About halfway through Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953), a stool pigeon named Moe (Thelma Ritter) is about to get shot. She knows it, too; she had been warned that the man who just forced his way into her room is a communist agent who is willing to kill in order to find the whereabouts of a pickpocket named Skip. Moe, who had sold out Skip for fifty dollars earlier in the film, refuses to give the agent Skip's location even after he offers her five hundred dollars. The agent threatens her, and Moe tells him that she is not going to sell Skip's location to a bunch of "commies." The man asks her what she knows about "commies," and she replies with the most famous line of the film: "What do I know about commies? Nothing! I know one thing, I just don't like them."
The plot of 1954's Kiss Me Deadly likewise involves faceless but boundlessly evil communists bent on taking over the world. Based on the popular Mickey Spillane novel of nearly the same name, Kiss Me Deadly is a part of Spillane's critically reviled Mike Hammer series. Spillane was a conservative and virulent anticommunist, and his character, Hammer, has been rightfully criticized as a "right wing vigilante" (Gallafent 240), a symbolic celebration of violence, nationalistic jingoism, and misogyny.
Considering the pedigree of these films, it is easy to understand their initial reception as examples of the kind of pro-government media that was pervasive between the end of the Second World War and the middle 1950s. Indeed, even someone with a decent grasp of history but little knowledge of film criticism could well think that the messages of these films were of the standard, anti-communist and pro-American variety. Propaganda scholars Sara and James Combs describe postwar Hollywood as getting caught up in the nationwide "Communist hysteria" (84), having fallen under intense government scrutiny and wanting to prove itself free from any trace of Soviet influence. According to the authors, the political attacks against Hollywood alarmed the industry so much that it "did a kind of political penance to appease its political attackers and reassure the larger political community… that the movie capital's political heart and mind were in the right place" (85). The "attackers" to whom Combs and Combs refer are a variety of government agencies including the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the CIA, and the FBI: groups that were so paranoid about the communist threat they felt that Hollywood represented that they classified any film that did not perfectly adhere to the messages promulgated by the government as subversive.
Coming as they do from such a political climate, it is no surprise that Kiss Me Deadly and Pickup on South Street both brim with anticommunist sentiment. However, as the scholarship on these films has clearly shown, their anticommunist sentiment does not itself make them examples of the kind of "Red Menace" pap that Hollywood offered up to save itself from governmental scrutiny. Expanding upon this established research, I hope to show that these films were early entries in an interesting give-and-take system of nuclear discourse, and then to delineate the progress and explain the effects of this system. In this system, antinuclear films operate as very postmodern-seeming pastiches, usually falling well short of parody, that ape the stylistic presentations and subject matters of Civil Defense films in a way that subverts the intentions of those films. Of course, subversion is always difficult to define and establish clearly, especially when it comes to popular American culture (and especially film)--is it a matter of text's intent, for example, or of its reception and/or measureable effect? Within the dialogue that I sketch out, however, it is clear that these films criticize to varying degrees the morals, messages, and intentions of Civil Defense media. And as Civil Defense films were made at the behest of and released under the authority of the United States federal government, I feel it fair to say that the films that weakened the arguments and assertions proffered by Civil Defense media were therefore subversive, at least in a general sense, at least to some degree.
The effect of this subversion varies from the comparatively minor liberalization of nuclear discussions accomplished by the earlier films to the palpably effective demonization of nuclear rhetoric that was accomplished by later films. In order to explain how this subversion took place--indeed, in order to explain how it can rightfully be considered subversive--I first discuss the U.S. Civil Defense program in some historical detail, focusing on issues that have not much factored into the more theoretical discussions of nuclear discourse and (anti)nuclear media. It is often overlooked how explicitly political the U.S. government's use of nuclear war as a concept was, how much control over the flow of all nuclear information the government wielded, and the great extent to which this control shaped nuclear discourse. I leave it up to the reader to figure out the sometimes obvious parallels between the officially promulgated discourse that brought to life the cold war, as well several very bloody proxy wars (and nearly destroyed all life on earth, to boot), and that which has helped effect all of the death, destruction, and general stupidity that is our current, Terrorism-defined geopolitical landscape. My point is that the shape and scope of the controlling media may have changed, but its effect has largely stayed the same. Such media--that which is patronizing, designed to control through fear in spite of its pretentions towards safety and preparedness--is, for reasons I will outline, still best countered through pastiche media that is just incendiary enough to affect discourse without being so confrontational or controversial that it is dismissed or ignored. These reasons will be given in the form of three lessons taken from my analysis of subversive, anti-nuclear films, lessons that are general enough in scope and applicability to be still worth learning.
Historian Paul Boyer notes that "[t]he politicization of terror was a decisive factor in shaping the post-Hiroshima cultural climate" (By the Bomb's 66), and nowhere is that more noticeable than in the overtly political creation of the United States Civil Defense Administration (USCDA). According to military historian B. Franklin Cooling, there was a significant call for the establishment of a civil preparedness program at least as early as 1935, out of concern for the possibility of an Axis air strike against United States civilians and a widespread belief that "the Army had an inescapable responsibility to the civilian population in the area of air attack" (7). In such a context, the establishment of a Civil Defense program, one that would equip citizens with the knowledge and infrastructure necessary to survive a prolonged or large-scale attack, was a pragmatic goal that was nobly predicated upon the best interest of the United States citizenry.
The proposal was rejected on political grounds. According to Cooling, politicians repeatedly refused to address the concerns of military officials because they were afraid of upsetting the public's perception of the strength of the government and the military. Even as war with Germany became imminent--in fact, especially as war with Germany became imminent--the government focused on the image that the implementation of a civil preparedness program would produce. This is clear in the following memo from 1940, sent to President Roosevelt from his Secretary of War, Harry H. Woodring:
It is my belief that an appeal to the public at this time for the organization of local defense committees would needlessly alarm our people and would tend to create the erroneous impression that the military forces of the nation are unprepared to deal with any likely threat to our security. Even an intimation that such a condition existed would be seized upon by political opponents of the Administration. (qtd. in Cooling 8)
Throughout the Second World War, the topic of civil preparedness was not addressed significantly in public. It was only after the war, when the country's lack of an adequate defense program was brought up in a political context, that the program was begun in earnest.
