Failure of early post-war anti-communist films

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

In Jet Pilot, John Wayne played an American pilot who takes the Russian defector on a tour of American military bases and demonstrated the United States military prowess. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While the mood of the United States was anti-communist, cinema depicting the politics was not popular. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the failure of the anti-communist message in American cinema was the amount of studio interference in these films. There were often trivial reasons for the failure of the films.

Director Joseph Von Sternberg was listed as the director of Jet Pilot, which begun production in 1950, and was finally released in 1957, and was produced by Howard Hughes.  Von Sternberg had been Hollywood directorial royalty in the 1930s, but his fortunes had declined by the early 1950s. RKO had already flopped with I Married A Communist and The Whip Hand, and its third attempt at anti-communist propaganda almost failed to get a release.  The plot was about a Russian pilot, played by Janet Leigh, who defected to the United States.  John Wayne played an American pilot who takes the Russian defector on a tour of American military bases and demonstrated the United States military prowess.  He then faked a defection to feed false information to the Russians.  The pair fell in love and she helped him escape back to America.  Von Sternberg loathed the picture and resented the amount of studio interference. 

“I was told, step by step, day by day, movement for movement, word for word, precisely what I was to direct … My name is on the film as director, and there are other names also to which are given credit are just as shadowy, but the names of all those who had a finger in the celluloid pie are mercifully omitted.”[1] Studio interference played a key role in the poor quality of these films particularly at RKO.

The Big Lift (1950) was one of the few anti-communist films with a liberal view of the world. 

Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Not all anti-communist films were unbalanced in their approach.  The Big Lift (1950) was one of the few anti-communist films with a liberal view of the world.  It focused on the story of the Berlin Airlift in 1949 when the Russians blockaded the city and the western allies began supplying Berlin with all its needs from the air.  It was depicted as dangerous work and the film showed a quiet confidence in America in dealing with the communists.  The airlift was physically and mentally demanding on aircrews who were forced to work long hours to supply the city with food and coal.

One of the airmen, Danny MacCullough, played by Montgomery Clift, spent a day in Berlin and travelled through the Russian sector to see the life of ordinary Berliners.  Russian soldiers searched a railway carriage for smugglers and one man informed on a women for smuggling coffee.  The coffee was confiscated and the Russians left.  The crowd in the train was about to vent its anger on the man, when he revealed that he was a carrying a huge parcel of coffee and gave the woman, twice the amount she was smuggling.  The Russians were shown as strong but think-headed and easy to deceive.

In a separate incident another American airman Hank, played by Paul Douglas, debated the merits of the American system with a critical communist.  She said that American democracy was a farce as the results were determined by big business.  Hank argued that in the 1948 election, President Truman was written off by the newspapers and just about everyone else.  But in the end, Truman was elected by the people, despite what a big business and the papers were saying.  This was an interesting scene as it was one of the few where the merits of communism and capitalism were actually debated.  The debate was slanted against the communists, but it was clear that writer and director George Seaton was not afraid of communism and felt it could be dealt with through intelligent debate and, if necessary, through the sensible use of force.  At a later time, he spoke about his research for this film, and of being held by the Communists for 56 hours on a dirty train with his wife and daughter after attempting to enter Berlin. Seaton quoted the organizer of the airlift General Lucius D. Clay, who said that if we “resort to totalitarianism to defeat totalitarianism we have lost our democratic soul by doing it.” Seaton’s film even contains some comedy which was lacking in other anti-communist films of the period.  Seaton’s effort would be the final liberal statement from Hollywood on communism for some time.  The film was ranked at 91st by Variety for 1951.[2]

The anti- communist plots of some films were often absurd.  In Tokyo Joe (1949), a plot to return Japanese militarists was described as ‘communist inspired and communist directed’.  This ludicrous idea was either a last minute rewrite of the script or a dubbing of the original soundtrack.  From internal evidence I the film, it appeared as though the words were dubbed at some late stage.  The voice of the General talking to Humphrey Bogart goes oddly deep while this was being said.  The words were also spoken when the camera was focused on Bogart.  This suggests dubbing as it would be difficult to synchronise the General’s mouth movements with his speech.  In either event, the communist element plays no logical part in the film at all.  Communism was not mentioned again.

[1] Joseph von Sternberg, Fun In A Chinese Laundry, Secker & Warburg, London, 1965, p. 282.

[2] Variety, 3 January 1951.  A film called Destination Moscow is listed at 88th.  The film is not listed in Halliwell’s Film Guide, 5th edn, Paladin, London, 1986, but it would be reasonable to conclude that it was an anti-communist film.

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