This site is dedicated to articles about cinema and its place in history.
I am a adjunct senior research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia.
I am the author of Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist
In personally introducing the film, DeMille left no doubt of its political leanings. He said the birth of Moses was the ‘birth of freedom’.
The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law – or they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are they free men or are they to be property of the State or free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.
He later used his speech as a basis for an address to the university of Southern California on 6 December 1956. He changed the speech to reinforce his political point and linked the Israelite’ struggles with Hungary’s.
Are men to be free souls under God or are they the property of the state? Are men to be ruled by law, or by the whims of an individual? God’s answer to these timely questions were given three thousand years ago on Mount Sinai. Russia’s answers was given recently in Hungary. The world must make its choice.
In his introduction to the film, DeMille was linking the Egyptian tyrannies to Russian communism. DeMille saw religion as a political force which could deliver freedom to people. In his autobiography, he made it clear that the film was anti-totalitarian. He wrote:
For more than twenty years and increasingly in the years since World War II, people had been writing to me from all over he world, urging that I make The Ten Commandments again. The world needs a reminder they said, of the Law of God; and it was evident in at least some of the letters that the world’s awful experience of totalitarianism, both fascist and communist, had made many people realize anew that the Law of God is the essential bedrock of human freedom.
But it was definitely communism, not fascism, which was the target. Recalling a press conference in Egypt, he denied that the film was anti-moslem. He said one of the strongest voices urging him to make The Ten Commandments was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who saw in the story of Moses, a prophet honored equally by Moslems, Jews and Christians, a means of welding together adherents of the three faiths against atheistic communism.
Ten Commandments (d) Cecil B. DeMille, Aeanas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jnr., Jack Garriss, Frederic M. Frank.
 Cecil B. DeMille, Moses and Today, Address delivered to the University of Southern California on 6 December 1956. Box 9, Folder 24, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
 Donald Hayne, (ed.) The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, W.H.Allen, London, 1960, p. 376.
 Ibid., p. 385. The letter was kept by DeMille. Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Cecil B. DeMille, 20 December 1954, Folder 3, Box 724 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
The links between the Israelites and the United States were discussed in A Man Called Peter (1955) which was a very popular film. It detailed the rise of Dr Peter Marshall, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, who became chaplain for the United States Senate. The film was a collection of Marshall’s sermons strung together with the story of his rise and near perfect marriage. Near the conclusion of the film, he delivered a sermon on Elijah and the threat of the God Baal to the nation of Israel.
The leaders of ancient Israel, including the King, had come together to make a great decision. It was a national emergency. Elijah, the prophet, had summoned them to meet on Mount Carmel to settle no less a question than who they should worship. William Penn has said that “Men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.”
Here then was a Hebrew prophet facing the very same issue and making his people face it with him. They all knew the history of the nation. How God had led their fathers out of bondage into a new land of pioneers. How his holy law had been rewritten into the nations constitution. How the ten commandments had become the bill of rights – and a declaration of “dependence”. But something in the nation’s life had begun to fade. Moral decay had set in. They had begun to love things more than principles. They had become materialists. And materialism had a God called Baal. Now, Elijah saw the danger. He saw what would happen if the moral fibre of the nation was weakened.
Marshall then went on to explain the defeat and the death of the prophets of Baal by Elijah at Mount Carmel. He followed the sermon with a call for a modern day Elijah to come to the United States to stare down the false ‘demi-gods’ of today. The teachings of Baal were not mentioned in the Old Testament and it was Marshall’s own interpretation that it was a materialistic faith. Marshall said that the choice was between being ruled by God or tyrants, to either follow God or ‘follow Baal to hell’.
Marshall argued that the United States had a choice between either the Lord or the materialistic faith of Baal. Furthermore, following the God Baal would undermine the moral fibre of the nation. Marshall linked the Israelites’ struggles with those of the United States. The Jewish people were depicted as pioneers and the ten commandments as their bill of rights. When he referred to the holy law being written into the nation’s constitution, it was difficult to tell if he was taking about the United States or Israel. The sermon on Elijah and the Baal was a strong political statement with cold war overtones. The United States must follow the laws of God or it would lurch into communism, it was either God or materialistic tyranny. To the audience of 1955, that was a simple choice between communism and God.
The actual interpretation of Baal as a materialistic faith is at odds with most biblical scholarship which sees it as fertility cult which competed against Judaism. It is also clear that the sermon was deliberately chosen as a political message by the screenwriter. It is not mentioned in either the biography by his wife or in the published collection of his sermons. The screenwriter must have hunted out this sermon quite deliberately and selectively. Marshall’s published sermons rarely touch on political issues, although according to his wife Catherine, Marshall wanted God to influence the individual legislators in their decisions.
The director Koster constantly cut to the faces of three Senators who were listening closely to the sermon. To make sure that the audience was aware of the moral strength of Marshall’s political arguments, Koster linked Marshall with the figure of President Abraham Lincoln throughout the film. He preached in Lincoln’s old church and in another scene, he drove reverently past the Lincoln memorial. Marshall also called upon the figure of Lincoln to support him in debates against parishioners. This was done to give his theological statements added political weight. It appeared that his efforts were not lost. The powerful film columnist Hedda Hopper in 1957 placed A Man Called Peter seventh in the top ten films of all time. This reverence indicated that the film made a great impression at the time of its release, even though it is now largely forgotten.
 Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, 1982, p.
A Man Called Peter, (d) Henry Koster, Eleanore Griffin. William Penn (1644-1718) was an English Quaker who helped establish the colony of Pennsylvania.
 Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades And Their Impact on Today’s World, Anchor, New York, 1992, p. 11.
 The sermon is not mentioned in Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall, Fontana, Glasgow, 1978 on which the film was based or in Marshall’s published collection of sermons in Cathy Marshall (ed.). Mr Jones, Meet the Master, Fontana, London, 1964 (1949)
The Robe and its politics was used extensively by evangelist Billy Graham. Before a tour of a new country such as New Zealand or Australia, he would send out tightly organised advance parties. These highly efficient men would tell ministers and church groups to screen The Robe as it was a ‘tract for our times’. It appeared that The Robe was used as an inducement to see Billy Graham documentaries such as Battleground Europe, The Mighty Fortress and Eastward to Asia. Graham often discussed communism in his sermons and he saw the world as divided into two camps: communist and the west. He believed only a revival of faith would avert a nuclear holocaust which he saw as a biblical judgement for the United States’ sins.
The film’s sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) continued the theme of doomed empire by documenting the downfall of Caligula. The film focused on Demetrius who was torn between Roman decadence as represented by the seductive Messalina, wife to the Emperor’s nephew Claudius, and the austerity of the Christian faith. Caligula was shaken by the way the Christians met their death in The Robe and demanded that Christ’s robe be found. Soldiers searching for the robe started a fight with Demetrius who was captured and condemned to become a gladiator. His Christian ethics prevented him from killing and Caligula ordered that tigers tear him apart. Demetrius defeated the tigers and earned the respect of the Roman crowd.
After his victory, Demetrius turned away from Christianity after he prayed to God that a Christian girl be saved form being raped by his fellow gladiators. When she was apparently killed, he rejected the Christian faith and embarked on a career of gladiator by killing several men in one session. For his efforts, Demetrius was freed by Caligula provided that he rejected his Christian vows. Caligula says ‘to join the Romans, he must revile and reject Jesus’. Demetrius replied:
There is no other God but Caesar. There is no other power greater than his, in this world or any other.
The lines were a reflection of Kennan’s belief that communism was religion. Throughout these films, it was either Christianity or Caesar, there was no middle ground. Just as in the cold war, there was only good and evil, right and wrong, the United States and the USSR. And just as Kennan saw communism as religion for communists, the tyrant Caligula saw himself as a God.
But Demetrius retained some hidden strengths despite his fall from grace. Claudius observed about him that:
He has something that Rome has lacked since the early days of the republic. Something to believe in. Faith … In my family, we Caesars have killed and buried it, strange if the memory of a dead Jew should continue it.
Demetrius was brought back into line by St. Peter who returned him to the proper path with news that the Christian girl was still alive. Demetrius prayed for her recovery and regained his faith. The empire of Caligula then began to crumble against the spiritual armour of Demetrius. Caligula was killed when he tried to have Demetrius executed and the saner rule of Claudius began. The film reflected the view of the conservatives that Christianity would overcome tyranny. The ‘memory of a dead Jew’ could defeat an empire.
The Egyptian (1954) had the same these of a doomed empire. The film opened with contemporary shots of the ruins of the Egyptian empire on the Nile. The narrator said: ‘Today, the glory of ancient Egypt is ruins and dust.’ The film was about the rise, fall and redemption of a physician who wanted to know the meaning of life and to treat the poor. After studying as a doctor, he tried to save the life of a man praying in the desert to the ‘one god’. The man was the Pharaoh and he was made his personal physician. After seeing the cruelty of the powerful, he abandoned Egypt for many years. He returned to warn Pharaoh about the dangers of the Hittites and their new iron sword. The military want to strike against the Hittites before they grew too strong, while the Pharaoh refused to condone violence. The physician was talked into poisoning the Pharaoh to save Egypt. While dying, the Pharaoh talked about a man coming later who would tell the truth about God and bring right to the world.
The physician realised he had made a mistake in murdering the Pharaoh which allowed a military tyrant to take the throne. The Hittites were quickly destroyed and the physician was put on trial where he told the Pharaoh:
You will go to war and win a battle. You will conquer and not know it is defeat. You will raise Egypt to glory and watch her die. We live in the twilight of our world, … and you will be its sunset. Nations rise only to fall. Kings build mighty monuments to only have them crumble into dust. Glory flees like a shadow, all these things have the seeds of death in them. Only a thought can live. Only a great truth can grow and flourish and a truth cannot be killed.
… A good man is better than a bad man. Justice is better than injustice. The man who uses mercy is superior to those who uses violence. Though the later call himself Pharaoh and master of the earth. We have but one master the God that made us all. Only his truth is immortal. And in his truth all men are equal and no man is alone.
