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Posted on Jun 9, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Films of the Cold War

By Wyatt Kingseed

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the only super powers to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War, lasted approximately 40 years. Tensions ebbed and flowed throughout the 1950s, until four events in quick succession in the early 1960s raised world anxieties to new levels: the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy assassination. People had good reason to feel that mankind teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation. 

The national angst, fueled by a high performance propaganda machine powered out of Washington, helped President Kennedy launch the Space Race in a May, 1961 speech. The endeavor, drama at its most spine tingling, was restorative to boot. It redirected the collective mind of a nervous American public from Armageddon to an ambitious quest, one of discovery that would require heroic courage, a goal that appealed to the young president. In the bargain, success meant staying one step ahead of our arch enemy, the Communists.


Hollywood also took notice, understanding that the Cold War offered commercial opportunities. In fact, it had been scratching the surface of the genre for over a decade in films like It Came From Outer Space and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, thinly veiled references to the threat of Soviet invasion or attack, or the more restrained and gloomy On the Beach. But in its constant search for bigger box office, America’s deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union prompted Hollywood to capitalize on the heightened fears of the American public.

It began producing topical films that seemed right out of the day’s newspaper headlines. Many contained a doomsday message—mankind simply couldn’t be trusted to control the terrible weapons it had created. In the process it moved the Cold War genre from allegory to realism. Here are some of the best from the period: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), and The Bedford Incident (1965). All are in stark black and white with fine production values to create the right mood for suspense.

1.jpgThe Manchurian Candidate

Captain Bennett Marco is a confused army intelligence officer. A recurring nightmare haunts his sleep since his return from Korea. Inexplicably, it is of a women’s garden party lecture on hydrangeas with Marco and the soldiers of his patrol sitting on folding chairs on a stage appearing bored. That is the viewer’s introduction to what is arguably the best political thriller of all time.

Chinese Communists have concocted a devilish scheme to brainwash the Americans, including Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who back in the states is an idolized hero and Medal of Honor winner. Shaw reportedly saved the captain and his men while taking out an enemy machine gun nest. Marco, without emotion, says of Shaw, “he is the kindest, bravest, warmest, and most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” But something is amiss. Marco knows the sergeant is insufferable, a man impossible to like. He can’t put his finger on it but Shaw is not what he seems.

Based on the Richard Condon best seller, Director John Frankenheimer made a film that ostensibly is about how an enemy turns a captured American soldier into its trained assassin to commit an unspeakable crime for political gain. He ejects the novel’s more lurid passages, strong hints of incest, and concentrates on the darker story: how politicians and the media in this country brainwash American citizens, and the disturbing ease with which people fall prey to the unchecked ambition of those schooled in manipulation. He unfolds the story with precision and purpose.

Frank Sinatra, as Marco, adequately captures his character’s confusion, albeit at times he could be more subtle—he wonders if he’s going crazy. Lawrence Harvey plays Shaw to perfection—his pent up disgust of just about everything, including himself, simmers just below the surface. Watch the face of both stars to remember that good acting doesn’t require dialog.

Angela Landsbury, in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance as supporting actress, plays the diabolical Eleanor Iselin, Shaw’s dominating and image conscious mother. She’ll stop at nothing to get her husband into the White House—even murder. James Gregory gives the best performance of his career. McCarthy-like, he plays Landsbury’s red-baiting husband, Senator Iselin.

When first released—coincidentally during the climatic week of the Cuban Missile Crises—the film met with tepid reviews. New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther, ridiculed its premise. Still he wrote of its “racy and sharp” dialog and Frankenheimer’s direction, which Crowther found “exciting in the style of Orson Wells.” It now enjoys cult status.

2.jpgDr. Strangelove

Justly acclaimed as one of the greatest American films, let alone Hollywood’s best Cold War effort, Dr. Strangelove is arguably director Stanley Kubrick’s best. It remains an unparalleled black comedy, and while it excels in every aspect, it is the memorable characters and great performances that bring the story to life. Two actors not known for comedy are particularly funny: George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden.

Hayden is an insane general, Jack D. Ripper. Convinced that Communists are conspiring to pollute America’s “precious bodily fluids” by contaminating the water supply with fluoride, he dispatches his bomber wing to destroy Russia. Scott plays the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Buck” Turgidson. Called to the White House by the President, he barely conceals his delight—the planes cannot be recalled. Turgidson grins broadly, emits a motor sound, and spreads his arms to swoop like a kid to demonstrate for the President how the B-52 bombers will stay beneath the enemy radar. The character is modeled after Curtis LeMay, the real life early 1960s Chairman of the JCS and rabid anti-Communist.

Peter Sellers gives a tour de force in three separate roles: a British officer out of his league with the crazed Ripper; American President Merkin Muffley; and the bizarre Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist who has problems controlling his Nazi salute. Much of the film takes place in the White House war room, a set that critic Roger Ebert called “one of the most memorable of movie interiors.” Here the president and his odd team of advisors assemble with the Russian ambassador to discuss options. Strangelove discloses the existence of a secret "Doomsday Device," a weapon the Russians will unleash in retaliation. It will destroy all plant and animal life on Earth.

Slim Pickens, in another role originally written for Peter Sellers until he broke an ankle, plays gun-ho Major “King” Kong. He commands the lone plane that makes it to the target. An H-bomb becomes his personal bunking bronco in one of the most unforgettable exits in all film.  

The film is full of great lines. Among the best: “Dimitri, we have a little problem ….”; “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff."; and the most famous: "Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!"

The film captured four Oscar nominations: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Sellers), and Best Screenplay, but came away empty-handed.

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1 Comment

  1. i want to became an actor i will do anything for that….i am indian