Monday, July 9, 2007

The Cold War Goes to the Cinema

This was an essay I wrote in a film/history class I took years ago. I like the paper, so I'm publishing it here, and tinkering stuff. Forgive if not interested:

The 1950s were a difficult time for America. A fear loomed that was unlike anything before or after. The word "communist" could send chills down your spine; it was so palpable. In 1950, Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, would become "the accidental demagogue" (Halberstam 49) to the phenomenon that was already in full swing when he alleged there were communists in the state department. The threat had been around since 1918, when the first red scare occurred in the United States, however it was in the wake of the Great Depression that communism started to really become appealing to the American lower classes, as the thinking was that capitalism just doesn't work, or at least doesn't work anymore. As WWII came to an end, the threat and paranoia grew, through Harry Truman's Executive Order No. 9835 (issued so Democrats wouldn't be considered soft on communism, which Republicans alleged), which probed federal employees for communistic leanings, through the madness of McCarthyism, and the establishment of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
The HUAC was created to monitor the film industry, to investigate any subversive material that might be in movies or television. This was a huge blow to the film industry and film in general, as the HUAC, was "inclined to believe any accusation from anyone" (Halberstam 12). If someone was accused of communist leanings, or refuse to rat out on others, they would be blacklisted, barred from working, it was the ultimate survival game. However, movies are possibly the most powerful medium we have, and a great many movies (from the 1950s and beyond) responded to witch-hunt. A great many are told in allegories, but the heartache and sure madness of the period is captured on film as a sort of historical document.
One such film is the masterpiece, High Noon. Made in 1952, High Noon was directed by Fred Zinnemann, native of Vienna, and written by Carl Foreman, who coincidentally was a blacklisted screenwriter. Although the film is literally based on a short story, entitled "The Tin Star," the film is really an allegory detailing the blacklist experience, using the western genre as its veil. The film centers around Will Caine (Gary Cooper, who won an Oscar for his performance), a recently retired marshal of the small town of Hadleyville. Immediately after his wedding with Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), news comes in that Frank Miller, the wild, crazy murderer Caine sent to be hung is on the noon train to "make trouble." Caine refuses to leave and round up deputies to aid him in fighting off Miller, but like Carl Foreman, and all blacklisted people in show business, Caine is deserted by his old friends, themselves ruled by fear that by association they would be done for.
There's one scene in High Noon that is particularly haunting after learning its roots and subsequent agenda. The scene takes place in a church (of all places)-- Caine comes barging in on Sunday mass to round up deputies and panic ensues, argument wage over whose responsibility this really is. Then a townsman makes a speech about how Caine as marshal cleaned up Hadleyville to the point where it was safe for families and more importantly, businesses. The speech continues by stating the if the rumble between Caine and Miller takes place, all that progress will by shattered; unless Caine leaves town. In essence, Caine, or the communist, is a threat to capitalism.
In 1954, a film with an even more bracing view on the Red Scare opened. On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, two people gave names the HUAC, made the argument that sometimes it's in your best interest to snitch. On the Waterfront is such an unusual movie it was a defense, not a protest of the actions going on in Hollywood. The film centers around Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, who won an Oscar for his performance), and his conflict of conscience with the corrupt mobsters, led by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who controlled the waterfront. In the film Terry stands for Elia Kazan, the conflicted, but good, all-American guy. Johnny Friendly, and his evil murdering cronies are the none-too-subtle stand in for communism, and the waterfront crime commission, where Terry turns Johnny in, is the movie's House of Un-American Activities Committee.
There's an interesting dichotomy in High Noon and On the Waterfront, and it has do with religion, and it's take on communism. When Will Caine barges into the church, the minister conducting the mass doesn't have anything to say, as if the situation itself (being communism) is so massive, there isn't even salvation in God at this point. Whereas in On the Waterfront, Father Barry (Karl Malden) practically leads the fight against Johnny Friendly, and is one of the only influences that truly gets to Terry. In essences ratting out communism (I mean Friendly), Terry is doing God's work, the right thing, which is reinforced by Kazan's abundant religious metaphors scattered throughout the movie. The bleeding, broken Jesus-like way Brando is held by Eva Marie Saint in the final scene is no accident.
