The conservative backlash

The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The themes raised in High Noon were also picked up by those who supported the investigations.  The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Randolph Scott played a bounty hunter who arrived in the frontier town of Twin Peaks on the trail of three armed robbers.  The townspeople resented his appearance and some with guilty secrets left town.  He had no idea who the culprits were and bided his time.  The townspeople want them to leave because they don’t like the past being dug up.  The people then tried to buy him off but he would not be deflected from his pursuit of the criminals.  The film can be read as a defence of HUAC investigators who had to burrow into the past of respectable people to uncover their dark secrets, no matter what the cost.  Some of the criminals occupied high positions.  One was even sheriff, but the criminals were only able to maintain their positions by blackmail and threats.  By rooting out these criminal elements, true peace was attained in the town.

Director and producer Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were disgusted by Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and the cycle it created and set out to refute it.  Some of that anger can be seen in an interview with John Wayne in 1974 when asked about High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman:

Hawks was convinced that professional law enforcement officers would refuse help, even in a desperate situation.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper rejected the help of two men who offer assistance – a drunk and a kid.  The retired marshal refused to help Kane because he would be a burden.  In Rio Bravo, Chance chose a drunk, a kid and a retired marshal to help him against the gunfighters.  For Hawks and Wayne, authority was responsible and benign.  It defended the weak and attacked the guilty and the best people could do was to simply co-operate with it.  It was not to be questioned or assisted, it was simply to be obeyed.[4]

What about Carl Foreman?  I’ll tell you about Carl Foreman and his rotten High Noon.  Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin and Grace Kelly were in it … It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The last thing is old Coop putting the United States marshall’s badge under his feet and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of town … Here’s the church, supposed to be an American church and all the women are sitting on one side of the aisle, and all the men on the other.  What kind of American church is that?  And all those women are getting out there and fight those killers and all the men are afraid.  What kind of Western town is that?[1]

Wayne was mistaken about the film, Cooper never stands on the badge.  The church also has men and women sitting together on both sides.  These statements indicate that Wayne may have either never seen the film or not viewed it closely.  Nonetheless, having seen it or not, Wayne despised the film.  Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t as violent in his denunciation of High Noon.  He said in an interview about his film:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon … I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally the Quaker wife had to save him.  That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff.[2]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But Wayne and Hawks were able to have their say in the Rio Bravo (1959).  In the film, John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, was the sheriff of Rio Bravo who arrested Joe, the brother of a ruthless rancher Nathan Burdette.  The rancher swore that he would get his brother out of jail and began to gather an army of hired guns to do the job.  In one scene Chances’ friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond, asks him if he needs help.

Suppose I got them.  What would I have.  Some well meaning amateurs.  Most of them worried about their wives and kids.  Burdette has got 30 to 40 men.  All professionals.  The only thing that worries them is seeing their pay … All it would be doing is making more targets to shoot at.  A lot of people would get hurt.  Joe Burdette isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth one of whose who’d be killed.[3]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Its conservative message of the responsibility of authority fitted in with many films of the right.  Perhaps what made this film so popular was that these authority figures demanded that no freedoms be lost while the fight was on.  It was ranked 8th in the 1959 with rentals of $5.2 million.[5]

The persistence of the theme of the relationship between the lone sheriff figure, the violent thereat and townspeople in Westerns from 1952 until the end of the decade showed the relationship between authority and the people was an area of tremendous concern.  The answers given in the films were not consistent and came from all points of the political spectrum.  The films may not have provided the answers for the audience but their popularity showed that the questions about authority and dealing with threats were being asked.


[1] Playboy May 1974 interview by Mike Parkinson in Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York, 1983, p. 244.  A careful examination of the badge throwing scene shows a second badge from an earlier take buried behind his foot.  It appeared that Cooper was standing on the second badge from an earlier take.  Wayne may have heard about this flaw in the film second hand which could have distorted his perception.

[2] Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press, London, 1982, p. 136.

[3] Rio Bravo, (d) Howard Hawks, (w) Jules Furtham, Leigh Brackett.

[4] This point is remarkably close to the position put by Mankiewicz against DeMille about the role of authority.  Adding strength to Elia Kazan’s belief that it was the conservatives that defeated DeMille, rather than the left.  Elia Kazan A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 393.

[5] Stenberg, Reel Facts, p. 22.

