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HUAC & Hollywood: Fightin’ the Commies in American Film

James Lewis Hoberman is an American film critic and author. He was born March 14, 1948 in New York City and earned his B.A. at Binghampton University and his M.F.A. at Columbia University. He continues to hold lectures on filmmaking at Harvard and New York University.

J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms documents the relationship of Hollywood and politics in the uneasy Cold War years from 1945 to 1956. Noting “the loss of a significant monopoly” as “the United States was no longer the world’s sole nuclear power”, Hoberman effectively details the resulting public paranoia and fear of Communism and its effects on American film1. In an analytical and highly detailed account of politics and world events, and the responses of Hollywood to those changes, he pieces together the dramatic history of social media in the tense years of midcentury America. Hoberman’s book is divided into five chapters, chronologically advancing through the 40’s and 50’s and analyzing the new challenges that faced Hollywood throughout the time period.

The first section of the book deals with post World War II America and the major challenges that Hollywood faced in enduring strikes and renouncing former movies that praised the Soviet Union and incited fear of Communist infiltration. One movie, Cloak and Dagger, merges World War II and Cold War concerns. In addition, Hoberman also explores the various reactions of people to the relatively new atomic bomb and the impact of them on American film. Most importantly, Hoberman pays much attention to the close scrutiny of HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) on the activities of Hollywood in 1947, noting how “HUAC [was] planning to serve thirty subpoenas to those screenwriters…responsible for movies that glorified Communism.”2 In addition, he also analyzes the reactions of many against the investigations, believing them to signal America’s turn towards fascism. Some who opposed the HUAC investigations form the Committee for the First Amendment, supporting the Hollywood Ten and protesting the HUAC hearings in Washington D.C. Hoberman notes that Hollywood did submit to authority and began churning out anti-Communist films such as The Red Danube and The Iron Curtain. Antifascism was still prevalent in America, strengthened by films such as Crossfire, which asserted that the nation was still in danger of fascist influence. Meanwhile, he discusses the numerous sightings of UFO’s in the time period which contributed to the paranoia of the American public of an alien invasion – particularly Communists. The myriad of events discussed in this section set the foundation and tone for the subsequent chapters of the book, highlighting the confusion and disorientation that Americans felt in the years immediately following World War II.

Hoberman then focuses on attempts to preserve American liberties and values from the vices of Communism in the midst of the 1948 elections. He continues discussing the perceived influence of the Communists on Hollywood and the measures that Hollywood took to strengthen its anti-Communist stance, including the production of The Iron Curtain. Hoberman focuses on the turbulent era of the late 1940s, which were marked by key events such as the Berlin Crisis and fall of China to Communism. Incorporating important internal events such as the Alger-Hiss trials and the investigations of the HUAC in the Truman administration, Hoberman validates the reasons of the increased opposition of Hollywood to Communist ideas. He describes how more Hollywood movies instilled fear in the American public, especially The Red Menace, which “[did] more to arouse the public to the dangers of communism than any other picture ever made.”3 Noting the importance of public opinion on American security, he analyzes how the government instills paranoia throughout the American public. Hoberman focuses extensively on various films that expressed different attitudes in society, from Fort Apache which combined 19th century Indian conflict with World War II combat film, to All the King’s Men, which exposed the corrupting nature of power. It was during this time that John Wayne came to social prominence with his Sands of Iwo Jima and Elia Kazan experiences a breathrough with his Panic in the Streets. Some movies in this era were characterized by dark, pessimistic themes, such as The Plague, also directed by Elia Kazan. In addition, he notes the degeneration of Hollywood, which is “‘like Egypt. Full of crumbling pyramids.’”4 Hoberman also discusses movie trends as World War II movies gained prominence in late 1949, because they appealed to the ordinary soldier and the pursuit of individual triumph.

