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Teaching the Cold War: Some Alternative Films To Show

Teaching the Cold War: Some Alternative Films To Show August 27, 2021

I have been posting about my forthcoming book on The Global History of the Cold War, which is (not exclusively) intended as a main textbook for courses on that topic. I have an ongoing interest in materials for that course, or for a related one on Cold War Cinema. Now, if I was actually teaching such a course focused on movies, I would cleave pretty closely to the predictable choices. Dr Strangelove would be high on the list, along with such canonical items as Fail Safe, On the Beach, The Manchurian Candidate, Advise and Consent, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Salvador … the old faithfuls. Nothing very surprising. But in this post, let me play a little with some more offbeat choices for teaching the topic. Here are some admittedly quirky suggestions, and I freely admit that I am drawing partly on European films not so well known in the US. My criteria for choice include the films’ overall quality, but also their potential for launching discussions about the obvious topics in the course:

Our Man in Havana (1959). So in 1958, intelligence veteran Graham Greene published what is still one of the best books ever written about the world of spookery. A hapless British businessman in Havana is recruited as a spy, and has to make stuff up to justify his existence. His greatest success involves faking photos of supposed Soviet missile sites being built in Cuba. I say again, that was in 1958. (I know, photographing illicit Soviet missiles in Cuba! Nothing like that could ever happen in the real world, right?) The book was then filmed, but in the meantime, Fidel Castro had come to power, and he and his comrades came to hang out at the location shoots in and around Havana. The film is wonderful, if somewhat less rolling in the aisles funny than the book, which students should absolutely read. For class purposes, its best use is in illustrating the relationship between the real and imagined worlds of espionage and intelligence. Set this against James Bond!

Romanoff and Juliet (1961). This one is a guilty pleasure. It’s a light and terminally British comedy, which makes a remarkable number of clever points about Cold War rivalry and stereotypes. Set in a small Ruritanian kingdom, the son of the Soviet ambassador falls for the daughter of his US counterpart, Juliet (played by Sandra Dee!). Meanwhile, both sides are trying to win over the kingdom for a decisive vote in the United Nations. It’s a gorgeous satire on nationalism, militarism, and the Cold War itself, and the further we recede from the actual events, the saner and more accurate the analysis looks. It’s useful for US students in showing them that many in the US-allied nations had much more balanced and suspicious attitudes towards Americans and Soviets alike. They never wholly accepted the simplistic “Free World” narrative.

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). A totally different level of seriousness, and indeed, one of the century’s indisputably great films. A Cuban-made character study of a shiftless bourgeois intellectual who finds himself living through that country’s Revolution, up to the Missile Crisis, and who increasingly realizes his obsolescence. Brilliant film-making, and very good on the clash of values between old and new societies. It’s a great study of living through a an era of crisis and headlong change.

Charlie Muffin aka A Deadly Game (1979). We all have our favorites from the post-Bond wave of spy films. This is one of my personal raves, and I confess to a prejudice. It was directed by Jack Gold, one of the finest British film-makers, but who is scarcely known in the US. The film is a lovely portrayal of East-West spy games, which is shrewd in its attitudes to loyalties and betrayals in the espionage world. Even better, the veteran British spy is played by David Hemmings, who had been a glamorous symbol of mid-1960s Swinging London, the age of the first Bond films (Think Blow Up). As Charlie Muffin a decade later, Hemmings is older, plumper, more disheveled, and totally realistic as a spy who is fed up with playing at Cold War. If you only watch one Cold War spy film, make it Charlie Muffin … and once you have seen that subversive production, you can go chuckle at the stone-faced Le Carré.

By the way, if you want a truly great Le Carré, something that is also a superb film in its own right, forget Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Go right back to Sidney Lumet’s near-perfect The Deadly Affair (1967), which is based on Le Carré’s first novel Call for the Dead.

Threads (1984). Several obvious films address nuclear fears and visions of apocalypse, but this portrayal of the imagined effects of a strike on an English city has a special power. Don’t expect expensive CGI, but the film itself is stone terrifying. It also gets into the then-new idea of a ruinous nuclear winter as the likely consequence of a war. It’s a wonderful basis for discussing European attitudes to the Reagan administration and what many saw as its overly aggressive policies in the early 1980s.

Good Bye, Lenin (2003) is a moving and funny film about what it was like living through the end of the old East Germany. A faithful true believer in the old system falls into a coma just before the Wall falls, and when she wakes up months later, her son has to conceal the new reality from her. The film does suggest some of the arguably good things that perished with the old order, as well as the dilemmas faced by the new post-Communist societies.

Another German film on related themes is Bornholmer Strasse, or in English, Open the Wall (2014). This concerns the unintentionally history-making border guard who decides to open the Berlin Wall crossing in 1989 and in effect to end the existence of his country. It is alternately very moving indeed, and sometimes riotously funny. The guards have two main concerns on that key night, respectively the imminent end of the East German state, and tracing a lost dog.

