Cold War films may be viewed as independent works of art and entertainment, but they can also be interpreted historically. The films of the Cold War are particularly interesting as historical artifacts because they represent how the tensions of the "great powers" struggle between the American and Soviet social orders were imagined, interpreted, and even lived. Be they melodramas such as The Wild One, thrillers such as the James Bond films, instructions for civil defense, or critical and even humorous dramatizations such as Dr. Strangelove, Cold War films resonate with the ideas, ideals, and anxieties of their audience. Interpreted historically, they give us knowledge of not so much the key players of Cold War history, but the beliefs and values that characterized the very culture of the Cold War. Taken as part of their historical moment, these films allow us to understand how international tensions influenced and were even influenced by the domestic front and thus of how the great powers struggle was waged not only through military development and diplomacy, but also within everyday processes.
This filmography presents films that reflect the anxieties, values, and beliefs of Cold War culture. It is not a list of the best films of the Cold War and certainly not a list of the period's most critically acclaimed films. Rather, it is a list of films that demonstrate many of the ways that the Cold War was a part of U.S. culture and everyday life. The brief summaries below indicate how each film may be understood as expressions of their historical context, but they are by no means the final word. View each film with an eye to understanding what values and beliefs-about gender and society, for instance, or about science and technology-it relies upon and in turn advocates for its audience.
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Popular Narrative Film
Day the Earth Stood Still. Dir. Robert Wise. 1951. Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin. A film that asks what would happen if Christ returned to earth to campaign for the peaceful use of the atom and world government and answers that he would be shot.
Dr. No. Dir. Terence Young. 1962. Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell. In this first James Bond film, the secret service agent begins his career of tracking down rogue Cold War technologies by eliminating a mad scientist and his nuclear-powered island.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1964. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones. A high moment of Cold War film, Strangelove laughs at death to expose the paranoia, megalomania, and sexism that preoccupied its fictive Cold Warriors.
Fail-Safe. Dir. Sidney Lumet. 1964. Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, Dan O'Herlhy, Sorrell Booke, Larry Hagman, Frank Overton, Dom DeLuise. The serious response to Dr. Strangelove features a president and advisors torn over how to deal with an accidental nuclear assault upon Moscow.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Dir. Terry Morse. 1956. Inoshiro Honda, Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada. The insane, mutant creature of atomic testing is not only Frankenstein's monster for the nuclear age, but is also a not-too-subtle representation, offered in lieu of classified newsreel footage, of the effects of nuclear weapons' use on civilian targets.
High Noon. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. 1952. Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Henry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Wilke, Sheb Wooley. Read as an anti-McCarthyist allegory or a celebration of individual action, the lone marshal still must stand up to both a tyrant come to town and his fellow citizens' cowardice.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. 1956. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Virginia Christine. The alien threat here is a communistic group-mind that, while it looks American, utterly dehumanizes its victims by enslaving them to a common goal of world domination and mindless bureaucracy.
Invasion, USA. Dir. Alfred E. Green. 1952. Gerald Mohr, Peggie Castle, Dan O'Herlihy, Phyllis Coates, Robert Bice, Tom Kennedy, Noel Neill. One of many films to depict a full fledged enemy assault upon the United States and the kinds of individuals and social organizations needed to stop it.
Kiss Me Deadly. Dir. Robert Aldrich. 1955. Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Jack Lambert. Detective Mike Hammer unwittingly tracks down a cache of nuclear contraband while dealing with all parties that cross him.
The Manchurian Candidate. Dir. John Frankenheimer. 1962. Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, John McGiver, Leslie Parrish, Khigh Deigh. A brainwashed Korean War veteran returns with his program to assassinate American politicians in this paranoid thriller about the power of ideas.
My Son John. Dir. Leo McCarey. 1952. Helen Hayes, Robert Walker, Dean Jagger, Van Heflin, Frank McHugh, Richard Jaeckel. Subversion resides in even the most nuclear of Cold War families as an overly pampered son turns to communism and ruins his life.
On the Beach. Dir. Stanley Kramer. 1959. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, Donna Anderson, John Tate, Guy Doleman. Australia awaits its doom as the last remaining uncontaminated area of the world after a nuclear war; as society whimpers to extinction, we are witness to what held it together in the first place, and perhaps to what ultimately killed it.
On the Waterfront. Dir. Elia Kazan. 1954. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Eve Marie Saint, Leif Erickson, Tony Galento, John Hamilton, Nehemiah Persoff. An informer stands up to an organization of thugs, in this case a union, showing how it often takes principled individuals to withstand an unjust group mentality.
Panic in the Year Zero. Dir. Ray Milland. 1962. Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, Joan Freeman, Richard Garland. One of many films that feature a nuclear family on the run from a nuclear assault, and the social organization of the nuclear family as the most fit means of survival.
