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AMERICAN POLITICAL FILMS: 1968-1980
WILLIAM A. RENKUS
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
O 2007 William A. Renkus
In loving memory to my parents
I thank Dr. Churchill Roberts for his advice, encouragement, and patience in
dealing with a work in process. I also wish to thank Dr. Bernell Tripp for inspiring an
interest in mass communication history and for our productive discussions on film
history. I thank Dr. Lynda Kaid for her mentorship and expertise in political
communications. I thank Dr. Julian Pleasants for lectures that provided historical context
to my research.
I thank Dr. Margot Lamme for her insights into research methodology and Dr.
Julian Williams for helping me to improve as a teacher. I also thank my professors, my
fellow students, and the administrative staff in the College of Journalism and
Communications, for challenging me intellectually and assisting me in my academic
I acknowledge a lifetime of relationships that have provided a platform for
achievement. Everyone I have worked with at Pittsburgh Community Television (PCTV),
Spectacor Management Group (SMG), and the Rivers Of Steel National Heritage Area
(ROSNHA) provided treasured comradeship and a wealth of important life experiences.
Finally, I could not have achieved a fraction of my goals without the love and support of
my mother and father and my sister Tracy.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. .................... iv
AB S TRAC T ......_ ................. ..........._..._ viii..
1 BACKGROUND ................. ...............1....._.._ ......
Significance of the Study ........_................. ............_........1
Film Studies ..........._..._ ...............8....._.._ ......
Film History ....._ ._ .................. ..........._.........1
The Developmental School ........_................. ........_._ ......... 1
T he Economic School ................. ..............._ 13......... ....
The Cultural School ................. ...............15...............
Film History as a Genre ........_................. .........._. .......1
Politics in Film ........._..._... ............. ...............20.....
The Historical Analysis of Film .............. ...............28....
2 FROM POSTWAR CONSENSUS TO THE TURBULENT 1960s IN
AMERICAN POLITICS AND FILM .............. ...............32....
American Political Consensus 1940s -1960s .....__.___ ..... ... ._._ ......_.... ......3
The 1960s: Ferment in America .............. ...............37....._.__ ...
National Trauma and Social Disruption .............. ...............45....
American Consensus in Films: 1940s 1960s ................. ............... 46.............
Presidential Biographies and Political Films ................. ....._._. .............. .....48
The 1960s: Ferment in the Film Industry ................. ............_._.... 52._._._..
3 REVOLUTION: WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), M~EDIUM COOL (1969) ...........57
Key Political Events of 1968 .............. ...............59....
Fourteen or Fight .............. ...............61....
Film Style............... ......... ..........6
American International Pictures .............. ...............66....
Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss ....__ ......_____ ...... ......_......6
Music and Politics............... ...............70
The Whole World is Watching ............ .....___ ...............73..
Personal and Political Commitment .............. ...............76....
Production History ............ ..... .._ ...............80...
Mediated Realities .............. ...... ...............84
Marginalized Socio-Economic Groups............... ...............86.
Messages in the Medium .............. ...............87....
4 REFORM: THE CANDIDA TE (1972), WALKING TALL (1973) .............. ..... ..........93
The Campaign............... ...............95
Fathers and Sons ................. ...............98.___ ......
The Debate............... ...............99.
The Home Stretch ............. ...... ._ ...............100...
A Touch of Evil ................... ......__ .......__ ...........10
Campaign Experiences of the Filmmakers ......._ ......... ___ ........._ ......10
Critical Reaction ............. ...... __ ...............108...
To Thy Own Self Be True ................. ...............110....... ...
Law and Order in America ................. ...............112............
Walk Tall or Don't Walk At All ............... ...............114..._.._ ...
Coming Home ................. ...............115__._.......
Nice Versus Vice ....... ................ ........___.........11
Buford and Obra ................ ...............118................
A Touch of Evil ................. ...............119......... .....
Reaction to the Film............... ...............121.
Print the Legend ................. ...............125................
Political Values ................. ...............126................
5 COVER-UP: CHINA TO WN (1974), THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), and ALL
THE PRESIDENT 'S M~EN (1 976) ............. .....__ ...._ ...........2
Politics as Usual ............. ...... ._ ...............132..
Chinatown as Metaphor ............. ...... .__ ...............134..
Parallels to W atergate ............. ...... ._ ...............138..
The Creative Process .............. ...............141....
V alues ............. ...... ._ ...............143..
The Fourth Estate ............. ...... ._ ...............146..
Critical Response ............. ...... ._ ...............150..
The Journalist as Hero .............. ...............152....
Falling in Love with The Post .............. ...............153....
Follow The M oney .............. ...............156....
W hat Ever it Takes .............. ...............158....
Your Lives Are In Danger ............. ...... .__ ...............161.
Critical Response ............... ......... ._ .......__ ............16
The Role of The Press in the Political Process ......____ .......___ ...............164
6 REPLACEMENT: NASHVILLE (1975), TAXT DRIVER (1976) ................... ...........167
New Roots .............. ...............168....
200 Years ............. ...... ._ ...............172....
New Leaders ............. ...... __ ...............174...
M management .............. ...............177....
Assassination .............. ...............178....
Production of the Film ................ ...............180...............
Critical Response ................. ...............183................
Replacem ent .............. ...............186....
Alienation .............. ... ...............188.
Crazed Loner As Ironic Hero .............. ...............192....
Disengagement .............. ...............196....
Critical Response ................. .. .......... ...............199......
A New Generation Has Gone Forth............... ...............201.
7 INTRO SECTION: THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN (1979) & BEING
THERE (1979) ................. ...............203......... .....
Industry Trends ................. ...............204................
Charisma ................. ...............206................
Ambition ................. ...............208................
Domestic Conflict............... ...............210
Creative Influences ................ ...............213................
Critical Reaction ................ ...............215................
Dual Nature............... ...............217
The Me Decade ................. ...............219................
Changing Channels.................... .............22
The Rich, They Are Not Like Us............... ...............224..
The Wise Fool ................. ...............225...............
M edia Reality ................. ...............228................
Production Hi story ................. ...............23. 1......... ....
8 CONCLU SION................ ..............23
Rituals of Power ................. ...............240...............
Political Critiques .............. ...............245....
Values ................... ...............250.
Conformity to History............... .... .............25
Future Political Values, Films, and Events............... ...............260
Implications for Future Research............... ...............26
What Do We Do Now............... ...............266..
APPENDIX: FILMS IN STUDY .............. ...............269....
WORKS CITED .............. ...............271....
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............294....
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
AMERICAN POLITICAL FILMS: 1968-1980
William A. Renkus
Chair: Churchill L. Roberts
Major: Mass Communication
My study examined the values, attitudes, and beliefs depicted in American political
films from 1968 to 1980. A historical analysis of eleven films was used to chart the
changing landscape of an important transitional period in both American film and
Motion pictures are instruments of mass communication. As such, they are
products of their times and are answerable to market forces. For this reason, they can be
used as artifacts of cultural history. Examination of the political film genre contributes
increased knowledge into the relationship between those who govern and those who are
governed. The political film genre has reflected society's changing attitudes toward
political leaders, the role of the electorate, the role of the media, the proper response to
national crisis, the proper agenda of public issues, and the ethical responsibilities of
Historical analysis of eleven films was used to chart the changing landscape of an
important transitional period in both American film and political history. Films were
chosen based on the inclusion of recurring genre conventions of character and plot,
including maj or characters that aspire to or hold political office, are removed from
political office, or report on the political activities of governmental office holders.
Political films of this era reflected and abetted the erosion of the American political
consensus of the post World War II era. These films found fault with political leaders and
the political process, offered harsh critiques of the pace of social reform, questioned the
value of existing economic and media structures. As a result, an era of American self-
confidence was replaced by an era of ironic detachment and political cynicism.
This study examined the depiction of politics in American motion pictures from
1968 to 1980. Motion pictures have been one of the most important entertainment forums
of the last century. Because of their influential status, films can be used to help identify
the values that were deemed important by a particular society at a particular time. The
study of films can contribute another facet to the mosaic of historical truth. For this
reason, they are worthy of historical analysis. The study of film provides insight into how
filmmakers reacted to the changing political climate of the time, which political norms,
attitudes, and beliefs were challenged, and how these norms, attitudes, and beliefs have
altered over time.
Significance of the Study
Creators of popular entertainment have often commented on the political climate of
their times. Aristophanes' Lysistrata satirized pacifism, Shakespeare' s Hamnlet addressed
the choice of regicide, and Arthur Miller' s The Crucible was an allegory for the excesses
of McCarthyism. Filmmakers have also utilized their medium to comment on politics.
Frank Capra' s Mr. Smlithr Goes to Wa~shington (1939) cautioned against the evils of
political corruption, The Can2didate (1972) depicted the corrosive effects of personal
ambition and Wag the Dog (1997) illustrated the ease with which political reality can be
Artists who operated within popular entertainment forums created all of these
works. Market forces compelled them to reflect the perspectives of their audiences.
Individual beliefs motivated them to inspire new ways of thinking. This is also true of
many filmmakers who have worked in the American motion picture industry.
Filmmakers are products of their times. They have both an economic and an artistic
motivation to understand the society they live in. At the same time, filmmakers must
make choices as to what is included in and excluded from their productions. Because of
these factors, motion pictures can be utilized as valuable historical artifacts. An
examination of the plot, characters, style, and structure contained in a film helps to
explain the historical context in which it was produced. Therefore, an examination of
American political films produced from 1968 to 1980 increases our understanding of the
historical context within which they were created.
Films of this period are worthy of study for other reasons. An examination of
motion pictures adds to the literature of mass communication history. A great deal has
been written about film history in such other disciplines as English and Rhetoric. These
disciplines have approached the study of film from an aesthetic point of view. They have
sought to trace the history of film language and film art. Mass communications history
provides a unique perspective that leads to a greater understanding of the role that each
mass medium has played in the development of society.
The field of mass communication has contributed a great deal to the understanding
of the effects that media have had on society, but there is a need for the reverse. It is
important to discover the effects that society has had upon media. It is also important to
increase our knowledge of film history. There has been a great deal of valuable research
on journalism, print, and broadcasting in mass communication history, but not as much
research on entertainment media. The field of mass communication history is a proper
venue for the study of motion pictures as well as j ournalism, radio, and television. If one
wishes to understand American society in the era of the penny press, it is necessary to
turn to The New York Sun. In order to understand American society in the twentieth
century, one must go to the movies.
The motion picture has long held a unique place in the national consciousness.
Motion pictures have offered an experience that other media could not. Attendance at a
motion picture has always required its audience to make an effort. They have had to leave
their homes, travel to the theater, and purchase a ticket. Films have also occupied a
unique place in the audience's imagination. Images found on the silver screen could often
seem to be more real than reality. Are schools of great white sharks to be found lurking at
every beach in America? Did John Wayne really win World War II single handedly?
Who is the more real Lincoln, the man pictured on our currency, or the man portrayed by
Historical reality can be mediated by film reality. It is important for society to
understand how filmmakers have used their craft to mediate the reality of important
issues. Issues of governance and political leadership have always been of paramount
importance. The communication of these mediated realities has changed through different
eras in history.
The history of American motion pictures can be divided into different eras
including, the silent era, the classic era, and the current era of multinational corporate
ownership. Each era has presented a different vision of America. The Great Depression,
for instance, resulted in both escapist dance movies -- Flying Down to Rio (1933) -- as
well as antihero gangster films -- The Public Enemy (1931). Moments of crisis within
society or within the motion picture industry have often resulted in films that have broken
previous conventions. This was true of the period beginning in the late 1960s.
The late 1960s and early 1970s has been labeled the era of the "New Hollywood."
This was an important period in film history because several influential filmmakers had
an opportunity to exercise unprecedented creative freedom. Economic factors within the
industry provided an opportunity for new filmmakers to emerge. These new writers and
directors were fresh from film schools or from the television medium. They took chances
both artistically and thematically. Their work remained commercially successful, but it
also challenged traditionally held values regarding morality, authority, and social norms
This period in film history was the last time that motion pictures could stand alone
as important cultural events. After this time, films became but one part of a corporate
media package designed to cross promote video rentals, music sales, and product
endorsements. By the end of the 1970s, the American motion picture industry had
regained its economic footing. That economic turn around was facilitated by the
production of big budget blockbusters that could no longer afford to challenge the status
quo (Biskind 343).
The period from 1968 to 1980 was not only significant in film history; it was also
an important period in American political history. The year 1968 was especially eventful.
Violence at the Democratic National Convention tore the party apart and provided
headlines for the antiwar movement. The country was traumatized by the assassinations
of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy. President Lyndon Johnson
announced that he would not seek reelection. Johnson's "Great Society" would come to
be replaced by Richard Nixon' s Silent Maj ority." The election of Richard Nixon
signaled a shift from the liberalism of the 1960s to greater conservatism of the 1970s.