High Noon and its successors

Riding Shotgun also had anti-McCarthyism themes. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

High Noon had many successors which took up the various themes about McCarthyism in differing ways.  Riding Shotgun (1954) again looked at the political situation in allegorical terms, but with disdain for the hysteria created by McCarthy.  A respected guard on the stage coach Larry Delon, played by Randolph Scott, attempted to warn the town of an impending raid on the town’s ‘Bank Club’ by a gang of criminals.  Delon was almost lynched by the townspeople who believed that he was responsible for the shooting of a stagecoach.  A posse was formed to chase the outlaws who were actually planning to rob the undefended town.  Delon was bailed up in a building throughout the film while the town attempted to lynch him.  Eventually the outlaws raided and Delon foiled the robbery and regained the town’s respect.  The film was not as sharp in its criticism of the worn as in High Noon, but there were some strong scenes where Scott walked through the town with every eye on him, thinking; ‘The city had already tried and found me guilty.[1]  The film was not critical of the law enforcement agencies as the deputy Sheriff was depicted as a sensible man desperately trying to see that no one gets hurt in the town’s desire to lynch Scott.

Unlike High Noon, the film showed that the town was willing to fight, but needed firm leadership.  Without that leadership, the town could turn into a lynch-mob and attack the innocent.  Riding Shotgun was a conservative film that asked for respect for the traditional law enforcement, rather than the hysteria of the mob.

Although not strictly a western, as it was set in contemporary America, Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear cut attacks on the McCarthyite era within the genre.  Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, who was one of the petitioners for Jospeh L. Mankiewicz, and produced by Dore Schary who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.  Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[2]  It was clear that these events had an impact of the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, was a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  His aim was to give to a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years and the townspeople were clearly threatened by his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’  The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno who was a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer to be a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[3]

Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  He manipulated and terrified the people of the town with the crime.  He described Macreedy as a ‘virus’ which had given the town a fever and had to be destroyed.  Very similar to the way, McCarthy depicted communists as an infection of the American political system.  The Sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, was ineffectual and complaint to Reno’s orders, just as McCarthy blustered his way over the legal system.  Others simply tried to ignore the crime and remained in apathetic fear.  When Macreedy faced and defeated Reno, the town was forced to face the collective guilt of their silence.  The conclusion of the film was optimistic as it showed the town could prosper again with the departure of Reno, just as the American community had to realize the enormity of the damage inflicted by the McCarthyite era before it could begin to move forward again.

The Fastest Gun Alive continued the themes of High Noon. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Other films carried similar messages to High Noon throughout the 1950s.  In At Gunpoint (1955) a shopkeeper played by Fred MacMurray killed a bank robber with a lucky shot.  He was called a hero, but his fellow townspeople deserted him when the robbers plotted reprisals.  MacMurray eventually convinced the town to fight and they defeated the outlaws when they return.  In The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), the townspeople cower in a church while a gunslinger threatened to burn down the town unless their reluctant local hero cam out for a showdown.  They eventually forced him out to face the villain.

In The Tin Star (1957), a sheriff had to stand up to a town turned into a lynch mob to re-establish the authority of law and order.  The prisoners inside his jail were clearly guilty and it was certain they would be hanged or jailed.  The film argued that the lynch mob was not the answer.  Only when the leader of the lynchers was stared down, humiliated and then destroyed did peace come to the town.  If the mob was equated with McCarthyism, the legal approach of the sheriff was the best way for American society to go.  The central figure was a man similar to High Noon’s Will Kane who was bitter and resentful about society but at the end of the film, he picked up ‘the tin star’ to renew the fight against criminals.[4]  Law and order depended on the professional pride and determination of law enforcement officers.  Without them, the weak townspeople would be at the mercy of the bandits and agitators.  The central theme of these films was that the town by its inaction or corruption could collapse into lawlessness.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract.  A stranger played by Audie Murphy rode into town and registered at a hotel.  He was John Gant who made his living goading people into a fight and then killing them in self defence.  His appearance caused a slow breakdown of the town as prominent citizens remembered guilty secrets of the past and were afraid that he has been sent to kill them.  Old antagonisms began to rise an people committed suicide or left town or tried to bribe Gant. The films focused on what fear can do to people.  If you were Gant’s target then you were already dead.  The most effective scenes were when a banker with a guilty secret in his past attempted to buy Gant off the trail.  But Gant would not leave the town until his intended victim was dead.  The law enforcement officers can’t stop him as he was too deadly with the gun, and even managed to stare down the entire town when they tried to drive him out.  The atmosphere of paranoia and fear which pervaded the film with Gant’s arrival and Murphy’s edgy performance as Gant make it one of the most effective successors to High Noon.  At the end of the film, Gant ensured that his target was dead, but he was wounded and rode away.  He could certainly return and wreck havoc again.


[1] Riding Shotgun Warner, (d) Andre De Toth, (w) Tom Blackburn.

[2] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 700-716.