The film’s conclusion had virtually the same conclusion as Demetrius and the Gladiators with the religiously strong individual deriding the all-powerful tyrant before being sentenced. The tyrant’s empire was condemned to destruction. The true kingdom was based on a religion yet to be unveiled. The final credit blazed across the screen ‘THESE THINGS HAPPENED THIRTEEN CENTURIES BEFORE THE BIRTH OF CHRIST’ ensuring that the audience got the message about who was the true figure of religious salvation.
 Remark by Professor John Salmond on 22 March 1991. Professor Salmond was a journalist with a New Zealand newspaper and he covered the Billy Graham tour in 1959. For more details on the detailed and extensive preparations for Billy Graham’s tours read S. Baggage, & Ian Siggins, Light Beneath the Cross: The Story of Billy Graham’s Crusade in Australia, The World’s Work, Kingswood & Melbourne, 1960.
 Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics, p. 65. Grahams’ outlook was discussed in the section on When Worlds Collide. After Graham’s highly successful Los Angeles revival in 1949, Cecil B. DeMille was rumoured to have offered Graham a screen test. See Stephen, J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991, p. 78. Graham returned the compliment by calling DeMille ‘A prophet in celluloid’, USA, Box 14, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
Demetrius and the Gladiators, (d) Delmer Daves, Phillip Dunne.
Several films had the same theme of the doomed empire and the final triumph over tyranny. For the Christians, Jesus would become an avenging political figure who would march forward to right the wrongs of the tyrannical Romans.
Similar points had been made in David and Bathsheba (1951) after King David committed adultery and Israel was laid waste with famine. When David begged for mercy, the drought was broken and order was restored. Disregarding God’s laws was a recipe for disaster. Even though the film focused on David’s later life, it managed to depict his fight with Goliath in one of the closing scenes. Armed only with a slingshot. David went out to face the massive giant single handed. The invincible Goliath was dispatching Israelites at will. It appeared that David had no chance of success and he mist die like all the other challengers. But he was full of true spiritual strength and used a slingshot to hurl a rock into Goliath’s skull. The monster fell to the ground dead and the Israelite army stormed over the enemy. The physically weak, but spiritually strong, had overcome the mighty forces arrayed against them.
The Robe (1953) made an enormous impact when it was released, which was partly due to it being the first cinemascope picture. This process meant that audiences could see a massive image spread across a wide screen, however, the novelty value alone was not going to attract an audience. Cinemascope was an attempt by the studios to counter the growing threat of television to box office returns. However, the studios were not going to invest their millions in a new process for little return. It appears clear that The Robe was a deliberate choice for the new process by the studio heads because they knew it would be guaranteed a box office return if it followed the formula set by its predecessors.
The robe was that worn by Christ when he was crucified. It was won by a young Roman tribune gambling with other soldiers in charge of the Crucifixion. Beyond the retelling of the biblical story, the event had other resonances for the Hollywood community. Before calling for an investigation into Hollywood, Mississippi congressman John Rankin spoke of the crucifixion as part of the communist struggle. He claimed that communism was based on the hatred of Christianity.
Remember that communism and Christianity can never live in the same atmosphere. Communism is older than Christianity. It is the curse of the ages. It hounded and persecuted the Saviour during his earthy ministry, inspired his crucifixion, derided him in his dying agony, and then gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross; and has spent more than 1900 years trying to destroy Christianity and everything based on Christian principles.
Rankin’s remarks were made in 1945. The comments would have been well known in Hollywood as the speech was one of the first calls to investigate communism in radio, television and the film industry. No evidence exists that it directly influenced the Robe’s screenwriters. However, given the strong links between religion and politics in the cold war, it is clear that even a straight retelling of the Gospel had political connotations.
After being guilt ridden over the Crucifixion, the tribune passed the robe to his slave Demetrius who had been converted to Christianity. Demetrius told his Roman tribune master that their empire was cursed because of the Crucifixion of Christ. The Roman empire was once again depicted as doomed. Emperor Tiberius Caesar foresaw the decline of the Roman empire in these terms.
When it comes. This his how it will start. Some obscure martyr in some forgotten province. The madness infecting the legions, rotting the empire. It will be the finish of Rome … This is more dangerous than any spell … It is man’s desire to be free. It is the greatest madness of them all.
Man’s desire to be free would eventually overcome the strength of the Roman empire. The desire was linked with Christian strength and courage. The formula of Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, and David and Bathsheba was being followed again.
The Robe’s credited screenwriter Phillip Dunne was a strong opponent of the HUAC and the blacklist, and was a founding member of the Committee for the First Amendment. In his autobiography, he revealed that the writer of the uncredited first draft of The Robe was Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten. Either Dunne or Maltz managed to place a jab at HUAC within the film. The tyrant Tiberius Caesar was constantly asking for the names of Christians. ‘Names. I want the names.’ he says. The writers were equating the tyranny of Rome with HUAC.
If the empire desires peace and brotherhood among all men, my king will be on the side of Rome. But if the empire and the emperor wish to pursue the course of aggression and slavery that has bought agony and terror and despair to the world. If there’s nothing to hope for but chains and hunger, then my king will march forward to right those wrongs. Not tomorrow sire, your majesty might not live to see the establishment of his own kingdom.
