George Stevens Jr and the golden age of USIA documentary

Make Your Movie Now

Filmmaking Stuff - How To Make, Market and Sell Your Movie

Get Instant Access

The USIA's MPS achieved little of real note during the 1950s. The director of the service during this period, Turner Shelton, had risen through civil service channels and was considered more of a cost accountant than a film expert. The service did produce a few imaginative films. Shelton's best achievement was probably one provided for him by Walt Disney, whose technically brilliant multi-screen Circarama tour of the United States appeared to surround the viewer with beautiful scenery and well-fed, cheery American faces. This film was a hit in cities as far afield as Casablanca, Djakarta and Moscow. Shelton's MPS also demonstrated a shrewd opportunist streak. Hungarian Fight for Freedom, A Nation in Torment and Now We Are Free were all produced within months of the abortive Hungarian uprising in late 1956 and shown widely overseas.34 However, most output was dull, badly executed and crudely ideological. This was by no means all the USIA's fault. The agency suffered from extremely low morale during the Eisenhower era. On the one hand, it was hobbled by a parsimonious Congress highly sceptical of cultural diplomacy's merits. On the other hand, like VOA, the agency came under fierce attack from Joseph McCarthy for promoting 'subversive' material, and experienced more than its share of forced resignations. Under pressure to produce films quickly and cheaply, Shelton tended to assign projects to the lowest bidders, usually one of the big newsreel companies, whose experience of making thoughtful and attractive documentaries was minimal. The results on occasions could be embarrassing. One documentary meant to celebrate the famous painter of Western scenes Charley Russell was edited so badly that, according to one commentator, it looked as though the artist's work had been done by one of the cowboys.35

The five-year period following Shelton's departure, between 1962 and 1967, represents the USIA's golden age of Cold War filmmaking. The chief credit for this can go to John Kennedy, Ed Murrow and, most of all, Shelton's successor, George Stevens, Jr. Kennedy had an instinctive understanding of the media's power, and believed the previous Republican administration had botched the presentation of US Cold War policy overseas. He also felt that the nation's Cold War strategy required updating, and that Washington needed to take a more progressive approach towards the Third World in particular. Eisenhower had held that communism fed on misery and instability, and that

'premature independence' portended both. In contrast, Kennedy embraced the challenge offered by the emergence of new nations arising from the old European empires, and felt that, if persuaded of America's virtues, these countries might even be the route to the West's Cold War victory.36

Murrow fully appreciated film's role as America's chief image-maker, and, as a former presenter and co-producer of the television documentary series See It Now and CBS Reports, grasped the importance of non-fiction films. He believed that neither the ideologically charged USIA output of the 1950s, nor Hollywood sensationalism, served the best interests of US foreign policy overseas, and took steps to change things. 'Movies are doing a lot of harm to America', Murrow warned Hollywood's leading managers in November 1961. 'They convey the notion that America is a country of millionaires and crooks.'37 Two months later, Murrow plucked George Stevens, Jr., from Hollywood to be the MPS's new director. Stevens was young and ambitious, had worked as a television producer, and could tap into Hollywood's talent pool via his father, one of the most respected directors in the business and a veteran of Second World War military documentary units.38

Despite being only 28 years of age when he arrived in Washington, Stevens had firm ideas on how films should be made at the USIA and how subjects might be dealt with in a subtle yet moving fashion. In contrast with his predecessor, he looked for individuals rather than companies to produce films, thinking that the best results came from essential control by a single artist. Contracts no longer simply went to the lowest bidders, but often to those directors whose skills best suited a particular subject. Once Stevens had hired a director, often through Hollywood's Screen Directors Guild, he would try, as far as possible, to give him the freedom to choose a subject and, after that, freedom to make the film. As executive producer, Stevens retained overall control of all projects. The agency's numerous area specialists might generate general ideas for films and brief the filmmaker before he started work on a project. These specialists also retained the right to see and approve the interlock print as the film neared completion, but Stevens could be very persuasive if they had objections.

Critically, because USIA control was relatively loose in the early stages of production, innovation blossomed. Stevens cajoled the ablest of America's young producers into making films for the USIA and developed a documentary 'school' akin to that which had flourished in Britain in the 1930s. His persuasive skills and energy united the talents of filmmakers young and old across the political spectrum, such as the Paris-trained liberal James Blue and ardent conservatives like Bruce Herschensohn, best known hitherto for making missile films for the defence industry. On top of this, Stevens developed an intern programme by scouring universities for the best prospective filmmakers.

George Stevens, Jr., flanked by the actor Sidney Poitier (on his right) and the vice-president of United Artists, Arnold Picker, at the inaugural meeting of the American Film Institute (AFI) in May 1968. After leaving the USIA in 1967, Stevens took up the directorship of the AFI and remained in post until 1979. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Recruits included the future feature film director Carroll Ballard, whose gently persuasive study of an Oregon farm family in Beyond This Winter's Wheat testified to the value of foreign aid and trade.39

Stevens was not given a completely free hand in running the MPS. He stuck to those aspects of the American way of life the USIA directives told him to emphasise - economic strength, economic democracy, scientific and educational strength, cultural diversity, and racial and ethnic progress. He was also beholden to the agency's policy directives - the pursuit of peace, strength and reliability, free choice, the rule of law, and trust in the UN.40 However, these broad parameters allowed for considerable experimentation, and under Stevens' tutelage the MPS turned out films that not only covered a wider range of subjects than those made in Shelton's era but did so in a greater variety of styles.

James Blue, for example, made a trilogy of 10-minute films in Colombia, showcasing the social and economic benefits that Kennedy's Alliance for Progress programme was bringing to ordinary Latin Americans: Letter from Colombia, Evil Wind Out, and The School at Rincon Santo.4 In Invitation to India and Invitation to Pakistan, the veteran left-wing documentary maker Leo Seltzer exploited Jackie Kennedy's charms during the First Lady's tour of South Asia in 1962.42 Smaller productions sought to modify the commonly held view of a harsh American capitalism by highlighting the nation's welfare state provision. Robert K. Sharpe's Joe, for instance, focused on the help an old man retiring from work in a machine shop was receiving from social security benefits, whereas Barry Goldsmith's Born a Man depicted the rehabilitation of an electrician blinded in an accident at work.43 Bruce Herschensohn's NASA-commissioned film of astronaut John Glenn's orbit of the earth in 1962, Friendship Seven, was part of the keenly fought space-race propaganda war. Foreign policy points were made more explicitly in powerful short documentaries like Walter de Hoog's The Wall, which portrayed ordinary life in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.44

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment