- Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds by Tony Shaw and Denise J. Youngblood
Scholarship on the Cold War has long focused on diplomatic maneuvering, military crises, and thus on the confrontational aspects of Soviet and U.S. foreign policy. From the 1990s, our understanding of this conflict has broadened tremendously: many historians have challenged a picture of northern hemispheric bipolarity by underlining the active role of Third World actors.1 Others have pointed at collaboration and exchange across the Iron Curtain, highlighting the role that politically exploited culture was to play in relation to external as well as internal audiences, and they have thus also shed light on what came to be called the home fronts of the Cold War. Scholars, visual artists, writers, musicians, engineers, and even industrial designers were to represent the superiority of their respective countries and the latter’s ideological bases. At the same time, these people took inspiration from colleagues of the other camp. The overwhelming majority of research on foreign and domestic consequences of this “cultural Cold War,” however, has been done from a U.S. perspective.2 [End Page 473] Soviet diplomatic and cultural outreach to the world and the Soviet home front remains understudied.3
Denise J. Youngblood of the University of Vermont and Tony Shaw of the University of Hertfordshire, England, take films and film production as a prism for their history of the Cold War. They are to be commended for giving equal space to the oft-neglected Eastern perspective in their smart and balanced comparative analysis of Soviet and U.S. cinema from the late 1940s through the 1980s.
Not only did the postwar world see the beginning of the ideological confrontation of Western liberal capitalism and Eastern authoritarian socialism; it also saw a communications revolution and, in the Soviet Union—with some delay after Stalin’s death in 1953—ever higher numbers of films shot and viewers in cinemas. Youngblood and Shaw argue that the Cold War was fought, too, through many of these films, which let the masses participate in the conflict: “cinema shaped and reflected everyday Cold War mentalities and values” (6). One of the book’s strengths is that it includes cinematic propaganda with plain enemy stereotyping alongside films that did not refer directly to the conflicts and topics of the Cold War yet reflected mindsets and advertised lifestyles and ideologies.
To begin with, Youngblood and Shaw study the political economy of filmmaking in different stages of the Cold War in both the Soviet Union and United States. The respective film industries, their relationship to the state, and the reception of films by audiences there are scrutinized based on unpublished scripts, censors’ reports, government documents, reviews, and box office receipts of dozens of Soviet and U.S. productions. Hollywood, as the authors describe it, was not only a “dream factory” that delivered escapist entertainment; many films, particularly those of the early 1950s, were heavily politicized, schematically anticommunist, and jingoistic. The ideological content of U.S. films was influenced by the self-interest of the capitalist studio owners, the political convictions of many filmmakers and of actors themselves, independent associations of moralist sleaze watchdogs, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Pentagon. By contrast, Soviet productions, after some “hard-core negative propaganda” (40) during late Stalinism, were not all ideology-laden. Few films dealt with the Cold War [End Page 474] directly, but many commented generally on the hypocrisy or superficiality of the West. During high tides of cultural liberalization, such as the Thaw under Khrushchev, several Soviet filmmakers even won prizes at Western film festivals with their artistically appealing and apolitical dramas.
In the second part of the book, Shaw and Youngblood analyze ten representative Soviet and U.S. films from different stages of the Cold War in depth and set them in their cultural, social, and political contexts. The first pair of films, the Soviet Meeting on the Elbe (1949) and...