Usually, the 1950s conjure up images of poodle skirts and James Dean, drive-ins and sock-hops. And probably Elvis. However, it was also the decade in which the Cold War went into deep freeze. Some people were affected by it more than others, and by far the biggest fear was of nuclear annihilation. The period was rife with propaganda films on the subject, and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe presents an idea of the message the government was trying to get across about atomic bombs. “Idea” is the operative word.
Directed by Jayne Loader and brothers Pierce and Kevin Rafferty, the film consists of snippets from propaganda films, both military and civilian. They consider the film to be “compilation verité,” which it is in a lot of ways. There’s no narration and scarce framing of the films used, except to identify historical figures, and there was very little effort to clean up any of the footage. Any scratches, flickers, or stray lint are all present and accounted for. The film presents the bomb with somewhat lighthearted black humor, accented by cute little sound effects and ironically appropriate music from the time period.
As is to be expected with any film about the atomic bomb, the film gives a brief overview of the targeting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including a rather sizeable interview with Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay. He described the awe he and his men felt when the bomb fell, literally–the reverberation of the explosion shook the plane. It also includes a rather flippant Fred Allen bit about the second target, Nagasaki: “It was a shambles. It looked like Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants.” If anyone is squeamish, be warned: The film does include shots of bomb casualties, mostly burn victims. It’s a little gory, but not as bad as some of the post-atomic bomb films out there, and it’s mercifully brief.
About a third of The Atomic Cafe is devoted to Armed Forces training films. We see the Bikini Atoll test, footage of fallout damage, and officers reassuring nervous enlisted men about the effects of radiation. What was really amazing was when soldiers would hide in foxholes a safe distance from a bomb test. Then they would pile out of the trench and march into the area where the bomb had detonated, even before the dust settled. Nah, not dangerous at all.
Interspersed throughout the film are bits about how American culture was affected by the Cold War, and if the film is to be believed, it was a fearfully absurd decade. Atoms were a popular motif in more ways than one. Furniture, music, books, TV shows, and even cocktails could all be atomic.
In the midst of shopping at abundantly-stocked grocery stores and happy evenings at home, people were building fallout shelters. By the late 1950s, the Civil Defense Service was really pushing the idea of preparedness, and handed out pamphlets to help. Naturally, some people took things to the next level. One dad built his son a radiation suit out of a special lead-lined fabric, complete with oven mitts and a hood made out of a World War Two-era gas mask. Then he had the poor kid get on his bike and ride to the fallout shelter.
The film shows America guarding against the infiltration of communism as well. Americans watched the Iron Curtain fall on eastern Europe, and were well-aware that communism meant loss of freedom and liberty. That’s why people felt it was important that American forces help keep China at bay in Korea, at least until the war hit a stalemate. Other major stories from the era are featured as well–the HUAC hearings, the Kitchen Debates, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenburg. There was a lot of talk about whether or not to build a hydrogen bomb. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though–in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower was elected President.
Adults didn’t get to have all the fun. The film shows students doing projects on what to do in case of nuclear attack, and we see them making posters and assembling emergency food supplies. And what would a film about nuclear attack be without a look at the infamous “Duck and Cover” drill? Burt the Turtle sees a flash and ducks inside his shell. Students, of course, have no shells, but they can crouch against anything that’s nearby. Walls, curbs, desks, picnic blankets, and boxes were all potential shelters. It didn’t matter, because the bottom line was being ready, as no one knew when or if the worst would happen.
Just so we’re not left hanging, the film winds up with everyone’s fears being realized. Will we be all right? Depends on if we’re prepared.
While The Atomic Cafe is fascinating from beginning to end, it only gives the thinnest veneer of presenting Cold War culture. This isn’t surprising, because the aim of cinema verité is to foster doubt in a viewer’s mind. Loader and the Rafferty brothers set out explicitly to make viewers question the United States government’s ability to protect Americans. The problem is that what they do present as facts are false.
One of the film’s biggest fumbles is that the preface portrays the United States as the aggressors against Japan. This was definitely not the case, because it ignores all the events that occured prior to the atomic bombs being dropped, such as Pearl Harbor, the rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, Corregidor, and the way prisoners of war, both military and civilian, had been starved and beaten by the Japanese, if they were left alive at all.
When America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the entire world became aware that a new age had begun. The media of the day was cautiously optimistic, such as this program put on by the Army Air Force. Many people during the war saw the atomic bomb as a mixed blessing. One one hand, there was speculation and apprehension as to what this new weapon could mean for mankind. On the other, plenty knew that dropping the atomic bomb sped a terrible war to a quick conclusion. Even if the bombs hadn’t been dropped, the United States was planning a land invasion called Operation Downfall, which would have cost an estimated ten million lives. It is fortunate that Japan surrendered when it did.
With the passage of time, however, there is less willingness on the part of many to consider the context of the atomic bomb and more desire to paint the United States as the sole bad guy. As I said on our first Friday, our enemies were busy with their own nuclear programs, and as far as the United States was concerned, it was best to err on the side of caution. We Americans weren’t about to wait and see what these people were going to do, because we knew what they would do if given half a chance. Therefore, prudence dictated we get there first. For The Atomic Cafe to portray dropping the bomb as an unprovoked act of evil does a great disservice to the reality of the World War Two period, and that’s disappointing.
For me, as a member of Generation X, the film is a curiosity, because I remember the tail-end of the Cold War. My house in Pleasant Hill had a fallout shelter in the backyard. The silly thing wasn’t built properly and would flood every year, but it was still pretty cool. We also did Duck and Cover drills when I was in elementary school, only we were told it was for earthquake preparedness. My high school had two fallout shelters and quite a large cache of Civil Defense supplies, which were only recently discovered. Not only that, but I knew many kids and families in the Bay Area who had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, most of the time with only what they could carry in a few suitcases. They were absolutely overjoyed and overwhelmed to be in America in a way I’ve never seen before or since, matched only by immigrants from communist China. These kinds of things make a big impression on a kid.
For my parents, the Cold War was even more immediate. They both graduated from high school in 1960, which means the fifties are a time they remember very well, and again, there’s a big gap between the way the decade is portrayed in this film and their experiences. When I watched The Atomic Cafe with them a couple of months ago, they thought the film was fascinating, but there was a lot that they didn’t recognize.
My mom especially, lived about a mile from the Inland section of the Concord Naval Weapons Station in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area while she was growing up, and she heard air raid sirens on a regular basis. My dad also grew up in the East Bay, and until recently the Navy have always had a big presence there, so it could be assumed that they would have felt like they were under threat more than some. However, neither one have ever told me that they lived in fear, even though they would have been old enough to understand the political complexities of the time.
This is not just anecdotal evidence, either. When it came down to it, for all the tension and fear Americans were supposed to feel during the nineteen-fifties, it didn’t translate into very many people installing shelters. In fact, by the time 1970 rolled around, the idea of home fallout shelters had gone by the wayside.
The Atomic Cafe is interesting, but as the Cold War gets further in the rear view mirror, fewer and fewer will understand what the nineteen-fifties were like. They certainly won’t know any of the people featured in the film, such as Colonel Tibbets and the Rosenburgs. Without proper context, any value this film may have had in capturing a period of history will be reduced to almost nothing, and that’s too bad. However, as long as there are people around who can fill in the blanks and correct the biases, it will remain a compelling if not-quite-factual novelty.
All right, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me next week when we take a look at Lee Grant with Realweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman’s Place. Another Atomic Age Friday is on the way, too. Have a good weekend, everyone and see you later!
This film is available on Amazon.