The Red Menace and the KKK: Soviet and American film 1949-69

During the Cold War period, films were an important factor in the persuasion of the masses. They would be used in various ways, to present the ideal image of their country and to distinguish a national enemy, to name a few. Between the United States and the Soviet Union, reasons for and methods of film propaganda held certain differences: in the United States, movies were often made so that Americans would recognize communism and the Soviets as an evil force, and as such, many films involved some sort of anti-Russian or anti-Communist undertone. On the other hand, Russian films represented the U.S. much less than the States represented the Russians: they were less direct and more nuanced compared to American films as well. Even if the purpose of the film – propaganda, in these cases – is the same, the way each country attempted to persuade the viewers could differ, minimally or obviously. To discover such differences from early in the Cold War era, we investigated selections of propagandistic movies, six from the U.S. and five from Russia, between the 20-year block of 1949-1969, and compared them. The following contains the findings of our research about how Cold War governments used films as propaganda tools and the differences and similarities between the two countries movies and methods.

The United States

Films in the United States from 1949-1969, and even far beyond into the 90’s, were typically pro-American, anti-Communist themed, and in this time block, the film trends followed a distinct path of evolution, one which evolved following the ever-shifting tensions with the Soviets and events like the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite changing hostilities, U.S. films in our study time frame, regardless of topic, nearly all had underlying commentaries, subtle and overt, of the Cold War’s influence on the world culture. Starting with 1949, we can report it was rather difficult to find any truly propagandistic films from this era. This is to be expected, as the Cold War had only just begun in 1947, and while other forms of anti-Communist propaganda may have already been widely circulating by 1949 (perhaps in the form of the anti-Nazi films from WWII), tactical films against Russia, in particular, were only just on the rise and hadn’t become the trend yet.

One prominent ‘40’s film that that set the future 50’s cinematographic trend in motion was ‘The Red Menace,’ a flick about a dis-serviced veteran, who is coerced into the U.S. Communist party with promise of a new, more equal order, falls for a lifetime Communist immigrant from Europe, and both become dissenters of their Party, leading to their fearful escape from the Communist leaders who have sent spies to put an end to their dissent. The film is a clear example of early Cold War propaganda, and is one of the more outrageous examples here, constructed just well enough to find box office success, unlike its predecessors. It shouts anti-Communist rhetoric through narration and through the Communist characters, pegging all true Communists as heartless, sinister, godless, unforgiving, and ever-willing to use violence as a means to their end. This was characteristic of movies at the time, which cast the Russians and Communists under a monstrous light, without personality or love for anything but Marxism. On the flip side, the film also suggests that truly virtuous people will eventually leave communism by realizing their own morality in contrast to the Communists’ lack-thereof. The end of the movie is a precursor for some of the mid-50’s movies (discussed below) where the movie caps off with an obvious nod (among others) at the goodness and quality system that the U.S. provides. Such scenes and statements were seemingly meant to coerce “foolish Communist children” back to the American fold. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KWHDNPdoCg 46:38-50:14]

Animal Farm

The cinematic trends in the 1950’s did not change much from 40’s, as themes of U.S. superiority to Russia roared to a peak. A lot of films made in the 1950’s were based on action: most films were centered around sports, war, and government spies. For example, ‘Invasion USA’ (1952) and ‘On the Beach’ (1959), both movies about war, invasion, and nuclear destruction. These films typically upheld the heroics of the American citizen and pit Russians as the ubiquitous villains: such themes fostered people’s internal narratives of Russians and communism as a common enemy.

An example of this type of movie is a movie called ‘Animal Farm’, a 1954 animated movie based on a novel by George Orwell by the same name. It tells the story of how the animals on a farm rebel against their drunken and abusive farmer, a rebellion lead by a prize-winning hog with a desire to fight for the animal’s freedom. Many of the animals agreed and commenced the uprising only the day after the hog’s died. The farm was renamed “Animal Farm” and was running smoothly without the farmer: the animals created their own laws, one of which being that “all animals are equal.”  However, the pigs who were in the leadership position began to treat themselves as superior to the other animals. One of the pig’s schemes to take over and succeeds to become the new leader of the farm that was supposed to have no leader, and creates a pig committee to run the farm. The pigs begin to revise the laws and kill other animals that disagree with them. As a result, the leader pig becomes a dictator. In the end the other animals realize the pigs scheme and end up killing the pigs for their defense. In this film, the pigs represent the Russians and their “ideal” vision of communism. Films like this and villains like the pigs were meant to persuade the American masses that communism is bad and no good will come with it, only death and disorder.

