Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim. It’s so great to finally be back for season 3! We’ve been very gratified to hear from listeners that they’ve missed us. And we’re very excited to be a partner on the New Books Network now. We hope that this platform will introduce our conversations about history and film to a whole new bunch of listeners.
It is great to be back, Brian. And I’m really looking forward to what we have planned. This season, we’re going to turn our established format on its head. Instead of looking at “How Hollywood uses history to talk about today” as you’ve heard us say at the beginning of every episode so far, we’re going to start with a historical era as our organizing principle – specifically, the Cold War – and look at how the anxieties, preoccupations, prejudices and hopes of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain were represented in films over those 40+ years. We’re going to be talking about films you would expect us to include, like Dr. Strangelove, Red Dawn, and From Russia with Love, and ones that are a bit unexpected, like the first film we’ll talk about today – Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Yes, we were going to do a season on WWII, weren’t we? And then Russia invaded Ukraine and we thought, you know, maybe what we need to do is take a look at the Cold War. After all, I think everyone over the age of 50 was immediately triggered when the invasion happened – reminded of growing up in a world where we kinda assumed we weren’t going to live to a ripe old age because thermonuclear annihilation was inevitable. And, as the West pours munitions into Ukraine, we are reminded of the way proxy wars kept the Cold War hot for millions of people around the world and at the time that seemed totally normal. We might not have a bi-polar world order anymore. But Russia’s actions have definitely reminded us of an era where it seemed everyone had to take sides, whether they wanted to or not.
So why don’t we get started with a reminder of how paranoid we all were that there were Commies everywhere and that, unlike the enemies in traditional wars, it wasn’t always easy to know who they were. A paranoid America had locked up the Japanese during WWII, but in the Cold War, you couldn’t just look around, spot the communists, and lock them up.
In fact, people made their careers on the fact that the enemy could be anywhere. Most notably, of course, Senator Joseph McCarthy. And we’re going to talk about him. But it’s important to note that the Red Scare didn’t just start with him. And it wasn’t just something pushed by the Republicans. The Democrats were very much on board with treating average Americans as traitors for doing things that were protected rights under the Constitution. Anything in the name of national security.
So today we’re going to look at 3 different approaches to that shameful period in American history – the roughly 10 years after the end of WWII, when anti-Communist hysteria was at a fever pitch. Our first film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the second is The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and the third is The Way We Were (1973).
Ok, so what are the lies agreed upon we’re going to be looking at?
Well, first is the lie that Senator McCarthy and the brief moment of his ascendancy was the full extent of the Red Scare (after all, isn’t it right there in the name – MacCarthyism?) and that it was a uniquely Republican sin. In actual fact, both parties, and the general public, were paranoid about enemies hiding in plain sight, for decades.
The second lie is that Vietnam was the first time that the American military was blamed for failing to achieve a total victory. As we’ll discuss, the fact that the Korean War ended without a clear victory brought accusations that GIs were soft and unpatriotic, and maybe, even, in service of the enemy.
And finally, the third lie doesn’t have a lot to do with the Cold War. It has to do with our current circumstances. The lie is that progress is inevitable, that we are always on a path towards improvement, advancement, an expansion of rights, and a greater equality among people. Recording this as our rights as Americans are being taken away, we can’t help but be struck by how some of the female characters seem to live in a more feminist world than we do.
So, to get started, let’s listen to a short public service film from 1950 called He May be a Communist!
It was so confusing! Just a few years earlier, the public was being warned about fascists, not communists. In Don’t be a Sucker, it was the demagogue, stoking fear and promising the world to gullible chumps, that people were being warned about.
But by the time Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1947 setting up a program to check the loyalty of federal employees, the House Un-American Activities Committee had already been looking for subversives for years. When Truman stated that government workers should have “complete and unswerving loyalty” the United States or else they were “a threat to our democratic processes,” tens of thousands of people became subject to invasive examinations of their authenticity as loyal Americans. Lists of “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive” organizations were created, the FBI investigated, and people were summarily fired if there was even a question.
Communists weren’t humans anymore. They were aliens, alien to American values and the messy, emotional wants and needs of a free market democracy. And this brings us to our first film – Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In fact, there is an entire sub-genre of sci-fi movies that can be read as commentaries on aspects of the Cold War. Later in this season, we’re going to be talking about the fear of nuclear war. And a whole series of movies, from Godzilla to The Amazing Colossal Man, harnessed viewers anxieties about the atomic bomb and then made that fear manageable by containing it in a 2 hour movie about a giant lizard, or a giant man. (For some reason, there seemed to be a general agreement in the 1950s that radiation made things bigger. Not quite sure why.)