The decade of the 1970s continued to bring change. This era was marked by
important events that would shake public confidence in their government. These events
included scandals, tax revolts, terrorism, and national malaise. By the end in the 1970s,
America was a different nation. The electorate had become disenchanted with the
political status quo. A new maj ority rej ected the politics of the 1960s. This new majority
would eventually turn to a man from outside the political establishment to fill the
presidency. Motion pictures reflected these important real world events. They have been
depicted directly in motion picture content as well as in the back-story within film plots,
the characterization of maj or players, and in the violation of audience expectations.
Films involving the depiction of the political process in the United States are the
subj ect of this study. Other genres of motion pictures, no doubt, would provide insight
into certain aspects of American society as well. Important public issues have been the
subject of a broad array of film genres including the gangster film, the labor film, the
prison film, the juvenile delinquent film, the racial conflict film, the ecological disaster
film, and the war film. Each one of these genres addresses a social problem. Social
problem films are differentiated from political films by their presentation of a single
topical issue rather than an examination of the established political structures designed to
govern over the long term. It is the political film genre that best illustrates the relationship
between those who govern and those who are governed. The political film genre has most
directly addressed society's attitudes toward political leaders, the role of the electorate,
the role of the media, the proper response to national crisis, the proper agenda of public
issues and the ethical responsibilities of governmental leaders.
At this point, it should be asked what the definition of a political film is. Some
authors rely on personal experience to recognize a political film when they see one.
Noted film critic Andrew Sarris remarked, "Even the most escapist movies manage to
make statements about society and its ideology" (9). Many scholars have accepted a
broad definition, based on the presence of ideological content within each film. This is
especially true of radical film theorists. In his definition of political films, Mike Wayne
considered issues of social and cultural emancipation of prime importance. According to
Wayne, political films are those designed to radicalize the masses in their struggle against
dominant culture (5). Mas'ud Zavarzadeh agreed with Wayne's analysis, adding that
western political films are often designed to homogenize the past or to make dominate
culture appear harmless and therefore inevitable (153). These are rather broad definitions
of political films because almost all Hollywood films tend to reflect the dominant culture.
Beverly Kelly agreed that filmmakers utilize a diverse range of vehicles to deliver a
political message, from screwball comedy to biography to western. In an attempt to
narrow the field of discussion, Kelly suggested a definition based on the presence of
political ideology defined as "integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a
governmental policy" (2). The presence of ideology alone, however, still would result in
the inclusion of most Hollywood productions.
In Films by Genre, Daniel Lopez defines political films as those that attempt to
reaffirm the political beliefs shared by a social group, convert others to that point of view,
or discover the hidden motivations behind the actions undertaken by an established
political bureaucracy. This definition of the political film genre is quite useful because it
includes the presence of both ideological content, as well as an examination of the
underlying political structure of a society. As an example of this definition, Lopez cited
the Greek film Z (1968) as a seminal work in the political film genre because of its
critique of political expediency and injustice in the 1960s Greek political system (228-
Political films are defined as those that seek to examine the shared ideology, as
well as the underlying political structure of a society. In addition, the political film is
more narrowly defined as those films that incorporate recurring genre conventions of
character and plot, including major characters that aspire to or hold political office, are
political staff members, organize anti-govemnmental protests, or report on the political
activities of governmental office holders.
Based on this definition, The Internet M~ovie Data Ba~se online film bibliography
selection criteria and to provide the most valuable historical film artifacts of the study
period. No attempt was made to favorably or unfavorably judge the ideology found in the
work of writers, directors, or producers. Because filmmaking is a collaborative business,
the work of all key contributors was examined. Only profitable films produced and
distributed in America, from 1968 to 1980, were considered. The most complete DVD
versions of the films were then secured for viewing. They are as follows:
All The President 's 2en. Warner Brothers, 1976.
Being There. Lorimar Film Entertainment, 1979.
The Candidate. Warner Brothers, 1972.
Chinatown. Paramount, 1974.
Medium Cool. Paramount, 1969
Nashville. American Broadcasting Company, 1975.
The ParallarPPP~~~~PPP~~~PPP View. Paramount, 1974.
The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Universal, 1979.
Taxi Driver. Columbia, 1976.
Walking Tall. Bing Crosby Productions, 1973.
Wildln The Streets. American International Pictures, 1968.
Motion pictures have always generated intense popular interest. The exploits of
early pioneers were enthusiastically reported on in the press of the day. To most people,
motion pictures were an interesting new technology that provided harmless
entertainment. Others saw them as escapist and not worthy of serious thought. Many
people still do. The early study of motion pictures suffered because of these popular
The movies became the subj ect of countless fan magazines, gossip columns, and
movie star biographies. These writings were beamed toward the popular mass market.
There was, however, some early academic interest in film. In 1916, the psychologist
Hugo Munsterberg commented on motion picture's ability to break down rational notions
of space and time within the minds of the audience (401). In 1929, Russian director
Sergei Eisenstein explained the art of film editing and its mastery by D. W. Griffith (25).
SThe study of film did not become popular until the latter half of the twentieth century. The 1960s saw an
explosion of film studies classes and in the number of film related publications. See Jowett and Linton 13).
In 1933, a team of sociologists, under the direction of the head of the Bureau of
Educational Research at Ohio State University W. W. Charters, produced a series of ten
volumes that became known as The Payne Fund Studies. The Payne Fund Studies found
that children were frequent viewers of movies and that these movies depicted themes of
crime and sex that had ill effects on America' s youth (Rogers 191). In addition, noted
critics such as James Agee and Manny Farber wrote serious pieces about films and the
motion picture industry. The Nation, The New Republic, and Time Magazine published
their work in the 1940s and 1950s.
Film continued to be studied throughout the mid-century, but it was primarily
through the work of European writers that Hollywood films finally achieved artistic
legitimacy. The auteur theory of film, promoted by the writers of the French publication
Calhiers du Cinema, elevated underappreciated American directors to the status of artists.
The Auteur movement was soon endorsed by American film critics who began to
champion directors working within the Hollywood studio system (Schatz and Perren
The idea that American filmmakers could be worthy of the term "artist" would
eventually lead to an explosion of academic interest in motion pictures. Knowledge of
critically acclaimed films and filmmakers became the mark of intellectual hipness.
Universities initiated degree programs in film studies and in film production. These
programs led to the development of more scholars as well as a generation of directors
who would begin to create innovative fi1ms in the 1960s and 1970s.
According to Schatz and Perren, the study of film has continued to evolve. It has
now achieved academic legitimacy. The field has diversified over the last quarter century
to include the study of genre, structures and semiotics, feminism, power, and economics
among others. However, the development of film studies "has been a bumpy one, as
scholars have attempted to strike a balance between industrial/institutional analyses and
textual/interpretive studies" (510). Significant advances in the field of film history have
helped to strike this balance by situating Hollywood "within the larger social and cultural
Film history can be seen as a part of film studies as well as mass communication
history. According to James Startt and William Sloan, the study of mass communications
history can be approached from three different perspectives including ideological,
professional, and cultural. Each of these perspectives has developed over time and has
subdivided into various schools.
The ideological approach encompasses the four earliest schools of mass
communication history. The Nationalist School interpreted early journalists as patriotic
figures; The Romantic School promoted the "great man theory" of history, The
Progressive School brought a reformist view to their work and The Consensus School,
which sought to emphasize the achievements of America and its mass media; especially
during times of national crisis. Those working from the professional perspective can be
found in the Developmental School. This group of scholars examined the professional
development of the media. The final perspective of mass communications historians
would be from the perspective of culture. Other perspectives assumed that media had a
maj or impact on society, but the Cultural School sought to study the impact of society on
the media. The cultural perspective enabled scholars to provide a better understanding of
how sociological forces, economics, and technology have acted on media (Startt and
The Developmental School
Motion picture technology developed at a much later date than print technology.
Film is a relatively new medium when compared to newspapers or books. Consequently,
many film histories have fallen into the more recent Developmental and Neo-Romantic
Schools. The primary focus of the Developmental School has been on the creation and
advancement of a new mass media industry. The contributions of pioneers and the
discovery of early inventions have been told continually. Biographies of important
writers, directors, producers, and movie stars have been written throughout every film
era. The structure of the Hollywood studio system and issues of film censorship also have
The work of early inventors has been a popular subj ect of the Developmental
School. The perfection of the first moving photographs by Eadweard Muybridge led to
the refinement of the first motion picture camera by Etienne Jules Marey. These
developments, along with the invention of the perforated film strip by the Edison
Laboratories and the first large screen proj ector by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, made it
possible for motion pictures to become both commercial and artistic successes. Soon,
millions of Americans thronged to nickelodeons and theaters to see the latest movies.2
A large body of work has celebrated the great films that were produced by the great
men in film history. This emphasis on great men would also indicate that the authors
SFor accounts of the development of the early motion picture industry, see Hampton; Bordwell and
Thompson; and Sklar.
were writing from the point of view of the Romantic School. Stories of individual
achievements can be found in works including Peter Bogdonovich's biography of John
Ford and Richard Schickel's book containing a series of interviews with other noted
directors such as George Cukor, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and
Raol Walsh. Other works examined the lives of studio heads such as the Warner brothers
and Louis B. Mayer. These biographies portray their subj ects as vital to the development
of the American film industry and reveal a great deal about the development of
production techniques. They also provide insight into the structure of the Hollywood
studio system and the industry's response to external attempts to control content.3
Issues of cinematic censorship have also been explored within the Developmental
School. The demise of the production code was researched by Brook. The history of the
Catholic Church' s Legion of Decency was studied by Skinner. Other challenges to the
ability of filmmakers to exercise their craft are found in Eckstein's account of events
surrounding the actions of the U. S. Congress House Committee on Un-American
Activities (HUAC). (Brook; Skinner; Eckstein).
Those writing in the Developmental School sought to explain how the motion
picture industry became successful. The contributions of early pioneers were highly
praised. This school's perspective has been favorable to its subj ects. They have been
depicted as contributing to free enterprise and artistic expression. More recent writers in
this School have congratulated filmmakers as promoters of freedom of speech.
3 For biographies of early pioneers of the motion picture industry, see Bogdonovich; Schickel; Freedland
The Economic School
The economic structure of the film industry has become a prime subj ect for film
historians. The movie business, however, has been difficult to analyze because of its
uncertain nature. Financing a motion picture is a gamble at best with investment
decisions made before anyone knows if the end product will be marketable. According to
J. E. Squire:
Many essential choices spring from intuitive leaps; most successful practitioners
possess a personal mix of creative and business sense; judgments frequently rely on
relationships and personalities; decision are often made with a long lead time,
making it harder to anticipate audience trends; and as far as profits are concerned,
the sky's the limit. (5)
For the first half of the twentieth century, the motion picture studios enjoyed
vertical integration. They controlled everything from production to distribution. Creative
personnel were signed to long term unbreakable contracts forcing them to work on
whatever proj ect management deemed appropriate. The final product was distributed to
theaters owned by the movie studios. As a consequence, competition was kept to a
minimum. During this period there were only seven maj or studios in the industry, and
studio heads ruled with almost complete autonomy.4
Hollywood's artistic and economic golden era spanned the period between the
invention of sychchronous sound in 1927 and the peak years for movie theater attendance
in the United States, 1946-1948. After this time, the industry faced many challenges
including antitrust lawsuits, the growth of the television industry, the increased
availability of highly innovative European films, and demographic changes in audiences.
The motion picture industry's response to these challenges proved to be inadequate.
SAccounts of the early structural development in the film industry can be found in Sklar; and Gabler.
Highly publicized productions such as Cleopatra (1963) lost considerable amounts of
money. A series of expensive theatrical failures had a negative influence on both the
Hollywood establishment and the nation's movie critics. Both groups began to believe
that European filmmakers had surpassed their American counterparts. Hollywood studios
had no solution for changing market situation and began to hemorrhage money. By the
decade of the 1960s, the vertical monopolies of several maj or studios were broken and an
era of corporate conglomeration had begun (Monaco 3-9).
Bernard Dick' s Engulfed: the Death ofParamount~~~PP~~~PP~~~PP Pictures and the Birth of
Corporate Hollywood (2001) on Gulf and Western' s take over of Paramount Pictures
illustrated how control of the film industry was wrested away from the old time studio
heads by modern corporations. Film moguls who, for all their faults, still loved movie
making no longer controlled the motion picture industry. Corporations replaced the studio
system with a cold, dispassionate emphasis on profits. This led to an increased number of
blockbuster productions that served to maximize the corporate bottom line.