Red Dawn. Dir. John Milius. 1984. Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, Powers Booth, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, Jennifer Grey. Invasion USA all over again as we find Cold War anxieties born anew for the 1980s, along with a new generation (of actors) enlisted in the fight against the communist threat.
The Red Menace. Dir. R. G. Springsteen. 1949. Robert Rockwell, Hanne Axman, Betty Lou Gerson, Barbara Fuller. California communists employ any means necessary to further their cause, using sex to lure new members and ruthlessly brooking no dissent from the party line. This film is interesting both for its depiction of how a social 'menace' operates and of what is needed to resist it.
Seven Days in May. Dir. John Frankenheimer. 1964. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Martin Balsam, George Macready, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlow. Disgruntled military leaders plan a coup to overthrown the government and wage the Cold War properly.
Shane. Dir. George Stevens. 1953. Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Brandon de Wilde, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Elisha Cook, Jr. The frontier might as well be suburbia, the homesteaders are a new breed of future-looking nuclear family, and the lone gunman and villians are more like nostalgic spectacles than real working men in this excellent Western about a post-war American community that needs lawful domestic order more than adventure.
The Steel Helmet. Dir. Samuel Fuller. 1951. Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, Richard Loo, Sid Melton. Soldiers in the Korean War try to come to terms with the identity of the enemy and the role of military force (and their place) in world affairs-and end up relying upon nationalist and racist beliefs to do so.
Storm Center. Dir. Daniel Taradash. 1956. Bette Davis, Brian Keith, Kim Hunter, Paul Kelly. A librarian resists pressures to remove a work of communist literature from the shelves, highlighting the anti-intellectual side of Cold War red-baiting.
Them! Dir. Gordon Douglas. 1954. James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens. A mysterious new technology combines with an inhuman form of communal social organization to produce a terrifying threat to the hub of West Coast civilization-giant atomic ants that will undermine the city of Los Angeles.
Threads. Dir. Mick Jackson. 1984. Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale, Rita May, Nicholas Lane, Victoria O'Keefe. Britain's answer to the American television film, The Day After, Threads sets an ordinary family drama within the horrifying events that lead up to and follow a nuclear war. Recent scientific speculation about both the effects of radiation and nuclear winter are incorporated into its grisly depiction of three generations that struggle to survive after the war.
Walk East on Beacon. Dir. Alfred L. Werker. 1952. George Murphy, Finlay Currie, Virginia Gilmore, George Roy Hill. A vitalized FBI protects the American public from communist subversives by employing the latest in surveillance technology.
WarGames. Dir. John Badham. Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Ally Sheedy, Barry Corbin, Juanin Clay. Fail-Safe all over again, except this time it is not a communications breakdown, but a fault in the very logic of the computer assigned to control the American nuclear arsenal that leads to the brink of destruction.
The Wild One. Dir. Laslo Benedek. 1954. Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith, Lee Marvin, Jay C. Flippen, Jerry Paris, Alvy Moore. A group of unprincipled individuals pose a serious threat to a poorly organized everytown filled with too many talkers and dedicated to no real purpose.
Atomic Cafe. Dirs. Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty. 1982. Presents a dramatic, somewhat kitchy collage of hard-to-find clips from civil defense and industry films, depicting how nuclear war and survival was imagined in the early decades of the nuclear age.
Korea: The Forgotten War. Lou Reda Productions. 1987. Contributor: Robert Stack. With ample use of archival footage, this documentary traces the military and diplomatic history of this early instance of the United States policy of forceful Soviet containment.
The McCarthy Years. From the Edward R. Murrow Television collection. 1991. Contributor: Walter Cronkite. CBS Broadcast International. A collection of Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts on Senator McCarthy's use of the power of his office.
Point of Order. Prof. Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot. 1964. Uses contemporary television footage from the six weeks of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings to document the final act in McCarthyism.
Post-War Hopes, Cold War Fears. From the PBS series, A Walk through the 20th Century with Bill Moyers, Episode 12. 1988. Contributors: Imre Horvath, Bill Moyers, Bernard A. Weisberger. Describes life in America after WWII, treating the nation's economic development and the general effects on the home front of the Cold War's development.
Archival Films on CD-ROM
Public Shelter. Collected by Jayne Loader. One CD-ROM, 40 mins. video, 400 photographs, 12 hours audio. EJL Productions. A supplement to Atomic Cafe, featuring uncut versions of the films sampled for the documentary along with a wealth of civil defense-related radio programs and photographs.
Our Secret Century: Archival Films From the Darker Side of the American Dream. Collected by Rick Prelinger. Six CD-ROMs, approx. 80 mins. each. Voyager Company. A wide-ranging, text-supplemented selection of corporate and educational films from the 1930s through the 1960s that reflect the values, the public and domestic mores, of three distinctly related historical epochs.
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