17 April 2012

Books on Films on the Bomb

The development and deployment of the atomic bomb by the Americans during World War II ushered in what is commonly referred to as the 'nuclear age.' A growing shelf of books continues to be written about the various repercussions of the bomb, ranging from the socio-political to the cultural and psychological. Several recent titles explore this legacy, including Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future (Lexington Books, 2010) and The Dragon's Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) both by Robert A. Jacobs, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 by Matthew Jones (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan by Hiroshi Kitamura (Cornell Univ Press, 2010), and Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan by Sean L. Malloy (Cornell University Press, 2008). While many of these books are about the historical and political issues related to nuclear weapons, Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future focuses on how art and popular culture, including cinema, have confronted the bomb.

In chapter 6 of Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future, Mick Broderick traces the development of an early and often studied bomb film, ‘The Beginning or the End’ (1947). Although other films had subsequently addressed directly or indirectly the development, deployment and aftermath of the atomic bomb, ‘The Beginning or the End’ remains distinctive for its having been positioned as a docudrama, purporting to tell the story of the development and subsequent use of the bomb for posterity. Making use of prior studies, but also adding original research into primary sources, Broderick details the conflicting political interests that shaped the film’s production. While the studios were concerned with capitalizing on the obvious public interest in the topic by producing an appealing piece of entertainment, the military was concerned about what should and should not be shown in such a film, either in terms of national security or for its own wartime image, while the scientists, whose consent was needed in order to use their names and images, had concerns about technical accuracy and ethical treatment of the subject. Broderick shows that there were complex behind-the-scenes negotiations that expressed the competing interests of these three groups. He further suggests that Hollywood may have had some advance notice of the ‘secret weapon’ before its deployment in Hiroshima, and had already developed scripts to capitalize on that once the news broke publicly. There was also a great deal of concern on the part of the White House as to how Truman would be depicted, and in particular that the decision to drop the bomb was shown to be the result of deep deliberation. However, Broderick shows that ‘Truman’s script revisions comply with the manufacturing of a popular Hiroshima mythology, yet are clearly contradicted in his later published memoirs.’ By focusing in detail on the role of the Truman White House in manipulating the film’s production, Broderick both compliments and extends the existing literature on atomic bomb feature films and on ‘The Beginning or the End’ in particular.

As the first American film that explicitly depicted the history of the bomb, ‘The Beginning or the End’ received treatment by previous studies of atomic bomb films. The earliest book to delve into the topic, Nuclear War Films by Jack Shaheen (1978) includes a chapter on the film. Although much briefer and in less detail than later works, Shaheen had identified the themes in this, and other films, that would occupy the minds of later atomic bomb film scholars, such as the varying interests involved in the production and the numerous inaccuracies for a film claiming to provide the history of the bomb, concluding that ‘inaccurate documentation and an abundance of romantic sentiment deprived the movie of the authoritative quality claimed by its producers.’ Nuclear War Films includes chapters on several classic, and lesser known, bomb films, including ‘On the Beach’ (1959), ‘Ladybug, Ladybug’ (1963), ‘Dr Strangelove’ (1964), and the ‘Bedford Incident’ (1965). The book also includes a section on documentary short educational films, such as ‘To Die, To Live’ (1975) and ‘A Thousand Cranes’ (1962), which are not nearly as thoroughly addressed in the later literature as the fictional films, if even mentioned at all. While he did include some of the less well known, and subsequently unstudied works, Shaheen curiously omits from the volume the numerous science fiction and giant monster films that came to pervade the later scholarship, except to note their ‘illogical visions,’ a statement to which Broderick (1991) later referred as a ‘myopic dismissal.’ Nevertheless, by including reviews of documentary and fictional feature length films, as well as educational short subjects (the latter receiving virtually no attention to date), Shaheen did set the agenda for much later scholarship and the book is still worth reading as an introductory, if not complete, introduction to the genre.

