If you've ever seen the movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold based on John le Carré's famous spy thriller novel, you'll remember the movie's central character. Played by Richard Burton, Alec Leamas is a British spy coaxed out of retirement.
If so, you'll remember this unforgettable quote by Leamas
What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?
Even as his cynicism and self-loathing comes through quite clearly, notice the explicit references to political ideology by Leamas - something so evident in movies and literature during the several decades of the East-West Cold War.
The Berlin Wall, which features prominently in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was perhaps the most important symbol of the Cold War. The two ideological worlds it represented are captured in this excellent article in the The London Review of Books. The author describes the somewhat benign environment that existed before the Wall was built in 1961
For me, it was different. I had first seen Berlin in the 1950s, when it was divided, but only by ideology, and when one could still walk incredulously between two worlds. Here were the lights and the cars and the shops. Then the notice: 'You Are Now Leaving the American Sector.' And then suddenly the lights became darkness, the streets were deserted, the ruins were masked by gigantic red banners stirring in the icy wind from the east. When you had looked enough, you could walk back again, passing half-hidden sentries who scowled but did not challenge, until on the next street corner the other world welcomed you with a hiss of traffic, a dazzle of shopfronts, a gust of frying currywurst and chips.
Peter Sellers played three roles - Dr. Strangelove, President Merkin Muffley and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake - in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Movies like this and Fail Safe spurred the U.S. military to do some strange things
Nuclear Armageddon has always had its funny side. But the US military wasn't laughing in the early 1960s as Americans, freshly shaken by the Cuban missile crisis, lapped up Stanley Kubrick's classic satire, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
The film – which portrays a psychotic air force general who sets in chain the nuclear obliteration of the Soviet Union – was one of a spate of popular novels and films about accidental atomic war which had the US air force worried that some viewers might believe it all possible.
So in an attempt to persuade Americans that there was no chance of some rogue general or crosswired computer unleashing an atomic war, Strategic Air Command (SAC) went into the film business itself.
He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
-- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
When did the Cold War capture the imagination of Hollywood? The London Observer provides this summary
The Cold War hit the movies in 1947 when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) descended on Hollywood armed with the names of leading film folk suspected of being communists or left-wing sympathizers.
Over the next decade a succession of films, some bordering on hysteria, exposed communist subversion on the domestic front. There were also numerous pictures about Cold War confrontations abroad.
The Cold War that so preoccupied Hollywood had relatively little direct effect on the cinemas of other countries... Then, as virulently anti-communist pictures did poorly at the box office, Hollywood began to take a more sophisticated view of the Cold War.
The Cold War also provided the ironic context for espionage movies that took a jaundiced view of both sides, films such as "The Ipcress File" (1965) and "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" (1966), made by Americans but based on British novels. The James Bond movies, unlike Ian Fleming's novels, deliberately dispensed with SMERSH, the Russian terrorist organization, and made 007's enemies apolitical megalomaniacs.
The key Cold War pictures of the 1960s, and among the best of the decade, are "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) and "Dr. Strangelove" (1963), both mordant political satires.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood movies took the view that only a few renegades threatened world peace and that men of goodwill on both sides could work together.
Alec Guiness played the memorable character of George Smiley, a British intelligence officer, in John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
When first broadcast in September 1979, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was greeted with opposing voices as "turgid, obscure, and pretentious" or as "a great success." It is in keeping with the ambiguous nature of John Le Carré's narratives that one can simultaneously agree with both formulations without contradiction...
At the symbolic level, however, the portrayal of the workings of bureaucracy is authentic: bureaucracies serve those who govern by gathering, processing and controlling access to information. In a world increasingly governed by means of information, those who control it have power and wealth, so that the resonance of Le Carré's story will carry beyond the cold war setting that is its point of departure.
Peter Guillam: So Karla's fireproof. He can't be bought, and he can't be beaten.
George Smiley: Not fireproof! Because's a fanatic! I may have acted like a soft dolt, the very archetype of a flabby Western liberal but I'd rather be my kind of fool than his. One day that lack of moderation will be Karla's downfall.
-- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Laurence Harvey played the character of Sgt. Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate. Shaw is an American soldier captured during the Korean War who is brainwashed and trained by the Soviets to become a killer
It has been decided that you will be dressed as a priest, to help you get away in the pandemonium afterwards. Chunjin will give you a two-piece Soviet Army sniper's rifle that fits nicely into a special bag. You are to shoot the presidential nominee through the head... I want the nominee to be dead two minutes after he begins his acceptance speech - depending on his reading time under pressure. You are to hit him right at the point that he finishes the phrase, "Nor would I ask of any fellow American in defense of his freedom that which I would not gladly give myself - my life before my liberty." Is that absolutely clear?
-- The Manchurian Candidate
The movies I've selected represent several themes: espionage, nuclear war, fictional conflict between the US-USSR, domestic politics, stress during war, and the effect the Cold War had on everyday American life.
A brief summary of the movies on the diary poll
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Richard Burton and Claire Bloom) - a story of espionage, disillusionment, and betrayal set in East Germany.
The Manchurian Candidate (Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Frank Sinatra, and Angela Lansbury) - a thriller which involves the capture and brainwashing of an American soldier during the Korean War who is then sent back to the United States to kill.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Keenan Wynn) - a political satire about nuclear war and the military doctrine of M.A.D or, Mutual Assured Destruction.
Seven Days in May (Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) - a movie in which a US President signs an agreement with the Soviet Union and the domestic opposition it engenders.
From Russia With Love (Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendáriz, and Lotte Lenya) - the second of the James Bond movies (after Dr. No) and widely considered to be among the best of this series.
The Day After (Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg) - the effects of nuclear holocaust on a small American town.
Apocalypse Now (Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Harrison Ford) - perhaps the best movie made about the Vietnam War, it is described as a "journey into the darkness of the human psyche."
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alec Guinness, Bernard Hepton, Terence Rigby, and Michael Aldridge) - inspired by the exploits of "British Intelligence officers, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, as double agents in the employ of the KGB."
The Deer Hunter (Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, Christoper Walken, and John Savage - the emotional scars left by the Vietnam War on a group of men in a small Pennsylvania town.
Fail Safe (Henry Fonda, Dan O'Herlihy, and Walter Matthau) - an American president tries to resolve a nuclear crisis during the height of the Cold War.
Guilty By Suspicion (Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, and George Wendt) - covers the period of the Hollywood Blacklist during one of the most disgraceful periods in American politics - the McCarthy Era.
Goldfinger (Sean Connery and Honor Blackman) - the third of the Bond films in which Agent 007 foils a plot to prevent the blowup of Fort Knox.
On the Beach (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, and Fred Astaire) - based on a novel by Nevil Shute, the residents of Australia after a global nuclear war must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months.
Platoon (Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, and Forest Whitaker) - set during the Vietnam War, the movie is an account of a young recruit in Vietnam who "faces a moral crisis when confronted with the horrors of war and the duality of man."
What make movies from a particular era interesting is how deeply they affected the national psyche and how much they permeated our popular culture. The Cold War movies were a reflection of the ideological tensions that existed between the West and East blocs from the mid-1940's to the early 1990's. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the Cold War was finally (and thankfully) over. The dominant ideological struggle of the post-World War II era had - to quote poet and author T.S. Eliot - ended "not with a bang but a whimper."
But not before it left us with some indelible images and unforgettable characters on the big screen.
Remember to take the poll too. And add your recollection of movies that I may have missed and not mentioned in this diary.
Crossposted at Docudharma
I first posted a version of this diary almost three years ago in 2007