Groundbreaking ideas seem in short supply at the moment. This summer’s streamer hits drew big audiences but did not resonate in terms of novelty. Charlize Theron returns as a lethal and immortal mercenary in The Old Guard. Tom Hanks again calmly captains a World War II warship in Greyhound. Most of the “new” original series on Peacock and HBO Max had to first prove themselves in the UK before being granted their U.S. visas.
The brave new world of streaming thus is reaffirming a rule that Hollywood learned a century ago: If an idea is billed as new or, even worse, as “important,” run for cover.
All this may sound war-weary, but it’s worth review at a moment when Hollywood is celebrating (or should be) an anniversary that produced one of its most embarrassing flops – a movie that was aggressively heralded as both new and important. It was going to change filmmaking as well as affecting public opinion worldwide.
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It was about the dawn of the atomic age.
Aptly titled The Beginning or the End, the 1947 movie announced itself as a meticulously researched docudrama that would explore the creation of the atom bomb and the decision 75 years ago to drop it on two Japanese targets. In heralding the project, MGM declared that it would not be another Hollywoodized version of history; the filmmakers had obtained the cooperation and approval of President Harry Truman himself and of all of the scientists and generals who built and delivered the bomb. That’s why the movie would be important.
By the time The Beginning or the End was released, however, Hollywood had learned some valuable lessons about the collision of art and politics. The details of that story are captured in a new book by Greg Mitchell, same title, its publication tied to the anniversary of the bombings, which instantly obliterated two cities costing the lives of 200,000 people.
The dropping of the bomb was initially celebrated worldwide in August 1945, dramatically bringing down the curtain on World War II. America’s apocalyptic weapon had the power not only to destroy an enemy but also civilization as a whole.
Within days, however, the tone of the celebration changed dramatically as teams of scientists and religious leaders came forward with the hard questions: Was the decision a catastrophic mistake? Could advance warnings to the Japanese military have achieved the same surrender? Were the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary victims?
In this light, Hollywood, having profited from heroic war movies, now set about to a create a classic end-of-war movie. Could Clark Gable be the man whose force of character got the bomb made, presiding over the top-secret Manhattan Project? Could Jimmy Stewart heroically fly the plane that targeted it so deftly?
Both MGM and Paramount made headlines by jumping to the challenge. Louis B. Mayer declared that this would launch a new genre, the superstar docudrama. He dispatched aides to meet with the crusty Gen. Leslie Groves, who had commanded the project, offering a $10,000 fee; also a guarantee that he could veto anything in the script that he deemed untrue or simply didn’t like.
Meanwhile, the formidable Hal Wallis was empowered by Paramount to meet with J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant nuclear scientist, and close a deal similar to Grove’s, minus the fee. Wallis also hired Ayn Rand, the hottest writer of the moment, to rush ahead with a script.
The Mayer-Wallis competition was itself big news, both being Hollywood legends who needed a big production to energize their stalled careers. Wallis, who’d produced Casablanca, was suffering amid postwar doldrums.
Learning of Wallis’ deals with scientists, Mayer now decided to top him by setting up a meeting with President Truman, eliciting his cooperation, again with conditions. Truman, too, would effectively have final cut.
Hollywood was in awe. Two major films were now in the pipeline, both new and important. But both soon were weighed down by major problems.
Wallis quickly realized he had selected the wrong writer in Rand, author of The Fountainhead, who excelled as a right-wing ideologue, not as a screenwriter. A new writer was secretly hired behind her. MGM also bet not only on the wrong writer (Frank Wead) but also a miscast director named Norman Taurog, whose main credits were on Mickey Rooney movies.
Shuffling screenwriters, both studios also realized they’d walled themselves in creatively by granting “approvals” to so many politicians and scientists, all of whom were actively weighing in, their demands at once predictable and destructive. Oppenheimer and fellow scientists felt the movie, as scripted, glorified the military, not the science. Groves insisted the movie rewrite history by eliminating the controversial bombing of Nagasaki, which took place three days after Hiroshima. It was promptly cut. He also fostered a scene which showed Nazi scientists sharing nuclear secrets with the Japanese, thereby justifying Washington’s quick decision to drop the bomb (the meetings never took place).
If Hollywood’s creatives were shocked by the willingness of Washington to distort history, they were even more surprised by Truman’s demand: Upon seeing the first cut, he was apprehensive that the movie made him seem indecisive about the bombing. He wanted it re-edited to show that he didn’t harbor a moment’s regret or reflection about greenlighting the atomic age.
By this time, Wallis had shrewdly dropped out, leaving MGM to make its many changes and re-edits according to their directives. Pre-release screenings were scheduled, then canceled after walkouts by invited scientists. MGM nonetheless went through with its obligatory celebrity opening, with Mayer already cringing from the early reviews.
Time magazine decreed that The Beginning or the End reflected Hollywood’s “imbecilic assumption that audiences were not capable of facing facts.” The Nation declared that the film symbolized “state-controlled cinema” at its worst. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote, “The filmmakers think they have made history but it’s a ridiculous conceit.”
The film grossed a modest $1.6 million (perhaps $15 million in today’s dollars) and was largely ignored by audiences around the world. Mayer lectured his acolytes that docudramas would not represent MGM’s future.
The critics would have to wait until Doctor Strangelove in 1964 to feast on a more satisfying portrayal of the new nuclear world.
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