Also from 2014 is the Danish documentary, The Man Who Saved the World. Alarmingly, this is a true story. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. His command center received an unequivocal message that the US had launched nuclear missiles, and that the Soviets should respond immediately and in kind. Petrov hesitated and decided, rightly, that it was a false alarm, and because of that decision, we are sitting here reading this right now. Literally, he saved the world. This is a great film about nuclear weapons and deterrence, and the human factor in decision-making. Hmm, I wonder how an AI set-up might have handled the same situation?

Mr. Jones (2019). This does not precisely fit the standard US framework of Cold War chronology, focusing as it does on the Soviet-inflicted Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, the Holodomor. But it gives a wonderful idea of the realities of Stalinism, and the dilemmas faced by Western media. Inevitably, it’s also very grim.

I wonder if I would dare show the original Japanese version of one of the most powerful anti-nuclear films, Gojira, the famous 1954 production that left audiences stunned, with many leaving theaters in tears. The film was intended as a plain and obvious metaphor for Hiroshima, but it gained added power from the recent real-life disaster when the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel was exposed to fallout from a US thermonuclear test. The strong anti-nuclear critique was utterly purged from the recut version released to US audiences, who only remembered the film as Godzilla.

Some general comments here.

One is that, for obvious reasons of availability, it is much tougher to get hold of Soviet or old East Bloc films for classroom use, but some of them are stunning. The Soviet equivalent of the Rambo movies is Incident at Map Grid 36-80 (1982), and it would be great to show this in parallel to Red Dawn or Rambo itself. But where to get it easily? Ditto for the 1968 Soviet espionage thriller The Resident’s Mistake, which I am ashamed to say I have never seen, but it is said to be stellar. It would be fun setting that side by side with a Le Carré.

I just offer this suggestion as an intellectual exercise. Imagine teaching a Cold War course and only drawing on Soviet and East Bloc films? That would be a startling departure, and potentially a wake up call for students. You can actually learn a lot about the later Soviet Union by watching the diet of patriotic and war films that they put out in the 1970s and 1980s, some very well made.

Also, there is the perennial issue of what exactly we mean by Cold War films. Do we mean something from that era, broadly defined, or something specifically about the East-West confrontation? I love The Right Stuff, and it deals with a crucial theme in the Cold War era, but it really does not have that focus in anything like the same way as, say, Manchurian Candidate. Arguably, John Wayne’s The Alamo is a definitively Cold War film in that sense, a paean to staunch anti-Communism, although it is set in Texas in 1836.

You might reasonably argue that the Vietnam war is pivotal to the Cold War, which would mean showing the canonical films of that conflict, from The Quiet American and The Ugly American through Apocalypse Now and so on. And yes, I know M*A*S*H is notionally set in Korea, but that’s really a Vietnam film too. If you go down this road, you get overwhelmed pretty quickly.

There are also films that don’t directly speak to the Cold War, but which are indispensable to understanding it.  Nobody interested in later twentieth century history can ignore the film Battle of Algiers (1966), which is critical for shaping both real world terrorism and counter-terrorism. It has a vast amount to say about Cold War conditions and debates, although the two sides are by no means direct players in that struggle: French Western forces fight Arab revolutionary guerrillas. But I would definitely use it, and have often taught it in the past.

So where do we draw lines?

The more I think this through, the more I realize that no worthwhile course could show enough films to cover the whole period. It would be essential to limit the course chronologically, say by “Classic Cold War” (1945-1964) or “Late Cold War” (1975-1991). You might even adopt a very sharp focus on the most acute and threatening years of tension, 1958-1963, in which case the film choices write themselves.

In terms of later retrospective reconstructions of the bygone Cold War era, I would look to standard offerings such as Thirteen Days, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Death of Stalin, or Bridge of Spies. All have many virtues. The 2018 Polish film called simply Cold War is superb on the mindset of the East Bloc, and its general atmosphere of paranoia and betrayal. Ditto for The Lives of Others (2006).

Also popular right now is The Courier (2020), with the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch, about the important British spy and courier Greville Wynne. Wynne was arrested and exchanged for an important Soviet counterpart. I confess to a grievance here. In the mid-1960s, British media were regularly full of the horrors being inflicted on the poor and totally innocent “British businessman” Greville Wynne, who had been picked up by the ruthless Soviets for no reason whatever – maybe some light littering. After he was exchanged, the truth started to come out. Let’s just say that was an early lesson for me in how far to trust the British media on basically anything (SPOILER: if they say the sun came up this morning, don’t believe it without a sworn statement from a university department of meteorology, preferably in a neutral country).

I might throw in at least one item as an example of really bad film-making and atrocious history, to let students list just where it goes wrong. One natural candidate would be the 2015 Trumbo, a thoroughly mendacious piece about that well-known bunch of civil libertarians and patriotic resisters against tyranny, the Communist Party USA. That would, you understand, be on the lighter side.

Of making many lists of Cold War movies, there is no end. See for instance here and here. And see now this, um, idiosyncratic list from a recent Spectator. See also the sage words of Chris Gehrz from a few years back.

Obviously, I am missing lots of things here. But imagine you were teaching a course where you could at most show a dozen or so films. What might you add to what I have here?

In this post, I have been mainly assembling ideas for films. Next time, I will say more about which of these titles work well or badly, and why it is vastly better to use strictly contemporary items.


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