All schools of film history have addressed budgets and box office--at least to some
degree. Those who wrote about the great studios of the 1930s would certainly include
analysis of the struggle for power between the moguls in Hollywood and the financial
executives of the studio who worked in New York. The Economic School, however, has
reflected a cultural perspective of history. They have moved away from the "great man"
theory of history to an investigation into motion pictures as an industry in the larger
national economic system. This industry-wide perspective has usually been negative and
has become even more prevalent in the modern era of corporate convergence.
The Cultural School
According to media historian Daniel Czitrom, the invention of motion pictures
initiated a new kind of art form that was made for a new kind of mass audience. Movies
used pictures and common language to convey their narrative. They brought together
large numbers of the working class and newly arrived immigrants to comprise their
audience. Films were shown in urban slum neighborhoods by enterprising exhibitors who
soon came to control the industry. The exhibitors and the audience were not members of
the upper class or the cultural elite. This was an art form for the masses. As such, it
caused growing concern among cultural traditionalists who sought to control this new
popular entertainment medium (44-45).
When members of the upper class pressured those in government to examine the
buildings in which fi1ms were presented, they found conditions to be wanting. Theaters
were dark and sanitation was poor. In 1908, the licenses of 550 movie theaters were
revoked in New York City. It was not until exhibitors began to build movie palaces in
neighborhoods beyond the urban slums that movies became socially acceptable. By the
1920s, films attracted not only lower class audiences, but middle and upper class
audiences as well (Czitrom 50).
Czitrom's concern was to discover how Americans thought about and reacted to the
creation of new media including telegraph, fi1m, and radio. Because of his interest in
early development, he limited his study of film history only to the first three decades of
the last century. A more comprehensive cultural history of motion pictures can be found
in the work of Robert Sklar.
In his book M~ovie Made America: A cultural History ofAmerican M~ovies, Sklar
wrote of the Hollywood Dream Factory and the importance of cultural myths in the
maintenance of social stability during the trying times of the 1930s and 1940s. According
The high priority the nation's leaders placed on recementing the foundations of
public morale was not lost on those producers and directors whose goal was
enhanced prestige, respectability, and cultural power. Moreover, they were quickly
gaining considerable skill at communicating their messages with subtle nuances
beneath the surface of overt content. (196)
Perhaps two of the most influential Hollywood mythmakers of mid century were
studio head Walt Disney and the director Frank Capra. In his discussion of Disney, Sklar
was able to incorporate anthropological research of Claude Levi-Strauss to show how
Disney's cartoons moved from fantasy to idealization. In his discussion of Capra, Sklar
illustrated the director' s ability to tackle contemporary social themes in fictional films as
well as in documentaries about World War II (199-214).
According to Robert Ray, Hollywood's ability to maintain social stability has been
related to structural and thematic elements of filmmaking. The continuity editing system
became the standard procedure for crafting a mainstream film. This system was
developed in the silent era and codified during Hollywood's Classic Era. Continuity
editing was meant to be seamless and imperceptible by the audience. As a consequence,
audiences were unaware that they were being swept away by the underlying ideology of
what they viewed (32).
The underlying ideology of classic period Hollywood productions was "the
avoidance of choice" between the outlaw hero and the official hero. According to Ray,
the outlaw hero represented American belief in self-determinism and freedom from
entanglements whereas the official hero stood for communal action and the rule of law.
The antihero and the hero have been present in numerous motion pictures. They have
echoed America' s tendency to mythologize historical individuals such as Davy Crockett
and George Washington. Film audiences encountered both outlaw heroes as well as
official heroes and the American film industry encouraged them to believe that they
could reconcile the values reflected by the two opposite film personas (59).
Ray's argument was that this reconciliation cultivated a cynical view of the world
and political inaction on the part of the audience. In their book Manufacturing Consent
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky maintained that motion pictures tendency to induce
political inaction is evidence of hegemony. These social critics have been interested in
exploring how powerful elites maintain the political status quo through manipulation of
film and other mass media (Herman and Chomsky).
Challenges to America' s status quo have been depicted in the genre of the
American social problem film. The history of this genre was researched by David
Manning White and Richard Averson. The authors found a long history of motion
pictures that have explored social problems of "racial and ethnic prejudice, drug
addiction, alcoholism, labor inequities, penal inhumanity, crime and juvenile
delinquency, corruption in politics and government, and that most cancerous of all social
ills, war"( 260).
The cultural perspective has provided a consideration of efforts by marginalized
groups to claim their stake in American popular awareness. The stereotypical portrayal of
Native Americans and the work of current Native American filmmakers have been
studied by Jacquelyn Kilpatrick. The identification with, and resistance to, the black
American cinema experience has also been explored by Ed Guerrero. In addition, Cynthia
Lucia has examined the theme of patriarchy in crisis in the female lawyer film genre.
(Kilpatrick; Guerrero; Lucia).
The study of genre history has provided a valuable entree into American cultural
history. The film portrayal of a particular sociological group can tell us how they were
regarded by society at different periods of time. The changing nature of an individual
genre can provide insight into the changing needs of an audience. The western has been a
staple of the American motion picture industry. Gary Wills' John Wayne 's America goes
beyond the Developmental School to examine why America has needed a frontier myth
and how a particular star has personified that myth.
A markedly different vision of the American hero was depicted in the "post-
traumatic cycle of films" that was produced in the period from 1970 to 1976. These films
reflected a loss of confidence in America and its institutions. The protagonists of the
films produced in this cycle were confident that they could control events, but their sense
of control is revealed to be an illusion. Eventually, the protagonists become trapped in
events that spiral out of their control. The result for the protagonist was tragedy, trauma,
and an inability to respond.'
Fictional characters were subject to lost illusions in films of the 1970s. According
to David Cook, this was also tr-ue of filmmakers. The late 1960s through the early 1970s
was a period of great social activism. The antiwar movement encouraged belief that a
new liberal consensus would emerge. Filmmakers bought into the permanence of this
new consensus and reflected this belief in the creation of more politically liberal films.
There was to be no permanent shift to the left however. The new consensus was an
illusion. By 1980, conservatives had regained control of the presidency and the country.
5 Films in this cycle include The Long Goodbye (1973), ht~roves (1975), and Heaven's Gate (1980).
See Keathley 297.
A second illusion, on the part of the filmmakers, was that mainstream American
audiences had become more interested in serious social and political films. This illusion
was shattered by the success of Jauys (1975) and Star Wars (1977) both of which
promoted "a juvenile mythos of 'awe' and 'wonder' in movies that embraced
conservative cultural values, yet did so within a superstructure of high-tech special
effects and nostalgia for classical genres" (Cook xv-xvi).
Film History as a Genre
Motion pictures have served as both conscious and unconscious recorders of
history. American motion pictures have often turned to historical events or biographies
for their subject matter. History has been used to apply a patina of prestige to fictional
works. This has been especially true of biographies. As a measure of this prestige, one
can tally the numerous awards that have been earned by this genre. In fact, the Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated at least one historical film for Best
Picture every year from 1986 to 2001 (Toplin 6).
Not everyone has been pleased with the success of historical motion pictures. The
portrayal of historical events on film has been chastised by historians for its inaccuracy.
These fi1ms have often been misleading in their depiction of real events, and academics
fear that the public will obtain their knowledge of history solely from cinema. Those who
learn from false history are doomed to repeat this falsehood.
On the other hand, Robert Toplin maintains that a blanket condemnation of the
historical film genre has been unrealistic because filmmakers must operate under
different commercial and structural constraints than historians. In addition, to dismiss
cinematic history "comes with a price. It segregates scholars from important discussions
of the subj ect that are taking place beyond the academy." 6
An interesting facet of motion pictures is that they can also perform the function of
unconscious recorders of history. According to Charles Maland, Stanley Kubrick' s 1964
fil m, Dr. Strange love: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was
created within the dominant American cold war paradigm, but used satire to rej ect the
ideology of liberal consensus. This nightmare comedy rej ected the two cornerstone
assumptions of that ideology: "that the structure of American society was basically sound
and that Communism was a clear and present danger to the survival of the United States"
(191). This film marked a turning point in American thought. The national complacency
of the 1950s was soon to be replaced as Americans began to question its political
leadership and that leadership's foreign policy.
The history of motion pictures has been examined from the perspective of various
schools of thought. Films have been viewed as examples of artistic expression,
technological innovation, economic development, governmental regulation, sociological
impact, cultural transmission, mythic reality, and recorders of history. Each perspective
has increased our understanding of the medium. An examination of the history of the
depiction of politics on film has benefited from a variety of perspectives as well.
Politics in Film
Politics plays a vital part in the life of every citizen. The allocation of goods and
services can mean life and death to a community in crisis. The application of power can
b For a series of articles on inaccuracies in historical films, see Carnes. For a defense of the film history
genre, see Toplin 4.
change the course of history for good or for ill. Those who wield political power inspire
great passion as well as ambivalence. According to Philip Gianos:
It is difficult to imagine an area of human life more fraught with ambivalence than
politics. It is not that we love politicians or hate them; it is that we love and hate
them. Political life embodies, simultaneously, great aspiration and great
disillusionment, and this mix of aspiration and disillusionment is simultaneously
individual and collective. The success or failure of an individual politician becomes
the success or failure of the community from which the person comes and which
that person, at some level, represents. Everyone is happy when Jefferson Smith
According to Beverly Merill Kelly, this tension between the individual and
community is the most reliable method of recognizing a truly American fi1m. The first
American settlers arrived on these shores seeking independence from their native lands.
Once they established a new country, they faced the duality of political reality. Since the
beginning of the republic, Americans have both hated strong central authority and
idealized group consensus. Other dualities exist in the American political psyche
including contrasting goals of populism/elitism, fascism/antifascism,
intervention sm/i solationi sm, and personal responsibility/social safety nets. According to
Kelly, these contrasting ideologies typify classic Hollywood productions such as M~r.
.Glithr Goes to Wa~shington (1939) (4).
Jefferson Smith, the protagonist in Frank Capra' s film M~r. .Glithr Goes to
Wa~shington, is the archetypal American political film hero. He represents populism,
antifascism and personal responsibility, with just a touch of elitism included for good
measure. This motion picture, produced during the classic period of American
Hollywood cinema, totally captures the values of depression era America. It also falls
within the first of three historical periods within the political film genre.
According to Harry Keyishian, motion pictures of the first period, from 1900 to the
mid 1940's, depicted a hero who could maintain both integrity and political power. The
hero would often be an amateur or an outsider who would redeem society. In the films of
the second period, from the mid 1940's to the 1990's, the protagonist was forced to make
a choice between integrity and political power. To choose one would serve to forfeit the
other. In films from 1990 onward, there has been a return to the outsider who has
attempted to redeem the political process. These films present a more sophisticated
political hero than the innocent protagonists of the classic period.'
There would appear to be little ambiguity present in the film character of Jefferson
Smith. He appears to be the quintessential film hero and is depicted as "a simple man
whose strength comes from the land and his family and friends" (Gianos 100). Jefferson
Smith believes in the purity of the American constitution and the rule of law. This is in
contrast to the sophistication of the corr-upt city dwellers and their "jungle law." Smith is
an example of the official hero. He has confidence in the nobility of the average citizen
and it is he who tries to redeem the corrupt political system by refusing to compromise.
the strength and purity of Smith' s personality save the soul of the Senate (Gianos 100).
The depiction of Jefferson Smith as a hero of the little people resonated with
depression era progressivism and the audience's distrust of class elites. Smith also can be
seen as a member of the elite class. Throughout the film he claims to speak for the
downtrodden, but he refuses to listen to their telegraph messages urging him to stop his
Senate filibuster. According to Gianos, this makes Smith a more ambivalent character
SExamples of films from the first period include Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Wilson (1944). Films from
the second period include The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Seduction ofJoe Tynan
(1979). Films from the last period include Bob Roberts (1992) and Bulworth (1998). See Keyishian.
and changes the meaning of the fi1m into a question of which elite should rule, rather than
which class (100).
According to Keyishian, political films of the second period included films about a
corrupted hero such as All The King 's M~en (1949). This film was based on a Pulitzer
Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. The book, as well as the film, was a thinly
veiled retelling of the political career of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. All The King 's
Men contrasted the idealism of Governor Willie Stark' s early campaign rhetoric with his
later dishonesty in office. The fi1m asks whether Stark' s downfall is the "product of free
will or of original sin; whether he is a good man corrupted by the political process; or a
bad one whose inherent vice emerges when he gets a chance for power" (Keyishian 18).
Political films of the third period have been studied as well. Films such as Bob
Roberts (1992), Wag the Dog (1997), and Birk1 1, thr (1998) continued the ambivalent
trend toward politics and politicians. In contrast to Keyishian however, Brian Neve has
maintained that the fi1ms of the 1990s have emphasized the self-interest of politicians and
have provided no sense of their possible redemptive qualities (19).
