Cold War Era Films Term Paper

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Cold War Era

Many films about the cold war era, especially the early films, speak out against its ideals, while others support these ideals. Below is a consideration of selected Cold War era films, and how these were influenced by the Cold War.

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove is subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Its producer/director is Stanley Kubrick and the film was released during 1964. The film is a satire with the aim of exposing Cold War politics that could result in absurd accidents such as a nuclear attack. The more serious film Fail-Safe, released during the same year, has often been compared with Dr. Strangelove. This is discussed in more detail later.

Part of Dr. Strangelove's theme is the evils of technology. This is the culprit causing the disastrous accident. It is interesting that a disclaimer had to accompany the film's release shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. It is as if the dark predictions made in the film were a suddenly too close reality. The disclaimer was to the effect that the United States Air Force would never let an accident like the one in the film occur, together with the usual disclaimer that none of the persons represents anyone living or dead.

An interesting technique used in the film is cutting back and forth between scenes, and in mid-scene. This increases the pace of the film and draws the audience into an insane sequence of events until the final conclusion.

There are three main set locations from which the film is depicted. The first is a locked office in the Air Force command base of a bomb-group commander whose hold on sanity is precarious. He is in fact convinced that water fluoridation is a Russian technique to weaken American men. The second set is the flight deck interior of the B-52 bomber on its way to destroy the Soviets. The surroundings are cramped, and the people are led by a major of the Pentagon's under-ground War Room. This is the third set. The U.S. president here convenes an advisory staff of unlikely types including an overly decorated general, a Soviet ambassador and a German nuclear scientist.

Another interesting feature of the film, and perhaps also contributing to the surrealism depicted by the peace, is the fact that three distinct roles are played by Peter Sellers in two of the set locales. He plays the roles of Dr. Strangelove, a wheel-chair bound German scientist, Mr. Merkin Muffley, a President of the U.S. And Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.

The theme of the connection between war, sexual obsession and the male sex drive is depicted through numerous sexual images and jokes as well as absurdly caricaturized military characters. These for example include Jack D. Ripper, Mandrake (said to encourage fertility or potency), and Buck Turgidson ("buck" referring to a male animal or stud, and "turgid" meaning swollen). Merkin and Muffley both refer to the female pubic area, while Soviet premier Kissof's name refers to the expression "kiss-off" or "start of disaster." King Kong refers to primitive, destructive love, and Strangelove to perverted affection.

The plot of the film begins with the focus on rumors that the Soviet Union had been developing a Doomsday weapon. It is an interesting point of critique here that although "intelligence" sources have tracked down the site of a top secret Russian project, they do not know exactly what this project entails. Still the rapid conclusion is that a doomsday weapon is being developed. This is a comment on the rashness of political action at the time.

Another interesting satirical point is the computer room where the English Group Captain Mandrake receives a call from his supervisor. Among the machines producing endless data sheets, is found a sign that reads "Peace is Our Profession." The irony is however that all the rash and unnecessary actions undertaken during the film lead to the opposite of what they claim their profession to be. The supervisor, Jack D. Ripper is convinced that a sneak attack has been effected and that nuclear retaliation is justified. This suggests that rumors hold more value than truth if such rumors could result in war rather than peace.

When the dimwitted crew of the bombers are informed that they are about to launch a nuclear attack, it is with a mixture of annoyance and awe. The large force of B-52 bombers is also a comment against the American tendency to overdo things, especially when it comes to war. The bombers can destroy the world until there is nothing left, all in the name of peace.
The force is much too large for its purpose. The devastating conclusion of this is inevitable.


Fail-Safe, while close in story line to Dr. Strangelove, is by no means a comedy. Walter Matthau plays the serious role of Professor Groeteschele, while Larry Hagman and Dom DeLouise also provide star performances, together with Frank Overton as General Bogan.

The initial setting is Omaha, Nebraska. General Bogan is giving Congressman Raskob (played by Sorrell Booke) a tour of the Strategic Air Command control facility. While the SAC bombers are flying at their fail-safe points, a minor electronic malfunction occurs. This however becomes less minor when bombers are ordered to fly to the Soviet Union for an attack. After trying desperately to recall the planes, it appears that they are responding and returning to their bases. However, one group does not. Group Six cannot receive the command to return as a result of Russian experiments with radio jamming. In this way, like in Dr. Strangelove the Russians are unwittingly part of their own destruction.

Other desperate measures, such as shooting the planes down, also fail, and the situation appears to be hopeless. Eventually the Americans and the Russians work together in their attempt to destroy Group 6. This is in contrast to Dr. Strangelove where the Americans derive a kind of patriotic glee from the opportunity to attack Russia with nuclear weapons.

This film also ends with a disclaimer stating that safeguards are in place to keep the events depicted from occurring. However, it appears that human nature is much closer to what is depicted in both Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove. In the sixties for example, Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar sites picked up something over the horizon of Norway. According to the computers, the chances of Soviet Union attack was 99%. The phenomenon however turned out to be the moon.

This element of technological error, together with the human capacity for jumping to premature conclusions, is what is satirized in both films.

Atomic Cafe

The stated aim of making Atomic Cafe is propaganda about the nuclear bomb. While the film is contemporary in comparison with Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, the initial decision was to only use footage from the Cold War period for making this documentary work. Pressure from funders resulted in a failed attempt to integrate old and new footage, and thus the original concept survived. This resulted in a unique view from the Cold War era point-of-view of the very contemporary problem of the atomic bomb.

Another artistic decision was to use the cinema verite form for the material. This means that no narration was added; the film is allowed to speak for itself. This technique allows the audience a mind of its own and credits the viewers with some degree of intelligence. The information is processed on an individual basis. Influences on the film include photo collage artists such as John Heartfield, The Public Burning by Robert Coover, and filmmakers Emile de Antonio, Bruce Conner, and Philippe Mora.

Again there was pressure from antinuclear foundations and individuals to change the approach used in the film to narration. However, this principle was not compromised. In this way the film shows the images of horror connected with the nuclear bomb. This lets the audience decide the way in which the propaganda should be accepted or rejected, and thus a much more powerful film is created. The images speak much more strongly against the atomic bomb than any heartfelt narration could have done.

Reviews received by the film confirmed its effectiveness as well as the readiness of its audience. People have come into close contact with the horrors of war and its consequences, and thus a film speaking against such horrors is welcome. The reception of the film was mostly positive, but there were negative feelings as well. The satirical approach taken by the film was for example seen as trivializing a serious issue. There were also concerns about not adding newer footage.

An area of American culture influenced by The Atomic Cafe is advertising. A genre of advertising using stock footage grew in popularity. Footage from the film was for example used to make a commercial for the restaurant chain, Roy Rogers. Footage where people are shown running for cover is used to promote the essentially fun-filled idea of running to a restaurant outlet. This shows the American tendency….....

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