Night People (1954)

In Night People (1954), Gregory Peck played an American colonel Stephen Van Dyke who was in charge of an operation to return a kidnapped American soldier called John Leatherby. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication

As the Korean War petered out in 1953, and memories of the HUAC investigations began to fade, most of the real sting went out of anti-communist films.  The new style of anti-communist film depicted Russia as a dangerous and determined enemy which had to be treated ruthlessly.  In Night People (1954), Gregory Peck played an American colonel Stephen Van Dyke who was in charge of an operation to return a kidnapped American soldier called John Leatherby.  The soldier had been kidnapped because the Russians wanted an anti-Nazi couple and hoped to swap the corporal for them.  The film informed us that Himmler’s men now worked for the Russians, and they wanted their revenge on the couple.[1]  The central conflict of the story rested between Van Dyke and the father of the soldier, ad American businessman Charles Leatherby played by Broderick Crawford.  Leatherby felt that the Russians could be negotiated with as if they were hard-headed businessmen.  Van Dyke refuted his ideas.

This is not a cash and carry business.  You are not dealing with A & P.  These are cannibals.  Head hunting, blood thirsty cannibals who want to eat us up.[2]

The conflict between civilians and the military in dealing with the Russians was one of the central themes in many anti-communist films.  Originally called The Cannibals, the film plays out the emerging confidence of dealing with the Russians. Crawford was identified with the Eisenhower administration by the fact that he played golf and had heavy political connections.  Peck was a soldier who was on the cutting edge of the cold war in Berlin.

Charles Leatherby was a tough businessman who wanted results.  He found that this attitude got him nowhere in the cold war diplomacy of Berlin.  When he arrived at Berlin Airport, he asked State Department official Frederick Hobart what the situation was:

HOBART: It’s another big squeeze apparently.  We get them from time to time.  You know.  Yesterday, they held up the autobans and they cut phone lines into East Germany.  Anything they can think of to make nuisances of themselves.
LEATHERBY: What do you think they want really?
HOBART: Well, for one thing they want us out of here?
LEATHERBY: Alright so we get out?
HOBART: Then they may take a fancy to Toledo.
LEATHERBY: Are you trying to be funny?
HOBART: … I’m only sure that whatever happens is not isolated.  They kidnap a 19 year old boy, your son, and we can’t tell if its just a local needle or another Korea.[3]

By the end of the film, Leatherby had seen the error of his ways and realised that the military had the answers for the cold war.  He told Van Dyke that he could not let two innocent people be exchanged for his son.  Van Dyke replied that although it was a major decision for Leatherby, that his opinions had never mattered in the first place.  The military, not the civilians, made the decisions about dealing with the Russians.

Van Dyke discovered that his mistress and contact with the Russians was a Soviet spy and fooled the Russians by swapping her for the soldier.  When it was needed, Van Dyke was ruthless.  After strangling and punching his former mistress, he had poisoned absinthe poured down her throat.  Night People showed a blend of the paranoia of the early anti-communist films with the a return of an assurance that America had in its military.  The opening sequence of marching soldiers, tanks and helicopters was quite impressive as they moved across the wide CinemaScope screen.  Subversion still existed, but it was not from within the American ranks.  It is interesting that they spy had been carefully replaced by Russians, rather than indoctrinated.  The final scene had Van Dyke looking over the skyline of Berlin confident that he could handle the Russians.  The film added a note of reassurance to anti-communist films that had been missing since The Big Lift.  The more positive tone appeared to helped it at the box office.  Variety ranked it 51st, making $2.1 million.

In The McConnell Story (1955) directed by Gordon Douglas, a General introduced the story of an American ace who shot down more planes than any other person in Korea.  He said that because of people like McConnell, women were safe in their homes, children in their schools.  People were free because ‘there are no chains on your mind’.[4]  When McConnell arrived in Korea, he was told that this was the communist testing ground.   ‘If they succeed here, there’ll be no part of the world that’ll be safe’.[5]  The role of the army was simply to slaughter and make them think twice before trying anything again.  There was no mention of subversion within the American ranks.  The threat was simply external.  The film was reasonably popular and was ranked 27th by Variety with rentals of $3.5 million.

[1] Linking the Soviet Union with the German Nazis in the popular imagination to become a totalitarian blur is discussed in Les K. Alder and Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Red Fascism:  The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s- 1950s,’ American Historical Review, April 1970, pp. 1046 – 1064.

[2] Night People, (d) Nunnally Johnson, (w) Nunnally Johnson.

[3] Night People, op cit.

[4] McConnell Story, (d) Gordon Douglas, (w) Ted Sherdeman.

[5] Ibid.

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