But back to Body Snatchers. Originally a serialized story in Colliers Magazine, by Jack Finney, it was published as a novel in 1954. The film was criticized in reviews for being unoriginal, which might have been partly because a film with a similar premise was released a year earlier. It Came from Outer Space, with a script by Ray Bradbury, told the story of aliens capable of replicating human appearance but not their personalities.
But in that film the aliens came in peace, and left as soon as they could. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien incursion is decidedly more sinister – seed pods, sent to earth by aliens intent on domination. The movie was directed by Don Siegal, who went on to direct Clint Eastwood in 5 movies, including Dirty Harry. He also directed Escape from Alcatraz and another great COld War paranoia film we wanted to talk about – Telefon – but it unfortunately isn’t available.
So the movie opens with our hero, Dr. Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, acting like a crazy person in a hospital ER, telling doctors they’ve got to believe him. The movie then flashbacks as Miles tells his story. Just a couple of days earlier, he had returned to Santa Mira, California, from a trip. Right away, a number of his patients, including an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll, come to him complaining that their family members aren’t acting like themselves. He mentions this to his friend, a psychiatrist, who assures him it’s simply a case of mass hysteria. (There’s actually a name for this kind of psychosis – Capgras Syndrome.)
But that evening, he and Becky are called over to another friend’s house and shown a body, without any facial features, found in the basement. Very quickly, it starts to take on the physical appearance of Miles and Becky’s friend. Then another body is found in Becky’s home, looking just like her. But before they can show these replicas to anyone, the bodies disappear.
By the next night, joined by two other friends who are also freaking out, they find replicant bodies again. They figure out that the replicas emerge when the original person is sleeping. When Miles tries to get the operator to contact the authorities to alert them, she refuses and he realizes most of the townsfolk have already been taken over.
After a sleepless night in hiding, he and Becky are confronted by the pod versions of their former friends, including the psychiatrist. It’s revealed that the seed pods have been brought to earth by aliens. The pods are designed to replicate any life form but without any emotion or personality. Let’s listen to this explanation and the supposed benefits that the pod people extoll to Miles and Becky.
They try to escape by acting as emotionless and personality-less as they can, but Becky cries out when she sees a dog almost get hit by a car. Her humanity is exposed – I mean, we all know being a dog-lover must be a clear sign of non-pod people behavior – and the townsfolk come after them, forcing them to hide in an abandoned mine outside town. From their vantage point, they see a giant greenhouse, filled with pods, being cared for by the pod people.
The next morning, Miles discovers that despite her best efforts, Becky fell asleep. And she’s been replaced. She alerts the others and Miles runs. On the side of a busy highway, he sees trucks going by filled with pods. He tries to stop traffic, yelling “You’re next! You’re next!”
We find ourselves back in the hospital where the movie began and the doctors aren’t convinced by Miles’ story. They’re sure he’s psychotic. That is until the victim of a truck crash is brought in, apparently found under a pile of giant mysterious pods he’d been transporting! Finally believing him, the doctors call the FBI, who block off the roads to Santa Mira. And that’s where the movie ends.
So, what do we make of this? Well, in 1956, the pod people could have been interpreted in 2 different ways – either as communists, or as the conformist society of 1950s America. Is Miles warning us that containment – the policy of limiting the expansion of Communist controlled nations – is insufficient? To use their metaphor, the loads of seed pods have already managed to get out. The FBI were too late to stop all of them.
China had become a communist nation in 1949. But it wasn’t until the end of the Korean War in 1953, that the West fully grasped and accepted that now both the USSR and China were in control of huge portions of the globe and huge numbers of its people. Korea had ended in a stalemate, and anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia were adopting socialist political platforms as they agitated for an end to imperial exploitation.
But it’s also possible to see the pod people as the stifling conformity of mainstream white American society during the same period. This was the era of the first suburban subdivisions, like Levittown, where, famously, the houses looked so similar that husbands were known to accidentally pull into the wrong driveway at the end of their day at work. With victory in WWII, and the emergence of the US as THE other pole in the bi-polar world order of the Cold War era, American culture was fundamentally self-congratulatory in this period.