JoAnne Brown discusses the use of schoolrooms as the main venue through which official Civil Defense materials were disseminated, the process of which highlights the decidedly political nature of these films. In "A is for Atom, B is for Bomb," Brown explains that school administrators saw that the alignment of curricula with the federal government's Civil Defense goals could not only lead to an increase of federal funding, but could also help deflect claims of subversion that might have been levied against the public school system. It was therefore necessary to allow the dissemination of Civil Defense materials, as it prevented schools from risking the destruction that came with being labeled subversive; as Brown explains, "[c]ritics indicted 'Progressive' education as 'REDucation' and teachers as 'little red hens' poisoning young minds with communistic ideology" (71). Allowing this dissemination also secured federal funding for public schools. Showing Civil Defense films in public schools was therefore a decidedly political act, according to which neither the government agencies that produced and distributed the films nor the schools that screened them had in mind the ostensible interest of the films. Civil Defense film, which by the fifties was concerned strictly with nuclear war, was never meant to help children survive a potential nuclear attack. Its motivations, like the circumstances surrounding its production and dissemination, were entirely political.
It is essential to understand Civil Defense media in this historical context. The government did not have good intentions in releasing the media. Its explicit motivation for releasing this media is not clear (there is no memo in which a government official suggests scaring people in order to control them, to my knowledge). However, a reading of a representative handful of these films appears to suggest that their intent is generally be to instill fear in their audience, and then to exploit that fear or to ready that fear for future exploitation. Take for example 1951's Atomic Alert, a short film that was produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films at the behest of the USCDA. The film combines montage images (consisting of mostly stock footage) with stiff, monotonous narration and a few crudely shot original scenes in order to convey a wide array of inaccurate information regarding nuclear war. The schoolchildren who watched this film were told, for example, that the basement of an average home contained walls thick enough to shield them from a nuclear blast. The spread of a nuclear blast was also wildly underplayed. In one scene, an animated cutaway shows an overhead view of an atomic bomb falling on a city. After the bomb drops, an area around ground zero measuring just a few square blocks is cartoonishly blackened, and the narrator's dull voice assures the viewers that, in the event of a nuclear war, "the chance of your being hurt by an atomic bomb is slight." Such a downplaying of the actual danger of nuclear war--which presents nuclear air strikes as if they were comparable to the air raids suffered by Europe in the Second World War--was common in Civil Defense films. This is particularly evident in 1951's Duck and Cover, which features a cartoon turtle who ducks into his shell in order to survive the blast of a nuclear weapon. The actions of the turtle were meant to show what the film's viewers should do to survive nuclear war. Of course, humans do not have shells, but that is no huge problem, according to the film. Children are encouraged to "duck and cover" wherever they can: under a school desk, against the curb of a road, or even underneath a newspaper.
One of the most obviously exploitative films is Our Cities Must Fight, also from 1951. Cities features two official-looking government employees (who are white men with stern jaws, of course) who while away an evening by sitting in an office and complaining about things. The men spend most of the film bemoaning the "cowards" who belong to the "take to the hills fraternity"--people who say that they would run away from the certain death of crowded metropolitan areas in the event of a nuclear attack. Cutaways to stock footage relate the perils faced by European civilian populations in World War Two, once again underplaying the realities of nuclear war by asserting its comparability to traditional war. When the less-informed man asks his more intelligent companion what dangers might linger during a nuclear war after the initial blast, the question is met with dismissive laughter. The audience is then told that there will be no significant lingering danger, and that radioactive fallout will only pose a threat lasting around a minute and a half. The film's ending outrageously features one of the men taunting the audience, telling them that the inhuman "commies" behind the iron curtain think that Americans do not have the "guts" to stand up to a nuclear attack. Then, in the fashion of a World Wrestling Entertainment monologue or a fever dream, the man turns to the camera and asks plainly, "have you got the guts?" as triumphant orchestral music swells.
The misinformation presented in all three films is so egregious that I have trouble believing that it was not intentional. Even if it was not, the scientific accuracy of these films and their potential to serve any actual good as far as preparing the public for nuclear war were both of secondary importance. It is clear that the films were intended to accomplish the following goals: first, to keep the public aware of the constant danger of nuclear war ("Tony knows the bomb could explode any time of year, day or night" [Duck and Cover]; "We must realize that in modern warfare city dwellers find themselves right in the front lines" [Our Cities]); second, to underplay the actual danger of nuclear war in order to make it look survivable and manageable. The final goal is to present cooperation with the government as the only route through which survival and safety could be achieved. Cities accomplishes this final goal by insisting that attempting to escape a crowded city center is futile and, most notably, by taunting the viewer to evoke patriotism and shame. Out of necessity, Pickup and Kiss Me Deadly do not attack these intentions directly; rather, they work within the mindset created by the applications of these intentions and, in doing so, erase a key moral distinction that had enabled these intentions.
I mentioned earlier a staunch but mindless dismissal of communism by Pickup's most likeable character. His comment is considered emblematic of Fuller's personal feelings, as the director's anticommunism had been so loud that early critics dismissed Pickup on South Street as "a McCarthyist tract" (McArthur 139); the film went overboard even in 1953, at the height of the "anti-Red" movement. But, as Colin McArthur points out, "while [Pickup] is, indeed, an anticommunist film, it is much less opportunistically so than . . . these critics will allow" (ibid). This is because the film itself was not seeking to curry the favor of the United States government while sending an anticommunist message, as were many other films of the time. About the film Fuller said that "I wanted to take a poke at the idiocy of the cold war climate of the fifties" (Fuller 10). This sets Pickup apart from its typical anticommunist contemporaries, which were made in acquiescence to McCarthyism; Fuller's film was instead a mockery of McCarthyism.