[3] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman

[4] One of the sources for High Noon was a story called The Tin Star by John Cunningham which appeared in Colliers on 6 December 1947.  Behlmer, p. 270.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.  In the film, Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, returned to this estranged lover Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, who owned a disreputable bar.  A stage robbery occurred in town, and a banker was killed.  The dead man’s sister Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge, convinced a wealthy rancher John McIvers, played by Ward Bond, that the crime had been committed by the Dancin’ Kid, Corey ad Young Turkey, when they were innocent.  Small was jealous of the Dancin’ Kid’s attraction to Vienna.  The accused trio decided to rob a bank since they were being forced to flee the area anyway.  Small made the bank teller swear that Vienna was involved in the robbery.  In response, a posse rode to Vienna’s bar and burned it down.  The posse hanged the injured Turkey who was hiding there.  Eventually, the posse learned the truth about Emma and stood back while Emma and Vienna shoot it out.  Vienna killed Emma and rode off with Johnny.

The plot had all the elements of a standard western plot, even a final shootout, yet it can be read as a political film.  The outlaws can be seen as communists who were blamed for every wrongdoing in town.  Critic Michael Wilmington argued that former gun-man Johnny, represented an ex-Communist called before the HUAC.  Wilmington saw Vienna as a fellow traveller and Emma as a vindictive witness or a politician who used the investigations to destroy the careers of rivals.  McIvers represented big business or law enforcement authorities which, while basically good, had succumbed to the pressure of McCarthy’s tirades.  The townspeople were the American middle class.[1]

Lynching was a key theme in Johnny guitar. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wilmington’s argument can be taken further, Turkey was promised that he could be saved when he was caught by the posse if he would point an accusatory figure at Vienna.  For Ray and writer Yordan, this was the dilemma of the witnesses before the HUAC investigators.  The fact that he was hung was a reminder that informing did not guarantee survival.  Critic Danny Peary contended that Emma’s attack on Vienna was similar to the techniques used by McCarthyite investigators who assumed that social deviance of any kind was an indication of communism.[2]

The personal political viewpoints of the actors were also interesting. Ward Bond, who was one of the leaders of the lynching party, was President for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which helped HUAC weed out communists in Hollywood.  Sterling Hayden, who played Johnny Guitar, testified before the committee and regretted it all of his life.  Hayden wrote in his autobiography about his testimony that: ‘Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he despises.  I subscribed to a press clipping service.  They sent me two thousand clips from papers, east and west, large and small, and from dozens of magazines.  Most had nothing but praise for my on-shot stoolie.  Only a handful – led by the New York Times – denounced this abrogation of constitutional freedom.’[3]  This casting may have been deliberate or accidental.  Yet the end result was to have actual participants acting out their roles in a political allegory.

Ina Lonely Place, also directed by Ray, did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Apart from Johnny Guitar, Ray had already attacked the investigations in In A Lonely Place (1950).  James W. Palmer, writes about in  ‘In a Lonely Place: Paranoia in the Dream Factory’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 12, 1985, No. 3, pp. 202 – 210.  The film did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.  The film focused on a writer Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, who had been rejected by the Hollywood community.  Since returning from the war, he had been unable to write and his drinking and aggressive behavior had led to him become an isolated figure in the Hollywood community.  At the beginning of the film, he invited a hatcheck girl back to his apartment for her to tell him the story of a book which he might turn into a movie.  Dixon sent the woman home and the next morning, her body was found brutally murdered.  Steele was considered to be a prime suspect by the police.  After being questioned and then released by the police, Steele was further isolated by the Hollywood community who saw him as guilty.  Bu the end of the film, Steele, who was a violent man, became a borderline psychotic.  After succumbing to the pressure, he attacked his fiancé and his life was ruined, even though he was eventually cleared of the murder charge.  Steele with his persecutions and paranoia can be read as a symbol of the Hollywood Ten.

This group were a part of the Hollywood community until accused of the ‘crime’ of communism.  Eventually they were abandoned by the community to their own fate.  Film critic James W. Palmer noted that everybody in the film was guilty of not supporting people in need.  He wrote that the real crime was the undermining of human trust through a process of social exclusion.

Ray’s allegorical attack against HUAC in Johnny Guitar probably would have gone over the heads of its audience of the time.  No evidence exists in any reviews of Johnny Guitar that anyone considered it anymore than an interesting western with strong performances from both Crawford and McCambridge.  Indeed Nora Sayre in her survey of cold war films, mentions it only in passing as a light entertainment.[4]  A member of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr. had never heard of the film,[5] although Ray has insisted that contemporary audience got the message about the lynching party being a McCarthyite investigation.[6]

Previous version of this blog at:

https://kevinbrianton.com/westerns-huac-johnny-guitar-1954/


[1] Michael Wilmington, ‘Johnny Guitar’ Velvet Light Trap Spring 1974 in Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, pp. 171-172.

[2] Ibid, p. 172.

[3] Sterling Hayden, Wanderer, Knopf, New York, 1973, p. 366

[4] Nora Saryre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, p. 173.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at a Public Seminar of the Australian Film Institute on 6 March 1991. (Notes taken by author).

