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Friday, May 10, 2013

Two More Hollywood Bombs

And now a third 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.  Despite, or perhaps because of, that, the film "bombed" at the box office,  and only two movies from Hollywood since have taken up the subject. 

After the box office failure of The Beginning or the End, there would not be another Hiroshima-related movie for more than six years, and it would borrow from the previous film in the most literal fashion. Once again MGM would be its sponsor. Above and Beyond explored the story of Hiroshima from the perspective of Paul Tibbets (played by Robert Taylor).  To show the blast effects of the bomb the producers simply inserted footage from the previous film. This saved MGM money but did little to expand the audience's awareness of what an atomic weapon could do.

The idea of the movie came from a close associate of General Curtis LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command.   Tibbets was a paid consultant.   In a key scene, Tibbets, after releasing the Hiroshima bomb and surveying a city on fire, radios in a strike report.  “Results good,” he says.  Then he repeats it, with grim irony.

But this was not in the original script for the film.  It was added later, presumably to show that the men who dropped the bomb recognized the tragic nature of their mission.  Tibbets, who never would express qualms about dropping bomb (I interviewed him in the mid-1980s), criticized the scene when it came out.    Bosley Crowther of The New York Times criticized its sentimental aspects but, as he had done with the earlier film, praised the “substance and plausibility” of its handling of Hiroshima.

Repeatedly the film underlines its theme—dropping a bomb that can kills tens of thousands in an instant is dirty work but someone’s got to do it.   Tibbets even tells his wife at one point to stop bugging him about that.  As in The Beginning or the End, using the bomb to save hundreds of thousands of American lives is the main message—although Truman is not a key character here. And like the earlier film, Above and Beyond did not light up the box office. 

Hollywood would not produce another film on the subject until Roland  Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy, more than three decades later—with good guy Paul Newman as Gen. Groves and relative unknown Dwight Schultz as Oppenheimer.  So you know who the audience must have sympathized with.

A mass of new evidence about the decision to drop the atomic bomb had come to light since the last major Hollywood film on the subject, and Fat Man and Little Boy drew on it. The film was also no doubt inspired by the antinuclear upheaval of the early 1980's.

Joffe, who had directed The Killing Fields, set out to make an artful, complex picture that questioned the official narrative, while emphasizing the decency of the scientists who made the bomb.  Newman in the starring role, Gen. Groves would dominate the film, bullying or cajoling Oppenheimer at every turn. When Oppenheimer expresses doubts about using the weapon, Groves snaps: "Give me the bomb! Just give it to me!"

But the key scene, and the one that would prove controversial, concerned the death of a young scientist from exposure to radiation. (Joffe obviously wanted one character to represent the thousands of Americans who would later suffer from their encounters with radiation.) The exposure incident is kept hush-hush. Then the camp physician blurts out to Oppenheimer that physicians at Oak Ridge were injecting patients with plutonium.

This statement was contested even before the film's release. One authority told The New York Times, "I'm sure nothing like that happened during the war."

On the defensive, Joffe cut a scene that actually showed a plutonium experiment but otherwise stuck to his story, attributing his information to a Congressional investigation that first uncovered evidence about the radiation experiments, some of which did take place before Hiroshima. The Congressional findings had been ignored so completely that the scene in Fat Man and Little Boy seemed like science fiction. Four years later -- when the U.S. Department of Energy released documents confirming the worst about the radiation experiments --Joffe would look like a prophet.

The film, however, received a mixed reception from critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times observed that Gen. Groves expressed his sentiments so much more persuasively than anyone else that the film was "stunningly ineffective" in promoting  Joffe's obvious anti-bomb views.   A few years later, when I wrote a bit about the movie for the Times, I got a personal note from Joffe thanking me, even though my commentary had been mixed.  Clearly the movie meant a lot to him.

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