Political films have been studied according to the chronological era in which they
were produced. In addition, films have also been categorized according to how directly
they have addressed the subject of politics. Films can be either overtly concerned with the
political process as in M~r. SGittit Goes to Wa~shington (1939), partially concerned with
certain elements of the political process as in Citizen Kane (1941), or they can introduce
political themes into other genres as in Stagecoach (1939).
The American presidency has been central to the plot of numerous films in the
political genre. Abraham Lincoln has been the subj ect of over thirty theatrical releases.
Lincoln was a great man, in history as well as in film. The deliberate and skillful casting
of certain actors reinforces his positive image. In particular, three legends of the silver
screen-Henry Fonda, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy-stand out as being "the
prototypical heroic Hollywood president" (Schleben and Yenerall 87).
This focus on presidential character has moved from the movies to real life.
Character issues hounded Gary Hart during the 1988 Democratic primaries and President
Bill Clinton endured "Monicagate" in 1998-1999. The way that the presidency has been
portrayed has come to influence the way the public perceives the executive branch (111).
How can a modern president possibly measure up to the public perception of a man
perceived to be as noble as Lincoln? One way would be to adopt the myth making
strategy of American motion pictures. President John Kennedy had a natural gift for
proj ecting a likable image. President Richard Nixon did not. According to Neal Gabler,
his solution was to provide the media with set pieces that:
Presented you as having achieved what you had said you wanted to achieve
whether or not you had actually achieved it, just as during the campaign one
provided set piece that showed you were what you said you were whether or not
you actually were. (109)
The modern politician has become a skilled manipulator of image. He has also
blended popular film culture with reality. President Ronald Reagan adopted Star Wars
(1977) terminology in his proposals for national defense against the "evil empire." At a
more subtle level, the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) reversed the role of the
robot from the future portrayed by actor, now governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The
robot, once evil, was now good. This simplistic reversal echoed and eased other real
policy reversals "toward Saddam in the Gulf and, two years earlier, Noriega in Panama"
According to Gianos, an example of a film that is partially concerned with politics
would be Citizen Kane. The political aspects of this film are used to reveal the
psychological makeup of its main character. The young Kane was deprived of maternal
love and substitutes a drive for power for that loss. He maintains that he is running for
office because of a motivation for political reform, but he is really interested in public
adoration. Ultimately, the film is about "the tragedy of wealth and idealism gone wrong"
It would not seem likely that a traditional American western movie would address
serious political issues. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford, is the story of how a
mismatched band of people struggles to survive a perilous trek through Indian country.
Ford's film, like many of his other westerns, trades on the American frontier myth of
civilization's triumph over nature. According to Jeanne Heffernan, a closer inspection of
his films reveals that Ford's use of setting:
Provokes a thoughtful uneasiness about the very myths the films present. Indeed,
Ford's Westemns reveal a subtle appreciation for the complexity of human relations,
a wariness of pretensions to virtue, and a profound ambivalence toward the
possession of power. (147)
A number of film scholars, including Michael Parenti, have maintained that
American entertainment films, including classic westerns, propagate images supportive
of imperialism, capitalism, authoritarianism, and militarism in what he considers to be an
insidious mix of entertainment and reality. Other authors, including Dana Polan,
contrasted American avant-garde films with mainstream productions such as Grea~se
(1978) finding that they contained escapist fantasies and a promotion of capitalism. In
addition, M. Keith Booker provided a comprehensive survey of film and the American
left identifying political films as those that addressed an inherent conflict between
proletariat ideals and maj ority repression (Parenti 2; Polan 59; Booker x-xii).
Dan Nimmo and James Combs also examined films as rituals of power. They
maintain that the movie-going experience serves to mediate reality for the audience. The
Hollywood Dream Factory bridges the real world and the reel world through the creation
of fantasy. The Hollywood Dream Factory constructs stories that tap into the "mythic
folklore and narrative tradition of a culture." Audiences recognize and respond to these
metaphorical representations of reality and fables of cultural heritage through "fantastic
learning" that results in "a learned sense of who and where they are" (109-1 10).
Nimmo and Combs go on to identify the different fantasies of ritualized political
power that Hollywood has created during the decades of the last century. The Populist
Fantasy, found in films from the 1930's, helped audiences find scapegoats for hard times.
The Commitment Fantasy of the 1940's was personified in the choice of political
reengagement made by the Rick Blaine character in Casablanzca (1942). The Alien
Fantasy, of the 1950s, could be manifested by different audiences in different manners
even when watching the same film. hzvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) invited dual
interpretations as a fear either of creeping socialism or of creeping fascism. The Fantasy
of Change and Hope, of the 1960s, was seen in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968) that promised the triumph of a "transcendent power that would bring to earth
reconciliation through benevolent technology legitimized through higher truths." The
Fantasy of Renewal and Reflection of the 1980s brought nostalgia for a fantasy America
that newer quite existed (112-126).
The authors categorized the 1970s as "the big chill" era and the "me decade" when
"The American Dream drifted, and no political leader or force seemed able to capture the
public imagination." Nimmo and Combs also found it difficult to identify the focus of
political power in films of the 1970s. According to Nimmo and Combs "the social hopes
and commitments of previous movie heroes seemed to dissipate in the confusion and
even cynicism of the decade." This resulted in the creation of the Fantasy of Doubt and
Drift in motion pictures of the period (123 -124).
The decade of the 1970s was a transitional period. Nimmo and Combs intimate that
nothing much happened in this period. The popular conception of the era was one of self-
indulgence and inactivity, as in the "me decade." It is not necessarily true that the 1970s
were inconsequential. Periods of transition are interesting because they set the stage for
the next period of history. America did not just jump from Camelot to the Reagan era. It
would be wrong to overlook the history in between. Finding artifacts of this historical
journey is important because they provide us with a road map from one era to the next.
The unifying theme of the literature on political dramas has been ambivalence. The
political arena is where society allocates resources, settles scores, and redresses
grievances. The buck stops here. When hard times befall the nation, politicians feel the
heat. This is true in the real world as well as the world of Ection. Discovering the
political fables that have been used to mediate the realities of film audiences has helped
film historians understand different eras in the American experience.
Nimmo and Combs devoted but one chapter of their book to the mediation of
political realities through film and only two pages to the 1970s. Further exploration of
this decade adds to the body of knowledge within the Hield. In addition, Nimmo and
Combs found it difficult to identify the important political themes contained in films of
the 1970s. According to Allan Nevins, periods of crisis can reveal the innermost truths
about an individual--truths that even that person is not aware. This is true of society as
well. The American political system experienced a continual state of crisis in the 1970s.
A study of how society and mass culture reacted to those crises can reveal some of the
innermost truths about the nation (Nevins 217-23 5).
The work of Nimmo and Combs has provided a good starting point for further
research into mediated political realities. This study is an expanded examination of
cinematic mediated realities. Authors such as Keyishian have provided a broad overview
of political dramas. This study is an examination of one specific period of political film
history. Writers from critical approaches such as Rosenbaum, Parenti, and Polan have
added to our understanding of political films. There is still a need however, for research
from a historical rather than a theoretical point of view. An examination of film content
as historical artifact adds to our understanding of mediated political realities.
The Historical Analysis of Film
The goal of the historical analysis of film is to understand the social, economic, and
cultural context within which a production was created and/or to understand how a
production was received by audiences over time. In order to achieve this understanding, a
coherent and comprehensive methodology must be employed. The study of film as
historical artifact involves two stages of analysis (O'Connor 8).
The first stage in the historical analysis of film involves answering questions of
content, production, and reception. Answering questions of content involve close,
repeated viewings of the film under study. It is important to note what appears on the
screen, the sounds on the sound track, editing patterns used, point of view favored, and
characterizations that are included in the production. Are the costumes, dialects, and
rituals authentic to the time period of the film? It is also important to note how signs
symbols and narrative structures are utilized in order to communicate the film's message
Answering questions of production involves finding out how and why things were
included in the final work. A single person often creates historical manuscripts.
Filmmaking is a collaborative process. It is useful to discover who or what most
influenced the shaping of the film, the orientation and background of those involved in its
creation, the institutional constraints imposed by the films financial backers, and any
unexpected experiences that occurred during its creation. It is also important to discover
the historical context that the film was created in and to what extent the film was true to
that period (O'Connor 17 -19).
Answering questions of reception must be specific to the time of its creation and
not influenced by modern responses. It is useful to know what effect, if any, the film had
on the pace or direction of events at the time it was made, who saw the film and how it
was critically reviewed at the time of its release (O'Connor 19-23).
The second stage in the historical analysis of film requires the selection of one of
four frameworks of inquiry. According to O'Connor the frameworks are:
The Moving Image as Representation of History The representation on film of an actual
historical event either in the form of a documentary or a docudrama.
The Moving Picture as Evidence of Social and Cultural History The representation on
film of the values and belief systems of a society.
Actual Footage as Evidence of Historical Fact Actual historical events recorded as they
The History of the Moving Image as Industry and Art Form Industrial and artistic
developments within the film industry.
The second framework was chosen to examine political films because it facilitated
an investigation into the widely held core beliefs of the mass audience. The other three
frameworks seek to test fidelity to actual historic events or to chart the development of
the creative process. It was the purpose of this study, however, to contribute insight into
ongoing cultural change of the period. Motion pictures, it is true, provide but a single
avenue to investigate cultural change. Other media would provide additional insights.
Motion pictures were chosen because of their ability to capture the mass market, their
reliance on individual ticket sales rather than advertising revenue, and their traditional
role as repository of American dreams and aspirations.
The utilization of film as evidence of political, social, and cultural history involves
an examination of what political values are present in the film and how those values
correspond to other political, cultural, or social entities of the time. One must investigate
whether the film leads or follows political, social, or cultural trends. Interpretive biases,
as well as evidence of shared cultural plots, characters, symbols, or myths, must be
found. Is the film a strictly commercial work designed to strike existing chords, or is it
the work of an individual seeking to change the perceptions, values, or beliefs of society?
Finally, it should be noted that a film does not have to be hugely successful in order to be
a useful historical artifact. Productions that anger or bore an audience also produce a
response that can be significant to history (O'Connor 108 -117).
Based on a consideration of the literature and methodology, this study asked a
number of questions about political films of the period from 1968 to 1980. First, how did
films mediate political reality for audiences? What rituals and fables were considered
important and how did they change? Second, what were the political critiques put
forward in the films? Were they effective, did they change, and why? Third, what were
the important political values of the age? Did they change, why and how? Fourth, to what
extent do the films of the period from 1968 to 1980 conform to historical reality and other
accounts of historical reality? Finally, to what extent did the films influence present and
future political values, critiques, events?
FROM POSTWAR CONSENSUS TO THE TURBULENT 1960S INT AMERICAN
POLITICS AND FILM
The outcome of World War II had a profound effect on the confidence of the
American people. National belief in the supremacy of the American way of life had been
confirmed through victorious struggle on the battlefields of Europe and Asia. Americans
had united to defeat the dark forces of fascism and the nation emerged from the war as
one of the most dominant economic, military, and political powers on earth.
At the conclusion of World War II, America was one of the world leaders in terms
of its standard of living. This prosperity continued for the next two decades. The per
capital gross national product for the United States rose from $2,602 in 1958 to $4,379 in
1968. This compared to figures for the United Kingdom in the same years of $1,254 in
1958 to $1,861 in 1968. In 1962, America's infant mortality rate had fallen to 25.4 per
1000 live births. This compared to rates for the Federal Republic of Germany at 29.2 per
1000 live births in 1962 and India at 86.5 per 1000 live births in 1960. In 1967, the
United States spent 6.5 % of its national income on education and had a comparatively
high literacy rate of 97.8 % in 1959. Interestingly, the Soviet Union reported better
statistics for the same years at 7.3 % of its budget for education in 1967 and a literacy
rate of 98.5 % in 1959.
i See U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Per Capita Gross National Product by Country: 1958, 1963 and 1968,"
Statistical abstract of tie United States: 1970 (91"t edition) Washington DC: GovernmentPrinting Office,
1970: 810: "Vital Statistics and Net Food Supply," Statistical abstract of tie United States: 1963 (84th
edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963: 910: and "Education by Country,"
Statistical abstract of tie United States: 1970 (91st edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing
Office, 1970: 835.
The American manufacturing sector also led the world. In the 1960s, the United
States was ranked first in steel production, motor vehicles in use, and televisions in use.