The subversion of Pickup comes, principally, from the film's muddy moral climate. In Our Cities Must Fight, two government employees tell the audience to stay put during a nuclear war, and to have faith in the government to see everyone through any crisis that might arise. Most Civil Defense films were geared towards children and typically relied on the childish primacy of the "mental hygiene" genre of classroom films while using fear, and fear alone, as a qualifier for their statements--children were apparently expected not to question advice that they believed their lives depended upon. The more "adult" Our Cities, however, derives its authority both from fear and from the virtue of the inherent goodness with which all actions of the United States were implicitly endowed. This goodness is due to the fact that the United States is not the U.S.S.R. and is therefore not evil. Without this distinction, the moral authority of the United States melts away, and so goes its government's ability to tell its people what to do by using the rationale that disobedience is immoral and treasonous. Pickup erases that moral distinction.
The plot of Pickup is fairly simple--it starts with a woman named Candy (Jean Peters) getting her wallet stolen by a "cannon" named Skip (Richard Widmark). Unbeknownst to Skip, Candy's wallet contains some microfilm on which are printed nuclear secrets that Candy was unknowingly about to deliver to Soviet agents as a favor for her ex-boyfriend, Charlie. The bulk of the film follows the police and the Soviet agents as they try to get the secrets back from Skip, who refuses resolutely to hand them over to either side. The confused moral status of both the police and the Soviets comes from the strikingly similar methods both sides employ while trying to find the missing microfilm. Both use Candy as if she were a mule. Both also attempt to bribe Moe, the stool pigeon, in exchange for information about Skip and the microfilm. When Moe is first interviewed by the Police, she hesitantly gives up Skip, in spite of the fact that Skip is a personal friend of hers. She does so only out of self interest, and when Skip finds out about it later in the film, he forgives her without hesitation. After being informed of the details of the crime with which Skip is involved, however, Moe turns down a much larger bribe and refuses to cooperate with the communist, which leads to the exchange cited at the beginning of this essay. Moe may be willing to sell out a friend for money, but she balks at doing so when it entails her involvement in a communist plot--not just because she hates communism, mind, but also because she knows that the communist agents will kill Skip.
I do not feel that this moral confusion is all too subversive. The police in Pickup may not be angels, but they are shown in an unquestionably better light than are the communists. Recent critics, such as Margot Henriksen, focus not on the loose moral equivalence of the police and the Soviets but rather on the superiority of the moral code of a third group, the film's heroic criminals, pointing out that "[t]he criminals sacrifice themselves for one another and they will not cooperate with the communists, yet they remain immune to the security mindset and 'patriotic eyewash' of the cops" (Henriksen 63). The focus here is not on the fact that Pickup's criminals refuse to work with Soviets, per se, but that they refuse to engage in the fight being presented to them by their own government, which may be morally superior but is still reprehensible. As Jack Shadoian notes, in Pickup "[i]t is not our lack of an opposing political philosophy but our lack of human value in the life we lead that leaves us poorly defended" (188) from both the cold war and the threat of communism. The only humane characters in the seedy underworld of South Street are Candy, Jack, and Skip, and their basic human decency is explicitly attributable to the fact that they are outsiders, all operating outside of the plane of the cold war. Fuller himself describes these three characters as "individualists, trusting no one, beyond politics, changes in governments, intellectual labels, and fashion" (8). Here, heroism--and survival¬--are not found in blind obedience to authority, or in engaging in a fight against an enemy that audiences had been told to hate simply for the sake of hating. Survival is instead achieved through an incredulous pursuit of self-interest. By setting the plot of Pickup on the same plane as those of Civil Defense media, Fuller manages to completely subvert the typical message of such films. He achieves it most prominently by questioning indirectly the authority upon which the U.S. government made its declarations. This lack of moral clarity is brought to light when the film's heroes find salvation by refusing to cooperate with crooked government officials, an act that serves to spoil the government's assertion that blind cooperation was the only path to survival.
Kiss Me Deadly, released a year after Pickup, continues to use nuclearism as a McGuffin, but it also works to subvert more directly the first two goals of Civil Defense media in spite of being one of Mickey Spillane's ultra conservative Mike Hammer series of detective books and films. As Edward Gallafent explains, director "Aldrich took [his chance to make the film] as an opportunity to express his disgust for Hammer and the politics of Spillane" (241). The film expresses disgust for Hammer by showing the exaggeratedly selfish cruelty its character exhibits. A far cry from the suave ladies' man heretofore portrayed on screen, Ralph Meeker's Hammer oozes creepiness. In Deadly, Hammer is not a criminal investigator, as was his wont; instead, he is a sleazy private eye whose main source of income is divorce cases. Even more noticeable is the shift of McGuffin between the film and the novel: in the book, Hammer is chasing after a cache of stolen jewelry. In the film, he is after a suitcase full of deadly nuclear material.
The plot of Deadly is complex. Hammer nearly hits a girl after she runs out into the road. She is obviously shaken and looks as if she has escaped from a mental institution. He intends to take her into town, in spite of her insistence that they probably will not make it and, cryptically, she makes Hammer promise to remember her. She is soon proven correct--Hammer's car is run off the road, Christina is killed, and Hammer is comatose for days. Hammer awakes and is convinced that Christina was hooked up in something big, something so big, most likely, that if he could manage to get to the bottom of it he would stand to make a great deal of money. His search leads him to a gigantic conspiracy involving the group of people who had been around Christina around the time of her death. There are a dozen twists and turns to the plot, and the direct role of every player in the conspiracy is never made clear. At the film's end, the case full of nuclear materials is in the hands of Carmen, Christina's double-crossing roommate (or, rather, a woman pretending to be Christina's roommate), who has played for fools both Hammer and Hammer's mysterious nemesis. At the end of the film, she kills Hammer's nemesis and then, against his dying declaration, opens the nuclear suitcase, which causes her to be engulfed by flames. Hammer escapes the blaze moments before he too would have been engulfed, and ends the film gazing helplessly up at the house from which he had just escaped as it burns to the ground.