The film had the same theme of the doomed empire and the final triumph over tyranny. For the Christians, Jesus was an avenging political figure who would march forward to right the wrongs of the tyrannical Romans.
The Robe was used extensively by evangelist Billy Graham. Before a tour of a new country such as New Zealand or Australia, he would send out tightly organised advance parties. These highly efficient men would tell ministers and church groups to screen The Robe as it was a ‘tract for our times’. It appeared that The Robe was used as an inducement to see Billy Graham documentaries such as Battleground Europe, The Mighty Fortress and Eastward to Asia. Graham often discussed communism in his sermons and he saw the world as divided into two camps: communist and the west. He believed only a revival of faith would avert a nuclear holocaust which he saw as a biblical judgement for the United States’ sins.
Congressional Record, 91, part 6, 17 July 1945, p. 7337.
 Remark by Ring Lardner Jr. at Australian Film Institute Public Seminar on 26 March 1991. Mr Lardner, one of the Hollywood 10, said that when he was dismissed from Twentieth Century Fox, that Dunne and director George Seaton offered to walk off the lot with Lardner in protest. Lardner replied that the protest would be futile unless it was 60 people involved. (From notes taken by writer at seminar.)
 Dunne also talked about Maltz’s role in The Robe in McGilligan , Pat. (ed.). Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, University of California Press, London, 1986, p. 164.
 The same idea re-emerged in a stronger fashion in Ben-Hur (1959). The Roman General Massala, played by Stephen Boyd, demands that Jewish leader Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, name the names of those who would resist Rome:
…(I’ve) spoken against violence, against insolence. Most of the men I’ve talked to agree with you.
Oh not all.
No … not all.
Who does not agree?
They’re resentful and impatient.
Who are they? … Yes, Judah who are they?
Would I retain your friendship if I became an informer.
To tell us the names of criminals is hardly informing.
They are not criminals, they are patriots.
Ben Hur’s director William Wyler was one of the 25 directors who signed the petition for Joseph Mankiewicz, who had been publically outspoken against the HUAC hearings and was under conservative attack. It is interesting to not that Ben-Hur was one of the few biblical films where the allegory appears to be directed against fascism rather than communism. The Jews and Arabs are derided by Massala as a ‘conquered race’ and he sees Rome as a superior power.
 Remark by Professor John Salmond on 22 March 1991. Professor Salmond was a journalist with a New Zealand newspaper and he covered the Billy Graham tour in 1959. For more details on the detailed and extensive preparations for Billy Graham’s tours read S. Baggage, & Ian Siggins, Light Beneath the Cross: The Story of Billy Graham’s Crusade in Australia, The World’s Work, Kingswood & Melbourne, 1960.
 Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics, p. 65. Grahams’ outlook was discussed in the blog on When Worlds Collide. After Graham’s highly successful Los Angeles revival in 1949, Cecil B. DeMille was rumoured to have offered Graham a screen test. See Stephen, J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991, p. 78. Graham returned the compliment by calling DeMille ‘A prophet in celluloid’, USA, Box 14, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
Salome (1953) was a variation on a similar theme of religious opposition to communism concentrating on Princess Salome of the Judean King Herod’s court. Herod was liked to Roman rulers in the opening titles and the screenwriter depicted him as one of their puppets. The film opened with John the Baptist preaching to a small group of people that Herod’s kingdom was corrupt.
The had of the lord will fall upon the king and queen. Be calm by friends, righteousness shall rise like a mighty river, truth shall be clear as crystal. Repent. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Relive the oppressed, seek righteousness for his love will be with you as a morning dew and you will blossom as a rose.
One of Herod’s agents then sped away to warn the Queen that John the Baptist was preaching ‘sedition’. The basic formula of the biblical epics had already been set. The Romans were corrupt and powerful and were opposed by the righteous but apparently powerless Jews. When John the Baptist was confronted by the Roman troops, he told his followers ‘to let your faith be your shield’ and then vented his rage at them.
Tyrants of Rome. Those who live in hatred and spite shall vanish from the earth when Roman spears will be ground into dust. The consumers will be consumed. You will be destroyed.
Further on he denounced Rome and its puppets:
For verily, I say unto you, the kingdom of heaven can be found here on earth if we live like the children of God and not like beasts of prey as those who rule you now. People of Galilee, Herod is an alien king. He is descended form a desert tribe of heathens. He was not born in the faith of our fathers. He makes a mockery of the Ten Commandments. Rulers who do not observe the law of God can only bring disaster to the people.
The final sentence was the exact point that John Foster Dulles would make in his Watertown speech. Not only was communism morally wrong, but eventually it would lead its people to disaster.
When John the Baptist confronted Herod in Salome at his show trial, he continued his verbal assault on the Roman Judean kingdom.
Then you would have another king in my place.
One that would rule with goodness, justice and mercy.
You admit allegiance to someone other than his majesty.
The one I acknowledge is above the kingdom on earth.
Mightier even than Caesar?