Even Adlai Stevenson, who was a critic of the extreme anti-communist tactics of the era, campaigned for president in 1952 with the slogan, “You never had it so good!” The US had won and was powerful because they were right about democracy and capitalism and consumerism and everything. And the proof that they were right was than they had won and were powerful. It was a syllogism that left no room for dissension or divergence. American society had so obviously gotten it right that if you weren’t happy, well then, there had to be something wrong with you.
We don’t want to overstate this conformist society. Obviously, there are always outsiders and outliers. And the folk scene of late 50s and 60s was one of the places where dissatisfaction could still be heard. Malvina Reynolds wrote the folk classic, Little Boxes, in 1962, pushing against consumerism and conformity.
So was Body Snatchers asking the question: If we smooth out all the rough edges, and quash all the imagination and individualism in America, then wouldn’t our safety also be our downfall?
The year Reynolds wrote Little Boxes is also the year our second film was released. It’s only a little less far-fetched than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Interestingly, though, The Manchurian Candidate reflected a very real obsession that 1950s Americans had about brainwashing. Not metaphorically speaking, in terms of propaganda or the pressures of a conformist society. Real brainwashing.
Based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, the film was released in 1962. It was adapted for the screen by George Axelrod, who also wrote The Seven Year Itch and the screen adaptation of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So an odd assortment of subject matter. It is arguably the greatest of John Frankenheimer’s directorial efforts, who also directed such films as The Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May. And both men produced the film.
In some ways the plot is simple. In other ways, it’s very convoluted. And critics at the time tended to agree with both of those characterizations. Major Bennett Marco (played brilliantly by Frank Sinatra) finds out that he and another soldier in the platoon he’d led in Korea have been having the same inexplicable nightmare: they are with their platoon members waiting out a storm at a women’s gardening club meeting. The audience of the meeting, elderly ladies in hats and gloves, keeps switching into an audience of uniformed Chinese and Russian military officers. Another soldier, Sargeant Raymond Shaw (played by Lawrence Harvey) is told by one of the garden club ladies to kill members of the platoon and he calmly does so in front of everyone.
When Marco and the other nightmare sufferer identify the same Soviet and Chinese operatives from their dreams, the US military starts to investigate. Shaw, along with the rest of the platoon, were brainwashed after being captured while on maneuvers. But Shaw was the real target. He was brainwashed into being a secret assassin, totally unaware of his programming and therefore without fear or remorse. Shaw, now a war hero for supposedly saving his platoon on the very mission where they were captured, can be triggered by the suggestion that he ‘play a game of solitaire to pass the time,’ and then by the visual cue of the queen of diamonds.
The reason Shaw was chosen, it seems, was because his step-father is a conservative senator. And the master plan is for Senator Iselin to become the Vice Presidential candidate. Iselin is such an idiot that this is only possible because of the conniving of his brilliant wife, Shaw’s mother, played gloriously by Angela Lansbury (who, by the way, was only 3 years older than Harvey, playing her son in the movie).
Marco comes to realize that Shaw is programmed to kill the presidential candidate at the party convention, so that Iselin can step into his shoes. And here’s where Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare come into it.
Iselin, in the Manchurian Candidate, is a McCarthyesque character, played for laughs. He’s a buffoon, coached by his ambitious wife into being an effective demagogue. But what makes him ridiculous, in the eyes of a 1962 moviegoing audience, is precisely what struck terror into the hearts of thousands of Americans when Senator Joseph McCarthy did it, a decade earlier.
Here, we have Senator Iselin speaking to reporters, and then to his wife, and what our listeners need to know is that, near the end of this scene, she spots a bottle of Heinz on the table.
By 1962, what was truly scary wasn’t the hard-to-identify enemies within the state, it was that the Soviet Union and China were both communist, and allies, and that America seemed to have gotten soft and affluent, and wasn’t capable of defending itself. In fact, after the Korean War ended in a stalemate, there was substantial blowback, which few people remember, against US veterans of that war. And there was an obsession with the idea that POWs had been brainwashed and, therefore, didn’t really try to win.