Like Pickup, Deadly focuses on the muddy moral climate of the era, and this is where the indictment of the genre and its relation to nuclear rhetoric both come into play. Andrew Dickos goes so far as to say that the picture is "one of the definitive films of the 1950s because of the peculiar, yet uninterrupted, line it follows from the classical figure of the private eye as seeker of truth to the complications that follow when the language of truth is no longer recognizable" (133, italics mine). This is made very clear in the film. Hammer's secretary/love interest/cheap floozy Velda often quizzes him about what is exactly the point of his quest and about his self-destructive need to participate in the search for "the great whatsit," pointing out that his irrational, indecent chase for the nuclear mystery is bringing about his demise. More strikingly, before Hammer loses Christine, she recites to him a piece of Christina Rossetti's verse: "But if the darkness and corruption leave a vestige of the thoughts that once we had," encouraging him to remember her as a representative of purity presumably spoilt by the corruption of the system around her, the system he explores so determinedly.
It is also worth noting that Deadly paints a more realistic portrait of danger than those presented in the Civil Defense films. However, my main concern is with the way Deadly manages so effectively to turn the nuclear arguments propounded by Civil Defense on their respective heads. Like Pickup, Deadly annexes the government's manipulation of the public's consciousness of nuclear war. But Deadly goes much further than does Pickup, indicting directly the rhetoric and secrecy surrounding nuclear defense propaganda as being the cause of damage and death, and pointing towards the conservative, "macho" players in such a system--particularly Hammer--not as heroes, but as agents that serve only to further the destructive capabilities of that system.
Lesson One: When times are tight and dissidence seems all but impossible, do not get yourself arrested, blacklisted, or fired. Instead, say what is already being said, only twist things around a little bit.
- After the releases of Pickup and Deadly, nuclear subject matter was suddenly fair game for Hollywood. However, most of the new nuclear-themed films were distinctly non-subversive. The only real change was that nuclear McGuffins were suddenly presented clearly. Until fairly recently, most critics have taken these movies--movies like It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)--as signs that nuclear-themed popular media was relatively angst-free until the high angst of the Kennedy administration. Several critics, including most prominently the aforementioned Margot Henriksen, have argued against this. Henriksen has attempted to refocus the issue pragmatically, much as I do here, by realizing that, up until the release of the noir films, overt mentions of The Bomb were more or less verboten except in very specific, government-approved circumstances. Even after the release of the noir films, Hollywood was generally unwilling to do anything that would have upset the government--direct nuclear angst and antinuclear sentiment had no avenues for popular publication.
Jerome Shapiro, among others, takes a different route, arguing that horror films that use nuclear themes as McGuffins (often buttressed with shoddy moralizing) are evidence of the public's continual and all-pervasive nuclear angst, which is only nominally different from the other apocalyptic fears that have influenced art and expression throughout the recorded history of thought. While I think that Shapiro is right in principle--at least regarding the overlooked nuclear focus of films of the mid to late fifties--I think that his interpretation "wags the dog," so to speak. It was not the public's mindset that influenced nuclear films; rather, it was nuclear films that were influencing the public mindset. Clear references to nuclear matters in post-noir films were still largely mindless and non-subversive, only they (as well as the Civil Defense films that followed) had been influenced by the standards set by the noir films, which were themselves influenced by early Civil Defense media. Each of these forms of media--the governmental and the subversive--were influenced by the other, fed off one another in a recursive system. The means of argument--subject matter as well as presentational style--which were laid down initially by Civil Defense media were redefined by the noir films and were redefined yet again by the later Civil Defense and nuclear-friendly films, which sought more than anything to normalize the notion of nuclearism and the threat of nuclear war, to make them into easily exploitable agents that were only feared when a fear of them was beneficial.
Before going any further, I wish to make it abundantly clear that I do not intend this essay as a piece of nuclear criticism, nor do I wish to read any of these films strictly in their relation to nuclear criticism. Simply put, these films do not have much of a place in the realm of nuclear criticism; as counterintuitive as this may seem, nuclear criticism very rarely deals with explicitly nuclear texts. In fact, the 1984 issue of Diacritics that was dedicated to nuclear criticism does not contain a single discussion of any explicitly nuclear texts: no books, no movies, no scare films, no Civil Defense manuals. However, it is impossible to engage in an informed discussion of nuclear media without at least touching on, and borrowing a few things from, the field. I feel that theory-driven nuclear criticism--and by extension much of the scholarly discussion that has come about in response or relation to nuclear criticism--has been singularly concerned with theory. Many interesting points, including the political nature of nuclear discourse, have gone largely unexamined.
The nuclear question is one of discourse, as Jacques Derrida points out in his seminal "No Apocalypse, Not Now," in which he lays the foundation for nuclear criticism by pointing out that nuclear war was "fabulously textual, through and through" (23). This fabulous textuality is due to nuclear war's being without precedent, having never happened and existing only as an intangible, envisioned threat--"a signified referent." This imagined threat of war, Derrida realizes, led to a reality (consisting of nuclear stockpiles and weapons systems and people who were, conceivably, willing to use them) that legitimized the imagined threat upon which their existence was predicated. Derrida focuses on nuclear war's threat to completely annihilate not just civilization and not even just humanity, but the referential archive according to which all of everyone's understanding of everything is based. It is because of this unique ability to annihilate the archive that nuclear war is, according to Derrida, the only "real" referent:
If we are bound and determined to speak in terms of reference, nuclear war is the only possible referent of any discourse and any experience that would share their condition with that of literature. If . . . nuclear war is equivalent to the total destruction of the archive . . . it becomes the absolute referent, the horizon and the condition of all others. [It is] the only "subject" of all possible literature, of all possible criticism. (67)
This concept is the primary concern of Derrida's piece and of the bulk of nuclear criticism that followed. That is why most nuclear criticism does not focus on texts that deal with explicitly nuclear subject matter. Really, such observations might well have been made about any other imaginable context that would have involved the destruction of the referential archive.
The purpose and function of the nuclear critical field was never agreed upon. Nearly all pieces of nuclear criticism, however, feature some discussion meant to criticize, debunk, or mock the pitiful self-feeding false logic of deterrence through mutual destruction that marked the officially promulgated nuclear discourse of the 80s, hoping to "renounce the alarmism and moralism that contributed to the escalation of rhetorical stockpiles" (Luckhurst, 90) that in turn gave currency to the threat of nuclear annihilation. This is what I would like to borrow from nuclear criticism--this valuable, undeniable realization that nuclear war is a phantom, something that became an actual threat only after being conjured up as an abstraction and that becomes more of an eventuality the more it is debated and discussed. Once this textuality is realized, its importance in shaping both nuclear discourse and the realities (a/e)ffected by that discourse are undeniable, as is its importance regarding texts that aim to prevent nuclear destruction. It is only after these realizations have been made that one can attempt to weaken the legitimizing power of nuclear rhetoric.