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’, Take One, Vol 5, No. 6, (January) p. 11.

High Noon for HUAC

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Westerns hold pride of place in American cinema.  They retold the legends and myths of America’s frontier past and had been a feature of cinema virtually since its inception.  In the 1950s, hundreds of westerns were made which dealt with many aspects of American life.  It was perhaps inevitable, with the stifling of direct political criticism, and the pressing concerns of McCarthyism and communism, that westerns would take on a political dimension in the 1950s.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1947 investigation proved to be only a testing of the waters for HUAC.  The Hollywood 10 went to prison in September 1950 and the committee re-gathered momentum to pounce on Hollywood again.  The Hollywood 10’s imprisonment had increased the power of HUAC to make it feared throughout the film industry.  Director Joseph Losey told an interviewer that ‘the most terrifying thing about the atmosphere was seeing people succumb, and seeing all protest disappear.  Because if you did protest, you’d had it.’[1]  The second HUAC investigations were to be larger and more systematic and they destroyed the remnants of the liberal-left in Hollywood without any effective opposition.  In the middle of these rising fears about HUAC’s return, Carl Foremen was writing the screenplay for a western called High Noon.

The film was about the desperate efforts of the Sheriff Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, to get help from the townspeople to fight Frank Miller and his gang, who were being released from jail that day, and who had promised revenge on the town and Kane.  Miller, who Kane put in prison for murder, had been pardoned, and his gang were gathering at train station to meet when the train arrived at noon.  Kane approached all the town leaders for assistance to fight Miller but they all abandoned him.  The town and church leaders demanded that he leave town, claiming that the gang would leave the town alone if he was not there.  Kane failed in his attempts and faced the gunmen alone.  After defeating the four outlaws, Kane threw his badge onto the street in disgust at the town and left.  The screenwriter wanted the audience to equate the people of Cooper’s town with those who suddenly deserted their blacklisted friends in Hollywood.

Kane’s disgust equaled Foreman’s as friends humbled themselves and begged for help from the Hollywood community without success.  Foreman had been called to testify in front of HUAC and intended to be an un-co-operative witness. He said his friends began turning their backs on him even though he was not a communist:

My associates were afraid for themselves – I don’t believe them – and tried to get off the film, unsuccessfully.  They went to Gary Cooper and he refused (to go along with them).  Fred Zimmerman, too, was very staunch and very loyal, so was out backer, Bruce Church.

There are scenes in the film that are taken from life.  The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers.  And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and come back with his gun and asks, where are the others?  Cooper says there no others … I became the Gary Cooper character.[2]

Foreman depicted Hollywood society in a poor light as the threat of McCarthyism approached.  The pillars of the community were afraid that a gunfight would jeopardise business and possible future investment in the town and urged Kane to leave.  Their attitude was similar to the studio heads who abandoned their employees on the slightest of pretexts to avoid bad publicity and poor box office returns.  The religious leaders also pulled back from Kane because they cannot sanction violence.  He was only offered help by only a 14 year old boy and the town drunk and he turned down both.  The retired marshal wanted to help but could not because of his arthritis.

The point of the film was that the town united could have easily defeated the threat.  Instead the Hollywood community pursued their own individual selfish ends and were torn apart.  The point was not lost after the film’s release and Foreman was blacklisted for his efforts for many years.  He was ‘morosely pleased’ when the message of the film was understood by the conservatives.[3]

Grace Kelly supports her husband in High Noon Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Foreman certainly had no doubts when he wrote the screenplay that the town was Hollywood and the four men approaching represented HUAC and when the film was released The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote:

It is a story that bears a close resemblance to things that are happening today where people are traumatised by bullies and surrendering their freedoms … (Kane) is a man with the sense to meet a challenge, not duck and hope it will go away … The marshal can give a few lessons to the people of Hollywood today.[4]

However, it is doubtful whether the audience of the time saw it in that light.  One of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr, who knew Carl Foreman, said he could see no anti-HUAC message in the film beyond the general theme of standing up for oneself.[5]  If members of the Hollywood 10, who were more sensitive on the topic did not get the message, and knew the screenwriter, what hope was there for the general audience.  The film had an anti-HUAC message but it is uncertain whether that message got across to the audience.  Director Zinnemann said he did not make films to prove anything.[6]

The film can also be read as a defence of McCarthy with a lone figure standing  up against the communist threat.  The heroic figure of Kane could be seen as McCarthy desperately trying to awaken the community to the impending threat of communism.  Critic Phillip French has also suggested that the film was about the United States reluctantly renewing its role in world affairs.[7]  High Noon started a cycle of movies with the lone or aloof law official figure, struggling with both the town and some form of menace on the horizon.  Something in that formula clicked with the audience and the film finished eighth in the box office for 1952.[8]  The audience responded to the film but it is unclear to exactly what they were responding.