‘The Beginning or the End’ also received fairly extensive treatment in two other titles from the growing shelf of atomic bomb film books. In Atomic Bomb Cinema (2002), Jerome Shapiro positions the film as the first overt statement of what he calls the ‘apocalyptic consciousness’ that comes to characterize, in his analysis, the genre. Like other scholars who discuss this film, he provides plot details and points of political intrigue, but ultimately he presses the film into service of his broader agenda which is to demonstrate the prevalence of apocalyptic imagery in bomb films, which leads him to position some of the film’s characters and scenes in more mythological terms. For example, in discussing the fictional character Matt Cochran, added by the studio as a tragic love interest in the story and in order to voice some concerns of the scientists, Shapiro notes that through his closing posthumous monologue, read by his bereaved wife, the film positions Matt as ‘the supernatural being that interprets the revelation for the uncomprehending human.’ In further developing this theme, Shapiro suggests that ‘The Beginning or the End' unintentionally ‘invites the viewer to speculate on whether the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden and Hamburg, Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Auschwitz, or the victims of any other conflict were also made in the image of God.’ Shapiro’s use of a quasi-religious discourse, which draws upon a Jewish understanding of the apocalypse as redemption through destruction, is an intriguing device through which to view the by that time fairly large selection of American bomb-related films. In subsequent chapters, he pays close attention to the science fiction and giant monster films neglected by Shaheen and develops a chronological periodization of bomb films that includes chapters on ‘losing faith in social institutions‘ and the ‘post-cold war years,‘ and also includes a long chapter on Japanese bomb films. Ultimately, though, his insistence on viewing all of these films through the apocalyptic lens seems at times forced, in particular with reference to the Japanese films, which really need a book length treatment on their own rather than as an appendage to this study. Still, Shapiro has pulled together an impressive array of sources and themes into this imaginative and informative study.

Since ‘The Beginning or the End’ is addressed in many works on atomic bomb films, it provides a good way to survey the discourse and to also evaluate the books that include references to it. In Celluloid Mushroom Clouds (1998), Joyce Evans includes a case study on the film in her chapter on the business of atomic bomb films in Hollywood. She explores in greater detail some of the political and economic themes that were alluded to in passing by Shaheen and further developed by Broderick, as noted above, including the intrigues surrounding the film’s development and the resulting inaccuracies. Beyond this material, Evans is useful for her attention to the business of film production and provides an important point about the difference between the ‘dramatic truths’ emphasize by Hollywood and the ‘factual truths’ of the historian. Dramatic truths are those not documented in the historical record, such as their intimate moments with family and colleagues, and which connect the rather serious topic of the film to ticket buying audiences who may be drawn into the story through such devices. However, at times these dramatic truths, as we have seen, contradict the factual truths. In this case, their inclusion was ultimately a failure as the film was a box office flop. Evans continues this analysis of the economic and political workings of Hollywood through several subsequent chapters, each developing a theme and then providing a detailed analysis of a particular film as a case study. She shows, for example, that the same story of the development and usage of the bomb can take on remarkably different tone in a few years time, through her study of the the’ 1952 film ‘Above and Beyond,’ which is more clearly impacted by Cold War concerns than 'The Beginning or the End,’ despite the scant five years between their productions. In later chapters, she treats the theme of radiation and mutation, including a case study of the giant ant film ‘Them!’ (1954). Like other scholars, Evans transverses the typical themes, but the real strength of her work is in her detailed treatment of the economic dimension.