It is my assertion that the noir films, as well the explicitly antinuclear films I will soon examine, were effectively and palpably subversive in that they helped to disrupt the legitimizing discourse of nuclear war. The noir films were illustrative of (and participated in the dialogue that helped to further) a shift of public consciousness away from a naïve belief in the absolute moral superiority of the United States government, but that alone did not serve to sever the government's claim to moral or scientific authority over nuclear matters and their resultant exploitation of such authorities to strengthen their power (regardless of the fact that such means legitimized the threat of nuclear war). In this new, especially McCarthyist era of Civil Defense films, the justification for authority was never offered--it was assumed, not open to potential questioning. The prime focus was instead placed on downplaying the actual danger of nuclear war, and it was from this basis that most post-noir Civil Defense films took their cue.
The "most fabulous" example of this is the outrageous The House in the Middle, a film that was a cooperative effort of the USCDA and an agency called the "National Clean-Up, Paint-Up, Fix Up Bureau." Cleanliness and fresh paint have everything to do with national security, according to House in the Middle. Near the film's beginning, its stark narrator booms that "a house that is neglected is a house that may be doomed in the atomic age." The film then takes viewers to the Nevada Proving Ground, where they are shown how fresh-painted, clean houses hold up to nuclear blasts for a full one quarter of one second longer than do dirty, run-down homes. The film is a treasure trove for scholars--its contempt for the poor and their implied role in actually causing nuclear war is especially evident, as the narrator often talks of the dirty houses as ones that a viewer might find in "slum areas," with a strong tone of disgust used to punctuate the word slum. All I am concerned with, however, is the fact that the film continues to achieve the primary goals of early Civil Defense films--the creation and maintenance of exploitable fear that is small enough to avoid uncontrollable (and unexploitable) panic but still large enough to remain persistent--and that it does so through distraction. This government-produced film tries to use the threat of nuclear war to scare people into keeping their lawns clean; its ridiculousness is remarkable even by the U.S. government's own formidable standards. This film serves as clear and unmistakable evidence that the government was trying to downplay the threat of nuclear war, and was exploiting such a move as a means through which they could control their citizens.
The foundation upon which this control is predicated is the perceived manageability of nuclear war. On the Beach (1959) uses this foundation and subversively turns it on its head, annexing the government's strategy of making nuclearism all-pervasive. The film's subversion does not stop there; it also annexes the presentation of the de facto pro-nuclear popular films of the time by presenting its stark message in a manner that can only be described as traditional, expected, and--were it divorced from its subject matter--unexceptional (which, as it is used to convey its subject matter, makes it quite exceptional). Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and even Fred Astaire all appear in the film: these are big Hollywood stars, and On the Beach is a big-budget Hollywood melodrama. Only it happens to deal with the complete and total annihilation of mankind after a nuclear war. In the film, Peck stars as an American submarine captain who was fortunate enough to be under water during an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Everyone in the world dies in the blasts and the ensuing fallout, except for the people of Australia, whose fortunate geographic placement has granted them a reprieve of four or five months before wind patterns cover them with deadly dust. The film more or less follows its cast of characters as they prepare for the death that is moving quickly towards them.
On the Beach is more of a traditional "movie" than the other films considered in this essay. Its dialogue is simple and melodramatic. Its characters fit into common molds: Peck is a grizzled seaman, Anthony Perkins a young, wide-eyed Private, and Gardner a floozy seeking redemption. There is even a run of the mill romantic subplot involving Peck and Gardner. Some critics, like Shapiro, point to the film's "hollow characters [and] obvious directorial machinations" (Shapiro 92-93) in order to deride On the Beach as little more than a nuclear-themed "weepie." I feel, however, that the power of the film comes from the fact that these generic, predictable aspects are contrasted with some eerily horrific scenes. The most striking of these is a scene near the film's end in which a viewer is presented with a man who stands at a street corner before a doctor and two Red Cross nurses. The man gives his name, address, and the number of people in his household. It is up to the viewer to realize that he is picking up his family's allotment of suicide pills; just as this realization is being made, the camera pulls back to reveal the man standing at the front of a line of several hundred people that extends for blocks.
At the time of its release, On the Beach was a commercial and critical success, and its message helped to shift public consciousness regarding the threat of nuclear war. The actual dangers of nuclear war were finally being aired openly, to large audiences. The misinformation spread in the old Civil Defense films was now more widely revealed as laughable. This segued conveniently into the heightened tensions of the early 60s: the public's perception of nuclear war had changed from an abstract, somewhat unlikely, and reasonably survivable potentiality to something that was not only likely but would also bring about the complete destruction of all life on earth. It was at this juncture that subversive nuclear dialogue came into full focus, stopped holding back, and began to indict nuclearism directly.
Lesson Two: Reinforce existing public concern. Do not question firmly held beliefs until you can afford to do so; instead, strengthen righteous mistrust.
- Of course, many other factors also contributed to what appeared to be a fairly sudden liberalization of free expression, but so far as Hollywood was concerned it is safe to assume that On the Beach's success (and the government's lack of significant reaction after its release) helped usher in the unprecedented mainstream filmic dissidence that soon followed. This is not to say that On the Beach marked a sea change of governmental policy regarding film. It is just that no one was blacklisted for participating in On the Beach. It may not have caused the liberalization of filmic dissent, then, but it certainly was a sign that filmmakers could get away with more than they perhaps thought they could. It is because of this that I can say that, were it not for pieces of subversive media such as On the Beach, much of the era's later dissent would never have come into being. Although the films of 1964--Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove--were concerned primarily with the destruction of official nuclear discourse, including that which was presented in Civil Defense films, these subversive films were nonetheless influenced by all Civil Defense films, and were concerned particularly with the Civil Defense films that were released between 1959 and 1964.
A-Bomb Blast Effects (1959) and About Fallout (1963) are both typical of post-On the Beach Civil Defense media, in that each is concerned with pseudo-scientific diversion. That is, diversion away from danger, undertaken in such a way as to bolster authority through a more "honest" presentation of the inner workings and potential effects of nuclear war. A-Bomb Blast Effects is a silent film strip that shows pictures of early nuclear tests. It was meant to be played with accompanying narration that explained the effects felt by soldiers who were very near a blast. Of course, these effects were downplayed, but the film's sparse, documentary-style presentation lent it an air of credibility missing from the melodramatic or cartoonish presentations of older Civil Defense films.
About Fallout is more obviously pseudo-scientific, and goes so far as to begin in a laboratory in which a scientist dressed in a lab coat holds towards the camera a glass plate on which pieces of actual radioactive fallout are sitting (they look like little rocks). The film then resembles many other non-Civil Defense classroom films, featuring a loud-voiced narrator, shoddy animation, pictures of outer space, and orchestral music that vaguely recalls the theme from The Jetsons. The film clearly--and, amazingly, correctly--details the creation of radioactive fallout, and explains in no uncertain terms that fallout is indeed deadly. Against this backdrop of seeming respectability, the film cleverly continues the Civil Defense tradition of downplaying the danger of nuclear war, only instead of lying outright, as did the earlier films, About Fallout uses tricks of rhetoric to undermine the danger. At one point, for example, the film shows a cartoon clock and a big purple dot (meant to symbolize the radioactive power of fallout) to explain that fallout retains only "one one-hundredth" of its initial radioactive strength a mere forty-eight hours after it is created. The purple dot shrinks to a minuscule size and the viewer is left to feel quite safe, but the film fails to mention that fallout is still immensely deadly months or possibly even years after a nuclear explosion.
At the film's end, the wondrousness of the USCDA's realistically-ineffectual fallout shelter program is stressed, and the viewer is made to believe that he or she is being led by a competent and caring government. This was a lie, of course; even government-sponsored Civil Defense literature said that the best possible outcome of widespread shelter use would see projected death tolls fall from about 170 million to about 110 million in the event of a 10,000 megaton nuclear exchange (table 1). This very hopeful figure not only undermines the probability that a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would most likely see blasts that were much larger than a mere 10,000 megatons, but also assumes ideal wind conditions and nearly universal compliance with suggestions for taking shelter, downplays the lingering danger posed by fallout, and completely ignores other potential effects of a full-scale nuclear war. So then, even ignoring actual dangers and assuming that everything worked according to plan during a nuclear exchange, by the government's own projections more than half of the United States population would be wiped out in the first few days of a nuclear war. In spite of this, About Fallout suggests that compliance with government instructions is a realistic route to survival.
1: (Congress of the United States, Effects 3)
- Although the means of presentation had to be adjusted to answer the forms of subversive media that had appeared since the introduction of Civil Defense media, the main goals of such media were very much the same as they had been all along. About Fallout still makes its viewers acutely aware of the potential for nuclear war, still underplays the actual danger of nuclear war, and still presents cooperation with the government as the only way to survive a nuclear war.
Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe annexed the pseudo-scientific, documentary presentation style of these later films and, like the earlier subversive films, turned this presentational style to their own ends. By this time, however, it had become clear that the very discourse of nuclearism (antinuclear or otherwise) was contributing to the nuclear threat. What was needed in order for a new generation of subversive media to really succeed, then, was not to address directly the claims made by Civil Defense media--not to question the authority of the government or to point out the inaccuracies of their invalid claims--but to so demonize nuclear rhetoric itself that it would render such discourse unprofitable. And, due to the liberalization signaled by On the Beach's success, films no longer needed to ape the strong anti-communist rhetoric of the Civil Defense films. Still, the antinuclear films that followed did borrow some of the presentational aspects of the later Civil Defense media.
The first of these films was Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Strangelove is one of most critically revered films ever made. The film shifts between three locations, an Air Force base, a high-altitude bomber plane, and the Pentagon's ultra-secret "war room." It begins with the obviously insane commander of the Air Force base, General Ripper, putting his base on lockdown and ordering the bombardiers under his command to break into Soviet airspace and commence a nuclear attack. The film then segues to the government's "war room," in which the fictional president, his cabinet, and various high-ranking officials, including the Soviet ambassador, try desperately to prevent the attack. Their desperation increases with the Soviet ambassador's revelation that his government had created a "Doomsday" device. Designed as a deterrent to war, the device automatically and without exception will release a flurry of nuclear missiles if the USSR is under attack. These missiles have been specially designed to create a fallout so intense that it will last for nearly a century, meaning that a nuclear strike against the USSR would guarantee the destruction of all animal life on earth. Eventually, the men in the war room manage to issue the recall code that had been kept secret by General Ripper, and all the planes pull back before dropping their bombs. That is, all of the planes except one, a plane led by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) that has suffered a radio malfunction after nearly being shot down. The plane's crew work together quite brilliantly to overcome a number of obstacles in order to bring about the end of the world.
Strangelove's popularity, social import, and easily perceived socio-sexual subtexts have occasioned many critical works, but there is no "typical" or common reading of the film, nor is there a popular argument about the film's intentions or reception. As such, I limit my sources to just a few more recent pieces, written after the fall of the Soviet Union and the effective end of the cold war.
Tony Perrine says that both Fail Safe and Strangelove "give cinematic articulation to widely shared but largely unvoiced anxiety about the irreconcilable absurdity of life in the nuclear age" (126), an absurdity that the film makes credible in spite of its slapstick nature, due to its believable presentation. As Perrine notes, the film--like the Civil Defense films released before it--assumes the authoritative, almost objective feel of a documentary, using "a documentary-style voice-over narration" (123) at certain points, and recreating "documentary-style combat footage" (ibid) with its occasional use of shaky handheld cameras. This observation is important, as it showcases Strangelove's subversion--its ability to annex the supposedly authoritative narrative presentation of government media and to use it towards a subversive end. This authority allows Strangelove to present a serious message in spite of its being comically absurd. Jerome Shapiro points out that, "behind [the film's] humor lies an intense seriousness: the characters and events are not real but the neuroses seem plausible" (144).
