The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II but introduced an age of anxiety and despair in politics and culture. This new, unsettled sense was felt by everyone everywhere and inevitably found expression in movies.
The previous World War had ended differently. The jubilation that had ended World War I resulted in a decadelong spree that only gradually turned into a hangover. "The Great War" brought about a change in consciousness, a new irony, a frenetic, live-for-today spirit with an undertone of despair, but the fear didn't kick in until about 1930, with the beginning of the Great Depression and the growing realization that a new world war would eventually have to be fought.
But with World War II, the hangover was almost instantaneous because of the atomic bomb. For the first time in history, human beings had to live with the knowledge that humanity and civilization could be eradicated, that "the world" -- as opposed to "the Earth" -- was in no way permanent or guaranteed, that it all could end. Given the track record of the 20th century, it seemed not only possible but inevitable that it would all soon end, especially after the communist takeover of China in 1948 and the Soviet Union's detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1949.
This new awareness of human impermanence required a major psychological adjustment within people alive at the time. And for every person born thereafter, there came a moment when the child was told or first heard about nuclear weapons and the possibility of everything being wiped out and the world ending. This knowledge is so enormous and so horrible, with implications so pervasive, that it cannot help but have produced a different kind of human being, someone whose mental wiring is unmistakably different from that of the average person, circa 1850. But that's a subject for a whole book, or a shelf full of them, while our subject for today is cinema and how it changed after the bomb.
Some changes were, of course, obvious. There were the public service films, sponsored by the government, instructing school children to "duck and cover," as though hiding under a desk could provide protection in a nuclear holocaust. There were also a series of science-fiction films, featuring monsters that were in some way linked to the bomb. The Japanese film "Godzilla" (1954) was about a dinosaur living under the ocean, who is awakened by nuclear testing. Other monsters were the result of radiation. "The Beginning of the End" (1957) featured monster-size grasshoppers. "Them!" (1954) had monster-size ants. "The Amazing Colossal Man" (1957) had a monster-size man, a military officer who'd been exposed to radiation. Even a movie such as "The Blob" (1958), which featured an alien invasion, traded on the same images of civic unrest and on the idea that, in a matter of a day, life could turn chaotic, then hellish and then cease altogether.
If we look at these films as manifestations of the internal consciousness of the 1950s, we can get an insight into that decade's retreat into conformity, which was quite the opposite of the culture's response to World War I in the 1920s. Though in 1920 Warren Harding had run on the slogan "A Return to Normalcy," American culture never returned to its prewar ways. But in the 1950s, many people really did aspire and attempt to return to a placid, conformist way of life, as if pretending that things hadn't changed might make it true.
The bomb formed an incidental background for films such as the noir thriller "Pickup on South Street" (1953), and was front and center in some serious pieces of work, such as the sci-fi "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), the brilliant noir "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955), the drama "Fail-Safe" (1964) and its dark comic twin, "Dr. Strangelove" (1964).
But even more interesting is the more subtle, unconscious influence of the bomb on cinema. For example, film noir. As a genre, it had gradually emerged in the first years of the 1940s and had come into full bloom before World War II ended, with "Double Indemnity" (1944). But the brave yet despairing philosophy of noir -- that there's nothing of importance or permanence that can be accomplished in life, that the only noble course is to stay true to some inner sense of value and face doom with a stoic irony -- is very postwar and postbomb.
After the bomb, mothers and fathers knew they couldn't really protect their children. They could no longer offer their children a vision in which they were all part of some ongoing legacy, in which tradition and precedent had meaning. And if they tried, their kids wouldn't believe them. Adults may have responded to the prospect of nuclear annihilation by building fallout shelters, but young people responded with fear, frivolous distraction, smirky irony and hedonism. The movies since the 1950s are just one manifestation of a cultural response to the bomb, which must also include the Beats, the hippies, rock 'n' roll and drug use.
William Faulkner saw this all coming. In his Nobel banquet speech in 1950, upon winning the prize for literature, he criticized the current trend in writing as no longer being about "problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?" He said that the writer "must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid. ... Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion."
He could have been describing movies, as well, especially movies in the decades since he spoke. "Lust without love" and victories "without pity or compassion" have become the province of popular entertainment, while movies featuring "defeats in which no one loses anything of value" are the province of independent film. But across the board, a faith that life is big, important and meaningful is missing from movies. It's what's missing, period.
E-mail Mick LaSalle at firstname.lastname@example.org.