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Unglaring Exceptions: Dissent in the Films of the 1950s

Dissent in the Films of the 1950s

This excerpt, from Running Time: Films of the Cold War by Nora Sayre (Dial Press, 1982) is reprinted with the kind permission of the estate of Nora Sayre. The editors wish to thank Prudence Carlson and Eve Pomerance for their assistance in making publication possible.

While the largest American audiences of 1954 watched James Stewart studying his neighbors in Rear Window, or Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge shooting it out in Johnny Guitar, or Victor Mature fondling Susan Hayward in Demetrius and the Gladiators, while many savored the inspired lunacies of Beat the Devil, there was one film that most were protected from seeing. Salt of the Earth, made independently by blacklisted writers—directed by Herbert Biberman of the Hollywood Ten, written by Michael Wilson, and produced by Paul Jarrico—was presented by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, which had been expelled from the CIO in 1950 on charges of Communist domination. The movie was beleaguered from its inception. Filmed in Silver City, New Mexico, Salt of the Earth was based on the 1951-1952 strike by the Mexican-American zinc miners of Mine-Mill, who had demanded equality with their Anglo colleagues, as well as safety regulations on the job.

Since the film was shot before the Korean War was over, some right-wingers deduced that the movie was part of a Stalinist conspiracy to encourage a copper miners’ strike that would hinder the production of weapons for the war. There were ample problems in hiring a cast and a crew, because many professionals were reasonably afraid that they would be blacklisted if they worked for those who were said to be Communists. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, headed by Roy Brewer, were not allowed to participate. The leading actress, Rosaura Revultas, was harried by immigration officials and deported to Mexico as an “illegal alien” before the filming was finished. Vigilantes disrupted the production, shot at the film makers’ cars, and thrashed some of the crew.

Meanwhile, Congressman Donald Jackson of California, a member of the Committee [House Committee on Un-American Activities], quoted Hearst columnist Victor Riesel in Congress, warning that Communists were making a picture close to the atomic testing grounds of Los Alamos: the subversives’ proximity to secret weapons was deemed ominous. (Jackson, who was determined to quash the movie, which he called “a new weapon for Russia,” also noted that the film company had “imported two auto carloads of colored people for the purpose of shooting a scene of mob violence”—it didn’t occur to him that the black arrivals were actually film technicians.) Other technicians and laboratories declined to work on the sound and film developing; the Pathé laboratories withdrew from the film processing. Distributors boycotted the movie; even after ten years’ litigation, the producers failed in their efforts to enforce antitrust laws against the suppression of their film. Roy Brewer had assured Congressman Jackson that the Hollywood AFL Film Council would do “everything” possible to prevent Salt of the Earth from being exhibited, and projectionists and theater owners who were members of Brewer’s union would not show it. The American Legion forestalled a number of bookings. Still, the movie had sporadic engagements in ten cities. Those who saw it in Los Angeles were urged to park far from the theater because FBI agents were said to be collecting the license plate numbers from cars in the lot beside the movie house.

During the decades since Salt of the Earth was released, some visited it as an archeological artifact, and many were at first struck by its ineptitudes: the militant uplift music, the ponderous narration, the utterly evil bosses and the cruelly cackling sheriff pitted against the inherent goodness of the working people. The film didn’t seem radical to spectators of the sixties and seventies: for movie-goers accustomed to If… and Putney Swope and M*A*S*H, there was nothing unusual about a film that deprecated and challenged the system; many found the movie rather dull, and the fact that the film makers were eventually known to have been Communists held little interest for ensuing generations.

But if one re-enters the mentality of the fifties and also accepts the movie’s flaws, one can be moved by certain passages—and astounded by the level of its feminism. The mainly non-professional cast—mostly Mine-Mill workers from Local 890—adds authenticity to the recurrent struggles of the labor movement. The film’s vigor springs from its emphasis on the conflicts and bitter tensions between men and women, among those working on the same side; the women who replace the men as picketers assert that they too must be treated as equals—an almost unimaginable concept for the early fifties, even among Communists, who often discussed “the woman question” but hardly faced it. Actually, Salt of the Earth concentrates even more on sexual oppression than class oppression. And there are many touching moments: the women hastening through hills and fields to join the swelling picket line, or the mutinous neighbors carrying an evicted family’s furniture back into their house. There are also amusingly effective scenes when a crowd of angry women in jail shouts from behind the bars at the demoralized sheriff, or when their husbands hang up laundry and grapple with domestic difficulties, discovering what women’s work is like—and hating it.