In addition, the nation had more than six times the number of telephones in use than its
nearest competitor, Japan.2
It was in consumer products, however, that America most visibly outstripped the
rest of the world. America had more dwellings and more rooms per dwelling than any
other country. The United States also led the world in the production of cotton, rayon,
milk, beer, and cigarettes. In 1968, the United States produced 19.9 % of the world's
milk, 24.5 % of the world' s beer, and 22.8 % of the world' s cigarettes. Perhaps the
production of so much beer and cigarettes helps to explain why America also had by far
the most physicians. In any event, America in the postwar period experienced ever-
increasing material prosperity.3
The only possible threat to America's way of life was thought to be from the Soviet
Union. In the years after World War II, the number of communist nations had increased
to include The People' s Republic of China, much of Eastern Europe and some emerging
2 In 1968 the United States had 109,225,000 telephones in use compared to Japan with 17,331,000. See
U. S. Bureau of the Census, "Coal, Petroleum, Cement, Iron Ore, Sulfuric Acid and Steel by Country:
1968," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1970 (91st edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office,1968: 823; Transportation-Shipping, Railway Traffic, Civil Aviation and Motor
Vehicles," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1963 (84 h edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1963: 930; and "Communications-Telephones, Telegrams, Mail, Newspapers, Radio and
Television by Country: 1968," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1970 (91st edition) Washington DC:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970: 831.
3 For consumer statistics, see U. S. Bureau of the Census, Housing- Dwellings, Rooms, Occupancy and
Facilities," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1963 (84 h edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office,1963: 934; "Milk, Beer, Cigarettes, Fish, Cotton, Spindles and Yarn by Country: 1968,"
Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1970 (91st edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing
Office, 1970: 826; and "Education and Health," in Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1963 (84 h
edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963: 936.
third world nations including Cuba. The Soviets were seen as potential military rivals
bent on expanding what was thought to be a monolithic Communist Block. This potential
danger was met by the United States with a policy of containment designed to resist
Soviet expansion at every counterpoint. This policy of containment lead to a protracted
Cold War but spared the nation from a direct super power confrontation that could have
exploded into World War III.4
American Political Consensus 1940s -1960s
America' s postwar prosperity, along with its ability to maintain a policy of
containment, promoted a feeling of self-confidence. According to author Tom
Shachtman, this self-confidence was built on a shared system of beliefs that "were widely
held, honed to a Eine point and were most important to those who held them." Looking
back at the years from the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s, Shachtman identified a number of
shared American beliefs for the post World War II period. They are listed here
The first widely held American belief was in the "safety, sanctity and legitimacy"
of its national leaders. Americans believed that their society was stable and that it was
capable of changing leadership through the ballot box rather than through violence. They
also assumed that their leaders were of good character, their motives were pure, and they
were working for the steady improvement of society (Shachtman 22).
SIn 1968, the United States had 3,500,000 men under arms: the Soviet Union had 3,220,000, and mainland
China had 2,761,000. This is compared to much lower numbers for The United Kingdom of 450,000. See
"National Defense Expenditures, 1967 and 1968" and "Armed Forces Personnel, 1968 and 1969," in
Statistical~bstract of the United States: 1970 (91"t edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing
Office, 1970: 814. In 1960, national defense expenditures represented 49.8 % of the total federal outlay. It
is interesting to note that the % of total federal outlays actually went down to 45.0 % during 1968, the peak
year of the Vietnam conflict in terms of casualties. See "Federal Budget Outlays for National Defense and
Veterans Benefits and Services: 1959 to 1971," Statistical~bstract of the United States: 1970 (91"t edition)
Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970: 246.
The second belief was that of the gradual nature of social change. America had
problems, but they would be resolved. Along with this belief came a requirement that all
citizens willingly accept their lot in life. This requirement held even if their lot in life was
second-class citizenship due to poverty, race, class, or gender (Shachtman 22).
The third belief was in the health and superiority of the American economy. By the
1960s, Americans had "an almost unlimited sense of economic prosperity." The nation
had witnessed two decades of economic stability and growth. Americans had been freed
from the fear of economic depression and felt entitled to consume ever-greater levels of
material goods and services (Shachtman 23).
Americans also assumed that their natural resources were virtually limitless.
Energy was perceived to be cheap and plentiful. Pollution of the environment was "a
minor price to pay" for an advanced standard of living. American economic superiority
required no limits on its consumer culture (Shachtman 25).
Americans believed that they were and would continue to be militarily superior to
all other nations. The United States had succeeded in turning Germany and Japan into
allies, had dominated NATO, and had "won" in Korea. Americans believed that their
country had never lost a war. The basis of American foreign policy was in "defending the
world against communist encroachment," a task for which the nation needed to "remain
eternally vigilant" (24). This belief was the basis of what became know as The Cold War.
In addition, Americans believed that only they and the Soviets really mattered. It was
assumed that China was under the control of the Soviet Union and that the smaller, third
world and emerging nations could not affect the overall strategic balance of power.
According to Shachtman, Americans believed that their technology, ingenuity, and
money could solve all problems. Coupled with this was a profound belief in progress.
The United States was destined to conquer new frontiers and meet new challenges. This
progress was measured in growth. If a company did not increase sales each year, it was
said to be stagnating (26).
It was assumed that America' s youth would wait their turn on the ladder of upward
mobility. The national economy was thought to be ever growing. Because of this growth,
it was thought that young people should be willing to postpone gratification. The good
life was measured in the acquisition of creature comforts. It was assumed that young
people would conform to social norms in order to attain their eventual share of the good
life (Shachtman 27).
At the same time, the nuclear family was thought to be the bedrock of society.
Traditional gender roles were the norm for breadwinner, homemaker, and student.
Alternative family structures, sexual promiscuity, sexual experimentation, and graphic
sexual depictions were considered affronts to the sanctity of the nuclear family
According to Shachtman, a final postwar belief was that American society was the
"best possible realization of our potential, the model for the rest of the world and for the
future" (29). Americans believed that as a people they were constantly improving. It was
believed that America was a land of opportunity where even the son of a poor immigrant
family had the potential to become the leader of the most powerful and prosperous nation
Some of the beliefs shared by Americans in the post World War II era were
contradictory in nature. Individuals were encouraged to delay gratification at the same
time that they were bombarded with advertised images portraying the joys of mass
consumption. Americans believed theirs to be a rapidly improving land of opportunity,
but this belief was not universally applied. Some segments of society were encouraged to
accept improvement with the inherently contradictory "deliberate speed" rather than
actual speed. The contradictory nature of some of America' s shared beliefs would
eventually lead to uncertainty within individuals and ferment within society.
The 1960s: Ferment in America
The aftermath of World War II brought relative peace and prosperity to America.
Peace and prosperity however, also brought conformity. Many American leaders were
centrist in political philosophy. They firmly believed in the American system and the
need for stability. Men of this generation had lived through the economic trauma of the
Great Depression and had survived the carnage of World War II. Surviving such
upheaval made them less likely to tackle massive change.
A new political cohort, the first born in the Twentieth Century, would soon
challenge the conformity of the postwar years. A charismatic Senator from Massachusetts
would be elected president in 1960. President John F. Kennedy seemed to embody all that
was right about the American way of life. His family had risen from immigrant status to
great wealth. In his life, Kennedy became a war hero, married a glamorous wife, and
attained the highest onfce in the land.
5 For a biography of Kennedy's early life, military career, political career and presidency, see Dallek; for
Kennedy's charisma and generational impact, see Farber 31.
A new generation of Americans was also to challenge the conformity of the post
war years. This "baby boom" generation was different from past generations. They had
been exposed to the middle class aspirations of their parents. They had been marketed to
as a separate demographic group. They had been encouraged by their parents to think for
themselves, to be self reliant, competitive, and at the same time, empathetic toward those
less fortunate (Cavallo 4).
The baby boomers were certain that they would avoid the conformity of the post
war years. Members of this group would comprise the counterculture movement of the
1960s. Some challenged cultural norms, some opted out of the system entirely, and others
sought to address the evils of society. They joined the Peace Corps and became freedom
riders for civil rights. Not everyone in the baby boom generation would become members
of the counterculture. Many of this generation thought that conservative ideologies were
required to improve society. Members of the baby boomer generation of both persuasions
sought new leaders who had new ideas and offered new possibilities. For many of this
generation, Kennedy seemed to represent these new ideas.
Once in office, Kennedy surrounded himself with the best and brightest of
intellectuals and policy experts. Great plans were proposed. America would land a man
on the moon by the end of the decade; poverty would be reduced; and Peace Corps
members would help to promote the benefits of American technology throughout the
world. The American way of life seemed like it would continue to improve and the
political philosophy of liberal consensus would be maintained.
In the early 1960s, the American way of life did continue to improve. The economy
was sound and the nation was at peace. The president was perceived to be a strong leader
as he stood up to the Communists, first in Berlin and then during the Cuban missile crisis.
Once again, war was averted as the nation stood toe-to-toe with the Soviets. On the
domestic front, Kennedy began to address the problem of racism through his support of
Dr. Martin Luther King. Hopes for America were high in a period of history that became
known as "Camelot" after a popular Broadway musical play of the same name. Camnelot
told the story of an idealized, ancient noble kingdom.
The era of Camelot ended on November 22, 1963 with the assassination of
Kennedy. The young, idealized American leader was struck dead. Media coverage of this
event was broadcast by all three-television networks without commercial interruption
from Friday afternoon when the murder took place until the following mid-Monday when
the president was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. According to Shachtman,
the event' s massive media coverage resulted in "the greatest simultaneous event in the
history of the world" that had occurred up until that time (46). During those four days,
everyday life stopped in America as millions of viewers watched the sequence of events
ending with Kennedy's funeral. The national trauma deepened with every televised ritual.
Political assassination and assault has recurred throughout United States history.
From 1835 to 1968 there were 81 such occurrences including four presidential
assassinations.6 Americans had witnessed the death of past presidents, but the
assassination of Kennedy was different. President Abraham Lincoln' s death was the
culmination of a war that had cost over 600,000 lives. The assassinations of Presidents
James A. Garfield and William McKinley were not as traumatic for the nation due to
6 For assassination figures, see U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Political Assassinations and Assaults: 1835 to
1968," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1971 (92nd edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office, 1971: 814.
their service during a period of a politically diminished presidency. In contrast to Garfield
and McKinley, Kennedy was still a relatively young and vital political figure at the time
of his death. His murder "seemed to deprive the country and the world of a better future"
In contrast to earlier presidents, the public had a more intimate relationship with
Kennedy because of extensive media exposure. The national trauma that resulted from
this relationship was intense and long lasting. The American public's reactions to the
assassination passed through a series of stages: from initial shock, to an endless review of
the events in an attempt to better understand them, to a Einal stage when the disaster and
the reactions it evoked were permanently incorporated into national consciousness.
The assassination of Kennedy was the first chink in the armor of the nation' s faith
in the superiority of the American way of life. If a society could produce an assassin
capable of snuffing out the life of such a beloved figure, could there be other flaws in our
society as well? Did the nation possess the resolve to find solutions to these flaws?
The legacy and the challenges faced by Kennedy passed on to his successor,
President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson was a man of immense personal persuasive
powers. He had been a very effective leader within the United States Senate and had
dutifully served as Kennedy's Vice President. When Johnson assumed office, he
inherited many problems. In 1963, 19.5 % of American families lived in poverty.
Although poverty affected American people from Appalachia to Anaheim, this problem
was much more severe among African American families where over 63 % were poverty-
Johnson attempted to address America' s domestic concerns through a body of
social legislation that came to be labeled as the Great Society. These programs were
designed to combat a myriad of social concerns including not only poverty, but
inadequate heath care, racial discrimination, and environmental issues as well. Johnson
was able to usher much of this legislation through congress because of the high esteem
that the public still held for their fallen president and because of Johnson' s own mastery
at guiding legislation through congress.8
President Johnson promised a variety of programs designed to appeal to many
different constituencies. His Great Society programs however, relied for their success
upon continued prosperity. Unfortunately, Johnson chose to fight a war on poverty while
conducting an escalating war in Vietnam. His decision to pursue both stretched both
American economic reserves and national resolve.9
American involvement in Southeast Asia began immediately after World War II.
The United States provided economic support to the French in their efforts to retain a
colonial presence in Vietnam. In spite of billions of dollars of financial assistance, the
French were defeated in 1954. This did not curtail American interests in Vietnam.
SFor poverty figures, see U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Families and Unrelated Individuals Below the
Poverty Level By Selected Characteristics of Head: 1959 to 1969," Statistical~bstract of the United
States: 1971 (92"d edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971: 323.
SA remarkable amount of landmark legislation was passed during the first three years of the Johnson
Administration including, The Voting Rights Act, The Immigration Act, The Clean Air Act, The Fair
Labor Standards Act, The Model Cities Act, and The Public Broadcasting Act. Amounts of such legislation
would decrease with growing involvement in Vietnam. See Bemnstein 530.
