For over 30 years, J. Hoberman’s writing has been a fixture of New York film criticism. The senior film critic at the Village Voice since 1988, he is also the author of several influential books, including a definitive volume on the works of Jack Smith and Midnight Movies, with Jonathan Rosenbaum. His newest book, An Army of Phantoms, is a prequel to 2003’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, and together with a forthcoming volume on the Reagan years, they form a trilogy on the “dream life” of American mass media during the Cold War. Spanning 1946 to 1956, An Army of Phantoms examines the close collusion of politics and pop culture in an age of Martian invasions, mind control, and un-American activities.
Events: BAMCinématek’s series, “J. Hoberman: An Army of Phantoms,” runs through March 28. Hoberman will be reading excerpts from the book as part of True Story: The KGB Nonfiction Reading Series on March 22 at KGB Bar and will introduce a screening of Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) at 92YTribeca as part of the Not Coming to a Theater Near You series on April 23.
Existential rebel in his black leather jacket or soulless conformist of the gray flannel suit? Split Hadleyville or defend Fort Apache? As Norman Mailer will write 16 months hence in “The White Negro,” “One is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of America.”
President Eisenhower had barely been released from Walter Reed hospital in November 1955 when, addressing the American Booksellers Convention, independent producer Walter Wanger characterizes his new, still-unreleased, and luridly titled picture as a warning on the menace of conformity. Invasion of the Body Snatchers shows “how easy it is for people to be taken over and to lose their souls if they are not alert and determined in their character to be free.” The celebrated famous B-movie allegory of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers gave the scenario of extraterrestrial conquest an additionally topical twist. Drifting down from the sky, seedpods from outer space replicate human beings. As they sleep, people are replaced with perfect, emotion-free, vegetable doubles—Earth successfully colonized by the robotic asexual other-directed drones of a harmoniously single-minded mass society!
After a near-decade of cold war, Americans were used to the subversion scenario and familiar with its science fiction analogues. Invaders from Mars had opened in New York only three weeks before the Rosenbergs were executed—both it and Invasion a demonstration of what the Communists like to call thought control. Indeed, beginning in February 1952 and continuing intermittently through March 1953, the North Koreans released a series of recorded confessions by captured U.S. servicemen. Several Air Force lieutenants, a colonel, and even a general admitted to using germ warfare against the Korean people and turned their ire against the capitalist system. These statements were assumed to have been forced (many were in fact scripted by the British Communist reporter Alan Winnington and his Australian associate Wilfred Burchett). But the war’s end brought a shocking development: twenty-one American soldiers refused repatriation.
The aliens were no longer among us. Suddenly, the aliens were us—mass identity crisis! What, save the presence of a coercive Big Brother, distinguished Davy Crockett’s youthful fans from the uniformed Young Pioneers of the Soviet Union? Perhaps the most insulting aspect of John Fischer’s attack on the Crockett craze was his suggestion that America’s coonskin-capped kids had been brainwashed—the exact term coined two years into the Korean War to account for the mystifying behavior of the American prisoners who confessed to imaginary war crimes and praised the Communist system.
Mid-November 1953, around the time a CIA prankster spiked the cocktails served at a three-day work retreat with LSD-25, MGM production head Dore Schary dispatched old friend and veteran screenwriter Allen Rivkin to interview the first returning POWs and work up a script. By December, a few weeks before The Wild One opened, Andrew Marton was shooting what was hyped as the most quickly developed project in MGM history.
Prisoner of War was quickly released, disowned by the Pentagon, in the middle of the Army-McCarthy hearings, a day after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and a day before the New York Times Magazine published Dutch psychiatrist Joost Meerloo’s article on behavioral modification. Not altogether helpfully, “Pavlov’s Dog and Communist Brainwashers” warned that “intervention into free thinking and free mental development does not occur only on the other side of the Iron Curtain.”
Given his most serious role since he played a crusading DA in Storm Warning, Ronald Reagan starred as an army intelligence officer airlifted behind enemy lines to join a forced march of captured American soldiers. His assignment, as an undercover POW, was to document Communist violations of the Geneva Convention. Prisoner of War presented itself as a scoop—although that’s not how it was received. The New York Times thought the movie “only rings faintly of the horrible truth . . . uninspired fare, whose shocks appear superficial and hastily contrived.” The Daily Worker, not quite as dismissive, called upon “patriotic Americans and particularly the parents of Army-age sons” to “demand that Congress investigate why MGM released this fraudulent, war-whooping film which is an affront to the nation and even outraged the Pentagon.”
Indeed, Prisoner of War almost seemed a demented rehash of Hollywood’s internal struggle. (Hadn’t the star himself found brainwashing in the industry? “Lots of people in our community don’t realize that their thinking is dictated, in that it was implanted by the Communists a few years ago. Their minds need reconditioning,” Reagan told the press in 1952.) The POW camp is a Stalinist nightmare, administered by a hammy comic-opera Russian (Oskar Homolka, the lovable Maxim Litvinov of Mission to Moscow), wagging his eyebrows and puffing evilly on a cigarette holder as his prisoners maintain their spirits with a doggerel chant that might have been written by the father in My Son John, proclaiming Uncle Sam’s superiority to Uncle Joe.
All confessions are filmed—when Reagan’s is shown, the POWs riot and trash the 16mm projector. In the end, the worst “collaborators” turn out to be actors fooling the Reds, while, despite the emphasis on physical torture, the Communists (like the filmmakers) understand that the most effective atrocity is the liquidation of a POW’s pet dog.
This excerpt originally appeared in An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman. Copyright © 2011 by J. Hoberman. Published by The New Press. www.thenewpress.com. Reprinted here with permission.