Hollywood’s Cold War

Tony Shaw,
Hollywood’s Cold War.
Baltimore: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-55849-612-5
US$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Massachusetts Press

In the forty-plus years that the Cold War dominated international politics, cinema became party to what Tony Shaw describes as “the longest of all national cinematic propaganda wars” (p. 2). Shaw’s meticulously researched book, Hollywood’s Cold War, investigates the history of the mainstream American film industry’s willing collusion with Washington to produce and disseminate anti-communist entertainment nationally and internationally, while simultaneously marketing American capitalist ideologies to the world. Shaw’s nine chapters together provide a detailed overview of Hollywood’s role as a propaganda machine while providing a concise history of Hollywood between 1939 and 1989, reminding readers of the constantly changing conditions affecting the film industry. Each chapter contains case studies featuring up to three films. Typically, Shaw provides a background on the making of each film, the role of government in its production, discussions about the key personnel involved, and the general reception of the film by audiences and critics. Shaw rarely engages in close analysis of the films he has selected, opting instead to provide general synopses of their plots.

Beginning with an analysis of the planning and production of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka in 1939, Shaw first provides a record of politically motivated films produced between 1917 through to Lubitsch’s film, tracing the various positive and negative representations of communism, from the first Red threat following the Bolshevik Revolution, to the depression era membership growth of the CPUSA. Calling the chapter ‘Love and Defection’, Shaw notes how Ninotchka was the “first movie that fully articulated a materialist view of the capitalist-communist divide” (p. 34), lampooning Soviet communism as it celebrates the excesses of Western consumerism. The film demonstrates how sophisticated anti-communist propaganda, presented as light entertainment, was alive and well in Hollywood prior to the Truman Doctrine. Indeed, Shaw points out how, throughout Ninotchka, the Soviet’s “repressive, even murderous regime is made abundantly clear” (p. 19), despite being a frivolous romantic comedy. Yet, Shaw argues, it is the film’s innocent innocuous sheen that made it such an effective propaganda tool in the United States and Europe on its initial release and thereafter.

‘The Enemy Within’, outlines the concerted efforts of various bodies, including the House Committee of UnAmerican Activities, Motion Picture Alliance, the Legion of Decency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to subdue filmmakers. Shaw uses Walk East on Beacon (USA 1952) for his case study, and meticulously traces how the FBI actively assisted in the making of the film, and others like it, in an effort to promote the Bureau’s profile, and that “encouraged ‘alert and responsible’ Americans to play an active part in the struggle against communism by acting as citizen warriors” (p. 60).

‘Projecting a Prophet for a Profit’ recounts the involvement of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in funding British adaptations of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 to the big screen. Shaw recounts how the CIA believed that international audiences responded better to films with anti-communist messages if they were perceived as not made by Americans. Shaw goes behind the scenes to reveal how Batchelor and Halas’ animated adaptation of Animal Farm watered down Orwell’s message to accommodate capitalist ideologies. In his analysis of Anderson’s 1956 adaptation of 1984, Shaw concludes that the film’s disastrous critical and box office reception provided “a painful lesson in the difficulties of constructing effective propaganda when commercial and political interests were not in unison” (p. 93).

‘Of Gods and Moguls’ recounts how “religion was an integral component of Cold War cinematic discourse in the 1950s” (p. 127), when renewed religious fervor in America prompted Hollywood to produce films exploiting religious motifs. The Eisenhower administration supported capitalising on the importance of Christian values in order to combat communist atheism. Shaw argues that Cecil B. De Mille, a staunch anti-communist, produced The Ten Commandments (USA 1956) as an epic propaganda piece that exposes the evils of totalitarian regimes that operate to enslave men and contravene God’s laws. Shaw’s meticulously researched background detailing the making and reception of The Ten Commandments is compelling reading.

‘Negotiable Dissent’ contends that, despite the popular assumption that American filmmakers in the 1950s were controlled and silenced, Shaw points out that there remained “some sort of forum for debate” (p. 136) in which filmmakers could voice concerns about the running of the country and Cold War issues. He draws evidence from three films: The Day the Earth Stood Still (USA 1951) and On the Beach (USA 1959) which focus on the apocalyptic capacity of nuclear weapons and question the wisdom of the arms race, while Storm Centre (USA 1956) equates McCarthyism with totalitarianism.

Race relations in the United States were a source of international embarrassment for the US government in the 1960s. Washington saw the issue of racial injustice and the high profile civil rights movement as severely undermining its Cold War propaganda efforts overseas. ‘Turning a Negative into a Positive’ looks at government produced documentaries, such as The March (USA 1964) and Nine from Little Rock (USA 1964) that attempt to redress the country’s negative civil rights record by portraying race relations in a positive light and African Americans as the beneficiaries of a nation of boundless opportunities.

According to Shaw, John Wayne was Hollywood’s ultimate Cold War warrior and “had a greater impact on the way Americans viewed the conflict than probably any other Hollywood figure” (p. 200). ‘A Cowboy in Combats’ outlines how since the 1920s, the Pentagon has collaborated with Hollywood, providing military hardware and expertise while filmmakers presented the US armed forces in a positive light and made national service appealing. Shaw provides an overview of the Duke’s film career and fervent anti-communist activism before providing an extensive background on the development, making, and reception of the controversial pro-Vietnam war vehicle, The Green Berets (USA 1968).

Shaw challenges assumptions that the 1970s signal a lull in films exploring Cold War subject matter, stating that general disillusionment over Vietnam and US foreign policy fueled a range of films that criticised US Cold War politics and questioned the lack of accountability of the CIA. ‘Secrets and Lies’ analyses two such films: Peter Davis’ Academy Award winning documentary protesting America’s presence in Vietnam, Hearts and Minds (USA 1975), and Sydney Pollack’s espionage thriller, Three Days of the Condor (USA 1975), which criticises the impunity of the CIA.

The final chapter, titled ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, provides a fitting conclusion to a study about films and politics. Shaw details how Reagan’s media smarts enabled him to lead a successful attack against leftist values in America and reignite animosities with the USSR. The chapter contains three case studies that allow Shaw to discuss the different phases of the second Cold War. According to Shaw, John Milius’ invasion narrative, Red Dawn (USA 1984), “made Hollywood’s McCarthy-era Red-baiting material look positively restrained” (p. 269). Interestingly, a remake of Red Dawn is scheduled for release in November 2010 and features a joint invasion of the USA by Chinese and Russian forces. Shaw’s discussion of Alex Cox’s Walker (USA/Mexico/Spain 1987) is engrossing reading. The film includes such blatant criticism of the CIA funding of Nicaraguan Contras that Universal Studios did their utmost to suppress it. Red Heat (West Germany/USA/Austria 1988) alludes to the new atmosphere of openness between the superpowers as a result of Gorbachev’s progressive policies. The film’s buddy cop formula provides a reimagining of Ninotchka, which allows Shaw to shrewdly come full circle, ending his book where he began.

Craig Martin,
La Trobe University, Australia.

Created on: Saturday, 19 December 2009

About the Author

Craig Martin

About the Author

Craig Martin

Craig Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne where he is researching the impact of Hitler Youth on the monster child film. He holds a Masters degree from La Trobe University and serves on the editorial board of Red Feather: An International Journal of Children in Popular Culture. He has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, the most recent of which is an essay looking at adoption in the monster child film that has been included for publication in the upcoming book, Misfit Children: An Enquiry Into Childhood Belongings.View all posts by Craig Martin →