Shaheen and Shapiro both include select filmographies, with the former highlighting 25 representative titles, each receiving a short review essay, and the latter providing a more complete filmography, along with several Japanese titles. While notable for being more comprehensive, Shapiro’s filmography is scant on details, as he chose instead to focus on selected films for exposition throughout the text, in particular as they pertain to the book’s thesis. Between these two efforts, Broderick weighed in with Nuclear Movies (1991), a guidebook which features a filmography less comprehensive than Shapiro’s but including more details, and more inclusive than Shaheen’s but with less detailed exposition. While each of these three tried to strike a balance between inclusion and exposition, Broderick’s approach is to provide a long essay up front that synthesizes the filmography in terms of themes, such as the Nazi threat, Soviet spies, the Fifties, science fictions, mutations and monsters, alien interventions, proliferation and super heroes, to name a few, each noting the connections between films under its respective theme. The rest of the book consists of an annotated filmography arranged by year from the pre-1950s through the end of the 1980s. Shapiro would pick up on this periodization by developing his own discussion of ‘prototypical bomb films,’ joining Broderick in projecting later atomic themes back to the early 20th century. Broderick also includes a selection of Japanese films, discussed under the theme of ‘the human dimension,’ noting in particular films such as ‘The Bells of Nagasaki’ (1950), ‘Record of a Living Being’ (AKA 'I Live in Fear' 1955), and ‘The H-Man’ (1958). These films are noteworthy for providing the ground level view the bomb to counterbalance the view from above that characterized many American bomb films of the period. However, the comprehensive scope of Broderick’s guidebook, it includes several factual errors and minor inconsistencies, likely due more to low budget editorial policy than to author shortcomings, but which nevertheless preclude the book from being the final word on essential points such as characters, titles and dates, although with this caveat it remains a useful volume for its thoughtful thematic survey and fairly comprehensive filmography.

Broderick also offered the 1996 edited collection Hibakusha Cinema, which features a selection of previously available essays reprinted along with some fresh material. The book begins with three oft-cited essays: Donald Richie’s ‘Mono No Aware’ (1961), Susan Sontag's ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ (1965), and Chon Noriega’s ‘Godzilla and the Japanese Nightmare’ (1987). While it is useful to have these under one cover, Broderick summarizes but does not contextualize or evaluate these earlier works in his Introduction. Two other reprinted essays are also included: ‘Depiction of the Atomic Bombings in Japanese Cinema’ by Kyoko Hirano (1992) and ‘Akira Kurosawa and the Atomic Age’ by James Goodwin (1994). The latter employs interviews with Kurosawa (published elsewhere) and finds that ‘Ikimono no Kiroku’ (Record of a Living Being 1955) was partly influenced by Kurosawa's experience of a huge earthquake when he was a teenager and the mass hysteria that followed. While the role of memory in ‘Ikimono no Kiroku’ is indirect, the film forefronts the issue of awareness, and more specifically, what does it mean to live in the nuclear age and to be aware of the bomb. More directly related to the question of memory is the later Kurosawa film ‘Hachigatsu no Rapusodi’ (1991), which is about the experience of and memory of the bomb and what happens to those experiences and memories in subsequent generations. Goodwin’s essay is useful for it’s discussion of memory in the bomb films of Kurosawa, whose works are also discussed by Linda Ehrlich in a chapter on ‘the extremes of innocence’ in Kurosawa’s ‘Yume’ (Dreams 1990) as well as ‘Rhapsody in August.’ Two final chapters include studies of narrative strategies in the novel Black Rain and the subsequent film treatment by Shohei Imamura, and a chapter on politics and gender in the depiction of female hibakusha by Maya Morioka Todeschini. Broderick’s introductory essay lays out the topics of each chapter and draws connections among them, but tends to take at face value some of the more questionable points made by Richie and Noriega, both of which essentialize and dichotomize ‘the Japanese’ in ‘us and them’ frameworks that have been problematized by later scholars. However, this collection remains valuable because it extends the discourse to include anime, such as ‘Akira’ (1988), and literature, through the comparison of ‘Black Rain’ as film and novel.