In 1953, Arthur Miller (a former friend and frequent collaborator of Elia Kazans) wrote the play, The Crucible. Set in the 17th century Puritan town of Selma, Massachusetts, The Crucible is perhaps the most famous allegory ever written on the subject of McCarthyism. The play was in a way a response to Kazan's actions with the HUAC. The amazing 1996 film version, surprisingly the only major motion picture of the masterwork, directed by Nicolas Hynter and penned by Miller himself recounts the tale of the Salem witch trials.
In the film, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) is a young woman who tries to cast a spell that would kill Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen), the wife of the man, John (Daniel Day-Lewis) she has fallen in love with. Interestingly, the first scene of the film shows Abigail's face covered in blood-- showcasing her "red"ness. Abigail and her friends are caught dancing in the forest and assumed to be doing the "Devil's work." Immediately Abigail speaks of people, "blacking her name," and in an attempt to save herself from death, she rats others out (she rats out people she has grudges with, like Kazan did at the HUAC): they're the culprits of her and her friends "Devil work." Immediately, the entire town of Salem is struck with fear and paranoia. After informing on several people, eventually Abigail alleges Elizabeth is a with.
The metaphors are fairly obvious in The Crucible (using the real Salem witch hunt as a stand in for McCarthyism), and the play, and subsequent movie can be interestingly compared to On the Waterfront (even though the film came out a year after the play opened.) Abigail could almost be a stand-in for Terry Malloy (an in essence Kazan himself, an interesting take given the famous feud Kazan and Miller had after Kazan named 11 names to the HUAC), and she is most certainly the film's villian. Abigail fully cooperates and names several people, and doesn't have any struggles of conscience with it as long as it clears her name.
In fact, Abigail could be a stand-in for all the filmmakers who cooperated with the HUAC, and their actions were certainly understandable. After all, if you didn't give names, you were blacklisted and couldn't work-- your career was dead. That Abigail and her friends are made out in the material to look like silly little schoolgirls clearly shows Miller's disdain for them. In the end John Proctor is given the option of either being killed or confessing to witchcraft, he chooses death, as his good name is too important to him.
Working as an antithesis to On the Waterfront was The Front (1976). The Front was directed by Martin Ritt and directed by Walter Bernstein, who were, you guessed it, blacklisted in the 1950s. The Front is an interesting film because it's one of the few feature films that tackled the subject of communism and the blacklist without the use of a carefully plotted allegory. It's also interesting because it serves as both an honest film about 1950s McCarthyism, while simultaneously being a testament to the 1970s; the cynicism on American politics is a brazenly, post-Vietnam, '70s fixture, not '50s. The Front is about Harold Prince (Woody Allen), a schlep wasting away as a cashier until he's hired as a "front" by screenwriter friends of his who were blacklisted. As he becomes successful, Harold meets comic actor Heckie Brown (Zero Mostel), a communist. As Harold, the moral opposition to Waterfront's Terry, witnesses Heckie's downfall from the HUAC, he must make a decision when he is called by the committee. In the end, he can't bring himself to snitch. the film honestly depicts the struggle and the hopelessness of those canonized by the HUAC.
Another film that works as a companion piece to The Front was 1991's Guilty by Suspicion. Written and directed by Irwin Winkler, Guilty by Suspicion revolves an esteemed Hollywood director named David Merrill (Robert De Niro), who must pass muster with the HUAC before he can begin work on his next film. After refusing to rat his friends out, including his writer chum Bunny Baxter (George Wendt), Merrill is blacklisted. The bulk of the film revolves around this experience and the desperation and rejection of the period.
There's a noteworthy scene in Guilty by Suspicion in Merrill finally gets work directing a crummy, low budget western. The villain's name is Frank Miller, the same as in High Noon, and there's a shot of a man throwing his tin star on the ground. It's a throwaway reference to another film about the blacklist experience (though that one couldn't be told directly.) This scene shows the interconnectedness of all these films and the universal destruction of the era on the film industry, where no one was safe.
The themes of all of these films and McCarthyism is very resonant today in the age of war on terror and George W. Bush. Many have noted of the similarity in time periods-- being afraid of the unknown. Instead of communists, we've moved on to terrorists, and the Patriot Act could be a prime example of a piece of legislation putting restrictions on people. Guantanamo Bay could by this generation's HUAC. Off the top of my head, I think of one film that could be used an allegory for present day American woes-- Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003)-- watch the ending ask yourself if that could be metaphor for 9/11. Thinking of of a modern day film that recounts the period exactly and excellently, George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck springs to mind. This one with Senator McCarthy playing himself. I remember reading an article about test screenings of Good Night, and Good Luck, and people complaining the actor playing McCarthy was too hammy and over the top, thought that was funny.

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