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Hiroshima Bombing Anniversary: Six Must-See Movies Dealing with the A-Bomb Horror

The Beginning or the End 1947'The Beginning or the End' 1947 with Robert Walker and Tom Drake.

Hiroshima bombing 70th anniversary: Six movies dealing with the A-bomb terror

Seventy years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. Ultimately, anywhere between 70,000 and 140,000 people died – in addition to dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and most other living beings in that part of the world. Three days later, America dropped a second atomic bomb, this time over Nagasaki. Human deaths in this other city totaled anywhere between 40,000-80,000.

For obvious reasons, the evisceration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been a quasi-taboo in American films. After all, in the last 75 years Hollywood's World War II movies, from John Farrow's Wake Island (1942) and Mervyn LeRoy's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (2001), almost invariably have presented a clear-cut vision of us (good guys) and them (vile villains).

Good vs. Evil

But when it comes to America's use of nuclear weapons, you can't have a clear-cut separation between Good and Evil. Certainly not when you're dealing with radioactive mushroom clouds, the incineration of tens of thousands of civilians, and the potential obliteration of the human race. U.S. filmmakers and studios have thus felt much more comfortable dealing with the less concrete Cold War fears of global annihilation – e.g., Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe, or even Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes.

The closest American movies have come to the dropping of the A-bombs over Japan have been (fictionalized) depictions of the events that culminated in the horror. These stories, however, aren't set on the ground in either Japanese city, but on American soil, featuring military personnel and scientists while focusing on their issues.

On the other hand, filmmakers from other countries, particularly in Japan,* have been less squeamish and more unafraid to offend American sensibilities, in several instances addressing head on the nuclear horror and its consequences.

Japan selectively remembers

* Japanese efforts not mentioned below include Hideo Oba's The Bells of Nagasaki (1950), Kaneto Shondo's Children of Hiroshima (1952), and Yoshishige Yoshida's Women in the Mirror (2003).

Update: Something important that should have been mentioned in the original draft of this post is that Japanese filmmakers have refrained from depicting the atrocities committed by the Japanese military in East Asia.

Post-WWII Japanese films about the period have generally portrayed the local population as victims of their leaders and/or war / “the enemy,” e.g., Kihachi Okamoto's post-Hiroshima / Nagasaki Japan's Longest Day (1967).

More recently, and with the backing of far-right nationalist groups, war leaders have been remembered as victimized-heroes, e.g., Shunya Itô's box office hit Pride: A Fateful Moment (1998), about Japan's wartime prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Hiroshima remembered: Six movies

Below are six movies, from the U.S. and elsewhere, worth checking out because – irrespective of their artistic qualities – they have dealt, whether directly or indirectly, with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What matters here is what these films, in some cases unwittingly, have to say about the human species, its use of technology, and its future – or lack thereof.

'The Beginning or the End'

Previously home to Andy Hardy and family, and at the time home to sunny June Allyson, Jane Powell, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, and Esther Williams musicals, Louis B. Mayer's Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the first Hollywood studio to tackle the nuclear attack on Japan. In 1947, MGM released The Beginning or the End, a political docudrama depicting the behind-the-scenes goings-on at the top-secret Manhattan Project.†

The – as to be expected – dishonest result was quite a bit less than satisfying, partly because of liberties taken with historical facts. Oh, but it's “only a movie.”

True, one that wanted viewers to believe that U.S. President Harry S. Truman allowed the bombing of Hiroshima only after detailed studies had shown that nearly 500,000 American military lives would be saved, that the Enola Gay evaded anti-aircraft shells, and that leaflets were dropped on Hiroshima days before the American attack, compassionately warning locals of the upcoming air raid.

MGM's choice of director was a curious one: Norman Taurog, Oscar winner for the kiddie flick Skippy (1931) and nominee for the sentimental Boys Town (1938).

Instead of the initially announced Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, and Lionel Barrymore – or Donna Reed, who initialized the project – The Beginning or the End ended up with mostly second-rank cast members:

Robert Walker. Brian Donlevy. Tom Drake. Beverly Tyler. Audrey Totter. Hurd Hatfield. Hume Cronyn as Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Ludwig Stössel as Albert Einstein. Art Baker as Harry Truman. Barry Nelson as Enola Gay pilot Paul W. Tibbets. Godfrey Tearle (replacing anti-Roosevelt Republican Lionel Barrymore) as U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As found on TCM.com, Variety summed up The Beginning or the End as “an inept mixture of atom and hokum.” The film was also a box office bomb (no pun intended).

A similarly themed effort was Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), named after the two A bombs. As Gen. Leslie Groves, Paul Newman starred in this little-seen, Roland Joffé-directed drama. Also in the cast: Dwight Schultz, John Cusack, Bonnie Bedelia, and Laura Dern. (Brian Donlevy played Groves in The Beginning or the End.)

† At the time, Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis sold the rights to his rival A-bomb project, Top Secret, to MGM.

Above and Beyond Eleanor Parker'Above and Beyond': Eleanor Parker worries about Robert Taylor.

'Above and Beyond'

Better known as directors and/or writers of light comedies with the likes of Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and Glenda Jackson (well, A Touch of Class)§, Melvin Frank and Norman Panama directed and co-wrote the ultra-serious 1953 World War II drama Above and Beyond. This post-Louis B. Mayer MGM release about the U.S. government's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima starred Robert Taylor as Paul W. Tibbets, the man who piloted the Enola Gay (named after his mother), and Eleanor Parker as his neglected wife.

