Tenet and MAD superpower conflict in the 1960s: the end of moral superiority

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The recent film Tenet looked at the possibility of worldwide destruction, where civilsation is eliminated.
Image courtesy of eMovie Poster.

The recent film Tenet (2020) looked at the possibility of worldwide destruction, where everything is destroyed, in order to satisfy the pyscopathic needs of a suitably deranged villian. The film is the latest of a long line of films, where the world faces destruction through nuclear annnihilation that stretches back to the 1960s, when fears about nuclear weapons began to be discussed more openly. In the 1950s, science fiction films, often had themes of nuclear armageddon, but this was usually disguised as aliens or monsters being unleashed in Them or Earth versus Flying Sources. Direct discussion of this issue was clearly too painful during this decade, because it simply did not happen.

While nuclear fears were discussed in these films in allegorical terms, the biblical epics of the 1950s created a cultural mythology that assured the eventual destruction of the communist empires.  As communists gained power in China and Russia became a nuclear power, the American people needed reassurance that this rising threat of a Sino-Soviet bloc with more soldiers and nuclear weapons would inevitably fail.  At the time, communism appeared to be on the march, with the Korean war beginning and McCarthy’s allegations of communist conspiracy within the United States Government.  The biblical epics provided another depiction which showed the communists empires vulnerable to resistance based on spiritual values.  The rhetoric of historian Arnold Toynbee, evangelist Billy Graham and State Department head John Foster Dulles linked religious conviction with national strength.  It was this message which was eagerly taken up by the American people.

Cold war messages were contained in all these films, but they received their most reverent and inspired treatment in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  The biblical epics created the cultural myth for Americans that society needed a firm moral basis to succeed and flourish.  Communism lacked this moral basis and may flourish for a while, but they would wither in time because of this absence.  The image of doomed or damned communism was highly reassuring to audiences.  The domestic and international political strengths contained within the United States would eventually lead to the destruction of communism and the re-birth of freedom. The Ten Commandments (1956) painted a picture of the irresistible conflict between the superpowers. The spiritual strength was the only permanent bulwark against the rise of the Soviet Union.

Almost exactly one year to the day after the release of The Ten Commandments, the satellite Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957, destroying American certainties of technological superiority.[1] Previously, the Communsit powers had gained advances by duplcity. Now, the Soviet Union was a step ahead. These fears would crystallise in 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis led to the two superpowers coming perilously close to nuclear conflict. As the real impact of a possible conflict between the superpowers began to sink in, these ideas of moral superiority began to lose their hold, and with the change, cinema began to shift directions. Superpower conflict was not going to be an event with moral strength prevailing – everyone was going to die and civilisation was going to end. The term ‘mutually assured destruction’ had its origins in this period, and it began to be seared into the American political consciousness.[2] No one was going to win the nuclear war.

The Manchurian Candidate was a black political satire which said the political extremes had joined forces against the United States. (Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was the first film to cast doubt on the idea of a Manichean conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The book and film feature a McCarthyite figure in the United States who is an unwitting dupe of the communists. The film had a short run, and some have suggested it was removed from public view considering sensitivities regarding the Kennedy Assassination in 1963. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had spent some time in the USSR, and one theory argued that he was brainwashed there to shoot the president. Whatever the reasons for its short run, the film had a massive impact, and the film’s title entered popular language. It was remade in 2004, with a different political setting in the Iraq war. Most recently, President Donald Trump has been called: “A Manchurian Candidate,” for his foreign policy positions – particularly with Russia.[3] The film is notable in that it began to blur the lines between the super patriots and the communist threats – both were dangerous to the political system.

The United States President, played by Henry Fonda, must release a nucelar weapon over New York, after US fail safes are broken and Moscow is destroyed. (Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

While The Manchurian Candidate was a black political satire, other films delved into the impact of the Cold War. The first cinematic response to the possibility of mutually assured destruction was Fail Safe (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet, was based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The film was released in early 1964 and it portrayed an accident leading to nuclear war, with destruction for Moscow and New York. While the film enjoyed critical success, it was not popular at the box office. It is an overwelmingly bleak assessment of the chances of nuclear war.

Dr Strangelove, played with impeccable comic style by Peter Sellers, depicted the moral morass that the United States found itself in deploying nuclear weapons.
(Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.)

The bleak vision of nuclear conflict was followed by Dr. Strangelove’s black satire, directed by Stanley Kubrick, which was also released in 1962. With the comedic genius Peter Sellars playing three roles, including the crazed scientist Dr. Strangelove, the film argued that the whole system was a mess, and a madman could release the nuclear holocaust. Based on the Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Peter Sellers also played a US President fighting being the greatest mass murderer in world history. He also played the unforgettable Dr Strangelove, a clearly insane scientist, who has taken the world to a nuclear abyss. In most films, a James Bond hero manages to meet all the challenges, but the worse does happen in this film, and the world is destroyed. Even satire provided no escape from nuclear terrors.

A further film, The Bedford Incident (1965), showed a clash between a US destroyer and a Soviet submarine that leads to the destruction of both in an exchange of nuclear weapons. The depicted clash that occurred before or during the Cuban Missile Crisis – accounts differ. In October 1962, a Soviet submarine was pursued by the US Navy. When the nuclear-armed Soviet vessel failed to surface, the destroyers began dropping training non-lethal depth charges. The officers on the submarine argued over deploying the weapon, believing that World War Three had begun. Senior officer Vasili Arkhipov prevented any escalation by refusing to launch the weapon. After an argument, it was agreed that the submarine would surface and await orders from Moscow.[4]

This small group of films was criticised for being alarmist about the possibility of an accident or a madman leading to a nuclear war. In time, it would be demonstrated that the film’s writers and the directors were close to the truth. The United States and the Soviet Union could have easily gone to war, as the security around nuclear weapons were poor, and systems were haphazard. Both The Bedford Incident and Fail-Safe had an underlying message that nuclear weapons were too dangerous and would inevitably lead to destruction. The safeguards were not in place. In sharp contrast, The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove depicted the whole government apparatus as insane. The political certainties of the Eisenhower period were being eroded. [5] Its political system looked rickety, its religious shield was ineffectual, and its technological lead looked shaky. The moral certainity of the Ten Commandments (1956) had all but disappeared.


[1] The Ten Commandments was released on 5 October 1956.

[2] The term “mutual assured destruction” was coined by Donald Brennan, a strategist working in Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute in 1962. Daniel Deudney, Whole Earth Security: A Geopolitics of Peace, Washington: Worldwatch Institute, July 1983, 32-33, accessed at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED233950 on 18 November 2020.

[3] Travis M. Andrews, “Some call Trump a ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ Here’s where the phrase originated,” Washington Post, 13 January 2017.

[4] Nickola Davis, “Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize, The Guardian, ,” 27 October 2017.

[5] Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everyhting in “Dr. Strangelove” was True,” 17 January 2014.

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