9 JOhnson kept the true cost of the Vietnam War hidden from the public and waited two years before asking
congress to increase taxes to pay for it thus precipitating an inflationary trend that would not abate until
1982. See Bemnstein 358 -378.
Involvement continued through the later administrations of both Presidents Eisenhower
and Kennedy. America poured vast resources into the country. The United States Defense
Department worked to create and train a viable South Vietnamese army. The Central
Intelligence Agency aided in the creation of a police force to control dissidents and
executive branch agencies worked to stabilize the national currency. 10
It was thought at the time that uncontained Communist aggression in Southeast
Asia would certainly lead to a domino effect wherein each country in the region would
fall to the enemy. No American president wanted to be the first to lose a country to the
Communists. As a result, a surrogate manifestation of the Cold War was fought in the
streets and jungles of Southeast Asia. At first, a limited number of American advisors
were sent to aid the army of South Vietnam. When advisors alone proved insufficient,
American involvement escalated. A reported attack on United States vessels in the Gulf
of Tonkin led to The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave Johnson a blank check to
increase American military involvement. Soon regular Army personal were deployed and
bombing missions were instituted in the skies above North Vietnam. American military
commitment continued to increase. This escalation was most pronounced under President
Johnson. By 1968, over 500,000 service members were deployed in Vietnam. American
battle deaths increased as well-from 147 in 1964 to 5008 in 1966 to 14,592 in 1968.11
'n The American public was largely unaware of these activities. See, Farber 125-128.
11 In 1964, 23,000 United States troops were stationed in Vietnam. By 1968, troop strength had risen to
536,100. See U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Vietnam Conflict-U.S. Military Forces in Vietnam and
Casualties Incurred: 1961 to 1970," Statistical~bstract of the United States: 1970 (91"t edition)
Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970: 258.
America' s prolonged involvement in Vietnam and its inability to articulate its war
goals to the public began to erode confidence in the foreign policy component of
America' s philosophy of consensus. America did not seem to be making progress in the
war. Official military body counts of enemy dead seemed to promise victory, but the Viet
Cong continued to fight. A credibility gap began to develop between what the
administration said was true and what the American people believed. Eventually, large
segments of the American people came to believe that the war could not be won. This
realization further served to undermine belief in American military supremacy and faith
in the character of our national leaders.
Confidence in the American way of life was undermined as well by growing unrest
in the nation' s cities. America' s involvement in Vietnam siphoned off funds that could
have been used to fund domestic programs. Those in poverty were most likely to feel the
brunt of economic uncertainty. They were also more likely to be involved in fighting for
America in Vietnam. In addition, the passage of civil rights legislation had not put an end
to discrimination. Unmet expectations for social and economic change led to frustration
within African American communities.
On August 1 1, 1965, riots broke out in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The confrontation began with a traffic incident involving an African American motorist
and a white police officer. Those in the neighborhood felt that the police had engaged in
brutality toward the motorist. They began throwing rocks and bottles at the police. By the
next day, their anger had escalated into a riot that would last six days and nights resulting
in thirty-four deaths, 4000 arrests, and extensive property damage. This was not to be the
last urban riot. In 1967, riots engulfed 167 American cities. In that year, forty-three
people were killed in Detroit and almost three-quarters of the city was set ablaze. After
the riots, Johnson's approval ratings dropped to thirty-seven % (Farber 111-116).
President Johnson had problems on other fronts. A national protest movement
coalesced in opposition to the Vietnam War. This movement encouraged political action
in an effort to halt the conflict. Student groups organized "teach-ins" and "sit-ins" against
the war. Mainstream religious groups began to oppose involvement as well. National
protests grew in size. In April of 1967, a quarter million people in San Francisco and
New York City rallied against the war. These protests, however, failed to alter the
Johnson administration' s prosecution of the war. By late 1967, a minority of antiwar
protesters became convinced that United States policies in Vietnam were symptomatic of
a greater underlying fallibility within the American system that could not be exorcized
without radical action (Farber 159-164).
Millions of young men sought to avoid the draft. Those who came from affluence
or had the benefit of higher education found ways to obtain draft deferments or
enlistment in the National Guard. Those from poor and working class families were
drafted to fight. The war in Vietnam became the most divisive issue in America. Many
Americans still supported the war. Not only was an antiwar movement established but a
backlash developed as well. A cultural divide between conservatives who were in favor
of the war and liberals who were opposed to it began in the mid 1960s. This division
would widen and deepen as the war continued. It would also expand to include other
divisive social issues in the following decades. 12
12 In 1965, student deferments accounted for 12.3 % of Selective Service registrants. See U.S. Bureau of the
Census, "Classification of Selective Service Registrants: 1965 to 1970," Statistical Abstract of the United
States: 1971 (92nd edition) Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office 1971: 257. For support of the
war and cultural divide, see Farber 149.
National Trauma and Social Disruption
America experienced several traumatic events during the 1960s. According to
sociologist Arthur Neal, national traumas fall into two different categories. One type
occurs when an abrupt or dramatic event disrupts the social order. Historical examples of
this type of event are the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of
President Kennedy. The second type of trauma can occur when a national crisis is chronic
and long lasting. Examples of this kind of trauma were the Vietnam War, the struggle for
civil rights, and violence in the streets during the 1960s (6-7).
Individuals must work their way through the intense experience of national trauma.
The experience of a crisis will cause people to react in ways unique to each individual.
The least complicated personal response is a simple, moralistic judgment of right and
wrong that places events into preexisting political or religious ideologies. Others in
society use a crisis as a reason to justify a new social crusade designed to right the ills of
society or to restore traditional values. Some individuals are simply overwhelmed by
national trauma and become fatalistic over events that they feel they cannot control.
Others seek rational answers to underlying problems through investigations and national
debate (Neal 17-18).
National traumas can have a debilitating or a liberating effect on a society. People
can engage either in rational debate or in divisive confrontation. The manner in which
Americans reacted to the traumatic events of the 1960s was unique to each individual.
These events induced both debate and confrontation. The country continued to experience
national trauma into the next decade and America' s response to these traumas would be
an important factor in its political future for many years to come.
American Consensus in Films: 1940s 1960s
The development of the American motion picture industry in the middle of the
twentieth century reflected a similar traj ectory to the nation at large. American films
progressed from a period of self-confidence to one of turbulence. This progression
included changes in both industry economics and film content.
American motion pictures have always been star driven vehicles. It is interesting to
look back to see which actors have achieved the greatest popularity. It is even more
interesting to examine the view of financial stakeholders. Motion picture exhibitors and
independent theater owners have been polled for the last seventy years as to which film
star they thought to be most bankable. American films were much different in the years
immediately after World War II. In 1946, Bing Crosby took top honors. Other notable
actors including Bob Hope, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart followed
Crosby's victory in the next decade. In the early 1960s, Doris Day assumed the top
position. She was followed in the 1960 poll by Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Elizabeth
Taylor, and Debbie Reynolds. 13
American self-confidence was reflected in the selection of its cultural icons. These
well-established movie stars were glamorous, charismatic, and uniquely American in
their film personas. In their road pictures, Hope and Crosby confidently wisecracked their
way out of dangerous situations while traveling the world in search of adventure. In their
westerns, Cooper, Wayne, and Stewart explored the vastness of the American frontier
while righting wrongs and dispensing justice. In their comedies, Day and Hudson shared
13 Cary Grant was the only non-American on the 1960 list. See "Q.P. Money-Making Stars of 1933-2001,"
Eileen S. Quigley, ed. 2004 International M~otion Picture Almanac. New York: Quigley Publications: 19-
the bliss of domestic family life after meeting and Einding true love. Motion picture stars
tend to have well defined film personas and to favor certain genres. Popular genres of the
early 1960s would often reflect widely shared American attitudes, beliefs, and values.
According to a list of all-time box office champions, published in 1969 by the
motion picture trade publication Variety, The Sound of2~usic (1965) was the most
successful film produced up until that date. Another musical, Mary Poppins (1964) was
number seven. 14 In each film, a family finds itself in crisis until a maternal figure enters
the scene to reestablish order. She encounters resistance at first, but eventually wins the
family over. The inclusion of cheerful songs and their far-off settings-the charming
Swiss Alps and the picturesque 1910s London enhance the fairy tale nature of both
Historical romances were a popular genre during the early 1960s. Their distance
from present times reinforced a sense of nostalgia for an idealized world. Films in this
genre included tales of Roman conquest in Cleopatra (1963) and the Russian Revolution
in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Legendary biblical epics were retold in The Ten
Commandments (1957), Ben Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960). In these films, old world
ideologies, values, and beliefs are shown to be morally bankrupt. The Roman lust for
empire and the Bolshevik drive for a socialist world destroyed both lovers and
democracy. In addition, corrupt old world empires collapse when confronted by
Legends of another sort were the subj ect of the World War II film genre. Some of
the most successful films of this genre tell the story of groups of service members who
14 For theatrical receipts, see "All-Time Box Office Champs (Over $4,000,000, U.S.-Canada Rentals),"
Variety 8 January 1969: 14.
are charged with a difficult mission. Examples include The Guns ofNavarone (1961),
The Longest Day (1962), and The Great Escape (1963). In each film, American service
members succeed in defeating Axis powers through effective leadership, teamwork, and
self-sacrifice. Another war film of the early 1960s was PT 109.
Presidential Biographies and Political Films
In July of 1963, a film version of Robert Donovan' s best selling book PT 109 was
released. This film depicted the heroic wartime adventures of the then current United
States President, John F. Kennedy. The film's action took place when Kennedy was a
naval officer serving in the Solomon Islands. The motion picture was based on actual
events that occurred when the young Lieutenant Kennedy was given command of a small
PT boat. He and his twelve-man crew took the boat into battle only to have it sunk by a
Japanese destroyer. Despite injuring his back, Kennedy rescued the boat' s chief engineer
who had been seriously burned. He then swam back to rescue two more of his injured
crewmember who he dragged to safety. Kennedy and his crew would spend fourteen
hours in the water before reaching land. All but two of his men survived the ordeal. For
his efforts, Kennedy received the Purple Heart (Dallek 95-96).
The film' s depiction of Kennedy is very reverential. Not only does he perform
courageously under fire, but the filmic Kennedy also displays exemplary character traits.
Early in the film, an enlisted man recognizes Kennedy and questions him as to why he
did not pull strings via his father to avoid combat. The lieutenant replies with a stiff upper
lip that he would seek no special treatment because he is "willing to fight for what he
believes in." Later in the film, Kennedy goes on to refurbish a derelict PT boat and lead
his crew to safety after their boat sinks.
The fi1m' s historical events were reasonably accurate and the likeness of its lead
actor was very similar to Kennedy. This made it easy to attribute traits that would reflect
American optimism upon Kennedy. The fi1m PT 109 plays upon the familiar legend of
King Arthur where a young knight-errant proves himself worthy through trial. Thus
sanctified, he rises to greatness. Throughout PT 109, Kennedy proj ects the persona of a
potential leader including such characteristics as grace under fire, bravery in a crisis and
compassion toward his subj ects. These traits reinforced the audience' s belief in the
safety, sanctity, and legitimacy of the real life president.
Another biographical film of the postwar era served to reinforce the legitimacy of
political leaders. Sunrise at Camnpobello (1960) told the story of future president, Franklin
D. Roosevelt' s inspirational struggle against polio. The young Roosevelt's trial in this
film is that of illness, which he overcomes in order to merit future greatness. Films of this
era reinforced confidence in a logical world that rewarded meritorious behavior. John
Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958) presents a big city mayor who willingly plays the morally
questionable game of politics with skill and enthusiasm. Despite the mayor' s ethical
relativism, however, he will not compromise when it comes to the issue of obtaining low-
cost housing for his constituents, even if it means his electoral defeat.
American preoccupation with the Cold War influenced a number of political
dramas of the postwar era. Advise and Consent (1962), based on a Broadway play and a
Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a procedural story about the inner workings of
government. Action begins when an ailing president nominates a distinguished professor
(Henry Fonda) to be his new Secretary of State. In his Senate confirmation committee
hearings, the appointee encounters allegations of former membership in Communist-front
organizations. Although the allegations are true, the appointee is able to present evidence
that undermines the mental stability of his accuser. Individuals in the film are flawed, but
are not completely without merit. The appointee is a capable professor, the blackmailed
Senator is a happily married family man, and the southern Senator eventually comes
around to reason. A compromise is reached as the American government proves to be
stable enough to withstand impropriety and inspirational enough to encourage bipartisan
Cold War paranoia was the subj ect of several political films of the early 1960s. In
John Frankenheimer' s film The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a brainwashed Korean
prisoner of war (Lawrence Harvey) returns to America after being programmed by his
Communist captors into becoming an assassin. The triggering agent for the assassination
plot is the veteran's own mother (Angela Lansbury). She intends for her son to shoot the
presidential nominee so that her second husband can take his place. The assassination
plot fails when a fellow prisoner of war (Frank Sinatra) frees the unfortunate veteran
from his brainwashing, thus preventing a national tragedy. The veteran then kills his
stepfather, his mother, and himself.