Susan Carruthers writes about how the “Fear of brainwashing by the media [at home during the 50s] was…conjoined by apprehension that the communists had decoded the arcane workings of the mind–a development likened by some (with varying degrees of literalism) to the splitting of the atom. Having cracked the brain’s codes, Reds were now believed capable of remodelling humans at will. Frankenheimer’s yoking together of these anxieties was thus reflective of 1950s American Cold War culture. First coined with reference to ‘re-educational’ practices in Red China (by journalist/CIA operative Edward Hunter in 1950), the term brainwashing quickly entered the popular lexicon, but had its most frightening usage
in the context of Korea [ 34]. Stories that America’s 3000 or so POWs–who had survived forced marches and ill-treatment–were being exposed to mysterious, ‘Oriental’ techniques, ‘exaggerated the latent feeling in the common man that he was being “got at” by all sorts of wicked manipulators from the writers of advertisements to the heads of large business enterprises and the teachers in preparatory or public schools’, wrote J.A.C. Brown in his pioneering study of propaganda.”
So in 1956, McCarthy had been removed from power and died of alcoholism soon after. But the mechanisms of the Red Scare were still in place for a few more years. Consequently, the critique of McCarthyism in 1956’s Body Snatchers, was veiled. The pod people forced conformity. Non-conformism meant the death of self. OR, if you want to take the other interpretation: 50s conformist society was being critiqued.
But by 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was ridiculing McCarthy era paranoia but putting another fear in its place. Russian and China were in it for the long con. And their moles within the US weren’t average people who had simply taken out a Daily Worker subscription in 1932 and got caught up in the Red Scare. They were skilled professionals, backed by cutting edge science and highly trained military operatives.
The real threat was the manipulation of people’s minds. The plot of Condon’s novel was a surprisingly accurate representation of what American intelligence believed was actually going on. And if the West was defined as valuing self-determination in contrast to the totalitarian Soviet Union and China, then what if Westerners could be robbed of that agency through brainwashing? Of course, in true Cold War logic, the US government decided it needed to figure out how to brainwash people too.
And the experimental methods would be tried out on American and Canadian subjects, through a secret program called MK Ultra. Here’s clip from a 1984 episode of the Canadian investigative show, Fifth Estate (the equivalent of 60 Minutes), detailing revelations about the secret CIA program carried out not only in the US but also in a medical facility attached to McGill University in Montreal.
So those reviewers who complained at the time that the film’s premise was simply too convoluted and unrealistic to be the foundation of a classic thriller were, in hindsight, naive, I guess.
By the way, we’ve given a fairly skimpy plot summary for The Manchurian Candidate, focusing only on what was needed for our discussion. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand why. First of all, it’s a very convoluted film that is hard to capture in a brief synopsis, so why try? But also, the various twists and turns are so much fun to unravel that we don’t want to spoil that experience for anyone who’s coming to it for the first time.
Instead, we’ll turn to our last movie, The Way We Were. For many listeners, particularly those who grew up in the pre-streaming era, this is a movie it was hard to avoid. It was constantly on rotation as the late-night or matinee flick on local tv stations or the lower budget cable outlets. It’s usually treated as a classic love story. It stars a gorgeous Robert Redford, from the Butch and Sundance era. And Barbara Streisand, at the height of her box office power. But if you look again, it’s actually a very strange film. Even reviewers at the time commented on how class, ethnic identity and politics were the unusual plot components underpinning the doomed love affair of our main characters.
It was directed by Sydney Pollack, one of the great 1970s directors, the writing credit goes to Arthur Laurents (who, among other things, wrote the book for West Side Story). But there’s a huge list of uncredited writers, including Francis Ford Coppola and – ironically, given that part of the plot centers on the Hollywood blacklist – Dalton Trumbo. I have to say I was shocked when I saw the long list of writers because the movie has always felt very coherent to me, which is a tall order given that it spans multiple decades and locations.
In any event, in addition to Redford, playing the WASPy and entitled Hubbell Gardiner, and Streisand, playing the working class Jewish Katie Morosky, we also get Bradford Dillman as Hubbell’s best friend, JJ, and Lois Chiles as JJ’s love interest. The cast also includes a very young James Woods, Viveca Lindfors, Patrick O’Neil, the great character actor Herb Edelman, and many other familiar faces of that era.