Shapiro discusses Strangelove mainly as the film relates to his argument about the apocalyptic vision common to nuclear films, and so he does not focus directly on the film's subversive aspects. However, Shapiro's observations regarding the duality of the film--its being both comically absurd and deadly serious--is of interest here. Shapiro notes that
on the one hand, the film is a burlesque; all the characters and institutions are lampooned. One source of humor is that each character is familiar, a cliché, a stereotype taken to the point of unbelievable exaggeration. On the other hand, the characters are so tightly constructed that they are credible, real. (144)
Strangelove manages to bring to light the constructed nature of its contemporary nuclear discourse. Arms races, official casualty approximations, bomb shelters, The House in the Middle, McCarthyism, and Khrushchev banging his shoe against the table at the UN: all of it was play-acting. The whole shebang was as formulaic as a romance novel, as absurd as a Keystone Cops serial, and as dependent upon the proper reception by its audience for the continuation of its own existence as any hackneyed, third rate, unfunny television program. It was a joke, and the people who manufactured it were clowns. Only those clowns could have ended the lives of every single thing in the whole, wide world.
The importance of bringing to light the absurd, constructed, and theatrical nature of nuclear discourse is perhaps better explained by Stanley Kramer's venerable Fail Safe, a film that came out months after Strangelove and was largely ignored by both audiences and critics. This lack of attention was no doubt due primarily to the poor timing of the film's release. Not only is Fail Safe less enjoyable (really, what film is more enjoyable than Strangelove?), but it shared with Strangelove a very similar structure; most of the film's action segues between three different settings, and its characters are overblown caricatures meant to resemble the real-life promulgators of nuclear discourse. The clichéd characters Shapiro mentions in Strangelove all have rough counterparts in Fail Safe. Strangelove has its insanely paranoid army-man-with-his-finger-on-The-Button in General Ripper, who launched the war that would destroy mankind because he feared that fluoridation was a Communist plot that had robbed him of his sexual potency. It had its cowboy-blind-with-moronic-patriotism in Major Kong, who, in perhaps the most iconic scene in the history of western film, rides a nuclear warhead between his legs as if it were a bucking bronco, cheering wildly and waving his cowboy hat in the air, proud to be ending the world. It had a bumbling, ineffectual president, a military strategist who regarded the deaths of tens of millions of people as an acceptable loss, a Wernher von Braun-type of crazed, ex-Nazi scientist, and a Russian ambassador who, in spite of knowing full well that the world has effectively ended, persists in taking spy pictures of the pentagon's war room at the film's end.
All of these characters are, in Strangelove, overblown to comic effect that is so dismissive of the absurdity of these characters that, were it not for the film's subject matter, I might consider it unfair or even mean. In Fail Safe, these characters are treated less derisively, and are allowed to speak their parts as they would in the popular press. Perrine notes that, "[i]n Fail Safe, the nuclear dilemma is personified in the character of various military strategists and advisors who overtly represent various viewpoints in the nuclear debate" (123, emphasis mine). Ironically, it is Strangelove's over-the-top derision that apparently divorces its characters enough from their real-world counterparts to allow for outward, and effective, criticism. When the same criticism was made about similar characters in Fail Safe, it was ignored.
Fail Safe also produces its authority-effect by aping late Civil Defense films and presenting itself as a science-y pseudo-documentary, including the character of a hapless-but-curious Senator who serves little narrative purpose aside from letting the film's "scientist" characters explain the strategy behind nuclear air attacks. The Senator spends most of the film (as do all of the other major characters) speaking, arguing his point against the peaceniks who believe that there are no winners in nuclear war, the political scientists who think the focus should be on "winning" a nuclear war, the supposedly-objective hard scientists, the citizens who are concerned for their own well being, and the paradoxical peaceniks who believed that armament and war are the only paths to peace. Each of these characters had direct, real-life parallels, and the rhetoric used by each character may well have been taken from the popular press of the day.
Focusing on the film's presentation and criticism of these obviously representative characters misses the film's rather pronounced and self-explanatory point, a point that most critics and reviewers only mention. Michael Wollscheidt, in his largely negative review/critical essay of the film, goes so far as to call this the film's "premise," the idea that "[a]n accident similar to the one depicted in Fail Safe is mathematically inevitable" (70). This accident is a computer glitch. It is that simple. A computer designed to monitor United States airspace bugs out and sends out an attack signal to U.S. bombers. The bombers receive the signal, and there is nothing that anyone can do to stop them. This happens in the very early scenes of Fail Safe and the remaining hour and a half or so consist of the different viewpoints bickering. It is made clear that this bickering, this debate between the many different characters, has led to the mathematical inevitability of nuclear war. Fail Safe does not take the side of any character, does not say that if one man's viewpoint is followed then nuclear war can be limited or avoided. It insists instead that it is the talk of nuclear war that has made nuclear war a possibility, and that the continued talk of nuclear war will make nuclear war an inevitability.
Lesson Three: Once the problem has been made obvious, go in for the kill.
- The promulgators of nuclear dialogue could not counter the arguments epitomized in the 1964 films. Nuclear dialogue itself had now been demonized; it could not argue for its own necessity because even making such an argument would have constituted a continuation of itself and therefore a continuation of a serious risk of full-scale nuclear war. Between 1964 and the Reagan administration, widespread, popular opposition to nuclear armament shifted focus; while there was still a strong resistance to all things nuclear, the resistance was not as passionate or wide reaching as it was in the late 50s and 60s. Anti-nuclear sentiment existed and still exists to this day, of course, as does sentiment regarding the potential tactical use or necessity of nuclear weapons and all of the other parts of nuclear discourse that, were they ever again allowed to control public consciousness as they were at the height of the Cold War, would make nuclear war an inevitability. However, the resistance seems to have peaked in the early 1960s.
