Films of the Cold War: 1948-1990

Philip J. Landon

The Cold War influenced nearly all aspects of American political and cultural life from 1946 -- when Winston Churchill announced the descent of an Iron Curtain separating the Soviet Union and her Eastern European satellite states from the non-communist West -- to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The influence on the American film industry was deep and long-lasting. Hollywood became a highly visible target of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the late 1940s and 1950s. Uncooperative witnesses were blacklisted by the studios, and some, like the Hollywood Ten, served time in jail. To prove their "Americanism," studio bosses not only fired and blacklisted employees, but they also turned out a string of films warning against the dangers of communism at home and abroad. Less than a year after Walter Lippman coined the term Cold War in 1947, 20th Fox released William Wellman's Iron Curtain (a.k.a. Behind the Iron Curtain), adapted from the life story of Russian code clerk Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews), who, together with his family, had defected to the West with evidence of Soviet espionage operations in North America. Contemporary Cold War events provided the material for a number of films, including Felix Feist's Guilty of Treason (1949), George Seaton's The Big Lift (1950), and Alfred Werker's Walk East on Beacon (1952). Guilty of Treason recounts the fate of Hungary's Roman Catholic Prelate, Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, after the country was taken over by communists in 1948. Charles Bickford plays the defiant Cardinal who endures arrest, torture, and prison rather than capitulate to his godless enemies. Seaton's film, dramatizes the lives of fliers serving with the Berlin Airlift. Shot on location in Berlin using documentary techniques, the film focuses on the ability of American technology to carry the day, and love affairs between the central characters (Paul Douglas and Montgomery Clift) and two German women stress the importance of seeing Germany not as a totalitarian enemy but as a fledgling democracy and an ally in the struggle against communism.

At the same time, Hollywood films were busy exposing life behind the Iron Curtain and defending the nation's interests abroad, they were ferreting out spies and subversives at home. Walk East on Beacon (1952), based on an article by J. Edgar Hoover, recounts the efforts of Soviet spies to penetrate a top-secret scientific project. The Reds proves no match, however, for a team of F.B.I. agents led by Inspector Belden (George Murphy). The film owes much of its sense of realism to the clever blending of a fictional narrative with the style of a documentary. Although the project the communists seek to penetrate is never explicitly identified, it has something to do with atomic secrets, a subject very much in the news at a time when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been charged with passing atomic secrets to the Russians. While Walk East on Beacon enthusiastically endorsed the F.B.I.' s relentless pursuit of suspected communists, Gordon Douglas' I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. cast Frank Lovejoy as undercover agent Matt Cvetic who suffers estrangement from family and friends in order to infiltrate the Communist Party as part of the Bureau's plan to expose disloyal Americans. John Wayne joined the hunt for communists in Hawaii as the title character in Edward Ludwig's Big Jim McLain. Wayne and his assistant (James Arness) interview repentant ex-communists as they seek out Soviet agents for interrogation by the Committee. The film celebrates the activities of HUAC by playing fast and loose with historical facts. Unlike the fate of uncooperative witnesses called before HUAC who were jailed for contempt or blacklisted for invoking the Fifth Amendment, the agents rounded up by Big Jim escape punishment by what he describes as "abusing" their constitutional rights and refusing to testify.

The importance of denouncing friends and relatives with communist associations became a theme central to several films of the period, including Victor Saville's Anglo-American production Conspirator (1949) and Robert Stevenson's I Married a Communist (a.k.a. The Woman on Pier 13) (1950). Perhaps the most revealing of these films is Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952). It verges on self-parody in its anti-communist zeal, but it still manages to evoke the paranoid fears that haunted the McCarthy era. John Jefferson (Robert Walker), the son hard-working, patriotic, and religious parents is a member of what seems to be the State Department where, presumably, his communist sympathies, his intellectual arrogance, and his nasty temperament go unnoticed. Rejected by his family after they discover he is a Soviet spy, he plans to flee the country with government secrets. A sudden change of heart prompts him to reveal his treachery, and in retribution he is murdered by communist agents. A large number of "B" films featuring American citizens serving as communist agents helped create the impression that the country was overrun by Soviet spies. They infiltrate the government in Harold Schuster's Security Risk (1954), penetrate a secluded California research site in Edward Dein's Shack Out on 101, and gain control of a Washington, D.C., advertising agency in Jacques Tourneur's The Fearmakers (1958).

