Negotiable dissent

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One of the great tragedies of culture and learning took place in Alexandria, an ancient seaport of Egypt, about 630 a.d. In the Alexandrian library had been gathered together, starting about 1500 b.c, most of the literary works, scientific knowledge and philosophies of the intellectuals of the known world up to that time. It is not quite clear whether this unequalled collection of books was destroyed by fire all at once or piecemeal during the riots when Caesar visited Cleopatra, when the Arabs overran Alexandria, or at a later date. But this tragedy gave significance to a phrase which was to harass us forever after, the phrase 'the burning of the books'.

Doubtless with this in mind, the framers of our American Constitution wrote into the First Article two guarantees which have given character and provided insurance for the perpetuation of American democracy. One was the guarantee respecting the establishment of religion and the free exercise thereof. The other was the prohibition of any law which would abridge the freedom of speech or of the press. They are not unrelated; they are inter-related. They were intended to complement each other . . .

It is to this theme, in dramatic form, that 'STORM CENTER' addresses itself.

Arthur H. DeBra, Motion Picture Association of America, July 19561

Generating and maintaining media support had been a relatively easy task for the American government during the Second World War. Newspapers, broadcasters and filmmakers were not beyond criticising Washington's tactics, but only a few questioned its motives and overall strategy. The nation had, after all, been attacked, and was fighting a war in which men and women were dying on various battlefronts. On top of this, notwithstanding its unprecedented scale, the conflict lasted only four years. The Cold War was different. Neither side had officially declared war, comparatively few Americans came face to face with the enemy, and the conflict lasted some four decades. In such circumstances, any government — democratic or dictatorial — was bound to meet some form of criticism, opposition or even resistance. This made official management of the media all the more vital.

The American government was never in a position to dictate to filmmakers entirely how they should cover the Cold War. Nor would it have wished to have such powers. America's claim to have the freest media in the world lay at the very heart of Washington's propaganda strategy, and was one of the simplest yet most powerful ways for Americans to distinguish 'us' from 'them'. As it was, through established industry constraints and contingent controls, the state-film network facilitated a large measure of downward pressure on filmmakers throughout the conflict, with the result that relatively few movies challenged prevailing views on official Cold War policy. However, the fluidity of the network meant that there was always some scope for negotiable cinematic dissent, particularly by liberals. This was even the case during the late 1940s and 1950s, despite the atmosphere of self-restraint fostered by HUAC and the dreaded blacklist. It is important to recognise this, and to emphasise how from an early point in the Cold War the cinema was some sort of forum for debate, unlike in the Soviet Union.

The different forms in which a small number of films expressed disquiet with the super-patriotic, anti-subversive and militaristic consensus emerging in the United States during the high Cold War of the late 1940s and 1950s require close attention. So too does the variety of motives that lay behind the making of these movies, the difficulties that filmmakers came across before and during production, and the obstacles many of them needed to overcome in order for their projects to reach a wide audience. We need to identify how far dissent stretched, and the extent to which images offering alternative perspectives on the Cold War were 'contained'.

Three films are subjected to close analysis below: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Storm Centre (1956) and On the Beach (1959). Each highlights an issue that caused the US government considerable political discomfort during this period, and which filmmakers would continue to probe throughout the Cold War. Of these issues, Washington's faith in nuclear deterrence stands out. Taken together, these films show how the nature of cinematic Cold War dissent gradually altered through this early but critical period of the conflict. At the beginning, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, dissent largely came in allegorical or semi-allegorical form. As the 1950s progressed, and with the broad outlines of the Cold War consensus now firmly established, a number of filmmakers grew more openly critical of Cold War orthodoxy. This shift can be linked to institutional changes within the film industry that allowed for greater experimentalism on screen. It can also be tied to the relaxation in East-West relations following Stalin's death in 1953, and to the growing anxieties about the Cold War shared by a number of pressure groups, commentators and the American public in general.

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