There was a small-scale revival of nuclear discourse during the fear-mongering heyday of Reagan's and Thatcher's reigns. In the U.S. there was Secretary of Defense Weinberger's "fabulously textual" disavowal of the infamous "Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance" document, which said that the U.S. planned to "prevail" in the event of a nuclear war. Derrida mentions this document specifically in "No Apocalypse," where he writes that the inclusion of a single word, "prevail," caused a firestorm of righteously angry media coverage. In particular, New York Times national security correspondent Leslie H. Gelb used the inclusion of the word as the base from which to launch an attack against Reagan's poorly conceived foreign policy, noting correctly that an insane belief in the possibility that one nation would prevail in a nuclear war could, if left unchecked, "induce some leader some day to think he could risk starting a nuclear war because he would be able to stop short of a complete catastrophe" (qtd. Derrida 25).
More generally there were Reagan's many invocations of Armageddon. When discussing anything related to Reagan, one must keep in mind the man's epic capacity for both hypocrisy and unintentional self-contradiction. So, even though it is technically true that Reagan did at times deny that he was preparing the country for Armageddon, he insisted at other times not only that he believed that the End Times would occur but that there was a good chance they would occur in his lifetime. Take the following passage from the 1984 presidential debate, for example:
Mr. Kalb, I think what has been hailed as something I'm supposedly, as President, discussing as principle is the recall of just some philosophical discussions with people who are interested in the same things; and that is the prophecies down through the years, the biblical prophecies of what would portend the coming of Armageddon, and so forth, and the fact that a number of theologians for the last decade or more have believed that this was true, that the prophecies are coming together that portend that. But no one knows whether Armageddon, those prophecies mean that Armageddon is a thousand years away or day after tomorrow. So, I have never seriously warned and said we must plan according to Armageddon.
Such ambivalence worked well enough to allow Reagan to bring up (and therefore exploit) the general public's fear of nuclear war while still covering himself against accusations of warmongering and/or threatening directly to launch or otherwise needlessly participate in a nuclear exchange.
Now, with regard to having to say whether we would try to survive in the event of a nuclear war, of course we would. But let me also point out that to several parliaments around the world, in Europe and in Asia, I have made a statement to each one of them, and I'll repeat it here: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And that is why we are maintaining a deterrent and trying to achieve a deterrent capacity to where no one would believe that they could start such a war and escape with limited damage. (Reagan, italics mine)
The lack of high angst in response to Reagan's incautious talk of nuclear war is explained, oddly enough, in the quote above; there was no need for subversives to counter any government lie regarding the survivability of a nuclear war--the government already did that for them. What came about during the Reagan era--and it has continued since--was a refined exploitation of nuclear fear, one that through outrageous self-contradiction managed to insulate itself from direct critical dialogue and place the U.S.S.R. on edge not because of its adversarial nature but rather because it appeared to emanate from the mouth of a man who was at best unstable and at worst insane.
From the Reagan era to the present day, the mechanisms of exploitation have been diverse and complicated enough to preclude a dangerous over-reliance on nuclear rhetoric. Newer fears, ranging from the spread of the "homosexual agenda" to "Islamo-fascism" to the "culture wars," are being used to frighten, perturb, and ultimately to control the American people. Our ability to resist these means of control remain contingent upon our abilities to recognize and counter the enabling rhetoric that creates and perpetuates these fears, and our ability to do so in a way that is acceptable enough to reach a large audience. The parallels between the enabling discourse of nuclearism and that of our present fears do exist, even if they are not always direct, and future subversive media still needs to heed the basic lessons laid down by those of nuclear subversive media if it is to succeed.
Department of English Language and Literature
University of Northern Iowa
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1. The novel is titled Kiss Me, Deadly, and the film's omission of the comma has lead to much confusion among both readers and critics. Since I do not discuss the book any further in this essay, however, I do not address this topic further.
2. Perhaps the most notable--and infamous--of these "subversive" films was Frank Capra's amazingly innocuous It's a Wonderful Life. Offense was apparently taken at the fact the film's villain, Mr. Potter, was a successful capitalist.
3. The Office of Civil Defense (OCD), a precursor to the Cold War's USCDA, was established by executive order in May of 1941. However, its creation came with little press coverage and its functions were hardly adequate to meet the danger of air raids, or chemical or biological attacks.
4. "McGuffin," a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, is simply an interchangeable plot device.
5. I respect the field and do not intend for this essay to make any contentions against it. Derrida, and Baudrillard in his "The Anorexic Ruins" (1989), speak of nuclearism as an all-pervasive state that encompasses all literature, all texts. Derrida's argument hinges on nuclear war being the one thing capable of completely destroying the archive. It is therefore the "ultimate referent," the destruction of all symbolic and referential order against which all things that depend on such order (which is to say, everything that can be understood) are based. Other critics have already discussed this concept at length, and I do not argue against either its theoretical feasibility or its general merit as a lens through which to interpret texts.
6. These were mostly horror films, like the aforementioned It Came from Beneath the Sea, in which nuclear war or nuclear byproducts typically create a monster of some sort. These helped the government by keeping the issues non-pervasive and also by making the threat of nuclear war seem manageable, since the monsters were almost always defeated handily.
7. Minimal exposure to the radioactive fallout at Hiroshima, for example, produced a significant death rate increase years after the city was bombed. According to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, some 80,000 US cancer cases were caused by fallout emanating from highly controlled (and supposedly safe) open-air nuclear tests. A full-scale nuclear exchange would produce fallout levels that would dwarf either of these. According to a report filed by Congress' Office of Technology Assessment in 1972, the residual cancer deaths that would result from a single series of surface burst attacks aimed only at U.S. oil refineries would number between one and five and one half million (113), and that is assuming an adequate shelter program is used for an extended period of time. In the case of a full-scale nuclear conflict, death by fallout would be inevitable for all those not killed in the initial blasts.
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Kiss Me Deadly. Dir. Robert Aldrich. Perf. Ralph Meeker. 1955. DVD. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2001.
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On the Beach. Dir. Stanley Kramer. Perf. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire. 1959. DVD. MGM, 2000.
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Pickup on South Street. Dir. Samuel Fuller. Perf. Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter. DVD. Criterion, 2004.
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