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Retrospective Communist Films

A look into "High Noon" and "Dr. Strangelove."

By Marina Caitlin WattsPublished 7 years ago 7 min read
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Only retrospectively, a few major films in the 1950s dealt with communists and the red scare as a criticism. High Noon and Dr. Strangelove all read more as conforming-related when looked at decades later.

Courtesy of United Artists

High Noon (1950)

High Noon criticizes conforming, which many American were fearful of. The film effectively used the Western genre as a political backdrop, and even though many people do not realize how explicit this message is, the story is still very bold for anyone who as affected by the Red Scare. It romanticized the Western genre, and gave off an older feel to it being shot in black and white. This also gave audiences a timeless feel to the story.

The film opens with a wedding ceremony. Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) leaves his wife Amy (Grace Kelly) on the day of their wedding, as an enemy turns up into town, and his friends refuse to help him in his time of need. There is a sense of urgency throughout, as the train out of town leaves at noon, and Will keeps saying “we haven’t got time,” and “time’s running pretty short”. This motif is especially seen just before noon strikes on the clocks. There are many cuts to many of the main characters as they watch the clock tick. High Noon allegedly plays out in real time between 10:35 and 12:15 pm.

This sentiment is what many faced during the Red Scare. People were afraid to help their friends in a time of need, since they too could be accused of communism and conforming. Kazan and Miller faced this dilemma, along with many others in Hollywood. The major town counsel scene taking place in the church is very similar to the testimony scenes in The Crucible, where everyone is asked to speak up, and perhaps defame the name of their friends.

The film is seen both a positive and negative dramatization of a moral dilemmas, which is very similar to what many people in Hollywood experienced when being questioned by HUAAC. This comparison is easily made, as everyone seems to be against Kane and speak negatively against him, especially enough to turn his newlywed bride against him.

Only years after its release did the audiences of High Noon realize how autobiographical some aspects of the story were to Foreman's life. The screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was actually blacklisted when he was writing the script, and had to testify in front of HUAC. He refused to answer any questions. Ultimately he was forced to move back to England, and was never allowed to work in Hollywood again. This was controversial, because his business partner Stanley Kramer did name names. This friction is similar to that of which Kane winds up facing. Amy is told at one point during the film by the hotel lobby worker that “plenty of people think he (Kane) has a come-uppance happening.” This is made very clear throughout the film in Kane’s interactions with the townspeople individually and as a whole.

According to John Belton, an English Professor at Rutgers University, “High Noon emerges as an obvious example of resistance within the industry to the outside investigators, such as HUAC. The film’s hero, ironically played by a real-life friendly witness, Gary Cooper, is threatened by a gang of cutthroats (HUAC) who are on their way to town (Hollywood)...He nonetheless confronts and defeats them, waging a battle alone that the townspeople ought to have fought together”. Kane’s strong character sticks to his virtues, and takes it upon himself to save the townspeople on his own in the end.

The setting of High Noon is extremely significant. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American culture began to obsess over the western. As America’s western expansion across the country was coming to an end, writers felt that they needed to preserve the manifest destiny and American dream that was decidedly theirs. As High Noon complies with the Western background, there is much to be said, as writers and those wrongfully accused of communism interpret the film as a means of taking back the American values that is rightfully theirs.

As far as the film’s accolades go, it was nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, but lost to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth, possibly as a compliance to the fear Joseph McCarthy was spreading throughout Hollywood. DeMille was also a major supporter of HUAC’s work, which explains the Academy’s leanings. The film won four Oscars, including one for Best Actor (Gary Cooper) and Best Film Editing.

Overall, the political allegories and commentary can definitely be applied to other periods of political uproar besides the Red Scare, depending on the viewer's’ interpretation.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

"Dr. Strangelove"

Dr. Strangelove also comes to mind when we look at how unnecessary Americans’ fear was, regarding the atomic bomb and constant threat of nuclear warfare. Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film’s original intention was to be a drama film. Dr. Strangelove was not laugh-out-loud hilarity from start to finish, but the circumstances, if audiences considered when

An interesting production note is that while the film crew was shooting aerial material over Greenland, they picked up a US military base. The planes were immediately asked to land, and the crew was accused of being spies for Russia.

Director Kubrick chose green tablecloths specifically for the War Room because he wanted audiences to compare it to a poker table. Essentially, analogizing the characters as “playing a game” regarding the fate of the world. Sterling Hayden’s role as someone extremely fearful of communists was actually a member of the Communist party at the time of filming

The film does not really translate out of context. However, Kubrick’s commentary on nuclear war was spot-on; the dangerous descriptions that Strangelove brought were stronger and truer than anything the White House and the Pentagon was willing to tell the American public as far as nuclear warfare was concerned.

Several times throughout the film, audiences see the irony in what is going on and can laugh along with it. The rational tone used when describing the killing “10, 20 million people, tops!” shows how dehumanizing those who designed bombs were thought to be, along with those who made the decision to drop them. The recurring “Ants Go Marching” chant also attempts to set the tone for a war movie, but all audiences are able to think of are boy scouts trudging through a muddy forest, looking for a place to pitch a tent.

Major T. K. King Kong goes through the list of emergency supplies, which include nylon stockings and lipstick. Among the supplies is also a miniature Holy Bible/Russian catchphrase book. The latter shows how Kubrick emphasized the fear that many Americans had of Russia taking over. During a major shootout, a sign reads “peace is our profession” in the crumbled town. This quirky and ironic details make Dr. Strangelove fun and will humble its audiences with these kind of nuances

Last, Dr. Strangelove seems to be a mosaic of cultural icons, many who came into the spotlight well after his time. With a voice that could be Pee Wee Herman’s, Ozzy Osbourne sunglasses, and an attitude of a mad scientist caricature, it’s hard to take him seriously (as intended), since he designed the doomsday bomb.

A retrospective article on the film by journalist Eric Schlosser makes the connection of how policies changed after the film’s release. He writes, “A decade after the release of Strangelove, the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership...Like the Doomsday Machine in Strangelove, Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.” Due to the film’s satirical yet realistic premise, Dr. Strangelove eventually led to changes of policy in order to make sure nothing depicted in the film could ever happen in reality in Washington along with the US Air Force.

The final scene of Dr. Strangelove ends with the leaders of the world discussing “the military standpoint” of a conversation to a polygamous world, if the ratio of men to women would be one to ten. And the final shots? “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn plays, accompanied by a montage of atomic bomb explosion. This sort of ending would have offended many during the cold war, but retrospectively, this is obviously satirical.


About the Creator

Marina Caitlin Watts

Marina loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. The native New Yorker and Cornell grad knows every word to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and thinks Shakespeare is cool. If you need her, she's waiting for Godot. Twitter: @marina_caitlin

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