In 1954, it was still suspect to declare that corporations exploited their employees, or that “racial minorities” were underpaid or abused on the job, or that a company could be indifferent to the safety and health of its underlings. Only disloyal citizens would choose to discredit our democracy with such distortions; an indignant article in Films in Review claimed that the film’s “basic situations” were “untrue in terms of American life” and that the movie would be “unbelievable to all except those, here and abroad, who resent the measure of individual freedom that Americans possess.” But even if the film makers had been politically spotless, Salt of the Earth would not have been produced by any studio in Hollywood.

And yet a few films did venture beyond the boundaries of prudence. However, such movies were more apt to be made if the theme was contained in a metaphor—if the vehicle was a melodrama or a Western. When Carl Foreman was writing High Noon in 1952, he deliberately used Gary Cooper’s lone marshal combatting some dangerous outlaws in a small town—where no one wants to support him—as a parable for the Committee’s onslaught on Hollywood, and for the timidity of the community there. Foreman thought that the movie would be his last in Hollywood. He was subpoenaed while High Noon was in production, and he wasn’t sure if his political imagery would be understood. He told me that he had been “morosely pleased” when many wrote to tell him that it was.

After Foreman was blacklisted, High Noon was severely criticized in the Soviet Union; Pravda lambasted it as “a glorification of the individual.” Indeed, Cooper’s acute solitude in crisis—as the enemy approaches and even well-meaning people recoil from the inevitable confrontation—gives the film a stark strength which hasn’t aged. It was clever to ally the rebellious figure with law and order. Cooper’s performance was surely his best, especially because the character was allowed to show quiet twinges of fear: the eyes that widen with shock or pain or disappointment make the stubbornness seem all the more courageous. (The actor was then afflicted with ulcers, which probably enhanced the wincing.) The movie also succeeds due to the sense of urgency: time is horribly short before the town will be destroyed by forces from which it won’t recover. As crowds wait at the railway station for the killers’ arrival, the film’s only possible fallacy is the assumption that a train will run on schedule.

To my knowledge, the one movie that openly protested the tactics of the Committee was Storm Center which was directed and co-written by Daniel Taradash in 1956. The film was conceived and scripted in secrecy because the film makers were certain that it was “politically explosive” production was postponed several times during five years. Bette Davis plays a meddlesome librarian who refuses to remove a volume called The Communist Dream from the shelves after the local city council demands that she do so. She argues that the book is “preposterous”—hence it should be read, like Mein Kampf. Accused of turning the library into “a propaganda machine for the Kremlin,” she’s smeared for her former membership in wartime Communist front groups, and then fired.

The movie is careful to state that Davis is a civil libertarian, not a radical. Branded as “a danger to the community,” she finds that adults and children shrink from speaking to her. Another actress might have made the role too pious or pitiful, but Davis’s defiant poise protects the film from sogginess. Joe Mantell embodies the sour anti-intellectual of the fifties: hostile even to his wife’s fondness for music and his son’s appetite for reading—“I’m stuffed to my gizzard with his library and your piano”—he distills a triumphant loathing of “pinkos.” When the library is set on fire by an hysterical child, this modest, simpleminded film does convey the horror of book burning, especially when a large dictionary catches flame—even though the scene was enacted on a movie set, those were real books.

Antipathy toward cultivated persons is also featured in Sidney Lumet’s first film, Twelve Angry Men, where rude clods like Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley attack their patrician fellow juror Henry Fonda for his “bleeding heart”—because he’s uncertain if an apparent delinquent is definitely guilty of murdering his father. The script by Reginald Rose pitches vulgarians against the genteel and the sensitive: Twelve Angry Men was rather disdainful of a mass audience. Yet the movie, which questions our jury system with some gusto, was also quite bold for 1957, when I was startled by its outspokenness—mainly because it explored ambiguity and the elusiveness of facts, and because the soft-shelled liberal that Fonda played was almost a magnet for the ridicule of the right. Today the film seems inhibited; it refers to “personal prejudice” without acknowledging that racism is a part of our society, and the movie begins and ends with a resounding tribute to justice: as the camera soars admiringly up the stout pillars of the New York courthouse to stirring music, the film assures us of fairness and equality under American law. Considering what we’ve learned since then about the trials of the black and the poor, we can’t share the optimism that the film exudes. And yet—naive and old-fashioned as the movie now appears, cramped by its origins as a television play—it did water some seeds which had been parched in Hollywood.

The cycle of what were called “Negro problem pictures” that had subsided in 1950 after No Way Out had a few descendants in the late fifties, but the products seem extremely dated. In Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), Sidney Poitier is a dockworker who’s far too noble to be believable: almost an archangel, he dies protecting his white friend, John Cassavetes. Poitier himself has said that the idealized “other-cheek-turners” that he then played reflected a certain uneasiness on the part of white film makers: a black protagonist had to be so saintly that it would be criminal to mistreat him. Such films continued to indicate that white racists were incredibly wicked or subhuman or mentally ill—they were not normal Americans.