Strategic Air Command

The gender roles of men and women were also very strict at this time. As such, not all movies were as direct of a stab at the USSR and communism but rather promoted and focused on U.S. values higher than theirs, and in that vein, many moves persuaded the viewers on how the American man and women were supposed to be as freer and better citizens than the Soviets. One specific role-model production for men is the 1955 film ‘Strategic Air Command. This story is about a baseball player who was a bomber pilot during World War II. He is recalled to the air force once more and goes on missions where he had to face many risks, and subsequently garnered an injury. Due to his obligations to the air force, he decides to stay instead of going back to playing baseball but is conflicted upon realizing that his injury may threaten his baseball career for good. The main character of this film is a strong male who is loyal to his country and fears nothing, the perfect role model of the sacrificial post-WWII citizen and soldier. It can be said that these kinds of films were made to show how excellently males were supposed to be, which creates its point of propaganda, that is, persuading, through the image of a good soldier, how U.S. citizens should behave as moral superiors to the Soviets. It also promoted country loyalty through a sweet and admirable story, meant to persuade viewers to feel a nationalist pride for their country, therefore, feeling resentment towards others.

How to Marry a millionare

As for female gender roles at the time, a good example is a film made in 1953 called How to Marry a Millionaire. From the title itself, the film’s theme (a woman should find happiness in a rich man) is quite obvious. At the beginning of the film, the three beautiful women dress up in pretty dresses and pretend to be rich themselves in order to attract wealthy men, which emphasizes the beauty that a thriving capitalist economy can provide to any citizen who even wants to dress glamorously. Each girl ends up falling in love with a man, however, they either refuse to go out with a man that looks to be poor or is disappointed that her partner she fell in love with does not have money. In the end, they all end up marrying a man who is not as wealthy as they had hoped, but one man, who looked very poor, actually was very rich, causing all three girls, in the end, to collapse out of shock. The three actresses in this movie were considered the most beautiful women at the time, and all the women in this film have a skinny proportion, glamorous makeup, and pretty dresses, as women were supposed to wear. The women also represented valuing a man to rely on and to care for them. Like ‘Strategic Air Command,’ this is another form of propaganda to encourage American women to be beautiful and seek out pleasures in rich men and the capitalist system that allowed them, and not Soviet men, to prosper.

The Manchurian Candidate

While propaganda flicks were more relaxed and U.S.-focused in the mid 50’s, the late 50’s spilled into the early 60’s genre of propaganda films, taking on similar popular themes of double-agents, wars, submarine warfare, female promiscuity, and of course, anti-communism. But as the Korean war had settled and the Vietnam War was underway, biased films were beginning a shift to a new focus, as evidenced by such films as ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962). The thriller follows a whole squad of soldiers from the Korean War who return brainwashed, with one of their partners programmed by their Soviet captors to become the ultimate assassin. His assignment is to kill the next U.S. presidential candidate, thereby allowing his stepfather and communist puppet to become the next president and allow Communist control from the inside of the White House. While this film pits Russians and Communists as the enemy behind the curtain, similar to movies from the early 50’s, the flick takes the propaganda genre into a different level and trend, in that it begs questions about how much the U.S. can trust their own leaders and how much those leaders are already being influenced. It also seems to give a critical eye to anti-Communist sentiments expressed by U.S. politicians, as exemplified in the movie’s almost secondary-enemy role of the plotted Manchurian candidate, Senator John Iselin, whose platform rests on his overt McCarthy-esque rhetoric against the government and his “card-carrying Communist” opponents. It’s suggested that this character is made to be a buffoon-like loudmouth to express the idiocy of such wild rhetoric that was so common in movies and political platforms in the past (as seen in the clip below).