The question of essentializing ‘Japaneseness’ is taken up as a theme by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto in Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (2000), which specifically engages the essentialist notions of Richie and others. Yoshimoto uses a critical analysis of existing scholarship on Kurosawa’s works as a way to problematize the film studies outlook on Japanese cinema. For our purposes, the book is useful for its inclusion of essays about three atomic bomb films: ‘Ikimono No Kiroku’ (Record of a Living Being, AKA I Live in Fear, 1955), ‘Yume’ (Kurosawa’s Dreams 1990) and ‘Hachigatsu no Kyoshikyoku’ (Rhapsody in August 1991). In ‘Ikimono no Kiroku,’ Yoshimoto notes that Kurosawa explores the bomb in a visceral way by focusing on the plight a Japanese industrialist whose attempt to save his family from nuclear fallout due to nuclear testing in the Pacific eventually drives his family to ruin and himself insane. As Yoshimoto is more clearly writing in the vein of film studies, as opposed to cultural studies or history, he pays closer attention to technical as well as narrative features. For example, he notes that Kurosawa uses the 'static shot packed with objects and human figures,' contrary to his usual emphasis on movement, to create an 'oppressive atmosphere appropriate for the film's subject.' Yoshimoto sums up the main point of ‘Ikimono no Kiroku,’ and perhaps Kurosawa's main challenge in the film, with this question: 'how can we really feel the threat of nuclear warfare and the possible extinction of the human race not as an abstract issue manipulated by career politicians and bureaucrats but as a concrete problem seriously menacing all of us?' In other words, the method of representation has a major impact on the subject, and by objectifying the nuclear threat as a monster, or by focusing on images of destruction only, the central concern is somehow diluted or diminished. Yoshimoto also asks whether or not Kurosawa is using an 'unrealistic psychological approach' to make his point about the bomb in this film, but then suggests that in facing the threat of nuclear destruction there may be no reasonable or rational response that can counter the intensity of the challenge. Yoshimoto’s chapter on ‘Rhapsody in August’ includes a useful, though brief, analysis of a controversy surrounding the film, as American reviewers misinterpreted a scene in which a Japanese-American character appears to apologize to his grandmother for the bombing.

While Yoshimoto provides insights into Kurosawa’s atomic bomb bomb films, and Shapiro includes a chapter on Japanese bomb films, the bulk of the literature in English remains mainly focused on American films, which have received a variety of treatments from several different theoretical perspectives. This allows more detailed analysis, as scholars can eschew the basics in favor of more nuanced theoretical studies. For example, adding further depth to the American focus in the literature is Dr Strangelove’s America by Margot Henriksen (1997), which uses bomb film films as part of a effort to trace the origins of America’s ‘culture of dissent’ that emerged in the 1960s to the repressed climate of the 1950s, countering the viewpoint of ‘consensus historians’ who saw the 1960s as a break. Henriksen meticulously shows, perhaps in far more detail and theoretical rigor than any of the works reviewed so far, how films, television and popular culture of 1950s America evidenced a wide ranging and complex set of feelings toward the bomb that were more or less absent from official public discourse, which was pre-occupied at the time with the Cold War and related national security issues. Henriksen’s goal in pursuing this legacy is to highlight ‘the changed forms of cultural expression which challenged the serenity and order of the atomic consensus with a new cultural chaos that mirrored the disruption of matter achieved in the technology of the atomic bomb.’  In pursuing this thesis, Henriksen evaluates a number of sub genres of atomic bomb film. For example, she finds in1950s science fiction films two tendencies of the Cold War era: fear of the bomb and anxieties about the McCarthy era hunt for ‘un-American’ activities, the latter targeting several filmmakers and writers. Henriksen notes that, ‘This merging of anti-atomic and anticommunist fears – particularly in the form of attack or invasion from outside forces, often tainted with radiation – became a relatively standard device in cold war science fiction films, and the representation of anticommunist anxieties helped to make the identical representation of atomic anxieties more acceptable to scrutinizing studios and law-and-order committees.’

