Atomic Legacy The Bomb Irreversibly Changed Pop Culture
We didn’t know what to think about the bomb.
It ended the war. But it also unleashed “The Amazing Colossal Man.” And “Godzilla.” And a Deadly, Gigantic Man-Eating Mantis!
It made us safe from the Russkies during the Cold War. But it made us vulnerable to “Fail Safe.” And to the Doomsday machine of “Dr. Strangelove.” And, just this summer, to a “Crimson Tide.”
It was too horrible to think about. But in the ‘50s we spritzed with Atom Bomb perfume. And we sipped Atomic Cocktails at the bar. And, come to think of it, didn’t Mel Gibson look great as “The Road Warrior” in that post-apocalypse light?
We didn’t know what to think about the bomb.
And, on the anniversary of our first date with the Atomic Age, we still don’t.
They were gone in a flash, 50 years ago last week.
The imperialist Japanese, almost.
All of them finished. All of them smashed.
And in their place, a new evil curled from the craters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Big One.
“The most powerful force we’d ever had to deal with,” says Allison Scott, head librarian of the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green University in Ohio.
Sure, there’d been threats to humanity before.
The Great Flood. Soddom and Gomorrah. The Black Death. The Napoleonic Wars. World War I.
Each was recorded in the popular culture of the time, too, Scott says. Each was thought to be The End.
“But the bomb was different,” Scott says. “It was the ending we’d done to ourselves.”
It was going to take time to absorb this one. Time to understand how the bomb would change not just our place in the world, but our way of life. Everything from our movies, our books, our art, our poetry to the way we raised our kids.
That was going to take time.
But it took Hollywood just six weeks to turn the bomb - the Destroyer of Worlds, the Unspeakable of Unspeakables - into just another heavy for a spy flick.
It was called “The House on 92nd Street,” and starred Lloyd Nolan (later of denture adhesive ad fame). The day after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the movie’s producers changed the film’s FBI-scientist-foils-Nazis plot to an FBI-scientist-foils-Nazi-plan-to-steal-atomic-secrets plot! (The movie went on to win an Oscar for screenplay.)
Days after the movie, the bomb became the subject of a book - in fact, the second “instant book” ever produced, Scott says. (The world’s first had been published a few months earlier, when President Roosevelt died.)
“The Atomic Age Opens,” produced by Pocketbooks and compiled by Donald Geddes, was merely a compilation of news reports and photos from the A-bombed scenes. It was crude by today’s “instant book” standards, where you can get a glossy, full-color book produced and on the stands just days after, say, a juror leaves the O.J. trial.
But with a movie and book deal wrapped up, the bomb’s place in our popular culture was secure.
By 1946, “American culture had become so ‘atomic,’ that scores of businesses and dozens of race horses had been named after the atom,” writes H. Bruce Franklin in his book “War Stars” (Oxford University Press, 1988). “There were Atomic songs, Atomic Cocktails and Atomic Earrings. General Mills was offering the (Lone Ranger) Atomic Bomb Ring for 15 cents and a KIX cereal box top.”
Why were we so willing to embrace a weapon of such mass destruction? Why turn it into a toy for kids crunching cereal at their breakfast tables?
Professor Franklin has a theory.
“We’d just dropped the bomb on Japan, and we wanted to legitimatize that decision in the worst possible way,” says Franklin, a professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.
Why didn’t we worry more about the bomb? About its implications? About whether we were even smart enough to possess it?
“I think we all know you have to engage in a certain amount of denial and numbing just to survive,” he says. “What we did then - and still do now - is block out things about the bomb that are extremely important.
“With it, we have obtained the power to destroy our species,” he says. “That’s very difficult for our minds to think about.”
So we bet Atom Smasher to place in the third. Popped some Atomic Fireballs. Numbed whatever fears were left over with an Atomic Cocktail.
Besides, when the Soviets got their own bomb, any popular culture opposed to the new arms race fell victim to anti-Communist hysteria.
Sure, Franklin says, there was “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” in which an extraterrestrial federation - concerned about human violence spreading into space - threatens to destroy us if we don’t disarm. Another, “Five,” painted a rather bleak - yet talky - portrait of life after an atomic holocaust.
Both came out six years after Hiroshima, in 1951.
But these would be the last anti-atomic flicks for several years, Franklin says. “In the spring of 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee began its yearlong mass hearings on the film industry, which resulted in the blacklisting of dozens of Hollywood figures deemed insufficiently anti-Communist.”
So we stopped worrying about the bomb. Tossed another box of canned tomato soup down the fallout shelter.
And went to see “The Atomic City” (1952), “Invasion USA” (1952), “Hell and High Water” (1954), “Strategic Air Command” (1955).
Commanding officer, escorting pro-baseball player turned Stategic Air Command pilot “Dutch” Holland (Jimmy Stewart) to his new B-47: “With the new family of nuclear weapons, one B-47 and a crew of three carries the destructive power of the entire B-29 force we used against Japan.”
Jimmy Stewart (gushing): “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
We didn’t start worrying again until 1956.
Not about the Russians. Or the Red Chinese. Or even the French.
But about THEM!
Mindless, mutated, man-eating ants, the size of city buses. Hundreds of ‘em.
At the Trinity Bomb Site in New Mexico, A-bomb radiation had mutated the little buggers and stirred them from their nests. Soon they’d spread to Brownsville, Texas. Then to Los Angeles. And tomorrow, the world?
(Any resemblance to any communist nation, living or dead, was purely intentional.)