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5xpNBs-km0]

The Manchurian Candidate’ marked a new shift to the critical in the cinematic tone of Russia films. Additionally, events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassination of President Kennedy by pro-soviet Lee Harvey Oswald further progressed a tone returning to obvious Russian presence in cinematography, as opposed to the subtle jabs in 50’s flicks. Movies like ‘Torn Curtain’ (1966) and ‘Ice Station Zebra’ (1968) were both movies that returned to dehumanizing the Russians as faceless and dangerous competitors, ones hiding in our midst in wait for an attack, bent on destroying the U.S.

The Russians are Coming

Hollywood policies were also changing around this time as well, allowing many “Communists” blacklisted by HUAC to return to the industry, and thus produce some provocative Russian-themed pictures that called into question America’s true role in the conflict. Films like ‘The Bedford Incident’ (1965), ‘Fail-Safe’ (1964), and the quirky satire ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964) all took critical focus on American internal flaws, and in step with the Cuban Missile Crisis, questioned in each whether the U.S. was capable of starting nuclear war by incompetence, by needless aggression, by the U.S.’ obsession with their nuclear weapons, or just by mistake, all dangerous and shocking new themes to convey through the silver screen. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, these types of movies also expressed the public’s anxieties as leaders tiptoed around the recently escalated Russia issue. Additionally, films like ‘Seven Days in May’ (1964), centered around a plot by the Chiefs of Staff to overthrow the U.S.’ dove-ish president before he can sign a nuclear disarmament treaty, called into question how much the U.S. wanted to give up their war tactics, and how much the Vietnam War and the Cold War could be symptoms of the bureaucracy not wanting to give up the fight or the nukes.  

Finally, we reach a strange new focus created by the Communist sympathizers returning to Hollywood: humanizing the Russians. Exemplified by the comedy ‘The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming’ (1966), many directors started making films that gave names and faces to the Russians, and in step with the films above that questioned how much of the Cold War was just a misunderstanding, this film is based entirely on the idea of misinterpretation of intent. In summary, a Russian submarine gets stranded near the shores of the States, and as the Russians come ashore, posing as Norwegians to avoid starting a new world war, the already red-scared town starts to go berserk, thinking the Russians had invaded from their shores. The film highlights the stupidity that the “red menace” rhetoric has caused in the minds of the citizens and how that has made communication so difficult with the Soviets. The closing of the film, in the Russians joining with the town in a cliched scene to rescue a child from falling from a church steeple, grants them a humanity that previous propaganda from film and politics had rarely granted them. Such examples of more Communist-sympathizing propaganda and themes that poke fun at the irrational American reaction were highly characteristic of the end of the time period.

As evidenced above, U.S. propaganda cinema made some major leaps and jumps, perhaps because of more attention to world events, or perhaps because of more creative license is given to film producers than in the Soviet bloc, as seen below in five examples of Soviet propaganda pieces.                       

The Soviet Union

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Researching Soviet movies from 1949-69 is not an easy feat. While not too difficult to find online, knowing how to speak Russian was essential for full understanding. What little Russian we knew did not help in understanding ninety per cent of what was being said. The subtitled versions we did find (two of the films, Silver Powder, and Five Days, Five Nights had no English subtitles at all)  ran the risk of the translations being completely fabricated as well. Fortunately, one of our group members can read Russian Cyrillic, and can understand enough of the words to know that the subtitle writers at least did not make everything up. For the most part, the analysis will stem from what we saw happening, and (rarely) what we heard mentioned.

The early Cold War era of Soviet movies seem to evolve and reflect the Soviet leadership at the time. With Stalin in his Premier role until 1953, you can visibly see his indirect impact on the movies released at the time. The films before 1953 were harsher, more direct shots at America. In fact, there were very few films regarding the United States at all throughout the entire Cold War. Two of these films were released in 1949, and 1953 (‘Encounter at the Elbe’ and ‘Silver Powder,’ respectively). Encounter at the Elbe’ focuses on U.S. and Soviet Forces meeting at the River Elbe in 1945. There are two scenes in this film that are glaringly obvious propaganda: the first scene has Russians and Americans drinking together. Americans and Russians drink American whiskey and are enjoying themselves, then the Americans try Russian vodka and are forced to spit it out. This scene is attempting to portray the weakness of Americans compared to Russians. The direction that Soviet propaganda takes towards the US becomes clearer later in the movie in the following scene:

[https://youtu.be/2NyPwHQoY3A]

In this scene, American soldiers are seen fighting their own soldiers just because they are black, and a black lady who is just standing by is also attacked. Civil Rights issues in the U.S. become the pillar that the Soviets built their propaganda around.