He is the king of kings. He makes all the Caesars in the heavens tremble. He will raise the yoke form the oppressed, right all wrongs, bring a day of judgement upon all the evil ministers of the world… He is the messiah.
Jesus was depicted as a political figure and his appearance meant political as well as religious freedom, as it made the physical and moral decline of Rome certain. The soldier Claudius made this observation when he argued with the Judean Governor Pontius Pilate.
Rome cannot go on as it has, ruling with a sword and a whip. If we are to survive, we must recognise that a new force has come into the world.
A new force?
The religion of this prophet. It will bring hope to the conquered, it will bring peace to all men by teaching all how to live in peach with his neighbours. This is a faith that will march across the world and win them as Rome could only conquer.
As this was prior to the crucifixion, Claudius must be considered to be one of the greatest predictors of historical events of all time. Pilate’s statement that ‘Caesar is the only faith for a Roman’ reflected the Kennan belief that communism was a religion, rather than a political philosophy. If the film is read as a political allegory of the communists, it implied that communism was doomed. The message of the film was directed at those rulers who did not follow God’s laws and for the audience of the 1950s that could only mean the communist rulers. To maintain some semblance of historical accuracy, Herod was left cursed with the thought the he would die in agony
Salome, (d) William Dietrele, Harry Kleiner, Jerry Lasky Jnr.
Honorary Associate: La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
Samson and Delilah’s successor Quo Vadis? (1951), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, built on the ideas of its predecessor. Quo Vadis? focused on the burning of Rome by Emperor Nero and the martyrdom of early Christians. The film opened with columns of victorious troops returning to Rome after crushing a rebellion in Britain with the following voice over:
Imperial Rome is the centre of the empire. An undisputed master of the world, but with power inevitably comes corruption. No man is sure of his life. The individual is at the mercy of the State. Murder replaces justice. Rulers of conquered nations surrendered their helpless subjects to bondage. High and low alike become Roman slaves, Roman hostages. There is no escape form the whip and the sword. That any force on earth can shake this foundation, this pyramid of power and corruptions, of human misery and slavery seems inconceivable. But 30 years before this day, on a Roman cross in Judea a miracle occurred. A man died to make man free. To spread the gospel of love and redemption. Soon that cross will replace the proud eagles of the Roman legions.
The opening lines anticipate the cold war speeches of Secretary of States Dulles. ‘The individual at the mercy of the State’ sounds remarkably like Dulles’ belief tat the Soviets treated ‘human beings as primarily important from the standpoint of how much they can produce for the glorification of the state.’ And because of this failure to respect human values, the Roman State was doomed. The cross of Christianity would replace the eagle of the Romans. The slaves would defeat the masters.
Quo Vadis? began with the return of the victorious General Marcus Vinicius, played by Robert Taylor, from his battles in Britain. He was a proud and stern commander who would have a soldier flogged for any disobedience. He desired a Christian woman Lydia, played by Deborah Kerr. She refused his advances because he owned slaves. One of the major criticisms the Christians make of the Roman empire in the film is that they have slaves. Indeed Lydia refused to marry Vinicius unless he gave all his slaves freedom. George MacDonald Fraser in his survey of Hollywood’s historical epics has pointed out that the film is incorrect in its attempt to depict the early Christians as being anti-slavery. He argues that Hollywood was always eager to suggest that its heroes were champions of universal liberty. This was not the case as there were slave owners and slave dealers among the Christians. The biblical epics were not interested in historical accuracy, they were interested in presenting religion as a vibrant and powerful force against tyrannies. To do so, the filmmakers were prepared to stretch an historical point or two to get their message across. As a consequence, the early Christians were depicted as being against slavery.
Vinicius arranged through Emperor Nero for Lydia to be bought to him. While pursuing Lydia, Vinicius began to see the justness of the Christian cause after hearing St Peter speak. In the interim, Nero burned Rome and then attempted to use the Christians as a scapegoat for the burning. When the Romans condemned St Peter, Christianity was represented as a rebellion against a totalitarian state. The Romans said that Peter had preached blasphemy against the emperor and was crucified as a warning to all Christians.
The Christians bravely sang hymns as they were devoured by lions or crucified or burnt to death. Eventually the Roman crowd, moved by the courage of the Christians, revolted against Nero. Vinicius and his new wife Lydia left Rome while order was restored. At the conclusion of the film, Vinicius watched the Roman army march into restore order and reflected on the decline of Roman and other powers.
Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. What follows?
A more permanent world I hope? With a more permanent faith?
LeRoy and his writers were arguing that the true faith of Christianity was the real foundation for an empire. Empires built on different faiths would crumble, just as the Roman empire had fallen. This message, which foreshadowed Dulles’ Watertown address would have been deeply reassuring for the American public who had witnessed the growth of communism following the Second World War. The cultural myth created by these films said that despite its power and success, communism would collapse when faced with the Christian spirit of America.
Quo Vadis?, (d) Mervyn Le Roy, John Lee Marhin, S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien.
 George MacDonald Fraser, Hollywood History of the World, Michael Joseph, London, 1988, p. 22.
Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
In 1948, film producer and director Leo McCarey, who was one of the most vocal anti-communist figures in Hollywood, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes. McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’. He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence. McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.
Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself. After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment. As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda. Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost.
McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs. By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism. McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he waned Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world. He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate he strength of his arguments.
On the same page, just below McCarey’s article, was a few notes on the production of a major biblical film called Samson and Delilah (1949). The film was directed by the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille who followed McCarey’s call for religious films with a message for the audience. DeMille felt strongly that communism was a dangerous threat to world peace. In fact Samson and Delilah (1949) had a message which matched his cold war views. DeMille had been an active anti-communist in Hollywood politics. He was praised by congressman John Rankin as being ‘literally burned up with the Communist activities of these subversive elements’ in Hollywood. He was a key player in Hollywood’s anti-communist community. His films also strongly reflected his anti-communism. DeMille spoke on the radio before the world premiere:
All the arts for 30 centuries have told the story of Samson and Delilah to all the peoples of the world. They saw in Samson’s struggle something that is deep in all of us, a desire to be free form fear, tyranny and enslavement, a desire that should be in men’s hearts today. To keep our liberty and freedom and let no man or men destroy or take them away.
In a speech at Paramount Studios on 27 September 1950, where workers signed a ‘declaration of freedom’, he made his position on freedom clear.
The difference between Communism and freedom is not primarily political – or economic – or national. It is expressed in one line in the Declaration of Freedom which you are asked to sign today – the line that reads: ‘I believe that all men derive the right to freedom equally under God.’ That is one of the most revolutionary lines that could be written. Over against it stands the black reaction of the Kremlin, the idea that the creator and lord of human rights is not Got by Stalin. Today, we make our choice – for slavery under Stalin or freedom under God…
These ideas of freedom were weaved into DeMille’s biblical epics. Samson and Delilah opens with a globe spinning in a greenish mist and the narrator DeMille saying:
Before the dawn of history, ever since the first man discovered his soul, he has struggled against the forces that sought to enslave him. He saw the awful power of nature arrayed against him, the evil eye of lighting, the terrifying voice of thunder, the shrieking wind filled darkness enslaving his mind with shackles of fear. Fear bred superstition, blinding his reason. He was ridden by a host of devil gods, human dignity ravaged on the altar of idolatry and tyranny rose, grinding the human spirit beneath the conqueror’s free mind.
But deep in mans heart, still burned the unquenchable will for freedom. When this divine spark inflames the heart of some mortal, whether priest or soldier, artist or patriot, lover or statesman, his deeds have changed the course of human events and his name survives the ages.
The scene was set for conflict between Samson, who was a combination of ‘greatness and weakness’, and the Philistine empire. The Philistines had held the Israelites in bondage and Samson wanted only ‘liberty for his nation’. In the Declaration of Independence, the United States was described as the land where the inalienable rights were the ‘preservation of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. The word ‘liberty’ was a clever and deliberate choice by DeMille and his writers to link the plight of the Israelites with America’s struggle for independence.
On the other side of the fence, the Philistines were depicted an evil totalitarian power, mostly dressed in red. In one scene the Philistine lord of Gaza looked down at his ant nest and marveled how the master ants dominated the slave ants. For the Philistine emperor, this was the natural order, just as the Jews were to be dominated by the Philistines. The emperor instructed a guard on the merits of the social organisation of ants and how they should follow them.
The Philistines were a strong military power, but it was the spiritual strength of the Danites that eventually overcame the tyrants. In one scene, Samson fought and destroyed the Philistine army with the jaw bone of an ass. Samson’s strength was derived solely from God and when he chose the beautiful, but deadly, Delilah over the virtuous, but plain, Miranda, the source of his strength was betrayed and he was captured and tortured. In the final scene, Samson was led into a huge temple where the massive statute of the false Philistine God Dogan stood. Blinded and humiliated by the Philistines, Samson called on God and then demolished the temple singlehandedly. The God of the Philistines, Dagon, was sent crushing down and all of the Philistines in the huge temple were destroyed. The slaves had defeated the masters.
In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians. It was no surprise to learn that Arnold Toynbee soon began lecturing on Samson and Delilah. DeMille took great care in making sure that his films communicated the right political message. He was anxious that the picture would not be seen to parallel the events around the establishment of Israel. The word Jew was never used throughout the picture, instead the director chose the word Danites, because Samson derived from the tribe of Dan.
New York Times 12 December 1948. When McCarey had an opportunity to write and direct his own anti-communist film, the same criticisms could easily be applied to him. See discussion on My Son John in blog on anti-communist films.
Congressional Record, 91, part 6, 17 July 1945, p. 7337.
 Sayre, Running Time, p. 207. DeMille’s secretary Gladys Rosson wrote to the foundation on at lease one occasion to find out the political credentials of directors Herbert Biberman, Vincent Sherman, Irving Pichel, and Frank Tuttle. DeMille Foundation For Political Freedom to Gladys Rosson, 7 April 1947, Box 124, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.
 Cecil B. DeMille, Speech before World Premiere of Samson and Delilah, on 21 December 1949, Box 629, Folder 8 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
 Cecil B. DeMille, Crusade For Freedom, speech to workers at Paramount Studio on 27 September 1950. Box 212 Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.