[1] Tom Milne (ed.). Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, p. 90.

[2] Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes: The Making of, Samuel French, New York, 1990, p. 276.

[3] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of he Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 176.

[4] New York Times, 3 August 1952.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at an Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991.  (Notes taken by author).

[6] Behimer, Behind p. 277.

[7] Phillip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Genre, Secker and Warburg, London, 1977, p. 35

[8] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, p. 21.

Chaplin and HUAC

A king in New York’s attack on the destructive paranoia of McCarthyism was similar to his attack on Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin used slapstick to cut his enemies down to size.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.  

Kevin Brianton

Senior lecturer La Trobe University

The only direct depiction of the HUAC investigations in a negative light came in Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957).  Chaplin had been one of he earliest victims of the anti-communist hysteria and had always been a target for the American Right.  Several of his films had enraged the conservatives such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).  His controversial private life had added fuel to the fire of conservatives who considered him to be a moral threat to the country.  An editorial in the Los Angeles Herald Express said:

Charlie Chaplin shelf proclaimed “citizen of the world” and “man without a country,” is fast nearing the end of the trail as far as the United States is concerned.

The complacent self-worship of the man, in a New York press conference is amazing.

In boasting that he was neither a patriot nor an American citizen, he said, in part:

“I am not nationalist of any country … You might say I am a citizen of the world … I never voted in my life … I did a great deal for the war effort … I made a speech in favour of opening a second front in 1942 … I believe that voting for people … leads to fascism.”

What a moral non-eternity that Chaplin is!

In joining the ranks of subversives who have the overthrow of the American way of life as their avowed objective, he insults the American people, the very people who have poured millions into his lap.[1]

The FBI had more than 1900 pages of reports devoted to Charlie Chaplin during his 50 year residency in America.[2]  Just as John Jefferson’s sexual preferences in My Son John were seen as evidence of his political leanings, Chaplin’s divorces and paternity litigations were seen as pointers to his communist sympathies.  Certain scenes in Modern Times comment on communist issues such as when the tramp walked down the street waving a red flag, trying to signal a driver after it fell off a truck.  A communist parade turned the corner behind him and police arrest him as a communist leader.  More important was his depiction of the dehumanizing nature of industrial work which Chaplin delighted in satirizing, along with bosses and police.  It was these scenes and his support for issues such as a second front against the Nazis in 1942 which left him tainted as a communist sympathizer.  It was in this cold war atmosphere of 1952 that United States Attorney General James McGranery rescinded Chaplin’s re-entry permit while he was travelling to London for the premiere of his film Limelight.[3] 

Chaplin was to remain away from the United States for the rest of his life, apart from one visit to pick up a life achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1971.  But although he was never to return, he left his thoughts on he HUAC investigations and he whole atmosphere of paranoia in his film A King in New York (1957).  The film’s attack on the destructive paranoia of McCarthyism was similar to his attack on Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin used slapstick to cut his enemies down to size.  The exiled King Shahdov of Estrovia sought refuge in the United States where he hoped to fund his plans for the peaceful use of nuclear power.  Unfortunately the crooked Prime Minister, played by Jerry Desmonde, had run off with the funds.  The King and his loyal ambassador Jaume, played by Oliver Johnston, were introduced into various aspects of American culture.  The King visited a progressive school and met a precocious child Rupert Macabee, played by his son Michael Chaplin, who launched into Marxist critique of society.

Chaplin was to remain away from the United States for the rest of his life, apart from one visit to pick up a life achievement award at the Academy Awards in 1971.  But although he was never to return, he left his thoughts on the HUAC investigations and he whole atmosphere of paranoia in his film: A King in New York (1957).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The King later met Rupert wandering homeless in the streets because he was running away from the Un-American Activities Committee who wanted to question him about his parents’ loyalties.  The FBI eventually captured the boy in the King’s apartment and the King was called before the committee.  Before appearing he was wrapped up in a fire hose and proceeded to douse the committee with water. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and before leaving visited Rupert who was destroyed after naming names.  The film’s subject matter was so contentious it was not shown in the United States until 1976.[4]

The pro-HUAC pictures were popular with the American audience.  Both On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny were in the top 20 grossing films of 1954.  It is almost impossible to determine whether the main cause of their success was their pro-HUAC message, but it does seem that conservative films had more resonance with the American public.  Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives was a determined attack on the McCarthyite mentality and the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the time.  It was a popular film and part of the post-war liberal flowering of films.  The high-minded aspirations of Storm Centre did not attract an audience.  A King in New York never had a chance.  Although the stinging verbal jab by Wilder on informers in Stalag 17 struck some kind of chord, the attacks mad on HUAC by Chaplin, Miller, Taradash had a little, if any, impact on the American public.  They were pot shots against a well armored opponent.  It is doubtful that the American Right ever felt the sting in the lines delivered in the films.

