident was in the film industry. The United States government wanted to paint the picture that America was the good guy and the Soviet Union was the bad guy any chance they could. The House Un-American Activities was established in 1938 with the role of investigating potential Communist or fascist organizations that might exist in the United States. The activity of the committee was very public, with high-profile hearings over allegations that Communists had infiltrated the United States government, schools, and film industry feeding into the already growing public fear of the Soviet Union.
The House Un-American Activities hit the film industry particularly hard. Because studios did not want to be implicated in any public coverage related to the committee, a strict blacklist was imposed against actors, directors, and writers who had any connection to Communist activity. The committee’s plight against Hollywood came to a head with the events of the “Hollywood Ten”, a group of all-male screenwriters, producers, and directors that did not cooperate with HUAC investigations. They were called to testify in October 1947 and used the opportunity to protest the committee. All of them were cited for contempt of Congress, sentenced to prison, and blacklisted from ever working in Hollywood again.
As a reaction to the activity of the HUAC, the metanarratives of Hollywood films constantly sought to reinforce the idea that the Americans were the good guy and the Soviets were the bad guys. Early films such as “Walk East on Beacon” and “I Was a Communist for the FBI” glorified the FBI’s exhaustive hunt to rid America of any trace of Communism. Films such as “Conspirator”, “I Married a Communist”, and “My Son John” pushed the metanarrative that American citizens should disassociate themselves with any relatives or friends that were connected with a Communist agenda. The sheer quantity of films that focused on Soviet spies infiltrating America pushed the idea that the country was overrun by Communist spies, feeding into public paranoia.
Perhaps the most common theme found in American films relating to the Cold War was that America always won. One film that shows this idea very clearly is “Rocky IV”. Released in 1985, the film took a popular character in American film and pitted him against the Soviet villain Ivan Drago. The movie spend a large chunk of the second act showing the differences in how the two boxers trained for their anticipated bout. While Rocky trained in a remote location in the Russian mountains, doing things the “right way”, Ivan Drago was being pumped with steroids in a Soviet lab. This could be seen as representing that America (Capitalism) did things the right way and the Soviet Union (Communism) did things the wrong way. The film culminated in Rocky defeating Drago in the Soviet Union to the applause of thousands of Soviets chanting his name. No matter what, America was going to win, and they were going to do it with integrity despite the Soviets “cheating” any chance they got.
During the Cold-War era, all forms of media and popular culture were used to propagate the agenda and possible threat towards the USSR and Communism, but no form of media was used more thoroughly than the film industry of the US. The cold war spanned four decades, from the end of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and created a firmly implanted fear of Communism and the nuclear threat. This massive and entrenched fear was seen no better than with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s quest to out Communists within the American government and entertainment system. This McCarthyism began in 1947 and lasted through 1956 and investigated and questioned countless different Americans who were suspected of communist ties in the House Un-American Activities Committee.
This perpetual state of tension towards a possible war and nuclear strike from the Soviet Union kept the entire American population continually in fear, this was further encouraged by movies portraying attacks and threats from these enemies of the time. Movies such as Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, the Rocky series, and especially Red Dawn were some of the main movies of this time that followed this theme. In all these films as well, the US is depicted as being military, technologically, and socially superior to the antiquated and crumbling Soviet Union. This is seen chiefly in the original Red Dawn where the USSR attacks and invades the US mainland, but a small band of American rebels in small town Colorado team up to take back their town from the Russians, leading the revolution across the country to drive out the barbaric invaders.
Most of these movies however were directly related to the proliferation of nuclear weapons between the US and USSR militaries. This proliferation began with spies selling nuclear secrets to Russia, most notably the Rosenberg’s, in order to make a profit or due to their belief in and allegiance to the Soviet Union. This proliferation continually escalated throughout the Cold War, creating nuclear devices that could devastate entire large states with a single strike. This was seen in movies such as Dr. Strangelove, The Atomic Kid, and a Carol for Another Christmas. Over the Cold War, American media successfully employed methods to further the fear of the Soviet Union, which was a legitimate fear. This use and propagation was seen no more effectively and strongly than in the US film industry during this era.
One of the main concepts about a Cold War is that there is not any outright fighting. No one side has declared war on the other, and no actual shots are fired. However, metaphorical shots were fired in the film industry during the Cold War period. Films from this era tended to reinforce the Cold War opinions that Russians were Bad and Americans were Good, among other geopolitical concepts.
This most simple geopolitical theme that was prevalent during the Cold War was simply the promotion of American culture. The Red Scare was in full swing, and communist was essentially a dirty word. In movies released during this period, Russians and communists were portrayed as a stereotypical smart and evil villain. They were also sneaky and good spies, and could infiltrate American society. As in the film poster for the movie I Married a Communist, the assumption of their
characters was that their “one mission is to destroy.”
On the protagonist side, the stereotypical American man shined as the savior of the United States time and time again. The Americans always outsmarted the communists in action packed scenes to save the day. The exception to this American savior trope was the 007 franchise. Typically, in American made movies it is not allowed or accepted to have the protagonist be foreign. However, the James Bond character and especially Sean Connery are the exception. 007 fought communists with just as much fervor as the Americans, so it was accepted.