Henriksen's main task is to link the covert culture of dissent in the 1950s its overt forms in the 1960s. Toward this end, she suggests, ‘The surface complacence of the Eisenhower years, perhaps in part artificially induced by the security network that promoted conformity, may also have been medicinally aided by the billions of tranquilizers ingested by Americans in the postwar era. Adding to the complexity and ambiguity of this era’s surface calm was this new reality: mental health had become the number one medical concern of the nation.’ This problematizes the narrative of conservative historians who haven written off the 1960s only in terms of youthful frivolity. Henriksen continues: ‘While the mainstream American culture of consensus and Eisenhower’s politics of tranquility continued to uphold the image of a secure and contented American society, the culture of dissent shifted its attention to this coexistent underground America of anxiety, where tranquility and satisfaction dissolved into tension and conflict.’ Henriksen concludes this important and wide ranging work by suggesting a resolution of the multifarious tensions manifested in the culture of dissent: ‘The culture of dissent, whether with a violent or peaceful counter-force of protest, had kept the tension in American culture and society high and had ultimately promoted the alternative peaceful and humanist values that helped to control the destructive values of the system.’ An odd ending, perhaps, for an enlightening book, since she finds a benefit in the decades of hysteria, death and destruction that become more apparent once one places her story in a global context. This oddly anti-climatic conclusion points to perhaps a key shortcoming of the work, which arises from her adherence to a particular methodological orthodoxy of American scholarship. Henriksen, an American historian, infuses her work with the insights of cultural studies – a welcome addition to a discipline that all but ignores culture – but despite this she concedes almost completely to the rigid and limiting periodization and localization faddish among historians. While the book, as a result, lacks breadth, it is nevertheless a worthwhile synthesis that provides a much needed insight into the ways in which the atomic age created its own uniquely tragic cultural history for Americans.

Pursuing a similar line of reasoning in Monsters, Mushroom Clouds and the Cold War (2001), Keith Booker focuses on the emergence of post-modernism in the same period, which he attempts to show through analysis of science fiction novels and films of the ‘long 1950s.’ Booker locates an essential tension of the era in these works, in that ‘science fiction captured something very crucial about the first decade in which it was clear that science had given humanity the power to destroy itself virtually at the touch of a button,’ which was countered by ‘a certain faith in the ability of science to make life better on all levels.’ This contradiction is found in several science fiction films, such as ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953), in which the monster is both created and destroyed by nuclear power. Booker develops this sense of ‘doubleness’ into a broader take on the ‘beginnings of late capitalism and of an incipient postmodernism, regardless of the seeming lack of postmodern formal elements’ in such works. Once he establishes this trope, he runs it through a range of science fiction novels, such as the works of Philip K. DickIsaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, and films, many of which have not been thoroughly analyzed in previous works, such as lesser known works like ‘Rocketship X-M’ (1950), ‘The Day the World Ended’ (1955), and ‘World Without End’ (1956). Booker’s scope is wider because his more directly concerned with science fiction films, of which bomb films are a sub genre. The relevant films are those that explore the end of the world through nuclear destruction, otherwise known as the apocalypse, although in doing this Booker is more firmly rooted in the material world, avoiding the metaphysical overtones of Shapiro. Another theme in Booker’s work is the role of the Cold War in shaping the proto-postmodernism he seeks to reveal: ‘While the science fiction novels and films in the long 1950s are transparently related to their context in the Cold War, it is clear that most of the characteristics of American science fiction during this period can be understood as consequences of the globalization of capital, with any direct reference to the Cold War.’ The value of Booker’s work, regardless of its theoretical standpoint, is in broadening the scope of the study to include literature along with films, which points to another important development in the scholarship of atomic bomb films, that of linking films with other forms of media.