Samson and Delilah, (d) Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Frederick M. Frank.
Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
Not all of the popular science fiction films of the 1950s were commenting on communism. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Creature from the Black Lagoon had little to say about the twin fears of nuclear devastation or the communist threat. The two top grossing science fiction films of the decade were based on novels by 19th century French novelist Jules Verne whose work was popular during the 1950s in America. Around the World in 80 Days (1956), based on one of his novels, was also an extremely popular film and was only beaten by The Ten Commandments (1956) as the biggest grossing film of that year.
The films based on Verne’s books attracted American audiences for far different reasons. Verne saw the United States as a model for development for the future of the world. His books were full of fantastic journeys and inventions. He saw the United States as a country of technical and economic progress. It may have been his positive vision of technology and United States society that helped his popularity. Nonetheless, it was a vision of technological developments of the past. A period when such development was not threatening. Even so, 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea had a contemporary message with Captain Nemo attempting to end warfare by sinking all warships of all nations. The films ended as a mushroom cloud hung over Nemo’s destroyed island, an image that could have meant nuclear weapons to an audience of 1954.
Of the others listed, Creature from the Black Lagoon focuses on the sexual intentions of the creature lurking beneath the deep for a woman scientist and appeared to lack any political dimension. The film was an exception as it was humans that were invading the creature’s lagoon. The central conflict was between the scientists who wanted to capture and study it and those who wanted it to be left in peace. The creature was no threat as it lived isolated form the world. Critic Frank D. McConnell has argued that ‘we glimpse in The Creature the central evasion of energy, the central fear of the life-force itself which underlay the witch-hunts and HUAC purges.’ These films were, however, the exceptions , as most popular science fiction films dealt with themes of nuclear annihilation or communist invasion.
The films often had religious themes. When the crazed scientist in The Fly (1958) is told ‘It’s like playing God,’ the audience knew he was in for trouble for his blasphemy. And at the end of the film, he was devoured by a spider. Religion and science were often in conflict in science fiction films, with some kind of apocalyptic revenge for science that had gone beyond natural boundaries. When realizing the horror that has befallen mankind form the nuclear tests in Them! (1954), Dr Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, mumbled quietly in biblical terms:
And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.
The beasts that had been unleashed by the scientists were nuclear weapons or communists armed with nuclear weapons. Perhaps the clearest example came from Forbidden Planet (1956) which was based on the idea that humanity’s moral nature had not kept pace with its technological development. Given complete power, mankind would destroy itself.
The religious ideas contained in the science fiction films were bleak. War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, The Fly and Them! were depressing views of the nuclear future. They reflected a great deal of unease about the development of science and a general belief that it had gone too far. Presbyterian Minister Peter Marshall, who was the subject of the film A Man Called Peter said in a sermon that progresses had its limits.
These latest inventions and discoveries have made war more terrible, and while they have given us many conveniences and comforts, they have made life more complicated.
peace more difficult
and the human heart more troubled…
Everyone agrees that we have far more advances in the scientific world than we have made in the world of morals and ethics.
Spiritually, we have not kept pace with or progress in the realm of science and invention.
Some of these films had an anti-nuclear edge to them. The fear of communism was great in these films but it was also mixed with a fear of nuclear weapons themselves. It is interesting to note that the monsters which mutated from nuclear sites or escaped form nuclear laboratories were located in or near the United States, not the USSR.
Science fiction films may have been intended to only be simple entertainment, but thy reflected the concerns of a decade. King called it that ‘paradoxical trick’ of unleashing a community’s fears and then having them destroyed. That release occurred when ‘the thing’ was electrocuted or the giant ants were incinerated. In their own way, science fiction films released American audiences from those fears. They offered reassurance to the fearful American public when it was faced with terrifying enemies with great powers. The release provided by science fiction may have been only momentary, but it is clear by the popularity of these films that the public wanted and got that release.
 For a discussion of the popularity of Verne in America see Ray Bradbury’s introduction ‘The Ardent Blasphemer’ to Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, SF Collectors Library, Corgi, 1975, pp. 1-12.
 For a discussion of Verne’s views on the United States see Jean Chesneaux, The Political and Social Ideas of Jules Verne, Thames and Hudson, 1979, pp. 150 – 164.
 Frank D. McConnell, ‘Song of Innocence: The Creature form the Black Lagoon’ in Michael T. Mardesen, John G. Nachbar, Sam L. Groff. (ed.). Movies as Artifacts: Cultural Criticism of Popular Film, Nelson-Hall, Chicage, 1982, p. 216.
Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne: Australia.
I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) was one of the final efforts in the alien subversion cycle. The film had many of the elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Aliens had been quietly taking over the bodies of people of a small American town. The central takeover was that of Bill Farell, played by Tom Tryon, who was newly married to Marge, played by Gloria Talbott. Marge suspected something was seriously wrong with Bill. She followed him into the woods to find that he was meeting with his fellow aliens. Marge tried to contact Washington, but the operator told her all the lines were down, and so she then tried to leave town, but was stopped by a police roadblock. The aliens had taken over the police force and even her godfather had been replaced. Eventually she convinced Dr Wayne of her story and he formed a posse to enter the woods. After a brief struggle, they released the real townspeople who had wires attached to their heads to feed the aliens with their memories. The aliens were destroyed and order was returned.