Perhaps fearing any lingering backlash from the Un-American Activities Committee, the movie pretty much avoided the issue of the arms race and left the question of whether the bomb was good or bad up to the audience:
Robert (an FBI agent played by James Arness): “Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?”
Pat: “I don’t know.’
Professor: “Nobody knows, Robert. When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world nobody can predict.”
Cue scene of gigantic burning ants, torched by Army flame-throwers.
Sure enough, a year later, another atomic bomb rattled another mindless, mutated, man-eating beast out of the deep. “Godzilla,” a reptilian allegory for Hiroshima, went on to wreck Tokyo (and much of Japanese film credibility for years to come).
And then came the others, says Wally Kneif, retail communications manager at Blockbuster Entertainment in Fort Lauderdale. Among them:
“It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955). Giant Octopus attacks San Francisco.
“The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957). Giant army colonel attacks Las Vegas.
“The Deadly Mantis” (1957). Giant mantis attacks New York City.
“Beginning of the End” (1957). Giant grasshoppers attack Peter Graves.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957). Normal-sized spider attacks atomically shrinking man.
You get the picture.
Perhaps weary of finding new monsters to cast in the role of the bomb in these movies, Hollywood began to cast the bomb as itself again. Indeed, by the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as the Cold War intensified, popular books, movies and songs began to think twice about the bomb and any post-apocalyptic world.
These were the years of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel and Stanly Kramer’s 1959 movie “On the Beach,” writes Rutgers professor Franklin in “War Stars,” in which the crew of a U.S. submarine - spared nuclear annihilation - searches for survivors after the war. Finding none, they return to Australia to commit suicide.
There were novels such as Helen Clarkson’s “The Last Day” (1959); Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1959); Mordecai Roshwald’s “Level 7” (1959); “Small Armageddon” (1962); and Pat Frank’s “Alas, Babylon” (1959), in which a rag-tag band of survivors try to survive in what’s left of an atomically pulverized Florida.
With these more somber examinations, the bomb’s place in popular culture mutated.
“There were really three kinds of bomb themes, now,” says Popular Culture librarian Scott. “The nuclear theme, in which all the testing, radiation, blasting, etc., causes nature to turn against us. Movies, for example, like ‘THEM!’ (crawling with gigantic, mutant ants).
“Then there was the influence of the bomb on culture. ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ for example. The bomb poses such a threat, we need an external force to come and save us.
“The extraterrestrials,” she adds, “are always humanoid - as if to say, if we can only raise ourselves up to their level, we’ll be OK. That’s a theme picked up later in ‘Star Trek.’
“Finally, there’s the nuclear drama, such as ‘Fail Safe’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove,”’ Scott says. “In which we’re left to ponder, ‘What would happen if all this destruction were released accidentally?”’
The answer, in “Fail Safe” (1962 novel, 1964 film), was the tit-for-tat annihilation of New York City for Moscow.
The answer in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), was more ambiguous, Franklin says.
Contemplating his life in a deep mine shaft after the bombs drop - surrounded by women “selected for their sexual characteristics, which will have to be of a highly stimulating order!” - Dr. Strangelove can hardly wait for The End.
“Harlan Ellison’s viciously sardonic 1969 vision of postnuclear America, ‘A Boy and His Dog,’ was made into a 1976 film displaying the underground good old American town of Topeka as even more ghoulish than the sadistic, predatory world on the radioactive surface,” Franklin says.
And then, of course, there was Mel Gibson, who blasted to stardom as a post-apocalyptic sex symbol in Mad Max in “The Road Warrior” (1981); and joined Tina Turner (who sang the theme song in chain-mail and net stockings!) in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985).
“The survival fantasy is very old,” Franklin says, “It allows people to imagine a world without cities, without people.
“In them, getting rid of civilization is seen as a good thing. No more crowds, no more bureaucracy, no more laws, no more feminism - whatever it is you don’t like.”
That made the end of the world appealing, to some.
Which leaves us still wondering what to think about the bomb.
It ended a hot war, but started a cold one. It made us safe, but made us unsafe. It was too horrible to think about, but “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas at Ground Zero” had a beat - and you could dance to it.
We seem to go through phases - worrying a lot about the bomb; then having a Coke, booting up “Missile Command” on the computer screen and forgetting about it.
After all, there are other, perhaps species-threatening things to worry about. AIDS. The Ebola virus (subject of the best seller “The Hot Zone”). An environmental meltdown.
Released just two weeks ago, Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” envisions an apocalypse created not by a bomb, but by the melting of the polar ice caps. No nuclear holocaust, just that pesky hole we punched in the ozone layer.
But, after being out of the public consciousness since about the end of the Reagan era, Franklin says, the bomb is making a comeback in the popular consciousness.
It showed up in the hands of terrorists last summer, for example, in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s smash hit “True Lies.” It showed up in the hands of anti-Yeltsin Russian rebels this summer, in Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s “Crimson Tide.”
It showed up again last week as the subject of “Hiroshima in America, Fifty Years of Denial” (Putnam, $27.50), Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell’s scholarly look at how America grappled - or refused to grapple - with the implications of the bomb after 1945. And it shows up as the heavy in “1945” (Baen, $24), House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s pulp fiction.
“We’re moving into a 21st century with a world still bristling with nuclear weapons,” Franklin says. “They are a far more serious threat than the Ebola virus or an extraterrestrial invasion, like (this summer’s ‘Species.”’
Fifty years after the bomb, he says, “We’re the threat, not some other.”