The Atomic Age in Film Series
Presented by Physicians for Social Responsibility (LA Chapter)
in association with the Japan American Society of Southern California, at the Laemmle Theatres Santa Monica from
April 29 to September 4, 1995. © Mick Broderick 1995
The atomic age is as old as cinema itself. One hundred years ago as Wilhelm Roentgen was announcing X-rays to the world, pioneer filmmakers the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison were projecting rudimentary motion pictures to astonished audiences.
Considering the simultaneous development of nuclear technologies and motion pictures, what better means by which to assess our nuclear epoch than a retrospective of Atomic Age Cinema?
Try to imagine, if you can, what your conception of the Bomb would be without movies? From the earliest newsreel shots taken of the Trinity test on July 16, 1945 at 1,000 frames a second to reveal the silent bubble of atmospheric ignition milliseconds after detonation, through to the spiralling mushroom clouds towering above the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cinema has been the most powerful mode of rendering the nuclear -- a truly modern medium befitting the atomic age.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is vital to recall that the atomic attacks on Japan have been all but ignored in mainstream US cinema. In Japan, however, after the US Occupation ended in 1952 and its severe censorship was lifted, Japanese filmmakers produced a number of films on the subject. Recently, Masaaki Mori's brilliantly animated film version of manga comic Barefoot Gen [Hadashi no Gen, 1983] graphically depicts the confusion, horror and anxiety felt by orphaned hibakusha (bomb-affected) children better than any film made to date.
Writer-director Shohei Imamura's adaptation of Masuji Ibuse's best-selling novel Black Rain [Kuroi Ame, 1989] depicts a well-meaning ex-Hiroshima couple trying to marry off their hibakusha niece to anyone who will take her by literally re-writing history, altering personal diaries. As a parable for Japanese audiences long fed on half-truths about their country's aggression during World War II, at every turn, the folly of attempting historical revisionism in Black Rain results in misunderstanding, if not disaster, while highlighting the double misfortune facing bomb-survivors in Japanese society.
In America Hollywood was quick to cash in on the novelty and topicality of the Bomb. Within days of the Hiroshima attack major studios began haggling with the White House over rights to dramatise the Manhattan Project. With President Truman's personal approval, what evolved was MGM's The Beginning or the End? [1946-7], a biased pseudo-documentary drama claiming to authentically chronicle the events leading up to the development and use of the first atomic weapons, all carefully censored by Pentagon PR staff. Woefully inaccurate on several scores, the film deliberately creates the misleading impression that the Japanese were near to completing their own atomic bomb, and falsely depicts Truman agonising over his Hiroshima decision.
Recognising the unique attributes of cinema for waging propaganda and moulding public opinion, Congress and the government quickly created a postwar climate of mistrust and suspicion feeding public paranoia. The pro-Soviet propaganda of the war years was paraded publicly as evidence of treachery, so Hollywood executives redoubled their efforts at depicting communism as a vile and insidious contagion with the potential to destroy America. Typical of the wave of espionage films from the period is Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street , where a petty criminal (Richard Widmark) discovers and then extorts stolen microfilm. The post-war convergence of film noir, communist atom spies, federal agents and gangsters meets its cinematic zenith in Robert Aldrich's tour de force adaptation of Mickey Spillane's novel Kiss Me Deadly . Via the persona of Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), an abrasive private eye mixed up in nuclear espionage, the film's central theme announces the political death of individualism operating outside the clearly defined strictures of post-war national security consensus. Better than any other film of the 1950s Kiss Me Deadly demonstrates what characterized the nuclear epoch -- a pervasive sense of paranoia (both personal and cultural) lurking beneath the veneer of social accord, fuelling self-destructive urges.
Drama films were not alone in conditioning citizens to accept the military-industrial complex, a ubiquitous national security apparatus and preparations to fight and win a nuclear war. Civilian and military documentaries, training films and educational movies of the time attempted to either dismissively allay public disquiet about all things nuclear or, paradoxically, exploit this very insecurity in order to inculcate in the public motivation to spy on neighbours and colleagues, build bomb shelters and take part in national civil defence exercises. Few films capture the spirit of the times as effectively as The Atomic Cafe . By cleverly juxtaposing newsreel and docudrama materials from the 1940s-1960s, the film creates a sobering (and at times hilarious) case against nuclear naivety. An exemplar of postmodern bricolage which evokes an ironic nostalgia for the 'duck and cover' generation, the film appropriates exactly the same material the government, military and big business previously deployed to fool a gullible US public into embracing The Bomb.
But all of this atomic fear and anticommunist loathing mutated into other forms of cultural expression. Through allusion and fantasy, the genre of science fiction provided a potent site of cultural resistance (as well as conformity) via themes of the nuclear monster and alien 'invasion'. Made the same year as Godzilla in Japan, films such as Them!  depict irradiated ants becoming giants, emerging from the desert testing grounds and threatening downtown Los Angeles. In this way, the horror of radiation and atmospheric nuclear detonations could be critiqued obliquely in a manner that was acceptable to authorities. Often in these films the conventional final resolution is left ambiguous, with the threat of monsters returning and future atomic perils.
In the 1950s Carl Jung argued that flying saucer reports reflected a psychological projection of nuclear cold war fears where omnipotent alien forces warn the Earth that human aggression and nuclear weapons could not co-exist. This theme is evident in the role of Klaatu (Michael Rennie) in The Day the Earth Stood Still , an extraterrestrial who comes to Earth in peace but encounters only violence and distrust. Ultimately, he issues an apocalyptic ultimatum to assembled international scientists after political leaders pay little heed: "Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration."