The plan of the aliens was to mate with earth women and eventually take over the world. There is a clear amount of sexual tension. The above image shows the power less female in the hands of the ugly alien. Again communism is a form of seduction, close to a form of rape. It was a subtle variation on the themes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens were once again ruthless and emotionless. They killed when under any kind of threat. The alien double for Bill even strangled a puppy. The key scenes in the film were Marge’s attempts to tell people about the aliens. She found the authorities overtaken by the aliens. It was perhaps notable that it was the townspeople who freed themselves without the assistance of Washington. The pattern was repeated less successfully in a number of other science fiction films and it even spawned a short lived television series called The Invaders.
Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion. It was a popular film at the time of its release and his remained one of the most critically acclaimed of the 1950s science fiction films. Dr Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, returned to Santa Mira, a small town in Southern Califiornia. His nurse told him that there appeared to be a serious malady in the town and people were saying that their friends and relatives were lacking full emotion. He saw a few cases with these symptoms and could not find a reason for the malady. After further investigation, he found mysterious plants which began to resemble people and then take over them while they sleep. Miles found that the police force had been taken over by these pods. Eventually he escaped from Santa Mira with pod people following him. He was found hysterically wandering along a highway screaming ‘You’re next. They’re coming. You’re next.’ He finally alerted the authorities and the audience assumed that all will be well as Washington had been called. For a low budget film, it received solid publicity form Allied Artists whose executives were shattered by the initial viewing. Producer Walter Wanger insisted on a softer ending which explained the odd first and last scenes. The ending was still strong, but there was a not of reassurance when a doctor decided to call the authorities. The changes probably helped the film’s success. The film originally ended with Kevin McCarthy running dazedly down the freeway, screaming ‘You’re next. You’re next. The original ending in the script had Miles struck by a car. Miles is found muttering ‘burn them. Burn them! There’s no escape … No time to waste. Unless you do, you’ll be next.’ The producers made Siegel tack on an introductory scene and a final scene where Washington is notified. The ending of the novel has Becky and Miles facing the enemy and deciding to make a final stand against the pods despite certain capture. They manage to burn some of the pod people by pouring petrol into a ditch. They are captured but the pods decide that the planet is too inhospitable and fly off into space. Santa Mira is saved.
The pod people were regimented society and lacked any signs of individuality. The vegetable metaphor had connotations with the growth of communism in fertile American soil, similar to the alien in The Thing. The pod people were cold and emotionless with few personal feelings about life. They do not even wince when a dog was run over in front of them. Their way of life was extremely organised and authoritarian.
Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism. The anti-McCarthyist interpretation argues that it is American authorities which are being controlled by the pods. The pods control the government, law enforcement agencies and communications and enforce the political line of the country. The pods represented the McCarthyite forces in America attempting to strip away all political opposition. And the film certainly does mirror the hysteria, the sense of paranoia, the authoritarian police and the witch-hunt atmosphere, but there are too many holes in the argument. One critical scene was a speech by one of the pod people who talked to Miles about the world under the pod people. The philosophy was that there will ne no feeling, no free will, no moral choice, no anger, no tears, no pain, no passion and no emotion. It will mean being ‘reborn into an untroubled world, where everybody’s exactly the same.’ In this world, there is no need for love or emotion. ‘Love, ambition, desire, faith – without them, life is so simple.’ the alien explained. The alien of The Thing had resurfaced in human form. In response, Miles said ‘only when we have to fight to stay human, do we realise how precious our humanity is.’ From this speech it was difficult to see how the film could be read as anything other than fear of communism. In the pod society, there were no emotions, and while that meant no love, it also ruled out hate, war, and crimes of passion. It would be a world without discord. To Americans in the late 1950s, a society which denied freedom of thought – or emotions – was a communist society. The arguments about Invasion of the Body Snatchers being anti-McCarthyite are clever but not convincing.
Film historian Stuart Samuels’ view was that the pods represented the spectre of conformity in American life. The popular books of the 1950s were Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, Whyte’s The Organisational Man and Packard’s The Status Seekers which depicted a society that was moving away form rugged individualism to the security of the group. The group demanded conformity in exchange for economic security. The film was against social conformity, but it was the conformity forced on a community by an invader. Samuels’ argument that it was an attack on social conformity ignores one important scene which was almost a carbon copy from the anti-communist film Red Nightmare. In the scene, the townspeople gathered in the central square to receive their orders for the day. A jeep drove up and military official handed out orders and pods were distributed. Noel Carroll in the Soho News described the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the ‘quintessential Fifties image of socialism.’ People were not only stripped of personality, but regimented to take over the rest of the United States. It was a vision of communism first subverting and then overthrowing the United States.
 Al LaValley, (ed.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rutgers University Press, London, 1989.
 Stuart Samuels, The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A. Jackson (ed.). American History/ American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, pp. 203 – 219.
 Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, p. 157.