Mobilising the past

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While some movies looked rather uncertainly into the future, others turned to the past. Prior to the Cold War, Hollywood filmmakers had a long tradition of using history for political purposes. Some of the most prestigious propaganda films of the Second World War, for example, had mythologised Great War heroes in order to cast a positive light on the conflict against fascism, among them Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (1941) and Henry King's Wilson (1944).38 During the 1950s, American filmmakers saw history as an opportunity to advance or critique contemporary political concerns on an unprecedented scale.39 Audiences were inundated with thinly and thickly camouflaged messages about the Cold War carried in movies set in the near or distant past. A handful of Westerns featuring evil land-grabbers, among them George Stevens' Shane (1953) and Joseph H. Lewis' Terror in a Texan Town (1958), reflected their writers' left-wing views.40 The revival of Indian War Westerns during this era, however, should be seen in a conservative light, with the conflict between the pagan 'red skins' and God-fearing whites standing in for the ideological clash between East and West - with one key difference: 'civilised' American military skill and political judgement prevailed virtually every time on screen, compensating perhaps for the frustrations of the real-life Cold War stand-off.41 Walt Disney's films reverberated with tried-and-true Americanism even more than usual in this period. Having declared in 1947 that Hollywood's communists ought to be 'smoked out', Disney, an FBI informant, proclaimed a year later that the time was ripe to 'renew acquaintance with the American breed of robust, cheerful, energetic, and representative folk heroes'. During the 1950s, the basic tropes of religion, work, individualism, progress and patriotism formed the backbone of Disney's stories, which were often set in the past, and in which the protagonists confronted and overcame enemies to their society. In some films, like Davy Crockett (1955), the heroes were unmistakably American, while in others, like The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), they personified America's idealised democratic spirit.42

Religion, history and the Cold War came together most concertedly in one of the defining genres of the era - the biblical saga. A succession of films set against the backdrop of pyramids and Old Testament temples - Samson and Delilah (1949), The Prodigal (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956) - or New Testament Rome and Jerusalem - Quo Vadis (1951), Salome (1953), The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959) - made huge profits in the 1950s, despite being among the most expensive films ever made.43 This cycle of film epics, the first since the silent era, principally relates to Hollywood's need to compete with television. By offering more extravagant 'widescreen' entertainment than television could afford, the major studios hoped they could reclaim dwindling domestic audiences and maximise their pre-eminent strengths as production-distribution companies in the increasingly important international market. Producers also sought to increase income by appealing to the public's perceived craving for sexuality on screen and by capitalising on the fact that bare flesh was, ironically perhaps, often more permissible in biblical pageants than in modern settings.44 Recently, however, commentators have suggested ways in which these biblical epics might have given scriptural authority to the ideology of America's Cold War. Maria Wyke points out, for instance, how the publicity surrounding MGM's Quo Vadis depicted Nero as a Stalinist dictator defeated by the Christian faithful, and that the movie was banned in Eastern Europe for decades.45

A close analysis of the biggest epic of them all, The Ten Commandments (1956), not only confirms Wyke's general thesis; it also reveals some of the more subtle qualities that characterised the state-film network at the height of the Cold War.

A prophet in celluloid

Few filmmakers better appreciated the importance of offering audiences an entertaining set of images that extolled America's spiritual values during the Cold War than Cecil B. DeMille. Fewer still had the talent, drive and power to put this into effect. The son of a Protestant minister, and a Republican who equated Americanism with Christianity, Manifest Destiny, and the triumph of free enterprise, DeMille had entered the movie business in 1913. Working largely as a semi-independent director-producer at Paramount, for decades he had enthralled audiences with stories of consumption and upward mobility, rugged individualism and empire-building, sexual titillation and, above all, religious uplift.46 The success of films like King of Kings (1927) and The Crusades (1935) earned DeMille a reputation as the world's leading exponent of religious film entertainment. On presenting a Bible to the mogul in the early 1950s, the evangelical preacher Billy Graham described DeMille as 'a prophet in celluloid who has had the privilege of bringing some of the Word of God to more people throughout the world than any other man'.47 By this stage DeMille was into his seventies and in the twilight of a career encompassing more than sixty movies. Dubbed 'Mr Motion Pictures' in Hollywood and Washington, he had been showered with professional honours and was a household name; Paramount claimed his films had been seen by three billion people worldwide.48 DeMille was as busy off the studio lot as he was on it, especially politically during the early Cold War. In 1944, he co-founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. A year later, he established his own Foundation for Political Freedom to crusade for right-to-work laws and against communist infiltration in all walks of American life. The Foundation regularly sent information to California's 'little HUAC', the Tenney Committee, and to the real HUAC in Washington. Many of the speeches DeMille delivered under the Foundation's aegis, largely to businessmen and civic organisations, were infused with religious rhetoric. Thus he described the CPUSA as 'the Party of Judas Iscariot', proclaimed America's 'spiritual strength of freedom under God', and called Hollywood's movies 'a teacher of our children and an ambassador to the entire world'.49 After attributing criticism of his Samson and Delilah in 1949 to a communist conspiracy, DeMille campaigned in vain in 1950 for a loyalty oath for fellow members of the Screen Directors Guild. In 1953, he and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, star of the television programme Life is Worth Living, were presented with awards for outstanding contributions to the American way of life by the strenuously anti-communist Freedom Foundation.50

DeMille's political activities extended further, linking him directly with US foreign policy. He was one of the original board members of the National Committee for Free Europe (NCFE), the ostensibly private organisation established by the CIA in 1949 to mobilise dissent within the Soviet satellites. This brought him into contact with C. D. Jackson, the NCFE's President and Eisenhower's future psychological warfare expert, through whom DeMille urged the Committee to target Catholics behind the Iron Curtain.51 DeMille was also on the Board of the Crusade for Freedom, an initiative launched by Eisenhower in 1950 which campaigned for the expansion of Radio Free Europe.52 In 1952, DeMille turned down a request from the Second World War hero Admiral Chester Nimitz to become the chairman of the CFF's Motion Picture Committee,53 but a year later agreed to become the USIA's chief film consultant. DeMille's main function at the USIA was to serve as liaison between the agency and Hollywood, and to enlist the cooperation of the film industry in making movies for training and informational purposes. Taking guidance from the former film sales executive who ran the USIA's Motion Picture Division, Andrew Smith, DeMille advised the Motion Picture Industry Council on scripts and projects that would fit the government's propaganda programme.54

Soon after his appointment to the USIA, in April 1953, DeMille met with C. D.Jackson, now working for the White House, to mull over their approach towards propaganda. The two agreed 'that the most effective use of American films is not to design an entire picture to cope with a certain problem, but rather to see to it that in a "normal" picture the right line, aside, inflection, eyebrow movement, is introduced'.55 A few months later, DeMille admonished his colleagues on the MPA Executive Committee for ignoring the more 'positive' side of their duties: 'You cannot fight anything with nothing . . . We have two missions - to fight subversion in our own industry and to make the pictures we produce effective carriers of the American ideals we are pledged to preserve'.56 In March 1954, the Director of the USIA, Theodore Streibert, told the Motion Picture Industry Council that his organisation 'was most appreciative of the cooperation that is being extended to the Government . . . in this fight against Communism'. He added: 'Cecil B. DeMille and other members of his Committee are serving us well'.57

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