From the lack of popular reaction to his set of films it would seem that the American public were more behind McCarthy and the HUAC investigations.  The efforts of Hollywood’s liberal community failed to impress the American public that the communists were victims.  However, the pro-HUAC films were also one-offs, and no cycle of films began from On the Waterfront with the informer as hero or from the garbled political message of The Caine Mutiny.  At the close of the decade and in the early 1960s, the political tone of films became more and more anti-McCarthyite.  Films such as Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964) attacked McCarthyism in many different ways.  However, these films were looking at McCarthyism in retrospect when controls were looser and there was little likelihood that a career could be ended by a political statement.  Even though the anti-HUAC films did not strike a chord with the public, it is a credit to the courage and the integrity of the filmmakers that they were made at all.


[1] Los Angeles Herald Express 15 April 1947 printed in David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, McGraw Hill, New York, 1990, p. 546.

[2] Ibid. p. 750. A detailed summary of the FBI’s campaign can be found in this biography.

[3] Ibid., p. 572.

[4] Robinson, Chaplin., p.589.

Storm Center (1956) stands against McCarthyism

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

One American film which stood out clearly against McCarthyism was Storm Center (1956) which focused on a small town in America where a librarian Alicia Hull, played by Bette Davis, was dismissed for having a book called ‘The Communist Dream’ on the library’s shelves. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

One American film which stood out clearly against McCarthyism was Storm Center (1956) which focused on a small town in America where a librarian Alicia Hull, played by Bette Davis, was dismissed for having a book called ‘The Communist Dream’ on the library’s shelves.  The local council wanted the book removed and for future decisions about questionable material to be brought before them.  She told the council:

There was a book in our library for many years.  It is still there.  It made me sick to my stomach every time I checked it out, Mein Kampf.  Maybe we ran the risk of spreading Hitlerism but it didn’t work that way.  People read it.  It made them indignant.  Maybe it helped defeat Hitler?  Don’t you see by keeping it in the library we attack the communist dream?  We say to the communists, ‘We do not fear you.’ We are not afraid of what you have to say.  Tell me, would they keep a book in a Russian library praising democracy?[1]

The council demanded that the book be removed and she refused to withdraw a book because ‘it has ideas we don’t like’.  A politically ambitious councilor then told her that Hull had been linked to several communist front organisations such as the ‘American Peace Mobilization’ and the ‘Voice of Freedom Committee’ during the war.  Hull denied that she was a communist and she had resigned form the organisations when she found out they were fronts.

The council sacked her as well as telling the press that she had former communist affiliations.  The community began to shrink from her, just as the Hollywood community pulled away from those who spoke up for the Hollywood 10 and its supporters.  The councilor who leaked the information prepared to use it as a platform for further political battles ahead.  The councilor was a depiction of those politicians who used their investigations to further their political careers.  Hull was one of the victims whose liberal sympathies were now out of step with the political conventional wisdom.

The film also depicted the traditional American family in a less than appealing light.  One man was hideous anti-intellectual, he resented even his wife’s fondness for music and his son’s taste for reading.  In its defence of the little boy who liked reading books, the film may have been reacting to the depiction of the American family in My Son John.  Provoked by his father’s hatred of ‘pinkos’, the son in Storm Centre burned down the library.  The message of the film was that stamping out even one set of ideas – even repellent ideas – was a short step to book-burning fascism.  The film was an extraordinarily bold statement for its time.

Director and writer Daniel Taradash mad his position on the film clear in The New York Times.

Storm Centre is a dangerous picture about dangerous ideas.  It is about the burning of books and assassination of character.  It is about gossip and its peculiar impact on children.  It is about faith in headlines and distrust of the intellectual.  It is about political ambition disguised as patriotism.  It is about the unpredictable line of cause and effect which can start with the banning of a book and end with the creation of a lunatic.  And on the positive side, it is about a person who believes the best way to save a country is to be loyal to its own traditions, rather than afraid of another’s propaganda.[2]

The film had enormous problems despite its liberal and anti-communist message.  In 1952, Mary Pickford had almost signed to do the picture but had backed out after being approached by he anti-communist columnist Hedda Hopper.  Bette Davis decided to take the role after it had been rejected by Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young.  Davis did not work for three years after doing the film.[3]  At studio insistence, screenwriter Daniel Taradash was extremely careful to make sure that Hull acted from liberal motives rather than communist sympathies.[4]  Even so, the Catholic Legion of Decency described it as ‘hugely propagandistic’ which offered a ‘warped, oversimplified and strongly emotional solution to a complex problem’.[5]  Taradash later included a jab at the witch-hunt in the film Bell, Book and Candle (1958) when Kim Novak tried to tell James Stewart about her hidden secret and he asked her if she had done ‘something un-American’.[6]  Her secret was that she was a witch.


