News / USA

Cold War Films Reflected Shifting US Attitudes

US-Soviet antagonism played out in movies

Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in 1990's "The Hunt for Red October," which did not portray the Soviets as caricatures.
Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in 1990's "The Hunt for Red October," which did not portray the Soviets as caricatures.
Penelope Poulou

In 1946 speech, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the physical and symbolic wall separating East and West across Europe. Churchill's speech signaled the beginning of the Cold War.

It ended 20 years ago, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, during the Cold War, American films reflected the changing mood of the United States towards the USSR.

Few movies have captured the history of early Communist Russia as well as David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago.” The film was an epic love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the wife of a communist leader. But it was also a bleak treatise on communist Russia.

Peter Rollberg, professor of film studies at George Washington University, says David Lean’s human treatment of Russians in "Doctor Zhivago" was the exception rather than the rule in Cold War films. “The Cold War created a field of tension that made for well-motivated good stories."

Some of these films, such as “The Manchurian Candidate,” explored the Communist threat on American soil. In the film, war hero Raymond Shaw is brainwashed into assassinating the president of the United States.

At the time, Rollberg says, the film served as a warning to Americans. “The possibility of brainwashing, of the total manipulation of human beings, who will carry out whatever you charge them with, that was a warning that went beyond just the actual political situation. It meant, ‘society beware.'”

Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove" was released in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis. A demented American Air Force general orders an unwarranted nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The political satire reflected the nationwide terror of the nuclear holocaust.

The 1966 film “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” makes fun of the uncontrolled panic about the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the James Bond films gave espionage a Hollywood twist. Her majesty’s spy, 007, was a debonair playboy while the enemy was a fearless killing machine.  

In the 1970s, films took a more conciliatory approach towards the Soviet Union, reflecting the era of détente. Two production companies, one American and one Soviet, worked together to produce the 1975 fantasy, “The Blue Bird," starring Elizabeth Taylor.

But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s election as president the following year marked the end of détente.

Anti-Soviet rhetoric in film made a comeback. In the film "Rocky IV," the US-Soviet antagonism is reduced to the lowest common denominator - blood and brawn.

Rocky, played by Silvester Stalone, delivers the knock-out punch.

Soviet defections were also a popular theme in 1980s American filmography.  In “Moscow on the Hudson,” Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian  musician played by Robin Williams, arrives in New York with a visiting circus troupe.

He defects in Bloomingdale’s, an icon of capitalism.  

The attitude toward the Soviets changes again in the 1990 action film, “The Hunt for Red October,” made as the Soviet Union was in collapse. Sean Connery, as a Soviet submarine captain, turns his nuclear vessel towards American waters. The Americans need to decide whether he intends to defect or attack.     

The Soviet captain is no longer a caricature; he's an intelligent human being.

Rollberg says the US audience had varied reactions to Cold War films. "On the commercial level, for many audiences, just as entertainment. On a more intellectual level, just looking at the consequences, and in a way at us, at humanity and what we are capable of.”

Robert Altman's film "Ready to Wear," showcases a post-Soviet Moscow as a fashionable place where people live life open to the world and all its possibilities.

You May Like

Video Egyptian Journalists Call for Press Freedom

Despite release of al-Jazeera journalists and others, Egyptian Journalist Syndicate says some remain imprisoned More

Turkey Survey Indicates Traditional Distrusts, Shift to the West

Comprehensive public opinion survey also found a large majority of those interviewed distrust all countries other than country’s neighbor, Azerbaijan More

Pakistan Court Upholds Death Sentence in Blasphemy Killing

Highest court upholds sentence of Mumtaz Qadri convicted of 2011 killing a provincial governor for criticizing country’s controversial blasphemy law More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs