An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, by J. Hoberman, The New Press, 432 pp., $29.95
In 1946, an FBI informant in Hollywood warned his superiors of two productions that reeked of communistic propaganda. One was a war-vet drama that associated criticism of Russia with “anti-Semitism, Jim Crowism [and] Ku Klux Klanism.” The other was a Christmas fable that featured a “demeaning” portrayal of bankers. These threats to the American way? William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
And so it was that at the onset of the Cold War, a movie was never just a movie. Each production was a pawn in a global struggle, enlisted and armed to penetrate the public consciousness. J. Hoberman’s new book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, tells the story of that febrile period in our national life, from the end of World War II to the reelection of Dwight Eisenhower. Between those bookends were the fall of China, the H-bomb, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and the rise of suburbia. But that wasn’t all Americans saw. Laconic cowboys, marauding private eyes, dastardly spies, aliens from outer space, and troubled delinquents were appearing on movie screens every night. Those images and what they tell us about Americans’ private yearnings and public fears are the subject of Hoberman’s new book.
“If one movie is a manufactured fantasy,” Hoberman writes, a decade’s worth is a “stream of consciousness that insinuates itself into a shared national narrative.” As film critic for the Village Voice since the 1980s, Hoberman has been our finest interpreter of that stream of consciousness. In The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003), to which An Army of Phantoms serves as a prequel, Hoberman wrote, “A movie is an idea that accumulates meaning as it is conceived, produced, exhibited, and reviewed.” The communal experience shapes who we are: “Enthralled by a common illusion, a populace might well believe itself to be a nation.”
An Army of Phantoms proceeds with the briskness (and, at times, the bombast) of a “March of Time” newsreel. Hoberman ticks off major events on the world stage and holds up the celluloid mirror. “Friday morning, September 23, 1949, one day after The Red Danube opened in San Francisco,” reads one typical passage, “President Harry S. Truman dropped a bomb: America’s nuclear monopoly was over. The Soviet Union had detonated an atomic device.”
But Hoberman isn’t offering an objective chronicle of the era. In its idiosyncratic choices of movies to highlight, the book emerges as a strikingly personal work. Hoberman opens with an appreciation of MGM’s The Next Voice You Hear (1950), a now-forgotten high-concept fantasy: for six straight nights, God commandeers the airwaves to talk to the American people. A young Hoberman wrote of the film in his journal, 20 years after its original release, “The heaviest film Hollywood ever made.” It’s not a stretch to think that the movie’s vision of the nation as an audience may well have played a formative role in his evolution as a critic.
An Army of Phantoms hits its stride with its discussion of familiar classics. Of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which emotionless pod people replace humans, Hoberman writes that it struck a nerve on both left and right—it was “either a drama of Communist subversion or a parable of suburban conformity.” In Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, “the most sadistic shamus in crime fiction,” he saw the pop cultural analog to Joe McCarthy’s two-fisted anti-Communist illiberalism—and the precursor to Dirty Harry.
Hoberman is particularly astute on the Western, the genre that “had become the way America explained itself to itself.” Writing about High Noon, which, says Hoberman, has been the most screened movie at the White House, he argues, “Better than any movie before or since, High Noon made the case for the Western as . . . the expression of the nation’s existential identity.” Some (like John Wayne) found it unpatriotic, with its image of Gary Cooper’s sheriff tossing his star to the dirt after defeating his enemies. Others saw him as a metaphor for a lonely America, confronting the Communist threat by himself while the townspeople skittered behind shadows. Still others saw a critique of conformity, a growing obsession among intellectuals of the time.
Hoberman tells the story not just of what’s on the screen but of what played out behind it. The invasion of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) provides him with a metaphor for the Red hysteria that gripped the country. As the government tightened its screws, pressing Hollywood to purge the Reds in its midst, film studios blacklisted unfriendly witnesses and suspected fellow travelers. The self-policing had tragic consequences—careers were ruined—and reached absurd lows: In its review of RKO’s I Married a Communist (1949), industry bible Variety harrumphed, “It makes no contribution towards combating the Commie menace but shapes up as okay entertainment nonetheless.”
The assumption behind the huac rampage is critical: popular culture can, in fact, contaminate the bloodstream of a populace. That assumption still holds sway. Witness the debates that flare up over today’s movies: Is Avatar anti-American? Is Chronicles of Narnia anti-Christian? Does Hollywood have a gay agenda? In the battle over the meaning of America, armies of phantoms are perpetually on the march.