The third chapter of the book focuses on the Korean War and fear of hostile alien invasion. Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves, continues the tradition of Fort Apache, and Rio Grande premiers with stunning results. He mentions how studio savants and others could take advantage of the Korean War to save movies from the new television, whose production would be halted for the duration of the war. Meanwhile, Hoberman focuses on the demoralizing effects of fighting a fearless war; indeed, One Minute to Zero was delayed because the Korean War began losing support from the American public. Some films have been made on the Korean War, including Retreat, Hell! that documented the war from the Incheon landings to the Chinese counterattack. He continues to produce examples of anticommunist sentiment in Hollywood; Walk East on Beacon depicts spies as “ruthless, efficient, fanatical true believers in the guise of ordinary Americans.”5 Referring again to the theme of extraterrestrial invasion, Hoberman mentions films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which depicts an alien visitor to the United States. Hoberman also traces the growing religiosity of Americans as they came to deprecate “a civilization built upon the godless theory that man himself has no value.”6 In addition, he also discusses the development of the Western as a uniquely American genre of film, a struggle between good and evil. Some famous examples incude The Virginian and Springfield Rifle, which starred Cooper in 1952. Focusing especially on the film High Noon, Hoberman analyzes the various reactions to that movie, from John Wayne’s deprecation of the movie as “un-American” to Eisenhower’s earnest praise.    

The fourth and fifth chapters of the book document the Paxamericana under the Eisenhower administration and the desire for progress. Molding these two chapters around the policies of Eisenhower, Hoberman reflects on the Christianization of America under his rule, mentioning films such as Samson and Delilah that allude to Christian themes in the 1950’s. One famous example is Quo Vadis, which premiered on November 8, 1951 and depicted Rome under the rule of Nero. Anticommunist hysteria was aroused once again as Senator McCarthy rose to power and the Rosenbergs were convicted of supplying atomic secrets to the Soviets. Reflecting on the McCarthy-style anti-Communism is Pickup on South Street, directed by Samuel Fuller; meanwhile, the fear of extraterrestrial invasion is manifested in the film Invaders from Mars, directed by production designer William Cameron. Marilyn Monroe ascended the social ladder to prominence as she performs for soldiers stationed in Korea. Moreover, Hoberman focuses on the theme of total war in film now that the Korean War was over, with information “controlled by the military in accordance with ‘national security’.”7 Another example of the war motif is Strategic Air Command, which documented the new B-47 bomber. Nuclear power still remained a major issue, depicted in Warner Bros.’s Them! in 1954. Hoberman also pays close attention to the youth counterculture movement that began in the mid-1950s, encouraged by films such as Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause starring James Dean. In addition, he connects Eisenhower’s highway program with the theme of travel in media; some examples are On the Road and The Americans.

Hoberman primarily strives to provide the reader with an extensive history of American film in the 1940s to 1950s, but he does seem to uphold the importance of free speech and American liberties even in times of national crisis. He writes in the epilogue that “Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg were at work on a warning”, not about nuclear weaponry or alien invasions, but about “the power of the American mass media and the fate of American democracy.”8 Focusing on the delicate balance between freedom of speech and possible Communist influence in the movie industry, Hoberman emphasizes the effects of public paranoia and the apparent paradox of HUAC ironically conducting investigations in ways that themselves are un-American.

As a film critic, Hoberman uses his profession to analyze the content and impact of the numerous films that he refers to in his book. His lifelong interest in film and experience as senior film critic of The Village Choice allows him to effectively approach the topic with the vigor and scholarly enthusiasm that permeates this book. In addition, his critiquing skills also allow him to judge the effects of Hollywood films on American democracy; though his observations are mostly objective, he seems to favor films that emphasize preserving democracy and deprecate the intense conformity present in the Cold War era. Hoberman also seems to display an interest in Cold War-era film, as he has written two other books on the time period. Moreover, while Hoberman wrote this book, America was dealing with possible internal terrorist threats, and the anti-Islam sentiment prevalent in American media during the mid 2000s may have prompted Hoberman to parallel this situation with the anti-Communism in American film in the midcentury.