[1] Storm Centre Columbia/Phoenix (Julian Blaustein), (d) Daniel Taradash, (w) Daniel Taradash, Elick Moll.

[2] New York Times, 14 October 1956.

[3] Lawrence J. Quirk, Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, Bantam, New York, 1990, p. 388.

[4] Ibid., p. 386.

[5] New York Times, 12 July 1956.

[6] Bell, Book and Candle, (d) Richard Quine, (w) Daniel Taradash.

The Caine Mutiny and the politics of informing

The Caine Mutiny (1954) was about a mutiny aboard a ship because of a demented captain.  The first part of the film demonstrated the complete incompetence of Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

On The Waterfront was not an isolated example of a film by the disaffected left about HUAC.  The year 1954 saw the release of another popular film which attacked those who criticised or rebelled against authority.  The Caine Mutiny (1954) was about a mutiny aboard a ship because of a demented captain.  The first part of the film demonstrated the complete incompetence of Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart.  The films showed that his judgment was deeply flawed and he had deep psychological problems.  The aspiring novelist Keefer called him paranoid and aroused the executive officer Maryk’s suspicion about Queeg’s mental stability.  Maryk began a medical journal of Queeg and he had plenty of material.  Queeg was both obsessive and paranoid and few in the audience could forget the performance of Bogart with the continuous rolling of his steel balls in his hands.  Incident builds on incident.  Queeg was cowardly, deceptive, arrogant, evasive, and dishonest.  He finally fell apart during a typhoon and the film make it clear that mutiny was the only way to save the ship when Queeg was incapable of giving proper orders.

Up to this point it was clear that Queeg was in the wrong.  The film then executed a reversal and attacked the mutineers for being disloyal.  The defence attorney Greenwald, played by Jose Ferrer, by a vicious cross examination proved Queeg’s incompetence and paranoia.  Yet in the penultimate scene of The Caine Mutiny, Greenwald turned on the crew, and in particular Keefer, for not supporting Queeg.  Greenwald’s final outburst was a real jolt, because at no time had the men failed in their duties or responsibilities or both.  The film made it clear that Captain Queeg was too paranoid to command the ship.  According to Greenwald, however, the crew was wrong not to have followed a leader who may have killed them.

Film historians Roffman and Purdy point out the reason for the unsettling savage twist may have come from the film’s director Edward Dmytryk who was the only one of the Hollywood 10 who later testified before HUAC.[1]  Dmytryk went to prison for contempt of Congress, but after being released from prison, testified before HUAC.  His testimony allowed him to regain his position in Hollywood and The Caine Mutiny was on of his first films after his return.  He later claimed that he opposed the Hollywood 10 before going to prison, but was afraid that recanting before imprisonment would brand him a coward.[2]  The casting of Ferrer as the lawyer Greenwald was also interesting.  Like Dmytryk, Ferrer appeared before the HUAC hearings in 1951 as a friendly witness.  His testimony was described by one historian as ‘cooperative to the point of obsequiousness’.[3]

The film was based on a bestselling novel and a long running play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1953), both of which were written by Herman Wouk, but was sharply different from them both.  In the play, which focused entirely on the court martial trial, Queeg was depicted as a reasonable man until the weight of evidence crushed his spirit and revealed him to be a paranoid incompetent.  Even then some doubt remained.  In the film, it was clear from Bogart’s opening scenes that Queeg was an unstable and dangerous leader.  The film also has an important scene where Queeg, after a cowardly display escorting marines into battle, asked for support from his crew.  The crew continued to ostracise him through a mixture of fear of his madness and disgust at his cowardice.

The Caine Mutiny did not contain a personal commentary like On the Waterfront, but it had clear parallels with Dmytryk’s situation.  The mutiny was blamed on an intellectual writer and officer who had manipulated events for his own ends.  Keefer was the left wing figure who had duped the naive liberals, Maryk and Keith into rebelling against authority.  Keefer was depicted as the true enemy which made The Caine Mutiny one of he most subtle defences of the HUAC investigations and the attacks on communist subverters.  The communists, as represented by Keefer, were cowardly manipulators.[4]  Both the book and the play leave some area of doubt about the dubious role of Keefer in undermining Queeg.  In the film, Keefer accepted that he was guilty and cowardly and all the officers accept their guilt and walk away from him.

In more general terms, the film argued that authority should not be challenged no matter how inept or how dangerous it became.  However, in Bogart’s memorable depiction of the insane Queeg, it was clear that the officers had no choice.  Wouk’s message that brave little men like Queeg stopped Jews from ending up as ‘bars of soap’ and therefore deserved the crew’s full support was lost in the film version.  When the lawyer Greenwald condemned the men, his speech seemed unjust and unnecessary.  Perhaps the film reflected he divided state of Dmytryk’s allegiances which he described in his autobiography.