Poitier was allowed a much harsher role in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), which was co-scripted by blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young under a pseudonym, but again, the plot obliged Poitier to sacrifice himself out of loyalty to Tony Curtis. The two were cast as escaped convicts chained together: while they stumbled through muddy swamps in flight from the sheriff’s dogs, the metaphor was belabored as the two antagonists realized that a black man and a white man could share friendship as well as common oppression. As in Edge of the City, Poitier puts the white’s needs way ahead of his own. And yet, despite the fenced-in roles that he was given until the sixties, Poitier’s talents transcended his image as a superior person whom only miscreants would abuse, and he brought scope and individuality to parts where almost none existed.

Films that float outside the mainstream of a period can sometimes reveal the misgivings of that era; if Storm Center was a rarity, Samuel Fuller’s Korean war movie, The Steel Helmet (1951), was a mutant: a blunt picture that’s fascinating for its willful contradictions. Fuller’s combat films are sometimes hard to follow because he meant them to be: the director was intent on conveying the chaos of war. Fuller dedicated The Steel Helmet to the U.S. Infantry, in which he fought during World War II. But his infantrymen are characterized as equally brutal and beefwitted. For them, all Koreans are “gooks” yet the Americans show lavish contempt for their Korean allies, while praising the intelligence of the enemy. A soldier who admits that “They all look alike to me” is informed, “He’s a South Korean when he’s running with you, and a North Korean when he’s running after you.” The script continues to express the Americans’ bewilderment about the identity of the enemy, along with their delusion that all Communists must really be Russians; there are references to “rice paddies crawlin’ with Commies—just ready to slap you between two pieces of rye bread and wash you down with fish eggs and vodka!” While some of Fuller’s movies, such as China Gate, are mined with anti-Communism, Fuller’s work suggests an anarchist’s sensibility that defies any engine of authority—rather than a right-wing point of view.

Filmed in ten days, just after the Korean War began, the movie almost flaunts its low budget: much of the action occurs in a temple where you might expect to be served with fried rice and egg roll—it evokes the fast food school of worship, encircling a buddha that’s more Aztec than Oriental. And yet The Steel Helmet is sardonically serious—as well as intentionally ugly. Fuller made the central sergeant (Gene Evans) so exuberantly sadistic that we can’t ever side with him: foul to his men and to all Koreans, he seems to personify the derangement that perpetuates a fruitless war.

The film dwells on American racism, yet the man who voices it most clearly is a venomous North Korean prisoner who taunts a Nisei and a black soldier for defending the country that degrades them: the “liberal” lines are given to the enemy, who calls the black stupid and spits in his face. Meanwhile, the movie makes war seem both idiotic and thoroughly disgusting: while the soldiers fight to save their own lives, nothing justifies their deaths. In 1967, Fuller said that his films were “very anti-war,” and he stressed that he exults in contradictions—as well as in characters who can’t be classified as good or bad. Hence the ebullient ironies of his mordant, pessimistic action films, such as Pickup on South Street (1953), where minor lawbreakers are horrified to be mistaken for Communists, and a surly pickpocket becomes a patriot. Still, The Steel Helmet—which earned handsome profits—must have puzzled the audiences of 1951, since most of the Americans are made to seem as repellent as the Communists, and the movie that censures war is also a diatribe against un-Americanism. Columnist Victor Riesel called it a left-wing movie, while The Daily Worker pronounced it “so reactionary that it might have been financed by Douglas MacArthur.” And the Pentagon was incensed because the film showed an American soldier shooting an unarmed prisoner of war.

In the early fifties, the studios maintained the wartime tradition of showing scripts to army or navy officials for their approval—in exchange for permission to film troops and military equipment. Since From Here to Eternity included an incompetent officer and a bestial sergeant, the screenwriter softened several situations that would have displeased the Pentagon. Soon afterward, the navy objected that The Caine Mutiny was anti-American; they protested that the character of Captain Queeg gave them a bad image and that they had never had a mutiny. Producer Stanley Kramer had to convince the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations that he didn’t intend to impair the navy’s reputation—in order to be allowed to photograph destroyers and aircraft carriers. Still, as late as 1959, the government refused to lend Kramer a nuclear submarine for On the Beach; and he had to defend himself before a congressional committee concerning “world guilt” about nuclear weapons.

And yet, after Korea, a few American movies like Attack! did criticize the conduct of the military. In 1957, both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Paths of Glory deplored the mentalities that are prone to waste the lives of others; the attitude toward leadership had altered hugely since the feverishly patriotic films of World War II. Still, the targets of The Bridge on the River Kwai were British officers, while Paths of Glory denounced some French generals of 1916; its very doubtful that such a film could have been made about the American army, when most of the Cold War movies were still very protective of all our institutions. Neither film questions the necessity of war, but both raise savage questions about the nature of heroics.