In Seven Days in May (1964), also directed by Frankenheimer, it is not
Communists who try to subvert the American government, but right wing military
leaders. A rogue Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) plots to stage a military coup. Once
again, the nation avoids chaos when a few good men resist evil. The president is notified
of the plot just in time and the general is forced to resign. The President of the United
States saves the day yet again in Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964). When a technological
failure causes an errant United States Air Force bomber to drop a nuclear warhead on
Moscow, the world faces annihilation. The noble American President (Henry Fonda) then
decides that the only way to avert a nuclear holocaust is to destroy New York City as
well, thus sacrificing millions of citizens as well as his own family.
Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a
nightmare comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick, told the same story as Fail Safe, but from
an absurdist point of view. Here, a nuclear extremist (Peter Sellers) carries the day,
American political leadership is viewed as a joke, and the world is destroyed by the
actions of yet another rogue American General (Sterling Hayden). This film was ahead of
its time in its absolute rej section of Cold War ideology and would be more at home in the
decade to come in its ironic stance. Significantly, an ex-patriot American director
working in England, not in Hollywood, directed Dr. Strangelove.
The themes of these motion pictures reflected American Cold War beliefs of the
1950s and early 1960s including the need to contain Soviet aggression, prevent nuclear
proliferation, and maintain control over advanced weapon technology. These fi1ms
certainly called into question American beliefs in the postwar era. Political films of all
eras have done this. At the same time, these fi1ms all tell a story of superior American
bravery and ingenuity.
In both Fail Safe and Dr. Stran2gelove, American pilots succeed in completing their
missions despite extreme odds. In Fail Safe a pilot conserves fuel by altering his target
and in Dr. Strangelove a pilot figures out a way to release a nuclear bomb that is stuck in
his airplane's fuselage. These fi1ms, with the exception of Dr. Strangelove, suggest that
were it not for the occasional psychotic general, out of touch senator, or brainwashed
assassin, enough rational leaders still exist who can get on with the task of running
An unusually large number of politically themed motion pictures were produced
during the Kennedy administration. This trend abruptly ended with President Kennedy's
assassination on November 22, 1963. By November 30 of that year it was announced that
PT109 had been withdrawn from distribution, the advertising campaign for Seven Days in
May would be altered, a proposed film version of Gore Vidal's Pulitzer Prize winning
play The Best Man would remove references to Cuba, and the London premier of Dr.
Strangelove would be postponed (Archer Al7).
The 1960s: Ferment in the Film Industry
Turmoil in the streets of America in the mid 1960s was mirrored by upheaval in the
corporate boardrooms of Hollywood. American movie moguls, however, were fighting
different battles. The turbulent nature of the film industry was summed up by one
executive who noted in 1965 "at the same time that the ceiling blew off, the floor
dropped out" (Bart Al4). In the previous year, four Hollywood pictures had wildly
exceeded expectations for grosses including, M~y Fair Lady (1964), Goldfinger (1964),
Mary Poppins (1964), and The Sound of2~usic (1965). At the same time, producers
found that their unsuccessful films were doing far worse than ever. The films that did not
do well in their initial runs could no longer recoup their production costs through runs in
smaller towns, or as second features. As a result, movie making became even more of a
speculative business (Bart Al4).
The state of the American film industry had been in general decline since the
1940s. This was in direct contrast to the boom years experienced by most other American
industries. In 1946, total admissions to United States motion picture theaters topped $1.6
billion. By 1962, ticket sales had fallen to their lowest point of $903 million. In the same
period, average weekly motion picture attendance dropped from 90 million to 43
A number of reasons contributed to Hollywood' s decline. Up until 1948, the
studios enjoyed an almost vertical monopoly. They owned production facilities and had
large rosters of stars and artisans under contract. In addition, the five largest studios
controlled chains of theaters in which they could guarantee exhibition of their final
product. In 1948, an antitrust case was settled by the United States Supreme Court in
favor of the United States Justice Department. The case, known as United States v.
Paramount Pictures, Inc. et al., forced the five largest studios to divest themselves of a
number of their theaters (Balio 3).
The growth of television as a competitor for spectator dollars was also a culprit in
Hollywood' s decline. The television industry exploded after World War II. In 1947, there
were twelve television stations in America. By 1965 there were 569 stations providing
news and entertainment directly to the living rooms of almost all American homes
(Sterling and Haight 53).
The medium of television was both a bane and a boon to the film industry.
Television robbed films of spectators, but lined its coffers with money. Television
networks had a constant insatiable need for original programming sufficient to fill their
scheduled hours all day long and seven days a week. At first, television viewers were
amused with the novelty of the new medium. When the novelty wore off, viewers
15 The 1946 figure represented 19.8 % of all American recreational expenditures. Recreational spending on
motion pictures declined in 1962 to 4.07 %. See "Theater Grosses, 1931-1970: U.S. Box Office Receipts in
Relation to Personal Consumption Expenditures," Richard Gertner, ed., 1972 International Motion Picture
Almanac. New York: Quigley Publications: 42A.
demanded higher production values similar to what they could see on the big screen.
Demand for new entertainment created a symbiotic relationship between television and
Television executives turned to Hollywood studios to provide important sources of
programming. According to Variety, 20th Century Fox garnered almost 40 % of its 1966
rental income from television, an increase of 6 % from the prior two years. This rental
income was derived from both made-for-television movies and from theatrical films. The
number of televised motion pictures rapidly increased. At the same time, film companies
were becoming more dependent on them for their economic survival in the high-risk
world of film production. A measure of this risk was that television rentals, combined
with only one theatrical release, The Sound of2\~usic, accounted for 76 % of all of 20th
Century Fox rentals for the entire year of 1966 ("20th-Fox Breakdown Shows Sound'
36% of Theatricals").
As valuable as television rentals were as a source of income, film libraries were
even more lucrative. The 1966 airing of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) on network
television was a huge rating hit. After this successful broadcast, the American
Broadcasting Company spent close to $100 million to purchase a catalog of old
Hollywood films for prices of up to $2 million each (Bart Al).
The libraries of old movies controlled by the Hollywood studios increased in value,
but the stock prices of the motion picture companies continued to sell at price to earnings
ratios well below comparable companies in other industries. This made them prime take-
over candidates. Corporate raiders would soon act as Paramount Pictures was taken over
by Gulf and Western in 1966; United Artists merged with Transamerica Corporation in
1967; Kinney National Services acquired Wamner Brothers in 1969; and MGM was taken
over by investor Kirk Kerkorian in 1969. A new era of corporate conglomeration had
begun (Bart Al).
A generation of "tough minded young executives from outside industry" was
brought in to replace motion picture leadership. The great film pioneers of the early
twentieth century were retiring and being replaced. In 1966 Charles G. Bluhdom, the
forty-year-old chairperson of Gulf and Westemn, assumed control of Paramount. He then
turned over control of studio production to Robert Evans, a thirty-eight-year-old
businessperson and former actor. This new corporate studio ownership brought an
infusion of much needed venture capital, and instituted other changes as well. The new
studio owners began to sell off studio property, shoot films abroad, or on location, and to
put an end to the studio contract system (Bart Al).
The American motion picture industry experienced a period of financial upheaval
at the same time as it was facing artistic challenges. Audiences were changing and the
industry had to adapt to their evolving tastes. The key to attracting new film audiences
was thought to be through originality of content and style. More often than not, this
originality was found in independent productions or in European films. World War II had
devastated the motion picture industries of several European countries. By the 1960s, a
number of nations had recovered. The distinctive films of Italy, France, and Sweden
became quite popular with American art house viewers and societies of film enthusiasts.
Innovative foreign films including Aljie (1966), Georgy Girl (1966), and Blow Up (1966)
box office successes that year prompting trade publication Variety to ask, "Why can't we
make the same kind of picture here?" (Gold 3).
Veteran film publicist Arthur Mayer attributed the lack of innovation in American
fi1ms to both the caution and the age of industry leadership. Mayer pointed out that in
1967 the "king of Hollywood," Cary Grant, was sixty-two, Bob Hope was sixty-one, and
both Henry Fonda and John Wayne were sixty-years-old. He also lamented that some of
America' s best young directors had to go to Europe to have an opportunity to succeed.
Mayer noted that several "superb fi1m schools" were teaching a new generation of
filmmakers in Paris, Rome, and Moscow. Mayer proposed that the fi1m industry take it
upon itself to address this imbalance by contributing funding to America' s film schools.
According to Mayer, embracing new talent was the only way to retain the "world wide
prestige" that American films had acquired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s (Mayer 5).
A period of transition in the American film industry began in the late 1960s.
Changes in production, distribution, competition, and capitalization precipitated a
recasting in the corporate boardrooms of Hollywood. This would soon result in changes
regarding who would be permitted to make motion pictures, and who would be permitted
to determine their content.
REVOLUTION: WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), M~EDH7M COOL (1969)
Let the old world make believe it 's blind and deaf and dumb
But nothing can change the shape of thing to come
-Les Baxter, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Wild in the Streets
In 1968 America was listening to new voices. These voices maintained that the
shape of things to come was anything but square. It was fashionable for young people to
rej ect the status quo. Some j oined protest groups in hopes of improving society. Others
advocated revolution. Some opted out of the system altogether to form utopian,
communal societies. Others merely chose to follow fashion. They grew their hair a little
longer, listened to rock music or experimented with drugs while remaining a part of
Those most in tune with fashion acquired cultural currency. They were considered
hip, cool, aware, and in on the joke about a square society. Antiheroes supplanted heroes
in the worlds of music, sports, and art. Actors who cultivated images as cinematic rebels
- Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Elliot Gould, and Dustin
Hoffman soon replaced Doris Day and Rock Hudson as the most bankable film stars
Serving a younger demographic market became very important in the entertainment
industry. Those under the age of thirty comprised fewer than 50 % of the total population
but accounted for over 76 % of the movie-going public. This new audience, weaned on
television viewing, was not interested in the lavish productions that employed thousands
of extras or in seeing established movie stars. They wanted to identify with the characters
they saw on the screen and sought out films that had something unique to say to them.
Carefully crafted films that were "small in scope but intense in drama" found an
audience with young people. The personal vision of a particular director or producer
became valued. An increasing number of small, youth oriented films were produced
including Alice 's Restaurant (1969) with a budget of $1.7 million, and Goodbye
Columbus (1969) with a budget of $1.9 million, this at a time when a budget of under $3
million was considered cheap. Small, profitable fi1ms were the new industry fashion, but
not all Hollywood studios could Eind the formula required for their creation. Studios
sought out filmmakers from outside of the Hollywood establishment who were capable of
deciphering what was hip. Established producers, who did not know "the difference
between rock music and the music from The King andl," were out of favor (Penn Al).
Hollywood was late to latch onto the new creative bandwagon. Films are expensive
to make, so risks are not often taken. In 1967, however, two landmark films were
released that "sent tremors through the industry" (Biskind 15). Bonnie and Clyde (1967),
directed by Arthur Penn, and The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols were
influenced by European artistic style and film content. They broke with the old
conventions of narrative str-ucture, included sex scenes, and graphic violence that would
not have been permissible under the old Hollywood Production Code, and they critiqued
SIn 1969, 77 % of filmgoers were between 12 and 29 years old. This number would remain consistent
throughout the 1970s. See Sterling and Haight 353.
American society from a satirical perspective. The success of Bonnie and Clyde and 7Jhe
Graduate opened the floodgates for other new filmmakers to follow suit (Biskind 15).
Directors of this era enjoyed a level of power, prestige, and wealth that had not
existed in Hollywood before. The first wave of these outsiders was comprised of men
who had started their careers in television or the theater including, Arthur Penn, Alan
Pakula, Michael Ritchie, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. The second wave was made up
of post World War II baby boomers including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George
Lucas, and Brian DePalma. These filmmakers would have a profound effect on American
film for decades to come. Their success was based on artistic merit, as well as on their
ability to identify and channel the voice of America (Biskind 15).
Key Political Events of 1968
In 1968, established political leaders were being rej ected and new leaders were
being embraced. The Johnson administration was accused of harboring a credibility gap
between its public statements and the actual state of national affairs. Johnson frequently
appeared on television to inform the American people about progress in Vietnam. The
president' s positive version of events, however, did not always correspond with what the
viewers could see for themselves. The television networks dispatched camera operators to
Vietnam who captured the chaotic violence of war. These images were dispatched to
network news divisions back home and within days they were broadcast into the living
rooms of America. The powerful images of stalemate in Vietnam caused viewers to doubt
the Johnson administration's war plans.
Johnson's credibility was further compromised by the Tet Offensive of January
1968. The ability of the North Vietnamese to invade and briefly hold some of the cities of
the South was a decisive event in the conflict. The Tet Offensive was even more
important in the battle for hearts and minds on the American home front. The North
Vietnamese incurred massive casualties, but their tenacity gave every indication that they
would not soon give up the fight (Witcover 72-75).
