The Paranoid Style: J. Hoberman’s “Army of Phantoms”

By Steven J. RossSeptember 27, 2011

Army of Phantoms by J. Hoberman

IN MARCH 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was interviewed by a Fox TV news anchor whose first question was, "Don't you think that Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon are traitors for opposing the war?" When I suggested that the Constitution gives every citizen — be they a president or an actor — the right and obligation to voice his or her opinion about the future of the nation, the reporter looked at me in disbelief. In her mind, patriotism equaled whatever the leading Republican said it was. The idea that two movie stars could openly oppose the president was simply scandalous. 

In Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, J. Hoberman, the Village Voice's longtime movie critic, raises the question of what it meant during the Cold War years to be a patriotic American, and in particular what it meant for the movies. This is part of a three-volume study that will chronicle "American politics from 1945 though 1990, as filtered through the prism of Hollywood movies — their scenarios, back stories, and reception." What is chronologically the second volume in this trilogy, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, was published earlier, in 2003. This book, in effect the prequel to that volume, covers the years from 1945 to 1956.

The Cold War was not the first time movie industry leaders courted or clashed with politicians. Studio leaders have always been afraid of Washington; afraid that politicians would one day heed the cries of cultural conservatives and establish tight federal censorship over the industry. Industry heads responded by gathering powerful political allies. As early as 1916, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association gave money to any politician — Republican, Democrat or Socialist — who openly opposed film censorship. Louis B. Mayer took the Hollywood-Washington connection a step further in the late 1920s by fashioning the first permanent relationship between a studio (MGM) and a party (Republican). In the 1930s, Warner Brothers curried favor with the Roosevelt administration by producing films sympathetic to FDR's agenda. During World War II, Hollywood showed its loyalty — and staved off a long-lingering federal antitrust suit —by making films that fueled domestic patriotism and planted the seeds of the myth of the "Good War." 

The relationship between studios and the federal government grew more problematic during the ensuing Cold War, and here is where Hoberman's narrative begins, going well beyond the familiar story of Hollywood leaders capitulating to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Instead, he recounts a more subtle and complex history of how individuals, studios, and film companies were sometimes complicit and sometimes resistant to the paranoia and political excesses of the times. Although producers bowed to the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War, HUAC, and McCarthyism, they also turned out films that offered visions of a more progressive and less repressive nation.

Hoberman starts his main narrative with two cataclysmic events: the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and the onset of the Cold War when, in February 1946, Joseph Stalin declared that war between capitalism and Communism was inevitable, and a month later, Winston Churchill responded with his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri. Eighteen months later, the Cold War reached Hollywood as the rabidly anti-Communist HUAC resumed its investigation of alleged Communist influence over the film industry. This coincided with declining box office revenues, and so frightened studio moguls responded by pledging to fire all known Communists. 

I Married A Communist, RKO Pictures (1949) Lobby Card

Over the next few years, studios sought to demonstrate their patriotism by producing a series of starkly anti-Red films: The Red Menace (1948), I Married a Communist (1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), My Son John (1952), Big Jim McLain (1952), and Pickup on South Street (1953). Not only did these productions prove financial disasters, their heavy-handed messages often had the opposite effect Red-hunters had hoped for. Republican and future congressman Ogden Reid said of My Son John that its vision "of how American ought to be is so frightening, so speciously argued, so full of warnings against an intelligent solution of the problem that it boomerangs upon its own cause."

Cold War tensions increased in February 1950 when, six months after the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, Senator Joe McCarthy announced that he had the names of 205 Soviet agents "known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and [nevertheless] still working and shaping the policy of the State Department." The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 further fueled the climate of fear and led filmmakers to unleash a wave of movies that focused on themes of invasion. Hoberman is at his best showing how these fears played out in a number of genres during the late 1940s and early 1950s: Westerns, World War II dramas, Korean War films, political films, and even science fiction fantasies of interplanetary war. 

The myth of the "Good War" was reprised in a number of Korean War productions — The Steel Helmet (1951), Retreat Hell (1952), One Minute to Zero (1952) — with American troops once again starring as the righteous warriors and Chinese and North Koreans taking the place of evil Nazis. McCarthyite fears of subversion and invasion were recycled from the anti-Red films in science fiction allegories that warned of the need for constant vigilance against all kinds of invaders, as in The Thing (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The Red Planet Mars (1952), andInvaders From Mars (1953). Biblical epics such as Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956) reminded God-fearing Americans why we were fighting Godless Communists. 

