Andrew Feffer: Review of Tony Shaw and Denise J. Youngblood's "Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds (University Press of Kansas, 2010)


Andrew Feffer is Associate Professor of History and co-Director of Film Studies at Union College.

Mention of Cold War cinema usually brings to mind scare films like Invasion USA or My Son John both released in 1952 to terrify American audiences with improbable stories of a Soviet takeover.  Or films that sublimated that invasion terror into confrontations with enormous insects, automaton-like mole people or robots from outer space, thinly veiled propaganda films that made stark and simple-minded images of the Communist enemy dance across the silver screen. Similarly grotesque depictions of an American enemy suitable to the propaganda needs of leaders in the Kremlin presumably flickered in the imaginations of Soviet audiences. 

Tony Shaw and Denise J. Youngblood challenge this conventional view of the cinematic Cold War. Working in the same vein as other “new Cold War histories,” Shaw and Youngblood want readers to recognize that the half-century of geo-political conflict was not “fought solely between desk-bound politicians and generals with their fingers on the nuclear triggers.” It was also fought at the level of a “people’s war” with “important social and cultural dimensions,”  including the production of films. Moreover, Soviet and American films used far more sophisticated ideological tools than the heavy weapons and mutually assured destruction of overtly stereotyping propaganda. 

Shaw and Youngblood make this argument through a well-crafted comparison of American and Soviet film industries that is a welcome addition to our growing historical understanding of the cultural Cold War, the conduct of East-West hostilities through mass media and popular art forms.  To date, we have had excellent studies in English of anti-communism in Hollywood (such as Shaw’s own) as well as of the deployment by national security agencies of American culture (jazz and abstract expressionism, for instance) to promote American capitalism.  But Shaw and Youngblood’s book is the first to compare the competing yet often remarkably similar efforts by Hollywood and Moscow to win the hearts and minds of movie viewers in their own countries and across the globe.

This study gives us a very good general sense of how the cinematic Cold War evolved over time.  Using sources from both American and Soviet film archives, the authors  trace the conflict through five periods: Starting with crudely stated mutual hostility lasting from the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947 to Stalin’s death in 1953, both countries shifted to subtler forms of salesmanship promoting the virtue of their respective ways of life in the late 1950s (a cinematic complement to Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon’s infamous “Kitchen Debate” of 1958).  In the early 1960s Hollywood and Moscow began to entertain dissenting views, reflecting the short-lived Soviet thaw after Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin-era crimes in 1956 and the end of the Hollywood blacklist in 1960.  Entering a more difficult period to define, American and Soviet filmmakers took contrary tacks in the 1970s, the former toward farce and satire in dealing with political issues and the latter toward reconsolidating political authority.  With the dawn of the Reagan era, hostility was renewed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as American politicians ratcheted up anti-Soviet rhetoric to which Russian filmmakers reacted in kind.  In each of those periods the authors compare the production of a representative American film with a Soviet counterpart. 

The most important contribution of this book would seem to some rather pedestrian: a comparison of the respective industries, a study, as Shaw and Youngblood put it, of the “political economy of filmmaking.” This extremely worthwhile assessment of the Hollywood studios and Soviet state film institutes approaches film propaganda through cinematic “systems of production” in a manner long advocated by American film scholars.  It is in some respects the most important historical comparison between the two national cinemas in their competition with each other.  It works best at the highest level of generality in the opening part of the book, in which the authors provide an overview of each national film industry.   There we learn about the “asymmetrical” nature of the cinematic Cold War, fought between a corporate enterprise with enormous private resources that thrived in a prosperous domestic economy, on the one hand, and a sclerotic and repressive state bureaucracy, on the other, with limited funds that struggled to sell its own films to a captive but somewhat resistant public. 

Here the numbers tell the story:  As the cultural Cold War reached its first peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hollywood churned out hundreds of films, some of them overtly anti-communist such as Man On a Tightrope (Elia Kazan, 1953), but most of them merely entertaining celebrations of America’s post-war prosperity (thereby serving as propaganda regardless of the producers’ intentions, as was the case with William Wyler’s 1953 romance Roman Holiday).  The Soviets in contrast produced a mere trickle of films – eighteen in 1949, ten in 1950, nine in 1951.  Such low production in part reflected Stalin’s desire for absolute control over aesthetic and political expression.  Soviet filmmakers, he insisted, would turn out fewer films but “good ones, remarkable ones.” Yet even after Stalin’s death, Soviet filmmaking never matched American production in quantity or technical quality, although several Soviet films reached the stature of international classics (such as Mikhail Kahtozov’s haunting 1957 story of war and loss, The Cranes Are Flying) and some, like Spring on Zarechnaya Street (Marlen Khutsiyev, 1956) and Officers (Vladimir Rogovoy, 1972), are still beloved by Russian audiences.

Though it offers an excellent vantage point for an overview of the respective industries, Shaw and Youngblood’s approach is less successful in the film-by-film comparisons that make up the rest of the book.  It works best in showing how Hollywood and Moscow handled emerging dissent in the early 1960s, through a comparison of two remarkably similar and beautifully shot, minimalist films, Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm, 1962) and Fail Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964).  Both filmmakers had to negotiate political and financial restrictions in order to address growing qualms about nuclear weapons and the unbridled technocratic authority of science and the military.  The book also works quite well when comparing the more overt engagement in cultural battle during the so-called Second Cold War of the Reagan era, showing us the extent to which American producers of high-budget action films like Rambo II: First Blood (George P. Cosmatos, 1985) simply outgunned their Soviet opponents.  Rambo’s Soviet point of comparison, Incident at Map Grid 36-80 (Mikhail Tumanishvili, 1984), about a nuclear accident on an American submarine, would not pass muster with American audiences accustomed to high-tech production values, even though its narrative is a good deal subtler and less belligerent than Rambo’s steroidal foray into the jungles of Vietnam. 

Other chapters that emphasize the divergence of the two industries are less effective.  There is no reason to dispute the authors’ claim that Hollywood was set adrift at the end of the 1960s by the demise of the studio system and the anarchic influences of the emerging “counterculture.”  However, even if a film like Woody Allen’s anti-establishment farce Bananas (1972) reflects those American trends, it does not pair up well with the selected Soviet film Officers, an epic tribute to the sacrifices made by Soviet soldiers defending the motherland. These two films present a stark contrast because the authors chose them for that reason.  Other American films would have served the comparison better:  Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970) or Midway (Jack Smight, 1976) to name but two.  It is no doubt true that “[n]othing akin to Bananas was or could be made in the USSR during the Cold War.”  (186) But one doesn’t need the authors’ excruciatingly close reading of Allen’s film or its point-by-point comparison with a Soviet melodrama to get that idea across. 

In fact, that sort of arbitrary comparison gets in the way of other analyses that are more fruitful, for example contrasting the production decisions in Hollywood and Moscow that led to such divergent film trends.  Shaw and Youngblood offer us that analysis, but it definitely gets lost in the sauce.   Moreover, it would have helped this otherwise solid study to contextualize the cinematic propaganda of each nation with a more conventional analysis of film forms.  In fact, the book lacks a formal analytic framework, whether narrative, semiotic, Freudian, or feminist, any one of which might have been useful in close readings of particular films. Someone familiar with the history of classical Hollywood film or more recent discussions of politics and visual culture will sense this absence even more strongly on the American side of the comparison.

To be fair, the authors self-consciously forego that kind of study.  And what they do, they do quite well.  So, if one wants a straight-on history of Cold War cinema production or even an entry-point into the history of post-war Soviet film, this book is a great place to start.

comments powered by Disqus