Despite its two capable leads and the fact that it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture Story (Beirne Lay Jr.), Above and Beyond – released at the height of the flag-waving, anti-Red hysteria engendered by Republican senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities – lacks any profound psychological or political insights, working chiefly as a historical curiosity.

As mentioned in a previous Alt Film Guide article about Eleanor Parker, “infinitely more interesting than Frank and Panama's film” is a Paul W. Tibbets interview that was published in The Guardian in 2002. As explained in the intro to Studs Terkel's piece, “a decade after the end of the cold war, the world faces new dangers of nuclear attack – from India, Pakistan, Iraq, al-Qaida, and even the US.”

Below is a Tibbets quote, in reply to a question about his thoughts on people saying “Let's nuke 'em” or “Let's nuke these people.”

Oh, I wouldn't hesitate if I had the choice. I'd wipe 'em out. You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: “You've killed so many civilians.” That's their tough luck for being there.

If only Above and Beyond – and its portrayal of Tibbets – had been that bluntly honest.

§ Melvin Frank directed and co-wrote A Touch of Class.

'Godzilla' a.k.a. 'Gojira' 1954 trailer.

'Forbidden Planet' and 'Godzilla'

Neither the MGM release Forbidden Planet (1956) nor the iconic Japanese monster movie Godzilla (1954) deal with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The former is set on a faraway planet; the latter is mostly set on the fictitious Odo Island and later in Tokyo. But the consequences of the combination of far-reaching technology and the oh-so-human mix of imbecility, arrogance, and viciousness are all too obvious in both films.

Directed by the now largely forgotten Fred M. Wilcox, Forbidden Planet is partly inspired by William Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon as a scientist living with his voluptuous daughter (Anne Francis) on a technologically advanced but strangely deserted planet. Leslie Nielsen and a handful of other earthlings arrive to investigate the matter. Where's everybody?

Well, we find out at the end why there's no one around – and what happens when a species' sense of ethics and/or emotional development lag behind technological advances.

The Emperor of All Monster Movies, from Gordon Douglas' Them! to Bong Joon-ho's The Host and Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, Godzilla a.k.a. Gojira shows us that misused (nuclear) technology can unleash all-powerful forces that will destroy Civilization (or what passes for it).

Directed by Ishiro Honda, Godzilla featured Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, and Takashi Shimura. An edited, dubbed American version also featured added scenes with Raymond Burr.

Hiroshima Mon Amour'Hiroshima Mon Amour' with Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada.

'Hiroshima Mon Amour'

Written in dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness fashion by Marguerite Duras, Alain Resnais' landmark Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) stars Emmanuelle Riva (2012 Best Actress Oscar nominee for Amour) as a French actress romantically and sexually involved with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada).

A cinematic meditation on memory, time, love, death – the architect's family was in Hiroshima at the time the American bomb was dropped – Hiroshima Mon Amour was the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Foreign Language Film of 1960.

Surprisingly, Hiroshima Mon Amour was also shortlisted for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. Unsurprisingly, it lost to Billy Wilder's much more accessible comedy-drama The Apartment.

'Black Rain'

Directed by two-time Palme d'Or winner Shohei Imamura, Black Rain (1989) – not to be confused with Ridley Scott's action thriller starring Michael Douglas – is one of the rare movies to actually depict the dropping of the A-bomb over Hiroshima and its immediate consequences on the ground. The drama that follows is a bit too deliberately paced and at times unnecessarily melodramatic, but the black-and-white Black Rain – the title refers to the nuclear fallout – is a disturbing, indelible experience.

Based on Masuji Ibuse's novel, Black Rain was adapted by director Imamura and Toshido Ishido. The cast includes Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa, and Keisuke Ishida.

Watching Imamura's film one may get the impression of having experienced the terror on the ground – except that, no matter how realistic or how horrific it feels, Black Rain remains “just a movie.” A faded carbon copy of what it must been like in reality.

'Message from Hiroshima' trailer. Directed by Masaaki Tanabe. Narrated by George Takei.

U.S. approval rate for A-bomb use in Japan goes down according to poll

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of interviewed Americans believe that the U.S. dropping A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified – the reasoning being that the atomic destruction (supposedly) accelerated the end of World War II. No one should be surprised that 70 percent of interviewed Americans age 65 and older and 74 percent of Republicans were on the side of the bomb dropping.

In Japan, 79 percent of interviewees said that the American nuclear attack had been unjustified. Only 14 percent believed otherwise.

In 1991, 63 percent of U.S. respondents believed that using nukes in Japanese cities had been justified. Back in Sept. 1945, the approval rating was 85 percent.

At that time, they were asked the question, "If you had been the one to decide whether or not to use the atomic bomb against Japan, which one of these things do you think you would have done?" Nearly one in four polled Americans asserted that they would have "wiped out cities."

'Kill people and break things'

In a televised debate this evening, U.S. Republican presidential hopeful and former Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee wisely said that “the purpose of the military is kill people and break things.”

Apparently, the military establishment from the various tribes involved in World War II more than fulfilled their purpose, leaving approximately 60 million human beings dead and much of the planet in ruins.

 

Image of atomic bomb explosion, Tom Drake, and Robert Walker in The Beginning or the End 1947: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, via The Filmographer.

Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva Hiroshima Mon Amour image: Argos Films / The Criterion Collection.

Eleanor Parker Above and Beyond image: MGM.

Message from Hiroshima trailer: Cinema Libre.

Gojira / Godzilla 1954 trailer: Toho.


         
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