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This can clearly be seen in the following movie in 1953, ‘Silver Powder’. In this movie, an American scientist in search of wealth develops a new weapon of mass destruction. Two military industrial complexes struggle to get hold of this weapon for themselves, and military generals often come off as thuggish and gangster-like. The film takes a dark turn on civil rights issues, as black protestors are arrested, a black maid is beaten by one of the thugs, and the KKK arrives in the following scene to burn a cross. While the cross burns, the camera focuses on the African-Americans who are forced to witness this, living in what seems to be a ghetto. The fear and sadness is clearly visible, but also a tiredness, as if they are used to this form of treatment. This movie is perhaps one of the most extreme anti-American movies produced in this period, pulling no punches as they attempt to show the hypocrisy of the United States through their treatment of the black people in this movie.

[https://youtu.be/9mxLIM3gMLY]

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After the death of Stalin, Americans seem to all but disappear from the Soviet cinemas, with only the odd film appearing. In the period after his death, Soviet propaganda moves away from attacking and denigrating Americans and towards showing the “glory” of the soldiers and people throughout the history of the USSR. In the 1957 film ‘Miles of Fire’ (one of the first ‘Red Westerns’), a ‘ragtag’ band of Russians (A woman, a Red officer, a doctor, and an actor) join forces in the Russian Civil War in order to fight the White forces nearby. It involves a daring plot involving a suicide mission with a tachanka, a father whose sons have been drafted by both the Reds and the Whites, and a strong Russian woman who fought in World War 1. Ultimately, the Reds are shown as heroes, and the Whites are Machiavellian-like cowards, who scheme and plot but still lose.

[https://youtu.be/tBY-G2ccwGI]

Ballad of a Soldier

The next film continues upon this romanticisation of the Russian soldier, focusing on the journey of a war hero sent home to visit his mother during World War II, ‘Ballad of a Soldier’ (1959), includes a soldier single-handedly destroying a German tank, generous commanders who show kindness to a war hero (even one who has a reputation as being cruel, a ‘beast’ – see clip below), a crippled soldier too afraid to return to his wife out of fear she will be disappointed by him (she was not), and the destruction wrought by German bombers during the war. These are all milestones along the journey of a war hero who just wants to return home to visit his mother. When he does finally get home, he gives her a gift and then leaves because he knows he must return to the front to fight for Russia. He never returns. The film concludes with a monologue that the hero was “just a Russian soldier”. Perhaps more on the nose than the previous film, these scenes demonstrate the new path that Russian films take, historical dramas and romances based upon the tragedy of war. The Nazi becomes the enemy in Russian films.

[https://youtu.be/DOsn853jC_c]

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There is one film in this period that may contradict this. In ‘Five Days, Five Nights’ (1961), a joint Soviet-East German film, the Red army arrives in Dresden the day that Germany surrenders in 1945. The film, based loosely on real events, opens and pans across the destruction of the city of Dresden, caused by British and American bombers (Americans are blamed in the opening monologue). The film follows the Red army as they recover precious art buried after the allies bomb the city, and while initially the populace of the city is a little slow to trust them, seeming more scared of them at the beginning, within twenty minutes of the film the Red soldiers rescue a boy from falling debris, and find a hidden cache of art, upon which a large crowd swarms the Red soldiers to cheer them and thank them. The entire city of Dresden celebrates the Soviets as heroes for recovering their lost art for them. Like in the films above, the Russian soldier is portrayed as noble, kind, and selfless, sacrificing their lives in some cases in order to preserve the artistic history of this Germany city. While this film does mention Americans, it only does so in the opening monologue (While there were no subtitles, we did hear “американский” the Russian word for American, but it is also possible that there were later references I did not pick up on).

