Atomic Warfare and the Nuclear Family: Domestic Resistance in Hollywood Films about the A-Bomb

By Pressler, Michael | Film Criticism, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Atomic Warfare and the Nuclear Family: Domestic Resistance in Hollywood Films about the A-Bomb


Pressler, Michael, Film Criticism


"No one man was responsible," begins the opening roll-up of Above and Beyond, M-G-M's 1953 biopic of Paul Tibbets, thirty-year-old pilot of the Enola Gay. Still, the roll-up concludes, its words drifting above a picture-postcard view of the Capitol Building, "it is hoped that the story told here ... can serve to illumine the combined achievement of all."

Few viewers at the time would have objected to Hollywood's speaking of the bombing of Hiroshima as an achievement. In an August 1945 Gallup poll, when asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of the use of the atomic bomb?" 85 percent of Americans surveyed approved. Responding to another Gallup poll a month later, 69 percent considered it "a good thing" that the A-bomb had been developed. And in a study conducted in the summer of 1946 by the Social Research Council, when asked, "How worded are you about the atomic bomb?" 65 percent of the some three thousand adult Americans surveyed claimed that they were either not much worried or not worried at all. In polls through the early fifties, approval began tailing off and worries about nuclear warfare became more frequent, but on balance the positive attitude prevailed (Boyer 22-23).

Despite these statistics, however, academic wisdom has remained that cold-war America was more troubled about the A-bomb than it was willing to admit to pollsters--or even to itself. In a series of books stretching from Death in Life (1967) to Hiroshima: Fifty Years of Denial (with Greg Mitchell, 1995), Robert Jay Lifton has used the term "psychic numbing" to characterize our persistent national denial of anxieties about nuclear warfare, citing unrealistic but reassuring civil defense strategies such as duck-and-cover drills as an effort by the government to domesticate the fear. Social historian Paul Boyer, in his detailed study of the aftershock of Hiroshima, By the Bomb's Early Light (1985), similarly contends that "it would be wrong to conclude that Americans took the bomb casually or that its impact quickly faded. Just below the surface, powerful currents of anxiety and apprehension surged through the culture" (12). Though not unchallenged, this psychoanalytical assumption has been compatible with a major direction of film scholarship in the last two decades--an interest in what David Bordwell calls "symptomatic" or "repressed" interpretation, which seeks meanings in American movies outside the conscious control of their authors, yet revealing the ideological flaws and repressed anxieties of the culture which defines them and their audience.

To date, the most fertile field for uncovering artifacts of atomic paranoia in cold-war cinema has been the science-fiction genre. In her often-reprinted 1965 essay, "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag found in the cycle of science-fiction movies of the fifties evidence of "a mass trauma ... over the use of nuclear weapons." In Sontag's view, the mutant ants in the sewer systems of Los Angeles in Them! (1954), the giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), and the oversized spider in Tarantula (1955), as well as human mutations like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Amazing Colossal Man (both 1957)--all victims of atomic radiation--"bear witness to this trauma and, in a way, attempt to exorcise it" (218). Most film scholars following Sontag have agreed, while noting that many of these movies were equivocal in their view of atomic energy and the role of the military: the giant octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea, for example, is finally vanquished by an atomic torpedo; the Air Force is brought in to bomb the huge arachnid in Tarantula and the Amazing Colossal Man; and the government deploys an Army combat squad with flamethrowers to exterminate the overgrown ants in Them! (1)

In dramatizing conflicts in American culture, popular art can work in oblique and coded ways, and in retrospect it is difficult not to see in these "weirdies" from the fifties a veiled threat of fallout at home. …

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