In addition to that, movies during the Cold War also propagated the American myth of exceptionalism. Extra emphasis was placed on the ‘American Way’ and how much better it is than, say, communism. Banal nationalism was also imposed on viewers with Cold War era movies. The un-waved flag was actually waved plenty during this time.
Movies during the Cold War reflected an era of unease in America. People never know when or if the enemy would strike, and where it could take place. The communist threat to America endangered everything about the American way of life, so popular culture of the era now reflects a sense of nationalism and fear of the unknown.
Film and Television became the premiere medium that popular culture was communicated through in the 20th century. This meant that many of the movies produced in the United States over the course of the four decades that made up the Cold War era contained anti-communist themes. This pro-democracy propaganda that seeped into movies of the 1950s 60s 70s and 80s served to reinforce the fear Americans had of communism, nuclear war, and the Soviet Union. American films of course are not the only to contain political meta-narratives designed to serve as nationalistic propaganda. The Soviet Union also produced similar content, however, the USSR’s film industry was far less developed leading to significantly less successful media.
Movies produced during the Cold War often cast villains as Russian and Chinese, serving as a proxy for our greatest enemy. Overtly political movies like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) had characters like Eleanor Iselin who antagonized the pro-democratic actors with communist messages and goals. Iselin represented the ultimate evil, an American who was secretly a communist agent. The Manchurian Candidate’s message is not veiled, communism is evil and a direct threat to everything that we as Americans hold dear. The true protagonist of The Manchurian Candidate is not necessarily even a character, but instead the concept of American heroism and bravery. Raymond is willing to sacrifice his own life to stop the evil communist plans of his mother. Even seemingly non-political movies like Rocky IV feature Soviet antagonists. The communist characters and soviet proxies in cold-war movies served to ‘other’ a group of people that the American public already feared.
Movies released in the Cold War era contained meta-narratives made up of a combination of overt and banal nationalism. Red Dawn was designed to mirror the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to be released during the most overtly nationalistic event, the Olympics. The movie is littered with American iconography such as the multiple slow camera pans of the American flag and the singing of nationalistic songs like “America the Beautiful” in defiance of the soviet enemies. At the same time the protagonists are driven by a strong sense of civic nationalism and each of the teens’ entire identity is as an American. The protagonists are called to act by their sense of nationalism and pride for the country they call home. Also on full display in Red Dawn is American commercialism. The landscape of Red Dawn is marked by the recognizable golden arches of McDonalds representing the free market capitalism that the Soviet Union lacks.
American popular culture, specifically feature films provided a set of events that reinforced American ideology while further vilifying our most dangerous enemy of the Cold War era. These films highlighted the freedoms and individual rights we stood to lose at the hands of the Soviets, and showcased the traits that makes a true great American: bravery, loyalty, and a distinct sense of nationalism.
It is easy enough to empathize with how America’s anxiety during the Cold War manifested in the media they consumed, like movies. What is harder to empathize with, though, is the lengths which they went to show Soviet Russia and communism in the most negative light possible, while at the same time showing the United States as the undeniable heroes. The Hunt for Red October and The Manchurian Candidate are prime examples of this.
In The Hunt for Red October, Russia is depicted as having unrivaled nuclear missile submarine with stealth that made it undetectable to passive sonar, which is about to be used in missile drills off of America’s east coast. Right out the gate, this plot is a ploy to justify and perpetuate the fear that Americans had regarding the Soviet Union. Then, the valiant CIA agent deciphers that the threat is actually an attempt for this Soviet naval crew to defect and briefs the United States government as such. The metanarrative this illustrates is the intelligence of Americans and the importance of government. Finally, it turns out that the CIA agent was right and the naval crew actually did want to defect because after being given the order to strike on America, the captain could not bring himself to do such a horrendous and instead wished to be on the American side. What this ultimately says it that any good Soviet should want to be on the American side because we are the true “good” guys.
The Manchurian Candidate creates a similar narrative but this time it involves both the Soviet Union and communist China. In this film, a United States platoon is captured by Soviets and taken to Manchuria, China. Days later, the platoon reemerges with all members but two and members within the group are beginning to have recurring nightmares that the supposed hero actually killed the two missing men from the party. It is only once the men who are having these nightmares identify leading communist party officials does Army Intelligence step in. What this says about American attitudes is that we cannot be suspicious of our own people; it obviously must be the enemy who would do such a thing. But how? It is revealed that the hero, Shaw, was actually brain washed during his time captured in Manchuria and that his own mother is a spy in charge of maintaining his conditioning. This illustrates the McCarthyism present at the time, where people distrust of even those close to you is justified. The movie resolves with Shaw killing both his mother and stepfather before committing suicide while wearing his Medal of Honor badge. Ultimately, the take away from the film is that honorable Americans should be willing to take down even their own family for the sake of the nation.
While these two movies are prime examples of how geopolitics played a role even in mainstream film, they are far from exceptions. There are a plethora of other films which iterate the same things.