Religious issues appeared in an unprecedented variety of guises and genres in American movies in the late forties and fifties. To attribute this entirely to the Cold War or to government manipulation of the film industry would be fallacious. After all, Hollywood had been making money out of religion for decades,21 and the revival of religious consciousness after 1945 offered further opportunities for commercial exploitation. That said, it is striking just how many films blended spiritual and geopolitical concerns during this period. Many of these productions at the very least provided a religious framework for contemporary political and social matters. Some explicitly encouraged film-goers to see the Cold War as a conflict in which capitalism, anti-communism and Christianity were synonymous, and in which neutral bystanders could be construed as opponents of the West's divinely ordained mission.
As we have already seen, movies like Leo McCarey's My Son John, released at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunts, stressed communism's utter incompatibility with Christian family virtues, and were littered with crude religious symbolism. Other dramas like William Wellman's The Next Voice You Hear (1950), in which God appeals on the radio to suburban America to count its middle-class blessings, interlinked Christianity, the family and consumerism.22 Heroic characters in European-set espionage thrillers would often hold strong (though not overpowering) religious beliefs. In Nunnally Johnson's Night People (1954), for example, a kidnapping yarn set in West Berlin, the reminiscences of Gregory Peck's US army officer, Colonel Steve Van Dyke, about his home-town church clearly identify him as a Catholic.23 Science-fiction fantasies like the aforementioned Red Planet Mars endorsed Christianity as both the embodiment of American values and the set of beliefs best suited for defeating communism.
Holy men (and women, occasionally) featured in a plethora of cinematic settings, affirming the church's protective role either in the Cold War specifically or in Western society more generally. Recanting American subversives would often turn to priests for help, especially if they were doubly guilty of rejecting the church in favour of the communists, like Mollie O'Flaherty (Barbra Fuller) in Republic's The Red Menace (1949).24 In Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), the moral support given by Karl Malden's quintessential liberal Catholic priest, Father Barry, to the trade-union informant Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had the effect, according to one historian, of converting a Judas figure into a symbol of Christ.25 The butch William Holden starred as an unlikely priest in Leo McCarey's Satan Never Sleeps (1961), a tale of missionary heroism during the Chinese Civil War. Meanwhile, Second World War adventure movies like John Huston's Heaven Knows Mr Allison
(1957), in which Deborah Kerr's nun and Robert Mitchum's marine outwit the Japanese invaders of a small Pacific island, reminded viewers of the recent victory Christianity and democracy had enjoyed over fascism.26
There were also plenty of real-life characters whose activities Hollywood deemed worthy of screen treatment during this period. Financed by the Lutheran churches of Germany and the United States, Irving Pichel's dramatic biopic Martin Luther (1953) switched the focus from the Catholics' to the Protestants' historic role as the guardians of Western civilisation. The film was a critical and commercial success worldwide.27 Henry Koster's dreary yet equally popular A Man Called Peter (1955) recounted the life of Peter Marshall (played by Richard Todd), a Scottish clergyman who became chaplain to the US Senate.28 Douglas Sirk's Battle Hymn (1957) had a clearer Cold War focus, and centred on the story of Colonel Dean Hess (Rock Hudson), a pastor-turned-fighter pilot who had rescued a large number of Korean War orphans.29
Cinema accorded a special privilege to Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, the post-war Catholic Primate of Hungary, who was the subject of two movies and a television drama. Mindszenty had been arrested in December 1948 as part of the Stalinist regime's policy of subjugating the church to the state. Charged with treason and currency offences, he 'confessed' all at his dramatic trial in February 1949 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Media coverage of the trial, actively promoted by official propagandists in Washington and London, provided many in the West with compelling images of communist injustice and Catholic suffering, and helped establish Mindszenty as the model of clerical 'martyrdom' in the United States in the 1950s.30 Felix Feist's 'B' movie, Guilty of Treason (1950), dealt with the Mindszenty case