Most of these films failed as both anti-communist propaganda and as thrillers. Two, however, Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953) and Robert Aldrich's, Kiss Me Deadly (1955) became film noir classics. In the first a petty criminal, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), steals a wallet containing scientific secrets. His theft sets touches off a series of events in which he and his acquaintances are hunted by both federal agents and a group of Soviet agents. The action unfolds in a dark, urban environment where characters find themselves caught up in events they neither control nor fully understand. McCoy, who claims no political allegiances, finally decides to cooperate with the federal agents after Soviet agents have murdered a friend (Thelma Ritter) and savagely beaten his lover (Jean Peters). Robert Aldrich's adaptation of Mickey Spillane's best-selling novel Kiss Me Deadly (1952) is set in Las Angeles rather than New York City, but it remains a part of the same noir world. Like McCoy, Mike Hammer stumbles upon a case of nuclear espionage and cooperates with a team of federal agents whose leader, Pat Chambers (Wesley Addy), appears to be as mysterious and sinister as the Soviet agents pursuing a box of radioactive material. Hammer's motives for cooperating with Chambers have little to do with patriotism and very much to do with his desire to turn a profit, wreak personal vengeance, and rescue his assistant, Velda (Maxine Cooper), who has been kidnaped by the spies. His search leads him deeper into a dark underworld of multiple deceptions and sadistic cruelty from which there appears to be no escape. Although Cold War espionage triggers the events which set these last two narratives in motion, neither of the central characters are motivated by patriotism or by anti-communism. McCoy, like Hammer, finally cooperates with the federal agents for personal motives. Moreover, Aldrich's Hammer is a familiar noir hero, alienated and contemptuous of all forms of idealism, while the hero of Spillane's novel was a zealous anti-communist. Both films reveal how easily Cold War tensions could be invoked for narrative rather than ideological purposes.

If Pickup on South Street and Kiss Me Deadly reduce Cold War ideology to narrative convention, Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) and Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) were profoundly influenced by those ideological conflicts, though manifested only indirectly. On the surface, Zinneman's film is a classic western which pits Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the Hadleyville town marshal, against a murderous band of gunmen bent on revenge. The film focuses on Kane's futile effort to enlist the aid of the townspeople who, out of a combination of cowardice and self-interest, leave him to face Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) and his three henchmen alone. The film was written by Carl Foreman, his last before being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He intended the film as a political allegory in which Hadleyville represented Hollywood and its citizens the cowardly studio executives who refused to resist what he considered the unlawful behavior of the Committee that had cited him for contempt. Unlike Foreman, Elia Kazan had been a cooperative Committee witness, giving it the names of friends and colleagues who had been associated with communist organizations in the past, and, in On the Waterfront, he treats informing as an act of heroism. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a washed-up boxer working as a longshoreman on the Hoboken docks. Work on the docks is controlled by a corrupt labor union which uses violence and murder to keep workers in line. Under the moral influence of his priest (Karl Malden) and the sister (Eva Marie Saint) of a murdered worker, Malloy risks his life to testify against the union leaders. Like High Noon, the film has been read as a metaphor for Cold War politics and a justification for Kazan's naming names.

By the mid-1950s, the threat from the enemy within tended to give way to the threat from the enemy without. Sen. McCarthy's increasingly reckless, and often baseless, attacks led to his Senate censure and subsequent fall from power, and the anti-communist crusade began to lose momentum. Reflecting this shift in political attitudes, Hollywood turned its attention from the communist subversion to communist expansion around the world. Resisting the latter demanded, in the minds of policymakers, a strong military and a willingness to go to war if necessary. The anxieties aroused by the prospect of a permanent struggle between East and West which might erupt into a third world war fought with nuclear weapons were evident in all the major Hollywood film genres, including the musical (Silk Stockings, 1957), but these fears were most fully expressed in science fiction and war films. In films such as The Man from Planet X (1951) and Invaders from Mars (1953), the earth was repeatedly threatened by alien invaders whose relentless quest for new planets to colonize or destroy. The best and most illuminating of the genre are Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World (1951) and Don Siegel's The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Although credited to Nyby, the film's producer, Howard Hawks, played a major role in directing The Thing, and it has the unmistakable characteristics of a Hawks' work. Under the leadership of Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Toby), a group of scientists and Air Force personnel at a remote arctic research station manage to incinerate a carnivorous alien that nourishes itself on human blood and thus fend off "the first invasion from another planet." As might be expected of good cold warriors, they place the claims of national security above those of intellectual inquiry; they accept the necessity of censorship; and they depend on teamwork to destroy an invader devoid of both moral sense and emotion -- an extra-terrestrial version of the Soviet menace as portrayed in American popular culture during the early 1950s. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers introduces a more subtle invader in the form of giant seed pods which take over sleeping human bodies. The California town full of these bland, worry-free, obedient pod people has been alternately described as a metaphor for Americans under the influence of communism and, conversely, as the spirit-stifling atmosphere of America's burgeoning suburbia. When asked what he intended the pods to symbolize, Siegel was always evasive, allowing audiences and critics to draw their own conclusions. Neither The Invasion of the Body Snatchers nor The Thing is more sophisticated in its Cold War message than any of the other similar films of the era, but they are the work of a pair of Hollywood's most accomplished genre directors, and the quality of their film making sets them above the rest.

If Cold War tensions found indirect and symbolic expression in the science fiction/horror film, they are made manifest in the war film. The genre, which had virtually disappeared from the screen at the end of World War Two, was revived as the Cold War intensified in the late 1940s. With a few exceptions, the settings of these films were World War Two, the Korean War, or the Cold War itself. Those set in World War Two show how the virtues of patriotism, professionalism, and teamwork have saved America from totalitarian predators (See: World War Two); the Korean War films raised questions about the willingness and the ability of Americans to live up to those ideals (See: The Korean War); and the Cold War films showed how those ideals can be called on to prevent war while at the same time containing the Soviet Union. They also favored subjects that featured those weapons most closely associated the nuclear war they were designed to prevent: the long-range bomber and the nuclear submarine. The first and most successful of the Air Force films, Strategic Air Command (1955), was directed by Anthony Mann at the urging of the film's star, ex-bomber pilot Jimmy Stewart, who wanted to make a film honoring the Air Force's cold warriors. He is cast as "Dutch" Holland, a professional baseball player who is recalled to active duty, during which he realizes that serving with the Strategic Air Command is more important than returning to the baseball diamond. The narrative is divided between Holland's duties as an aircraft commander, and the effect on his marriage of his decision to stay in the service. His wife (June Allyson) wants him to return to civilian life, but she understands the importance of defending America and remains steadfastly loyal. The same choice between the successful civilian career desired by his family and the more Spartan demands of the Strategic Air Command faces the central characters of Gordon Douglas's Bombers B-52 (1957) and Delbert Mann's A Gathering of Eagles (1963). All of these films depict a tight-knit, patriarchal family as an ideal to be emulated. Such families, Elaine Tyler May has explained in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War (1988), were considered essential to a strong America.

By the late 1950s, the Cold War had begun to thaw somewhat. In 1959 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States; Vice President Richard Nixon attended the Moscow Trade Fair; and the nuclear standoff between America and the Soviet Union came to be regarded less as a frightening possibility than as an unnecessary threat to human survival. The first of the submarine films, Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959), recounts the final months of the human race after an exchange of hydrogen bombs between the United States and the Soviet Union. The crew of an American submarine has taken refuge in Australia to await the arrival of a deadly atomic cloud moving south from the northern hemisphere. Despite its sensational subject and its all-star cast (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire), On the Beach reduces the narrative to a rather flat moral fable. It is perhaps more significant as a film which marks an ideological shift in Hollywood's depiction of Cold War politics. James Harris' The Bedford Incident (1964) and John Sturges' Ice Station Zebra (1968) use the confined world of a polaris submarine to explore a pair of themes which would characterize the majority of Cold War films in general during the 1960s and 1970s. In the former, the submarine captain's (Richard Widmark) furious pursuit of a Soviet sub leads to a standoff which threatens to plunge the world into nuclear war, while in the latter competition for the data aboard a Soviet spy satellite downed in the arctic stops just short of armed conflict when another submarine commander (Rock Hudson) destroys the data and persuades the Soviets to publicize the incident as a joint search for the lost satellite. Both films imply that neither the Americans nor the Soviets can claim the moral high ground and that the threat of dangers of nuclear war outweighs the claims of any ideology.