As apocalyptic fears of nuclear weapons grew, some filmmakers sought to make 'message' films with humanist pleas for international cooperation to halt the insane march toward Mutually Assured Destruction. Appalled by H-bomb tests near Japan, Akira Kurosawa made Record of a Living Being [Ikimono no Kioku, 1955, aka: I Live in Fear] which depicts factory owner, Mr Nakajima, trying to convince his family to flee to Brazil, which he imagines to be a presumed safe-haven from an imminent nuclear fate. Kurosawa skilfully depicts the omnipresent double-bind which affects us all: recognition of the insanity that the species can self-destruct at any given moment, yet we go on living a 'normal' life denying this reality. Nakajima's vain efforts to break this bind may be foolhardy and ill-conceived but at least he chooses direct action, refusing to be 'psychically numbed' into a fatalistic resignation, which makes him one of the first screen activists of the nuclear age. However, organised activism was itself critiqued in The Day The Earth Caught Fire  where inserted fictional scenes merge with actuality footage as thousands of anti-bomb CND protesters in London fight agent provocateurs. They gather in outrage at the superpower frenzy to detonate increasingly massive H-bombs until simultaneous tests finally spin the Earth off its axis.
In Hiroshima Mon Amour  director Alain Resnais and author Marguerite Duras craft a modernist narrative to contextualize the atomic bombings and their ongoing legacy within a framework of global war and individual loss. Through a dialectical lovers' discourse, a French woman and a Japanese man combine their memories of a past (atomic) war with a prophecy of future nuclear conflagration. Almost as an ironic reprise of the Resnais-Duras film, in Miracle Mile , two lovers meet unwittingly on the day of a US preemptive nuclear strike. The film's disquieting proposition is: how would you react if you knew World War III was only hours away? By implication, the film suggests that individual and collective panic coupled with non-intervention aid and abet a self-fulfilling descent into nuclear Armageddon.
Equally downbeat, On the Beach  shocked a generation of moviegoers expecting a traditional Hollywood 'happy ending', where the just prevail and innocents are protected by the strong. When a lethal radioactive cloud from a northern hemisphere atomic war encircles the globe, indiscriminately killing all beneath it, audiences had their worst nightmares reinforced: global nuclear war could potentially lead to the death of the entire species, with no winners -- only homo sapiens as the losers. Yet, if On the Beach depicted a potential fate which awaits us all, Stanley Kubrick's inspired 'nightmare comedy', Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb , brilliantly deconstructs the politico-military mindset that prepares 'world targets in mega-death' and encourages superpower brinkmanship to the point where a doomsday nuclear exchange not only seems inevitable but is a calculated and desirable option for some. However, fantasies of post-holocaust life were shown as dubious in A Boy and His Dog  since a subterranean, survivor community is shown as a literally impotent and moribund society reduced to a nostalgic pastiche of 'wholesome' middle American values while ruthlessly murdering dissenters.
Twenty years before the sinister Iran-Contra 'shadow government' revelations, Seven Days in May  extended Dr Strangelove's logic to suggest that executive government -- in this instance a US President ready to sign a START treaty -- is always prey to malign hegemonic forces from within the military, ready to topple legitimate democracies for bogus ideological power. After Vietnam and Watergate, the same inherent mistrust of power elites is evident in The China Syndrome , released within weeks of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown. Immediately ridiculed by partisan critics as a technically flawed fantasy, the tragedy of Harrisburg (and later Chernobyl) vindicated the film's accusations of corporate coverups and deliberate media distortion by nuclear utilities and government 'watchdogs'.
If nuclear movies shock audiences, occasionally jolting them into action, they also have the potential to numb, no matter the filmmaker's best intentions. A few films, however, manage to evade this problem by directly addressing the depersonalizing effect of nuclear weapons. Refusing to engage in a special effects orgy of simulated nuclear destruction, Testament  succeeded where many nuclear war films of the 1980s failed in changing the perspective from the global to the local and concentrating on a single family's stoic response to the slow, invisible radiation sickness destroying their community. More subtle in its social critique, Desert Bloom  portrays the typical 1950s 'nuclear family' as deeply dysfunctional. Against a backdrop of nuclear testing in the nearby desert, postwar attitudes predicated upon patriarchy and heterosexuality begin to skew for a rebellious adolescent baby-boomer. As a kind of secular parable about spirituality in the nuclear age, Andrei Tarkovski's final film The Sacrifice , shows a playwright-academic in a last-ditch attempt at halting and imminent nuclear war, embracing religion to save his family. Inexplicably, the holocaust is averted, and his wife and child saved, so he sets out to make good a holy vow.
Now, in this centenary of cinema, 50 years on from the 'birth of the Bomb', nuclear movies are still with us. And so we remain destined to be captives of the atomic age while plutonium, the most lethal substance on the planet (remaining radioactive for a quarter of a million years) is manufactured and shipped around the globe. Whether facing a New World Order or more of the same, nuclear film scenarios, while becoming less apocalyptic, now concentrate on proliferation, contamination and terrorism. As governments admit to programs of non-consensual nuclear experimentation affecting hundreds of thousands of citizens, the 'evidence' has always been there, in movies. As a social barometer they both anticipate and reflect upon the cultural zeitgeist -- all you have to do is watch and listen.