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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Atomic Scientists and a Hollywood 'Bomb'

And now a second free excerpt from my new e-book, Hollywood Bomb:  The Unmaking of the 'The Most Important Movie' Ever Made.   The book tells the wild tale of how MGM set out in 1945 to make the first epic about the making and use of the atomic bomb against Japan,  intending to warn about nuclear dangers--inspired by scientists who had worked on The Bomb.  But soon, under pressure from the military and the White House, the movie's script switched to glorifying the new weapon.

Many of the scientists impersonated in the film expressed concerns, but nearly all signed releases.  The scientists were willing to sacrifice accuracy "if the story of the atomic crisis is gotten across well," as one of them commented.  But James B. Conant, a key member of the official advisory panel on using the bomb against Japan,  was so cool to the idea that his dialogue was cut completely.  Vannevar Bush at first refused to signed the release, citing inaccuracies—the script had him raising doubts about whether the bomb would fit on a plane and would be completed on time--although it seems that he was most concerned that the script did not give him sufficient credit for selling the bomb project to President Roosevelt.

Bush contacted the White House to find out if Truman "approved" the picture, since the film would “fix a pattern of history in the minds of the American people” and so “ought to be as accurate as possible.”  In a rather disingenuous reply, Charles Ross replied that the White House neither approved nor disapproved the film, and simply had asked for changes about how his boss was portrayed on screen.  Ross insisted that Truman "did not want to seem to be persuading anybody" to sign a release.  Bush ultimately did give his consent; and in the finished film, he indeed received full credit for selling the need to invent the bomb to Roosevelt-- no small thing.

Friends of Robert Oppenheimer were already alarmed that he was exhibiting extreme signs of grief and depression over his role in creating the new weapon.   But he went along with the pro-Bomb changes in the film’s message rather meekly, perhaps pleased with his key role as narrator of the picture (via Hume Cronyn).   Oppenheimer and his wife both told Sam Marx early on that the film contained many factual errors and flaws of characterization.    He said that the script was “not bad generally” but protested that the film's characters lacked "purpose or insight.”  Well, it did omit that famous Oppenheimer line  he supposedly uttered after witnessing the Trinity test,  from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Marx on April 2, 1946, replied: “the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer must be an extremely pleasant one with a love of mankind, humility and a pretty fair knack of cooking.”  Cronyn advised Oppenheimer, “I gather that simplicity, warmth and complete lack of affectation are essential to your character.” 

The waiver signed by Oppenheimer (and probably others) read: “I understand that although you will attempt to show the historical facts with accuracy, you will however have to dramatize your motion picture story, and I have no objection thereto, and you may rely on my personal irrevocable consent to proceed.”  When another scientist asked why in the world he had signed a release, Oppenheimer replied that the picture would be portraying them as “ordinary decent guys, that they worried like hell about the bomb, that it presents a major issue of good and evil to the people of the world.”  The screenplay he admitted was not “beautiful, wise, or deep” but “it did not lie in my power to make it so.”

Oppenheimer  paid a visit to the set in Hollywood one day during shooting. Watching from the camera boom, the lanky Oppenheimer doffed his trademark pork pie hat to Hume Cronyn, the smallish actor playing him in the movie--then sailed the hat to him, shouting, "Hello, Oppie!"

The Hollywoodization of the bomb had truly begun.

Leo Szilard, who had mounted a last-minute protest among the scientists  to halt Truman from using the new weapon they had created against people, also came to Hollywood and even wrote a new scene, which featured himself, of course.  Szilard had written to a friend that dropping the bomb was “one of the greatest blunders of history” but signed a release for a film that would impart quite a different message.  Perhaps he had just lost heart.  The U.S. was already setting off spectacular bomb tests near Bikini in the Pacific.

Louis B. Mayer personally assured Albert Einstein that "dramatic truth" was "just as compelling a requirement" for the film-makers as "veritable truth" was for the scientists. This should have raised more doubts than it quieted, but Einstein, pushed by Szilard, signed the release anyway. (Niels Bohr was one of the few famed scientists who refused permission, and threatened to sue the studio if his wishes were ignored.  Lise Meitner also held out, even though fine actress Agnes Moorhead was set to play her.)

When three well-known scientists raised other concerns, Sam Marx re-assured them by pointing out that John Hersey’s historic and very popular article (later a book) in The New Yorker on the aftermath of the bombing in Hiroshima “is making many readers feel that the creators of the atomic bomb are the world’s greatest war criminals.”  Therefore “it should be a relief to many scientists that a motion picture of this magnitude is on its way, hailing their achievement as the most magnificent triumph of modern times.”  Of course, the scientists who had inspired the film at the start believed no such thing (or at least felt deeply conflicted about it).

Truman, for his part, refused—or in any case, failed—to read any of Hersey’s article.

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