The anxieties aroused by the ubiquitous presence of the Bomb had been appearing in films for nearly a decade, but they were largely displaced onto the horror film. The effects of radiation spawned a variety of gigantic sea creatures (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953), ants (Them, 1954), and even grasshoppers (The Beginning of the End, 1957). But films which depicted life after a nuclear holocaust either ignored the political implications (Roger Corman's Day the World Ended, 1956) or attributed the devastation to an accident (The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1959). The Cold War intensified again in 1961 with the building of the wall dividing East and West Berlin), and in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. These events only sharpened the criticism of Cold War policies and elicited two responses that were embodied in two of the most memorable of Cold War films: Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964) and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In both films American bombers attack the Soviet Union, and the American President and his military advisors try to prevent the attack from escalating into a thermonuclear war. Events in Lumet's film unfold with a grim solemnity and end with the President (Henry Fonda) ordering a nuclear attack on New York City to compensate the earlier (and unintended) attack on Moscow. Kubrick had also planned a serious adaptation of Peter George's novel Red Alert, but as he developed his screenplay, he decided that the very idea of nuclear warfare was suicidal and absurd, a subject best-suited to a satiric black comedy. Consequently, from the moment a demented right-wing SAC general (Sterling Hayden) orders an attack on the Soviet Union, the film mounts a comic attack on Cold War ideologues, ineffectual politicians, doomsday planners, and military brass. Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), the wheelchair-bound scientific advisor, combines the intellectual arrogance and the urge to destroy that Kubrick suggests is at the heart of nuclear policy making. The desperate attempts to recall or destroy the attacking fails when a single aircraft gets to its target, triggering a Soviet "doomsday machine" capable of destroying all human life.

Thrillers in which the Cold War adversaries met in the labyrinthine world of espionage rather than on the battlefield saw a similar ideological transformation. In 1954 Nunnally Johnson's Night People used post-war Berlin as the setting for a battle of wits between an officer in the U.S. Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (Gregory Peck) and his Russian counterparts who behave as badly as the Nazis they defeated (and with whom they are linked in the film). Peck prevails because he can be as ruthless as the communists, but, as the film makes clear, he does it in the service of democratic ideals. By 1961 Billy Wilder could use Berlin to satirize the Cold War culture in both East and West. In One, Two, Three America is not represented by a tough professional military officer but by the head of Coca-Cola's Berlin office (James Cagney), who employs the skills of a spy to distribute Coke in East Germany and to transform a communist student (Horst Buchholz) into a suitable husband for the boss's daughter by converting him to capitalism. Wilder's witty dialogue is so dependent on highly topical allusions to the Cold War rhetoric of the period that his film may seem dated, but it remains far superior to the numerous parodies of the genre which proliferated during the 1960s and 1970s. Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), adapted from the John Le Carre novel, paints a far darker picture of intelligence operations in the city that had become the epicenter of Cold War. A disillusioned British agent, Alec Lemeas (Richard Burton), is sent on a final mission into East Berlin, where he discovers that he has been set up by his superiors to preserve the cover of a "mole" (Peter Van Eyck) they have planted in East German intelligence. When the one person he still has faith in (Claire Bloom) is treacherously gunned down at the Berlin Wall, Lemeas refuses to escape alone and is shot dead. The same themes of betrayal, double-dealing, and entrapment are played out in another film adaptation of a Le Carre novel, Sidney Lumet's A Deadly Affair (1966), an underrated example of the genre. Alfred Hitchcock addresses East-West espionage activities in two of his less successful films: Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969).