An Army of Phantoms has received praise from many professional critics. Akiva Gottlieb praises Hoberman for his “engagement with multiple contradictory readings of major films” as well as his engaging analysis of even the most obscure projects.9 However, he does issue a disclaimer noting that Army of Phantoms packs so many historical facts that it may be difficult to follow. In addition, he criticizes Hoberman’s excessive use of exclamation points that “too cheekily underscores the intersection of pageantry and paranoia.”10 Another critic, Anthony Paletta, focuses on the content of Army of Phantoms and praises the “many fantastic vignettes about the intertwining of politics and the movie industry.”11 He takes note of Hoberman’s attention to the ideological policing of the Hollywood Communists and his vivid descriptions of movie making and policy in the tense era of the 1950’s.

Hoberman’s power stems from his vivid imagery and reveals his passion for film in this book. Presenting detailed analyses on many films in the era, as famous or obscure as they are, Hoberman allows the reader to explore the various genres of filmmaking and how each film related to the Communist hysteria in the United States. Moreover, Hoberman’s incorporation of the ongoing political events in each chapter helps establish the context and mood for the films made in those time periods. A surprising aspect of the book is Hoberman’s open favoritism towards a particular film; in one instance, he asserts that “Better than before, High Noon made a case for the Western as America civil religion…”12. Although he hints at his personal preferences, Hoberman nevertheless presents a mostly objective overview of Hollywood’s influence on the public and enables the readers to evaluate the impact of the various films for themselves. In addition, the organization of the book contributes to its effectiveness; each of the five chapters refers to a specific time period, each with its own distinct flavor. By allocating American film history to different time periods, Hoberman effectively traces the changing public attitude with the advent of each significant event in American history. If there is one drawback, however, it would be the somewhat reckless mashing of historical events and movies that makes the book quite difficult to follow. For example, Hoberman writes, “Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson…breaks the story of the Ottawa spy ring. Four days later as if on cue, Stalin declares that war between Communism and capitalism is inevitable…Winston Churchill makes his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in St. Louis.”13 By mentioning facts in rapid succession, followed by a quick transition to his explanation of movie history, Hoberman may somewhat obscure his message and confuse the readers. This drawback, however, is minor and largely eclipsed by the strength of his in-depth analysis and prose. The book still does a stellar job of documenting the advance American cinema and tying the media to its social circumstances.

American film in the 1950’s carries with it an essence that makes it uniquely American. Movies such as Quo Vadis display typical American attitudes toward subjugation by larger, formidable powers (a nod to the Truman Doctrine which protected Greece and Turkey from being taken over by the Soviet Union). Meanwhile, Rebel Without a Cause celebrates teenage rebelliousness and protest against the conformity and materialism of midcentury America, paving the way for the later cultural revolutions of the 1960’s. Indeed, Hoberman writes in his book that “teenagers made Rebel Without a Cause, but Rebel Without a Cause also defined teenagers.”14 The liberal values the movie espouses represent all that is American: restless, innovative, and independent. American film has also had its influence in the world; Westerns were played extensively in Europe, allowing the people there to perceive the liberties and uniqueness of American culture. By marketing to the Europeans through film, America was able to spread its influence overseas and also protect the area from Communist expansion.

The book celebrates the development of American film even as Hollywood went under considerable pressure from HUAC and other anti-Communists. A highly analytical documentary of the proliferation of American culture and media, An Army of Phantoms traces the history of Hollywood and compiles a copious amount of information on the various people and factors that ultimately contributed to “the convulsive cultural revolution that would reach its climax” in the 1960’s.15

1. Hoberman, J. An Army of Phantoms. The New Press, 2011. xv.
2. Hoberman, J. 42.
3. Hoberman, J. 93
4. Hoberman, J. 119
5. Hoberman, J. 197
6. Hoberman, J. 200
7. Hoberman, J. 277
8. Hoberman, J. 330
9. Gottlieb, Akiva. "An Army of Phantoms: Wildly Entertaining Cold War Retrospective." - The National. 29 July 2011. Web. 04 June 2012.
10. Gottlieb, Akiva
11. Paletta, Anthony. "Shadow Fights -." NRO. National Review Online, 02 May 2011. Web. 04 June 2012.
12. Hoberman, J. 215
13. Hoberman, J. 23
14. Hoberman, J. 327
15. Hoberman, J. 329