[https://youtu.be/CTfr6hPzlMU]

Overall, while Russian films in this period begin with direct attacks and interpretations of the United States and capitalism (scientists who only want money), after 1953 and the death of Stalin, the methods of propaganda moves away from attacking and instead to the glorification of the Russian and the USSR through “historical” films. In many of these movies, the Nazi (or the capitalist White) is the bad guy who is directly or indirectly opposed to the hero of the film, who is always a Soviet soldier, or member of the Communist Party. While less overt, this method seems more effective than the demonizing of America, as it becomes less obvious and therefore more easily received by its target audience. The Soviet audience is likely to be more receptive to a film that praises them indirectly, and gives them a sense of pride in the USSR, showing them to be heroes who struggled against the Whites and the Nazi’s, rather than exaggerating and making Americans look weak or as cruel and hypocritical to their black citizens.

Our Conclusion

When compared, these Soviet and American movies show clear differences in the style and method of propaganda used by either side. In the earlier films analyzed above, both the United States and the Soviets make direct attacks at each other, such as in ‘The Red Menace’ (the name itself indicative of its attitude toward the Soviets) wherein the Americans make the Soviets look evil and corrupt. The Soviets, in turn, represent Americans in a similarly negative way. In American films they show the arrival of communism and how it destroys American values: they were more direct in their condemnation, as in ‘The Red Menace’ which portrayed the corruption of American youths in their attitudes toward God and religion, for example. In Soviet films, they only show an exaggerated and corrupt depiction of America, but they never portray an invasion of Russia by the U.S., nor a conflict between their values. Soviet movies make a slightly more subtle effort of denigrating America, showing its hypocrisy through topics such as race issues, the most poignant example of this being the KKK scene in ‘Silver Powder.’

We also see emerging patterns of change over this twenty-year period. After Stalin died in 1953, the nature of Soviet film seems to completely shift – the American vanishes from Soviet cinema and the propagandic films became more nuanced, more about praising the average Russian than the flaws of Americans. Additionally, historical dramas galore were released, all with a similar conflicts in the backdrop, in which the Russians prevail. In most of these films, the hero is the noble, strong, selfless Russian man, such as the main character in ‘Ballad of a Soldier.’ American movies do change in the same period, but differently, not nearly as drastically. While there were no longer extremely open scare-tactic films, U.S. movies still played on fears of a Russian invasion, such as captured in the brainwashing plot of ‘The Manchurian Incident.’ As a whole, American movies focus on American values and their need for protection; towards the end of this period, considerable change begins to emerge as attitudes begin to sour in general towards the government of the U.S. Movies sympathetic to Communists, or movies parodying and questioning the American government and the people begin to be popularized, such as ‘The Russians are Coming,’ which attempts to humanize the Russians and poke fun at the needless panic left in the wake of “red-scare” fear mongering. Overall, in contrast, the Soviet films are less direct, and less aggressive than those of their American counterparts, changing more with the attitudes of the leadership of the Soviet Union, rather than fluctuating alongside public opinions, like in the U.S.

Bibliography:

Animal Farm. Directed by  Joy Batchelor and John Halas. London, England: Halas and Batchelor, 1954. Film.

Ballad of a Soldier. Directed by G. Chukhray. Moscow, Soviet Union. Mosfilm, 1959. Film.

Five Days, Five Nights. Directed by L. Arnshtam & H. Thiel. Moscow, Soviet Union. Mosfilm, 1961. Film.

How to Marry a Millionaire. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox, 1953. Film.

The Manchurian Candidate. Directed by John Frankenheimer. California, United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962. Film.

Meeting at the Elbe. Directed by G. Aleksandrov. Moscow, Soviet Union. Mosfilm, 1949. Film.

Miles of Fire. Directed by S. Samsonov. Moscow, Soviet Union. Mosfilm, 1957. Film.

Silver Powder. Directed by P. Armand & A. Room. Moscow, Soviet Union. Mosfilm 1953. Film.

Strategic Air Command. Directed by Anthony Mann. United States: Paramount, 1955. Film.

The Red Menace. Directed by R.G. Springsteen. California, United States: Republic Pictures, 1949. Film

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. Directed by Norman Jewison. California, United States: The Mirisch Corporation, 1966. Film.

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