The film argued that authority should not be challenged no matter how inept or how dangerous it became.  However, in Bogart’s memorable depiction of the insane Queeg, it was clear that the officers had no choice. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

I had long been convinced that he fight of the Ten was political, that the battle for freedom of thought, in which I believed completely, had been twisted into a conspiracy of silence.  I believed that I was forced to sacrifice my family and my career in defense of the communist party, from which I had long been separated and which I had grown to dislike and distrust.  I knew that if it ever got down a choice between the party and our traditional democratic structure I would fight the party to the bitter end.

On the other hand, I would have to name names, and I knew the problems this would cause.[5]

Dmytryk argued that he was forced by communist tactics to refuse to testify before the HUAC and strongly objected to the uniformity.[6]  When Kefer testified and lied before the court martial hearings abandoning Merrick to his fate, the scene mirrored the abandonment he felt when John Howard Lawson testified before HUAC.  Dmytryk felt that the sympathy was ‘oozing’ away from the Hollywood 10 because of Lawson’s screaming and yelling.[7]  The Caine Mutiny was a popular film and was ranked second in rentals by Variety.[8]

Broken Lance can be read as a defense of Dmytryk’s actions as the hero was prepared to go to jail for a noble cause and at the end of the film was welcomed back to the ranch, of which he is now owner. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Dmytryk’s first effort after The Caine Mutiny was a successful western called Broken Lance (1954) in which the hero is forced to falsify evidence in a trial to ensure that his guilty father will not be sent to prison.  The film can be read as a defense of Dmytryk’s actions as the hero was prepared to go to jail for a noble cause and at the end of the film was welcomed back to the ranch, of which he is now owner.  The film was ranked 20th by Variety. Dmytryk’s flair for box office successes abandoned him when he came to direct Soldier of Fortune in 1955.  It was about the rescue of an American taking pictures of military bases in China.  The Chinese tortured him by sowing him pictures of his wife eating dinner with another man.  She was actually trying to arrange his rescue.  The escape was ludicrously simple.  Overall, the film as anti-communist propaganda and as drama was exceptionally poor.  The film did poorly at the box office despite having a big budget and the draw cards of Clark Gable and Susan Hayward.[9]

The strained logic of the Caine Mutiny can also be seen in a minor film called The Rack (1956) which dealt with the collaboration of American soldiers during the Korean War. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The strained logic of The Caine Mutiny can also be seen in a minor film called The Rack (1956) which dealt with the collaboration of American soldiers during the Korean War.  The film was based on a TV play by Rod Sterling.  Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr, played by Paul Newman, returned from Korea accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The defence of his actions rested on the mental and physical torture he was given by the communists during his internment.  The communists discover that Hall had a strained relationship with his father and respected career soldier Colonel Edward Hall, Sr, played by Walter Pidgeon.  For several days, he was locked in a small cellar with wet rags a denied sleep.  The communists made him relive again and again his strained relationship with his father.  He was told constantly that he was totally alone and no one cared for him.  To be released from this torment, he must sign some leaflets.  Under pressure, Hall Jr eventually cracked and collaborated with the enemy.

His defence, however, appeared strong.  The ordeal suffered by Hall Jr was monstrous and his testimony revealed him to be a man on he edge of a mental collapse.  Yet under questioning from the prosecution, he admitted that he could have kept on going.  In a further statement, he said that under a torture a man came a to a critical point where he could be a saint or a sinner.  The decision to collaborate was a simple moral choice between good and evil.

The film argued that any soldier who collaborated was guilty of a moral crime.  Hall Jr invited a guilty verdict from the court and it was brought down on a vote of two to one.  The film wrenched form being a plea for understanding for Korean prisoners of war who collaborated to being the hardest of hardline statements.  Even under torture, there must be no concession to the communists.  Those people who willing aided the communists had no defence under any circumstances.  It  would have been difficult for a film of the 1950s to extol or defend a collaborator with the communists.  Yet by not even allowing a compassionate view of those people who collaborated with the communists under torture, the film certainly had no sympathy with any voluntary communist sympathisers.


[1] Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair and Politics From The Depression to the Fifties, Midland, USA, 1981, p. 294.

[2] Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Hollywood Writer’s Wars, Knopf, New York, 1982, p. 308.

[3] Bernard F. Dick, Radiacal Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood 10, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 1989, p. 154.

[4] Roffman and Purdy, Historian, p. 294.

[5] Edward Dmytryk, It’s a Hell of A Life But Not A Bad Living, Times Books, New York, 1978, p. 146

[6] ibid., p. 94.

[7] Ibid., p. 100

[8] Variety, 5 January 1955.

[9] Variety, 5 January 1955.