Carl Foreman purchased the rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai; he wrote the screenplay anonymously while he was on the blacklist. At Foreman’s suggestion, Michael Wilson (who was also blacklisted) joined him for the final scene-polishing. Boulle received an Oscar for the script, although the French novelist couldn’t write in English at that time. But many knew that Foreman and Wilson had written the movie, even though director David Lean didn’t give them any credit for it.

The British film industry embraced The Bridge on the River Kwai as an English film, due to Lean and because it starred Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins, while the Americans claimed it as their own, since they financed and produced it and contributed William Holden. Despite the Hollywood sheen, the movie is far more complex than most American pictures of the fifties. As Guinness’s troops of British prisoners diligently build the bridge that will abet the enemy, while Hawkins’s team conspires to destroy it, the emphasis on obsession—which means dying for “a matter of principle”—is tautened by the realization that the chances for survival are almost nil.

Guinness’s rigid colonel isn’t a simple fanatic: although he’s blind to his collaboration with the Japanese, he has a misguided integrity that we’re forced to esteem—just as we’re made to sympathize with the Japanese commanding officer (Sessue Hayakawa), whom Guinness treats as an inferior, almost like a servant. Jack Hawkins’s humorous, offhand autocracy keeps the Guinness role from being a caricature of British cool. Yet all that Anglo-Saxon phlegm would be insufferable if it weren’t balanced by a trashy American upstart’s outrage at the old-school valiance: William Holden berates the English for being “crazy with courage,” for planning to die like gentlemen instead of living like human beings.

Apart from the muddled climax, and the unnecessary cries of “Madness! Madness!” the film’s moral dilemmas are as binding as ever. The blistered faces and ruined shoes of the prisoners who march in place to “Colonel Bogey” are still moving: that mass of whistling men conveys the vulnerability of any group to authority gone awry, or authority in the wrong hands—the officials or politicians whose megalomania can make rubble of us all.

The British officers in The Bridge on the River Kwai are at least semi-human, but the French generals in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory are monstrous. As they send eight thousand war-torn men on a mission that’s known to be impossible, this amazingly bitter film makes one truly hate the military—as The Bridge on the River Kwai does not, since it blames only individuals and their training. The elegant French generals regard the working-class soldiers as objects, or as animals of no value. But the mass slaughter ordered for the sake of the generals’ prestige inspires an observer to quote Samuel Johnson on patriotism: “The last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Filmed from above, the doomed men crawling across the earth look particularly helpless, while the light from rockets exploding over their heads exposes the corpses that many will become—while others struggle clumsily out of the trenches, yelling to give themselves courage. Thousands are killed or wounded before they can walk three steps. The repetitive drum rolls on the soundtrack emphasize the futility of the maneuver: as stumbling figures fall and fail to rise, the film ravages our emotions with the anonymity of the almost or already dead.

The generals define the survivors as “scum” who are guilty of “insubordination.” The film then shifts from simultaneous suffering to the agonies of three soldiers whom the generals choose to execute for cowardice, as an example to the others: this trinity must pay for the generals’ mistakes. One of the condemned men had won many citations for bravery: now, as he’s dying of a fractured skull, his cheek is pinched so that he will open his eyes before he’s shot. The film muses on the fragile distinctions between living and dying: during his final supper, another prisoner reflects that a cockroach in his cell will outlive him, and later he laughs and weeps at the realization that he hasn’t “had a sexual thought” since the court-martial began.

As the bodies slump before the firing squad, the movie permits no hope of justice, and the rest of the mangled troops are immediately sent back to the front. It seems astonishing that this film was made in the complacent, timorous fifties—and it nearly wasn’t: the major studios rejected the project until Kubrick enlisted Kirk Douglas as the star. Even so, the movie was released with a disclaimer that the conduct of these troops didn’t represent the millions of other French soldiers who fought so splendidly throughout World War I.

Aside from The Bridge on the River Kwai and Paths of Glory, few war films were produced after the early fifties; by then, it was difficult to revive the enemies of World War II: the swinish or cruelly refined Nazis had been overworked by Hollywood, and so had the vermin known as the Japanese. New adversaries were needed, and already they had come from outer space—armed with deadlier weapons and viler conspiracies than our planet had ever known.

This excerpt, from Running Time: Films of the Cold War by Nora Sayre (Dial Press, 1982) is reprinted with the kind permission of the estate of Nora Sayre. The editors wish to thank Prudence Carlson and Eve Pomerance for their assistance in making publication possible.