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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Matter of Life and Death (1946): The Post War Good Place

THE GOOD PLACE — The TV show is part of a long tradition of after-worlds that link back to the Second World War.
Colleen Hayes/NBC | 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

Kevin Brianton

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

Aside from some deplorable Australian accents, the TV series The Good Place has been a highly inventive and entertaining show on the afterlife.[1] It features four pretty ordinary and flawed people who die and are sent to the Good place – a type of heaven. They know they do not deserve the good place, and the place becomes a type of hell for them – a bad place. The Good Place has developed its theological setting with no real mention of a Christian or any other religion. The after-world contains an overarching bureaucracy that processes people with points for good deeds and negative results for bad deeds.

A management vision of the afterlife is nothing new. The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. After a Second World war bombing raid, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, played by David Niven, falls from a burning aircraft, but it is not picked up by the angels sent to catch him and escapes death – or at least heaven for a time. His unplanned release back to earth becomes more complex when he falls in love with Kim Hunter. The theological, medical, legalistic and managerial worlds collide to decide the fate of the couple.

The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The context for A Matter of Life and Death was the Second World War when death was a constant partner in people’s lives. It contained a reassuring images of healthy soldiers going to heaven. Of course, it is only Allied soldiers who can make the journey as the picture certainly aimed to console British and American audiences. German and Japanese soldiers are notably absent as the post-war audience would have bristled at the suggestion that enemy soldiers would have gone to heaven as well.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was released before the United States entered the Second World War. It reflected the growing fear that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Those fears had eased a little when A Matter of Life and Death was released shortly after the war’s close, but the emotions concerning many people’s deaths were still raw.[2] The idea of a bungled celestial bureaucracy almost certainly has its roots in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941),directed by Alexander Hall, where an angel rescues a boxer before he dies in a plane crash. The records show that he still had 50 years to live, and he was retrieved by accident. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released before the United States entered the Second World War, but it reflected the growing sense that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time was due. In a different way, Heaven Can Wait (1943) reassured on a different level showing a man who thought he was bad, knocking on the door of hell demanding entry – to find out he should really be in heaven. Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times.

Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The story about the pilot In A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The political message that drove the film’s production is now redundant – particularly after 70 years of the special relationship – the afterlife’s central message is now the film’s underlying strength.

The story about the pilot in A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The most recognised film which looked into the afterlife was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, facing ruin and humiliation in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, feels his existence is meaningless and contemplates suicide. Again an angel is involved; Clarence, played by Henry Travers, comes down to demonstrate to a suicidal Bailey the profound difference he made to the town and people of Bedford Falls throughout his life. Again it is benign after-world, looking after the interests of an individual in distress. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Down to Earth (1947) also have similar benign after-worlds. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death is a releases and it revitalises her and people continue on.

Another example of a benign post war afterworld is The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death revitalises her soul and people continue on. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The after worlds of The Good Place and A Matter of Life and Death have some similarities – even a judge. In A Matter of Life and Death, it is a serious British judge, while in the American TV show, it is a goofball American woman who binge-watches TV. God is not seen or even hinted at. Indeed, all these after-worlds contain ideas from various religions, but none suggests that any formal religion is correct. Each of these after-worlds is a relatively benign place, as the films were created to ease tensions in wartime audiences.  

Made 70 years later and for a vastly different medium, The Good Place has a darker edge, saying that bad people will be brutally punished for eternity – not a comfortable thought. The Second World War was not place for such thoughts. The Good Place had four seasons, and its final show was on 20 January 2020, just before the COVID-19 virus devastated the United States and has killed more than 200,000 people over eight months. The impact of COVID is more than comparable to the Second World War’s death rates when the United States suffered 416,000 casualties over five years. It is entirely likely that deaths from the disease will surpass those of the Second World War. While the program was well-received on its release, it will be interesting to see how The Good Place is considered in the COVID period and after, when the prospect of death is far more immediate. It may be that future programs of its kind are more like A Matter of Life and Death, with reassuring messages, similar to the films from the Second World War. [3]


[1] Actors from the United States struggle with the Australia accent. For Australian viewers, their attempts are just painful. When Ted Danson’s character announces he nailed the accent, I wanted to throw a brick at him. His accent is so poor, I can only assume the line was a joke. Danson is by no means the worst offender in cinematic history- but he is now on the honour roll. As bad as Danson projects his Australian accent, Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the same program is just abysmal. It is possible that the accents are just jokes, but that does not let the actors off the hook. Many Australian actors work in the United States and the United Kingdom and manage to cope with American accents. See https://www.eonline.com/au/news/983011/the-good-place-creator-michael-schur-debunks-all-those-australian-accent-theories.[3]

[2] Some ideas are contained in Jim McDonald, Maybe angels: glimpses of spirituality in popular culture, 199 – 209. In G Mazza, J Srampickal, et al. Cross Connections: Interdisciplinary Communications Studies At The Gregorian University 2006.

[3] For a broader discussion see Christie, Ian, and British Film Institute. A Matter of Life and Death. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI Pub., 2000, . Brian McFarlane reviews the book well “Ian Christie A Matter of Life and Death.” Metro Magazine, no. 139 (2004): 194.