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"An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War" may be the best book I've yet read to tie together film, social and political history in the treatment of a very precise historical era. In this case, it's the postwar period from 1946 to 1957, when we saw the emergence of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Korean War, the development of the H-bomb, the establishment of the Hollywood blacklist, and the rise of McCarthyism. The author is J. Hoberman, former chief film critic for New York's alternate weekly, the Village Voice, and the book is designed as a prequel to his earlier work, "The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties" (2003). The roughly 55 films covered in some detail range from THE BEGINNING OR THE END (1947), a glossy MGM dramatization of the development of the atomic bomb, to A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957), Elia Kazan's scathing critique of television celebrity and audience manipulation. Along the way, Hoberman examines waves of postwar combat films, cavalry westerns, alien invasion thrillers, Korean war movies, anti-communist tracts, biblical spectacles, and juvenile delinquency dramas, among other subgenres.
The book's through-line is the Cold War--and its essential conflict between capitalism and communism--and how it was viewed through the prism of Hollywood studio filmmaking, with occasional forays into documentary films, TV series and televised congressional hearings. Hoberman makes it clear that the politics of the studio personnel involved in each project had a lot to do with how these subjects were treated. He identifies which writers, actors, producers and directors were Communist Party members, which gave "friendly" or "unfriendly" testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and which were members of the avowedly anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The HUAC hearings into Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry, held in 1947, 1951 and 1952, are described, with writers, directors, and actors being called before the committee and their future employment determined by how cooperative they were. Some films got made because their makers named names (e.g. ON THE WATERFRONT), while others had to undergo changes in personnel when a witness refused (THE SNIPER). Hoberman never gets over-analytical but concentrates on the connections between the varied films and the political currents of the time.
We are reminded of the ongoing tests of nuclear bombs in the southwestern deserts and how they affected production (SPRINGFIELD RIFLE) and the health states of their cast and crew (THE CONQUEROR) and influenced the films that got made (THEM!). The Korean War provides a steady backdrop through much of the book, with news of various setbacks, routs and stalemates coinciding with various films being released or going into production. The arrests of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on charges of providing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and their subsequent trial and execution offer another significant subtext, as do the 1948 and 1952 presidential races. Televised hearings, such as those by the Kefauver committee on organized crime and juvenile delinquency and the Army-McCarthy hearings, compete with Hollywood spectacles for audiences hungry for drama and lurid subject matter.
Major characters in the book range from such political figures as Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower and Senators Estes Kefauver and Joseph McCarthy to such Hollywood production personnel as Elia Kazan, John Ford, Dore Schary, Cecil B. DeMille, Dalton Trumbo, Carl Foreman, Stanley Kramer, Walter Wanger and Darryl Zanuck and the stars John Wayne, Gary Cooper, John Garfield, Marlon Brando, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery and future president Ronald Reagan. Among the pop culture icons weaving in and out of the narrative are Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, Davy Crockett, Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. Many prominent journalists and columnists are frequently quoted, including Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, the Daily Worker's David Platt, and Bosley Crowther, chief movie reviewer for The New York Times.
Hoberman is especially good on the westerns, with lengthy sections on HIGH NOON (1952) and THE SEARCHERS (1956) and good material on John Ford's cavalry films, FORT APACHE (1948) and RIO GRANDE (1950), among others. I also liked his coverage of various sci-fi films of the era and their common theme of citizens being taken over by "alien" entities and communities being invaded from within and without. A lot of space is devoted to Sam Fuller, the writer-director of the Korean War movies THE STEEL HELMET and FIXED BAYONETS and the anti-communist spy thriller PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. Never one to fit into easy political categories, Fuller was a combat veteran and avowed anti-communist, but also a Democrat who crossed swords with J. Edgar Hoover and various Pentagon generals.
Hoberman's earlier book, "The Dream Life," looked at key films of the 1960s amidst the context of presidential politics (JFK, LBJ, Nixon), the Vietnam War, civil rights, black power, drugs, the sexual revolution, student protests, etc., to the point where the through-line got increasingly fragmented and the focus dissipated. (It's still a must-read, filled with fascinating historical material.) In this book the thread of the Cold War and the way it manifested itself in so many diverse genres makes consistent thematic sense throughout. For readers like me who are familiar with the films discussed, the book offers valuable new insights. And for current film/journalism/political science students, the book offers a detailed guide to films you need to see and history you need to study.