The story opens in the late 1930s on the campus of an elite liberal arts college, where scholarship student Katie works multiple jobs, campaigns on behalf of socialist causes, including against Franco’s regime in Spain, and dreams of being a writer. Hubbell is the Big Man on campus and is also, annoyingly, a gifted writer. The two characters connect but are in such different worlds that it amounts to nothing more than a brief but lively conversation about politics, and a dance.
Years later, near the end of WWII, Katie and Hubbell cross paths again. By this time, Katie is working as a writer for a radio station in New York City, where she continues to push the envelope with the censors over political content. Dragged to a club one night, she encounters a very drunk Hubbell. She takes him home. He doesn’t remember anything in the morning, but they soon start a relationship that continues after the war.
They move out to Hollywood, where Hubbell is hired as a screenwriter on the strength of his one published but unsuccessful novel. But they become embroiled in the Hollywood blacklist era with Katie pushing to defend those who’ve been blacklisted and pushing Hubbell to take more of a principled stand.
Trying to rescue their marriage, they have a baby. But Hubbell has been unfaithful, and Katie has alienated all the producers who could have hired her as a writer. The marriage ends, with Katie returning to New York and Hubbell staying in Hollywood.
The final scene of the movie jumps forward another few years. Katie ishanding out Ban the Bomb leaflets outside the Plaza Hotel when Hubbell gets out of a cab. They have a tender reunion where we find out that Katie has remarried. Her psychiatrist husband, who is also Jewish, is raising Hubbell’s daughter. Hubbell has continued in Hollywood and stuck with women who weren’t his equal and who didn’t challenge him to be more than what was comfortable – Katie meets his latest ‘girl’. As viewers, we’re left with the message that that it couldn’t have turned out any other way.
But if we step back, as a reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter did way back in 1973, the movie is quite subversive. Hubbell is not an admirable character and Katie is given far more screen time to articulate the importance of politics, and morals, and the need to take a principled stand, than Hubbell’s screenwriting career is given.
The politics are explicit and every one of Katie’s critiques of her country – from the refusal to get involved in Spain, to the limitations of Roosevelt’s social policies, to the Hollywood blacklist era, to the military industrial complex driving the nuclear arms race – is portrayed as the correct position to have taken. And that to have had that much passion, to be that much of a non-conformist, has provided Katie with a much richer version of an American life than the conformist WASP crowd have. All of Hubbell’s people, like JJ, are wistful, regretful, and ultimately painfully mediocre.
With the hindsight possible in 1973, the Cold War is seen as a long haul, a struggle that has resulted in both domestic and foreign casualties. Katie’s passion can’t help but bring to mind the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, and Second Wave feminism. The Hollywood 10 plotline can’t help but be a contemporary critique of the overreach of Hoover’s FBI, and Nixon’s paranoia.
So let’s revisit our lies for this episode. The first and the second are tied together – in the focus on McCarthy as the nexus of the Red Scare, which really lets a lot of other people off the hook, from craven Hollywood executives, to Roosevelt, Truman, and many Democratic enablers. And, of course, average Americans who just don’t think it matters much because it’s not going to affect them.
If we track the attitude towards the worst excesses of the early Cold War, then, we can see that the monster communists, undetectable and without regard for human emotion – a la Body Snatchers – were replaced a decade later with the nightmare of American weak-willed decadence being manipulated by wily and scientifically advanced Chinese and Soviet cooperation – in the Manchurian Candidate.
And so it doesn’t end with McCarthy’s downfall, it limps along for the rest of the decade, and then finds a resurgence, in a way, in Nixon’s paranoia-fueled enemies list.
And that’s the America that watched The Way We Were. It was released just after it was announced that a peace agreement had finally been reached in Vietnam. This was 2 years after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed just how long the US had pursued a losing strategy in a lost war. And a film in which the complacent Hubbell just shrugs at Katie’s insistence that people are their principles, was released 4 days before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s Attorney General and Assistant AG resigned rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the prosecutor leading the investigation into Watergate.
So for the movie going audience, the sense of regret that permeates the film, was apt for the zeitgeist. As was Katie’s passion. And this brings us to lie #3 – that the story of history is always the story of progress – an inevitable march towards greater rights, greater justice, and greater freedom for everyone. It is particularly painful to point out that the strong-willed, uncompromising Katie Morosky hit the screen just months after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. So we can imagine many young women watching the film with a sense of optimism, that they could be a Katie, without compromise, no longer needing to play second fiddle in a country, or to a man, for whom things always came too easily.