by focusing on the gruesome torturing to death of a Hungarian music teacher (played by Bonita Granville, herself a victim of the Hungarian communist regime) who refuses to let her class sign petitions for the cardinal's arrest, and attributed Mindszenty's cardinal's trial confession to hypnosis.31 Peter Glenville's The Prisoner (1955) was a more ambitious and commercially successful project. Financed by Columbia but made in Britain with a predominantly English cast, it attracted considerable interest on both sides of the Atlantic, not least because playing Mindszenty inspired the famous actor Alec Guinness to convert to Catholicism. The Prisoner accused the communists of having 'brainwashed' Mindszenty, thereby helping to confirm the growing Western perception of communism as an insidious form of mind control that induced 'robot-like enslavement'.32
By the time The Prisoner appeared, the United States and Western Europe were in fact experiencing something akin to a full-scale 'brainwashing scare'. This phenomenon was linked partly to the highly publicised East European
God versus evil: in a thinly veiled re-enactment of the 1949 Mindszenty show trial, interrogator and 'brainwasher' (Jack Hawkins, centre) humiliates the cardinal (Alec Guinness) before the 'people's court. The Prisoner (1955). Columbia Pictures/Stills, Posters and Designs Division of the British Film Institute.
show trials of the late 1940s and early 1950s, in which senior communists admitted ludicrous crimes, and partly to the 'change' that some Western POWs underwent at the hands of their communist captors during the Korean War. In response to these and other events, the CIA helped to produce dozens of books and articles on what Allen Dulles called 'brain warfare', with the intention of demonising the 'Communist conspiracy' and warning of a monolithic aggressor that targeted the very centre of the free self. Among the movies that played on the Korean War brainwashing theme in the mid-1950s were Lewis Seiler's The Bamboo Prison (1955), which also incorporated an American communist disguised as a POW camp's chaplain (and hence was banned in several US states). Two others, Arnold Laven's The Rack (1956) and John Frankenheimer's highly acclaimed, complex conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which appeared a little later, in 1962, appeared to support writer Philip Wylie's influential notion of 'Momism' - the idea that America had opened the door to communism by raising a generation of effeminised young men who were excessively attached to their mothers.
These men were thought to have profound psychological weaknesses, which political brainwashers exploited.33
Not everything on screen was sweetness and seeing the light. The power of conservative groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency was waning in the 1950s, as signalled by the US Supreme Court's declaration in 1952, centred on Roberto Rossellini's Italian-made The Miracle (1948), that it was unconstitutional for government bodies to impose religious orthodoxies on film or any other art.34 Yet the Legion's well-established authority in Hollywood, and the fact that one of Joseph Breen's two key 'deputies' at the PCA, Jack Vizzard, was a devout Catholic, meant it was still very difficult to make films that challenged traditional Christian values during the decade.35 A few films offering criticisms of religious excess did squeeze past the censors, but even these still asserted the presence of religion. Those movies that juxtaposed religion and science are a case in point.
Nuclear weapons developments went hand in hand with Christian evangelism in this period, particularly in the United States, as fears of thermonuclear destruction fuelled apocalyptic predictions from well-known evangelical preachers like Billy Graham, who called on their congregations to make their peace with God before it was too late.36 Films played a significant part in mediating these emotions, combining science-fiction images that depicted The End of the World as Nigh with others which provided glimpses of The Meaning of Life and Life After Death. In some of these films, religion might yield to science, as in Byron Haskins' Conquest of Space (1955), which depicted a soldier hero who deteriorates into a religious fanatic blindly opposed to rocket research. On other occasions, religion could be used to chastise science: in Kurt Neumann's The Fly (1958), the Faustian mad scientist is warned not to interfere with God's work. By portraying scientists as troublesome idealists or villainous obstructionists of the state, rather than the progressive saviours of Mankind, the majority of images helped act as a counter to those who argued that science had rendered Christianity superfluous.37
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