During the later 1960s, the war in Vietnam escalated, destroying the Cold War political consensus and left the United States politically divided into supporters and opponents of the American presence in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the detente between East and West secured by the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s lowered tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. As a result, filmmakers lost interest in both the Cold War and the hot war in Vietnam (See Vietnam War). Neither promised to be good box office. As the decade came to a close, however, political conflicts in client nations and plans by the United States and the Soviet Union to implement new intercontinental ballistic missile technology led to renewal of Cold War hostilities and prompted the long-time cold warrior Ronald Reagan, who was elected President in 1980, to declare the Soviet Union and her allies an "evil empire." His Director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, saw the country returning to what he nostalgically described as "the good old days of the Cold War." Despite the accelerating arms race, the renewed East-West tensions never revived the fears of communist expansion and imminent nuclear war that had defined America's Cold War culture during the 1950s and 1960s. Invoking the specter of the "evil empire" did more to recall an era when America was more prosperous, more unified, and more capable of heroic action than the nation that had endured defeat in Vietnam and a general disillusionment with national institutions.

The sense of the Cold War as theater or as an exercise in nostalgia informs many films dealing with Cold war subjects. Sam Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend (1983) and Richard Benjamin's Little Nikita (1988) are tales of espionage which echo films of an earlier generation without either the ideological agendas or the narrative skill of their predecessors. Peckinpah's last feature focuses on the adventures of a talk-show host (Rutger Hauer), whom the CIA recruits to spy on friends suspected of being Soviet undercover agents, while Benjamin's thriller dramatizes a young man's (River Phoenix) discovery that his parents are Soviet agents in deep cover. He is persuaded by a fatherly F.B.I. agent (Sidney Poitier) to aid in foiling a communist plot. The best examples of Cold War nostalgia may be found in the films of Clint Eastwood, who directed and/or starred in several films which express a longing for the period when, as the hero (Eastwood) of In the Line of Fire (1993) announces, "the country was different [ and better] then." In Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which is based on a film from the early years of the Cold War (Alan Dwan's The Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949), Sgt. Tom Highway, an anachronistic survivor of the old Marine Corps, manages to instill in an insolent, undisciplined, and very 1980s group of young Marines the virtues exemplified by John Wayne and his men in the earlier film. Their training serves them well during the invasion of Grenada, where victory, Highway makes clear, has redeemed the defeat in Vietnam. While a number of the Cold War films of the 1980s may share a longing for the good old days, they remain ideologically diverse, ranging from the right-wing jingoism of John Milius' Red Dawn (1984) to the revisionism of John Schlesinger's The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), in which the CIA proves more villainous than the Soviet agents who betray their country. In other, perhaps more prophetic films, Russians and American become partners in hunting down criminals or preserving world peace (Michael Apted's Gorky Park, 1983; Walter Hill's Red Heat, 1988; and John McTiernan's The Hunt for Red October, 1990). McTiernan's adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel about a Soviet naval officer's decision to defect with his country's newest and most powerful nuclear submarine was the last of Hollywood's Cold War films. When it went into production, the Russia's underwater fleet posed a major threat to the United States. The year of its release saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.


Selected Films: (Unless noted, the titles are available on video tape.)

Big Jim McLain (1952)

Big Lift, The (1950)

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Fail-Safe (1964)

Falcon and the Snowman, The (1985)

Guilty of Treason (1949)

Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

High Noon (1952)

Hunt for Red October, The (1990).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers , The (1956)

Iron Curtain (a.k.a. Behind the Iron Curtain) (1948) [No video available.]

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

My Son John (1952) [No video available.]

Night People (1954) [No Video available.]

Pickup on South Street (1953)

On the Beach (1959)

On the Waterfront (1954)

Red Dawn (1984)

Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The (1965)

Strategic Air Command (1955)

Them (1954)

Thing from Another World, The (1951)

Torn Curtain (1966)

Walk East on Beacon (1952) [No video available.]

World, the Flesh, and the Devil, The (1959)

Select Bibliography Cold War History and Culture:

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987.

---------------------------. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

May, Larry, ed. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.

Rogin, Michael. Ronald Regan, the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987.

Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War, second edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996.


Quart, Leonard and Albert Auster. American Film and Society Since 1945. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Sayre, Nora. Running Time: Films of the Cold War. New York: Dial Press, 1982.