An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman – A Review

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War
J. Hoberman
The New Press, 2011, pg 383

I once proposed in an massive paper of 120 pages written during my third year of college that you could see a causal relationship in American attitudes towards the Cold War and the Military Industrial Complex by looking at the films of World War II. For a third year paper the oversimplification of the thesis is forgivable. But ever since the months of wading through the ins and outs of the Office of War Information and its film unit, the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), I have been interested in the shaping of not only those wartime films with their BMP approved messages, but the post war period where the films reflected not only attitudes that were shaped during the war but also reflect those of the dark period the second great Red Scare. J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War investigates just that topic, mixing film history and American history as a method to look not only at the culture of the 1940s and 1950s, but the development of Cold War and how movies and the people who made movies were part of the political intrigues that mark the times.

The book opens with a quick summary of wartime movies and politics which were shaped by new dealers and the necessity to sell Russia as a ally. These two narratives would become create troubles once the war was over. The New Deal had stressed the idea of the common man and many of the movies from the war stressed these themes, usually by highlighting the heterogeneous nature of the soldiers fighting and praising the common soldier. These ideas, straight out of the BMP guidelines, show up in all manner of films, particularly the combat films such as Back to Bataan or Sahara. Films like Mission to Moscow or the North Star, focused on the Russians and painted a sentimental picture of a reliable ally who could be relied on after the war. Many of those involved in the production were either Communist Party members or belonged to the Popular Front, which was an anti-fascist group that was not communist, but had a certain taint as Moscow had directed party members to ally with it starting with the Spanish Civil War. It isn’t the most thorough introduction and one would do well to read Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black’s Hollywood goes to war : how politics, profits and propaganda shaped Word War II movies. The other issue that will plague the book is his writing style is his strange associative writing style, where he drops seemingly unrelated names and events in the same paragraph without explaining what they are doing together, other than quite often the simple coincidence of taking place on the same day.

Once Hoberman moves into the post war period the book moves a long much better. He describes of the immediate post war period as it became obvious that the Soviets would not be long term allies as one of turmoil. The members of the Hollywood left who expected that the political climate that had taken shape during the New Deal would continue, were slow to see the changes of the coming Red Scare and its often hysterical reaction. For example, the movie Crossfire which dealt with antisemitism was considered suspiciously red, because those involved making the film had left and communist associations, the Daily Worker praised the film, and the film posited a fascist threat from within the US (criticizing fascism was often used as an indicator of communist sympathies ever since the Spanish Civil War). As in the so many cases, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI were suspicious of anything that even slightly criticized the US. With Crossfire it was the suggestion that American soldiers could hate and kill anther soldier because he was Jewish.

Initially, left leaning Hollywood put up a defense with big fundraisers and assemblies, but soon dissent and the weight of the US government lead to the splintering of resolve. Some of those with Communist party links, whether real or not, went to jail, some became friendly witnesses, and others left the country. Those on the right such as John Wayne and Robert Taylor were only to do their part to counter the menace, lending their support to the Republican party. And the studios? They tried to make a fast buck as always and came out with movies like My Son John, I Married a Communist, and The Next Voice You Hear, all of which contrasted the comically evil red conformity against American virtue.

With the coming of communist China and the Korean war Hollywood found itself under even more attack and it turned to the western and the sci-fi movie as allegory. Hooberman is best here, giving a detailed read of the movies Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and High Noon. While they have come down as classics Rio Grande can be read as a fascistic allegory, and High Noon an attack on the cowardice of the American people, which even in its day raised eyebrows and angered John Wayne intensely (he does not come off particularly well in the book). The preoccupation with communism led the studios to create the biblical epics that were so popular in the 50’s. They were partly designed to battle with television, but they were also an attempt by Hollywood to inject romance and adventure into what otherwise might have been tame biblical history. As in so many cases, Hollywood took advantage of what ever cover they could to make entertainment. Which doesn’t mean people like Cecil B. DeMille were not earnest in their faith, attaching written or spoken prologues to their movies to let moviegoers know how important the film was.

It is this kind of detail placed along side the politics of the time that make the book so interesting. However, as I mentioned earlier he tends to drop little facts into the midst of otherwise well written sections. For example, writing about Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments comes the following paragraph.

Even as Hollywood projects Egyptian splendor, wondrous new pleasure domes are under construction. The Nevada desert has already been transformed into an air-conditioned mirage of Babylonian hanging gardens and Roman bathtubs, while in the sleepy town of Anaheim, Walt Disney is building a $17 million wonderland, ballyhooed by Life as the “most Lavish amusement park on earth.”

While that is all true, it breaks up the flow and doesn’t really say anything specific. Is he trying to say Vegas and Disney Land doomed movies? Or did he just find something interesting to tell us? Except for these strange interludes and his occasional switch to present tense, the book is a welcome addition to the film studies.

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