Westerns proved an especially popular vehicle for dramatizing struggles between Good and Evil. "Largely due to John Ford collaborators," Hoberman argues,

the post-World War II Western had become the way America explained itself to itself: Who made the law and set the order? Where was the frontier? Which ones are the good guys? What is it that a man's gotta do — and how does he do it?

The bulk of these films offered visions of law and order far more in tune with conservative Cold Warriors than their opponents. The hoped-for postwar world free of prejudice that was that was hailed in 1945 by stars such as Ronald Reagan and Edward G. Robinson dissipated in the face of popular productions such as Rio Grande (1950), Two Flags West (1950), and The Last Outpost (1951) that attempted to rehabilitate the Confederacy and its values.

Not everyone in Hollywood kowtowed to the HUAC and McCarthy, and although conservative on foreign affairs, even at the height of the Cold War Hollywood proved far more liberal on domestic issues. Progressive calls for integration, intermarriage, and tolerance could be seen in Westerns such as Broken Arrow (1950) and Devil's Doorway (1950), which anticipated the militant Black Power struggles of the 1960s by having Native Americans fight rather than compromise with their white oppressors. One of the most popular Westerns of the era, High Noon (1952), offered a vision of individual courage in the face of group fear. Liberals also parried conservative invasion fantasies with science fiction films, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and It Came From Outer Space (1953), that cautioned us not to assume the worst of space travelers. The point of the latter film, director Jack Arnold explained, "was that we are prone — all of us — to fear something that's different than we are, whether it be in philosophy, the color of our skins, or even one block against another in a big city."

Progressive filmmakers warned audiences that Communism was not the only threat to postwar America. Harkening back to the Popular Front messages of the 1930s, films such as Reign of Terror (1948), All the King's Men (1949), Storm Warning (1951), and A Face in the Crowd (1957) alerted citizens to the dangers of a fascist revival. Resistance against dominant conservative ideology could also be seen in teen-oriented films — The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) — that challenged ideas about family, sexuality, gender roles, and the meaning of success.

Following Joe McCarthy's decline in 1954, Hollywood found another fear to grip audiences: atomic radiation. American cinema entered a new era of paranoia in which the greatest danger we faced was from the very air we breathed, air contaminated by nuclear fallout. Whether the threat came from giant radiated ants (as in 1954's Them), Reds, or space invaders, Hollywood's multiple villains presented visions of Americans living in a state of perpetual fear. 

Hoberman ends his story in 1956, with the nation on the brink of major changes in politics and culture:

[The Montgomery] bus boycott ended triumphant. Black militancy was asserted on behalf of the entire Third World, a brazen counterculture had announced its presence, America's vernacular landscape was recognized, a youthful demographic sang out, found itself, and ran wild. Everything was in place for the convulsive cultural revolution that would reach its climax a dozen years later, at least in the Dream Life.

These changes are the focus of his already published second volume, and the third to come. 

Army of Phantoms is the most detailed year-by-year look at Hollywood during the first decade of the Cold War ever published, one that takes film analysis beyond the screen and sets it in its larger political context. His book is filled with anecdotes about individual confrontations between politicians and a wide range of movie industry personnel, confrontations that often shaped the ideology of subsequent productions. A book of parts rather than a seamless whole, more interesting for its chronological examination of films and politics than for offering any sustained analysis that binds the two, Army of Phantoms triggers dozens of ideas and questions it doesn't quite answer. The most interesting part is Hoberman's re-exploration of the relationship between Washington and Hollywood, focusing less on McCarthyism and more on the way Hollywood films tended to reinforce the messages of fear and reassurance that Republicans such as George Murphy and Ronald Reagan used effectively over the next several decades: fear of dire foreign threats coupled with reassuring promises that conservatives could save the nation by defeating the Soviet Union.

Since the Cold War, these messages of fear and reassurance have generally proven stronger than liberal messages of hope and guilt: hope of what the U.S. could be and guilt that we are not doing enough to achieve that vision. Conservatives and liberals both want a better world, but the right plays more to emotions and effectively employs the kind of fearmongering articulated in these Cold War invasion sagas to sell its agenda to voters. One hopes that Hoberman's final volume will engage many of these ideas in more explicit fashion, as it traces the interconnection of film and Cold War politics from the eve of the Bicentennial to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

LARB Contributor

Steven J. Ross is Professor of History at the University of Southern California. His most recent book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, received a Film Scholars Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ross is also co-founder and co-director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities.


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