This development is further evident in the 2004 edited collection by Scott Zeman and Michael Amundson, Atomic Culture. Like Filling the Hole in the Nuclear FutureAtomic Culture casts its net wide to include not only films, but also comics, civil defense artifacts, tourism and souvenirs. However, the risk run by such works is that they can become diffuse, but the editors of this slim volume attempt to draw together these diverse sources into a framework that takes into account previous work and which offers a new periodization for the field. Early works relied on rough chronologies that take on some characteristics of periodization, but in Atomic Culture an effort is made to draw the lines more distinctly. The first period is ‘early atomic culture,’ which begins in 1945 with the first detonations of nuclear weapons and continues through 1948. The second period begins with the Soviet detonation of a nuclear device, launching the period of ‘high atomic culture,’ which includes an odd mixture of atomic themed farcical comedies, such as ‘The Atomic Kid’ (1954), as well as many of the science fiction and giant monster films previously noted, but which also includes the escalation of the arms race culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The third period, ‘late atomic culture,’ begins with the release of the political satire ‘Dr Strangelove’ in 1964 and carries on through to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, including not only the bomb as a theme but also the emergence of no nukes themed films fueled by several nuclear reactor accidents. Following this periodization we are presently in the era of ‘post atomic culture,’ which has no clear boundaries and is characterized by a partial dissolution of the genre, as environmental disaster films begin to gather more audiences than nuclear themed films, although the latter lurk in the shadows with a series of ‘rogue state’ and ‘nuclear terrorist’ films. While useful for surveying the sixty odd year development of a genre, any possible proposed periodization is only as good as the number of people who adopt it, and that remains to be seen. Beyond its contribution to periodization and insights about possible dissolution of the genre, Atomic Culture has some useful chapters, in particular those that look at the place of atomic themed sites and landscapes in American culture, ranging from a study of ‘code switching’ in suburban Los Alamos to the bizarre proposed nuclear waste site marked with symbols, such as a ‘spike field,’ designed to impact a distant future when English may no longer be understood but when nuclear waste will still remain deadly.

As these works suggest, there is at present a wide ranging, topically and theoretically diverse, body of scholarship on atomic bomb film and related subjects. However, several areas remain less well studied, or even ignored. If the present body of work is any indication of English language literature, then certainly one major area in need of much further work is Japanese atomic bomb films and nuclear culture. Several of the works allude to this potential, with Shapiro making a real effort to redress this imbalance, but the field appears to be wide open for further studies, not as appendages to American studies, but as studies of Japanese nuclear culture and films in their own right. Beyond the rich, and understandably obvious, potential for further study of American and Japanese films and other nuclear media, there is virtually no work done on atomic themes in other international arenas. A study of Soviet and Eastern European cinema, alluded to in Broderick (1991) seems necessary, as is an attempt to unearth for English speakers elements of the genre in other contexts, which again is alluded to by Broderick’s filmography, which includes reference to a 1955 Arabic film entitled ‘My Mother-in-Law is an Atomic Bomb’ (1952). Another area in need of further study is documentary films and educational shorts, including television, which was proposed and tentatively studied by Shaheen but then more or less ignored, except for a couple of virtually unknown works that are mentioned, but not reviewed in any depth, by Broderick (1991). Even if Zeman and Amundsen are correct, in that the genre may have dissipated as a vibrant cultural force at the present, there is still plenty of work to be done on the past works. However, a word also needs to be said about access to materials for study, in particular films. While several of the films mentioned in these works have been released on VHS and DVD, many films, such as ‘Ladybug, Ladybug’ (1963), are unavailable. Similarly, some films are inaccessible due to industry region coding or lack of subtitles for other languages, the latter a hindrance for English speakers studying films in Japanese (or Arabic, for that matter). Similarly, many of the documentaries and short educational films noted in the above works are either very expensive or only available for institutional purchase, or out of print, and thus inaccessible. In this way, atomic bomb scholarship is perhaps limited by market forces that seem reluctant to enter some of the important works into general viewing, which is nevertheless necessary for the discussion of themes film to be carried forward beyond the few who are lucky or privileged enough to view them. With the opening up of digital pathways to potentially create a more free flowing access to such works, the scholarship in this field could gain a new lease on life if the content owners and academic community could reach an amicable fair use agreement.

[This essay is by J. Progler and was written while doing background research for an undergraduate lecture course on cinema and the bomb at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Clips and trailers from selected atomic bomb films, including many of those mentioned above, are available on a YouTube playlist.]

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