America' s progress in Vietnam led to disenchantment with Johnson. A grass roots
organization of young people worked to promote the candidacy of Minnesota Senator,
Eugene McCarthy. Shock waves resounded when he narrowly lost to Johnson in the New
Hampshire primary by a margin of 49.4 % to 42.2 %. This poor showing was one of the
motivating factors in Johnson's decision not to seek reelection and provided an opening
for other candidates to seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The party's
spring and summer primary races were thrown wide open as different factions fought for
control (Witcover 100).
The spring of 1968 was a time of tragic violence. Dr. Martin Luther King traveled
to Memphis in April to rally the city's striking sanitation workers. On the night of April
3, he addressed a capacity crowd at Mason Temple speaking about racial hatred and
violence in America. Dr. King also spoke of rumors of death threats that he had received.
On the next day these premonitions were made tragically real as an assassin's bullet
struck him dead.
Once again, America witnessed the violent death of a national leader (Witcover
152). The murder of Dr. King was followed in June by yet another traumatic event, the
assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was a candidate in 1968 for the
presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. After winning the California primary,
he left a celebratory rally, held in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles
only to be fatally shot in the hotel's kitchen pantry corridor (Witcover 253).
The spring of 1968 was also a time of youthful revolt. Student protests occurred on
American campuses all across the country. In April, Columbia University's proposed
construction of a gymnasium that would have taken land away from a Harlem
neighborhood park in New York City. This proposal sparked student and neighborhood
protests. The students, including members of the Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS), took over five buildings and staged a demonstration at the offices of university
president Grayson Kirk (Witcover 188).
The sixty-four year old Kirk criticized the students' lack of respect for authority
and suggested their motives were nihilistic rather than constructive. SDS local chapter
leader Mark Rudd then issued an open letter to Kirk. The profanity-laced letter was
designed to underscore Rudd' s belief that the president of the university was out of touch
with the younger generation and unable to understand the pressing need for social change
Fourteen or Fight
The film Wild in the Streets (1968) is a parody of the sort of intergenerational
conflict that was actually happening on American university campuses. The film's
protagonist Max Frost (Christopher Jones) is an only child, born into a middle class
family. His mother (Shelly Winters) is a high-strung, anally compulsive person who
insists on covering the living room furniture in plastic. Max' s father is so hen-pecked that
he can only gain his son's respect by tearing the plastic from the sofa. Max's mother
informs him that sex is "dirty" and slaps him around for his supposedly rebellious
attitude. When Max turns nineteen, he creates a bomb to blow up the family Chrysler,
then leaves home to seek his fortune.
Within a short time, the twenty-two-year-old Max becomes a millionaire rock star.
He affects the appearance of 1950s film star James Dean and the attitude of an SDS
leader. Max wears paisley shirts, says things like "blow their minds," and sports a
colonial era ponytail. He is surrounded by a collection of perpetually bored, hippie
hangers-on, which include a brilliant fifteen-year-old Yale law school graduate who
handles his business dealings, a Japanese typewriter heiress, and a Black Power Party
member (Richard Pryor) who is also his drummer.
Max's popularity with young people comes to the attention of a liberal politician
from California, Johnnie Fergus (Hal Holbrook) who reporters compare to President
Kennedy and the filmmakers depict as a phony hipster. Fergus seeks to manipulate Max's
celebrity in order to win election as senator. Max negotiates a pledge that Fergus will
lower the state's voting age to fifteen in exchange for Max' s endorsement. Max also
agrees to appear at a televised concert in support of Fergus, but surprises the senator by
singing a song entitled Fourteen or Fight that demands lowering the voting age even
Thanks to Max's support, Senator Fergus wins election and, in return, lowers the
voting age in California. When Max and his gang realize their potential power, they
decide to run one of their own in a special election for the seat of a deceased Senator. The
twenty-five-year-old candidate, Sally Leroy, wins. She then appears on the floor of the
United States Senate in a leather mini dress, and a colonial tri-corner hat while obviously
stoned. Sally proposes legislation lowering the eligible age for senators, congressional
representatives, and presidents to 14 thus producing wild cheers from young people in the
senate gallery and consternation from the much older member of the seated legislative
body. Congress resists the proposed legislation and young people take to the streets in
protest. Twelve young people die in the ensuing riot prompting Max to appear on
television to sing a song of warning entitled The \hape'l of Things to Come.
Max and his band of hippies decide to put LSD into the drinking water in order to
incapacitate the politicians and fool them into passing an amendment to lower the voting
age. The drugged legislators happily vote for the amendment. Max, who is now legally
old enough to be eligible, decides to run for president of the United States. He carries
every state but Hawaii. Once in office, Max assumes absolute power. He decides that a
mandatory retirement age of thirty will be established and that black-suited police squads
will round up everyone over thirty-five and take them to mandatory rehabilitation camps.
Old people are bussed into the camps and forced to drink liquid LSD. Once they partake
of the drink, the old folks exhibit an exaggerated sense of bliss as they stumble around in
bathrobes emblazoned with peace symbols on their sleeves. In a disturbingly graphic
moment, Senator Fergus hangs himself from a tree.
After neutralizing all those over thirty, Max decides to disband the armed forces.
He states that America' s great wealth will allow it to ship free grain to all nations of the
world, thus making war unnecessary and allowing the United States to become the most
hedonistic society on earth. The film ends on an ironic note when Max goes sightseeing
in the country and stumbles upon a small crawdad attached to a pier. Max picks it up to
examine it, is bitten, and then stomps it dead. It is then revealed that the crawdad was the
pet of a young child who enters the scene and warns ominously that "we're gonna put
everybody over ten out of business."
The fi1m is purposely unreal. The scene of the Senators laughing hysterically after
being dosed with LSD is tinted red and the composition of shots is canted. Performances
especially that of Shelly Winters, are way over the top. Costumes are exaggerated as
well. When Max becomes president, his mother is seen wearing a flowing robe and
smoking a hash pipe. His father is an obj ect of derision, robbed of his toupee, and forced
to use a wheelchair. The characters in the fi1m have little depth. Young people are good
because they are young and old people are all phony, especially the Kennedyesque
Senator Fergus who pretends to befriend Max but eventually attempts to assassinate him.
The message is you can never trust politicians who, according to Max, all play "sneaky
The fi1m reiterates the theme of age versus youth. Max tells his band of hippies that
he does not want to live too much longer because "thirty's death man." Max also states,
"The only thing that blows your mind when you're thirty is getting guys to kill other
guys, only in another city or another country where you don't see it or know anything
about it." For such an exploitative film, this is a surprisingly subtle reference to the war in
Vietnam and reflects an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the war present even in
popular culture. The film suggests that the established political order has botched things
up. Max tells congress that the villains in history are not the Communists, John Birchers,
Jews, labor leaders, bankers, Russians or Chinese. The people who cause all of the
trouble are "those who are stiff, baby, not with love, but with age."
As unreal as Wild in the Streets seems to be, it was based on a germ of historical
reality. As early as the 1940s United States senators had proposed reducing the voting
age from twenty-one to eighteen. In 1942, Michigan Senator Vandenberg proposed a
constitutional amendment to that effect. Vandenberg maintained that if young men were
"old enough to fight for their government they ought to be entitled to vote."2
Legislation aimed at lowering the voting age was proposed in every administration
up to and including that of Johnson. In June of 1968, Johnson once again proposed a
constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to eighteen years of age. According to
Johnson, the legislation would be a signal to young people that "they are respected, that
they are trusted, that their commitment to America is honored and that the day is soon to
come when they are to be participants, not spectators, in the adventure of self-
government" (Jones Al).
A Gallup Poll conducted in 1968 found that 64 % of Americans were in favor of
lowering the voting age (Jones Al). Those in favor of the amendment felt that young
people were better educated than in the past and would be more sophisticated in their
political choices. The notion that willingness to fight for country should equate to
suffrage also was brought up as was a hope that granting the vote would "channel student
protests into more acceptable directions" (Apple Al).
The release of Wild in the Streets in May of 1968 was perfectly timed to take
advantage of a push for suffrage as well as current news events. Students literally were
going "wild in the streets" at Columbia University and other institutions of higher
education. Young people were no longer easily channeled into acceptable directions.
Intergenerational conflict was at the forefront of national consciousness. Wild in the
Streets took the concept of a "generation gap" that existed between the adversarial parties
SThe draft age for American men had been reduced to speed victory in World War II. See Lawrence Al.
at actual institutions like Columbia University and reduced it to the absurd. Ominously,
the film suggests that such conflict can never be resolved. On the surface, the film is only
a parody, but its scenes of violence and anger are disturbingly close to actual events.
Protesters die and senators hang as the nation spins out of control.
American International Pictures
James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff of American International Pictures (AIP)
produced Wild in the Streets. Since its founding in 1954, AIP had never lost money. The
company specialized in cheaply made exploitation films designed to appeal to a young
audience. Favorite genres included beach movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette
Funicello, gothic horror films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and outlaw biker
films with actors like Peter Fonda.
Famed "B" movie director Roger Corman received an early opportunity to direct at
AIP. While there, Corman produced a string of successful low cost films. He worked on a
budget and at an economical pace that greatly pleased Arkoff. Corman made The Beast
0I itr 1, 000, 000 Eyes (1955) in eight days for $35 thousand. He shot I was a Teen-Age
Werewolf(1957) for $123 thousand, and brought back $2 million in profit. Wild in The
Streets also adhered to this production model (Harmetz Sec 6: 12).
Arkoff made no apologies for the unsophisticated nature of his films. Even films
presented with extreme dignity had to be sold to the public. "I look upon my movies as
being merchandise. The fact that many of my acquaintances wouldn't buy Woolworth' s
merchandise doesn't keep it from being perfectly good merchandise" (Harmetz Sec 6:12).
Arkoff felt that the reason why his company consistently made a profit while the
maj or film studios struggled was the result of his unwillingness to insult his audience and
his sense of timing. Arkoff constantly sought dramatic stories that captured public
attention and was willing to take chances on a hunch. "We made 'Wild Angels '(1966)
because three different people threw on my desk the Life magazine story that had the
Hell's Angels on the cover" (Harmetz Sec 6: 32).
In addition to topicality, AIP was willing to take chances on new talent. Many
young directors, actors, and writers were given their start by Arkoff and Corman.
Directors of high future renown, including Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard, produced
their first films at AIP. As long as they were willing to count pennies and work fast, they
were hired. If a picture went over budget or exceeded its shooting schedule, Arkoff would
appear on the set and threaten to tear five pages from the script. Generally, that persuaded
the director to work faster. If it did not, Arkoff would actually rip up the script. AIP also
saved money by avoiding shooting inside studios and never paying for anything it could
obtain free. Arkoff prized a filmmaker' s creativity in the art of saving money and
disparaged one hit wonders who took on the trappings of royalty. Arkoff felt that in
Hollywood "90 % of the people consider themselves geniuses. In actuality, 10 % are
brightly creative, and the other 90 % do a competent, workmanlike job" (Harmetz Sec 6:
A workmanlike job was just what AIP received from the creative team behind Wild
in the Streets. Both its screenwriter, Robert Thom and its director, Barry Shear, had
forged careers in network television. Thom, along with cowriter Reginald Rose, had won
a television Emmy in 1963 for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama for an
episode of The Defenders. Shear had an extensive career as a television director, working
on such network staples of the 1960s as Ironside, It Takes a ThiefJ The Girl From
U.N.C.L.E., and five episodes of Tarzan~~~~TTTTT~~~~TTTT from 1967 to 1968. Wild in the Streets was
Shear' s first theatrical release.
Thom's script affected a tone of camp and pseudo hipness. AIP sought to tap the
youth market that had grown up watching television. Both Thom and Shear were familiar
with how to put together a production that would appeal to this new audience and the
resulting film accomplished their goal. The use of irony and self-awareness were popular
in several successful television programs of the era including The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.,
Get Smart, and Rowan and Martin 's Laugh-hz. In a manner similar to popular television
programs, Wild in the Streets encouraged its audience to see how absurd everything in the
modern world could be. This irony extended to the American political process. In the
film, established political leaders are out of touch with the interests of their constituencies
and, supposedly, committed young political leaders become shallow and vindictive.3
Not everyone shared in the j oke. Some film critics took the film seriously.
According to Christian Science M~onitor film critic John Allen, Wild in the Streets was "a
coarse exhibition of almost everything that can go wrong with a viable film idea" (6). The
reviewer obj ected to the film's equation of a child' s death with the death of a crawdad,
the misrepresentation of the intent of concerned young people, and a lack of emotional
perspective. At the other extreme, Renata Adler of The New York Times thought the film
to be one of the best American films of the year and compared it in quality and political
perceptiveness to critically acclaimed French political drama The Battle ofAlgiers(1965)
SIn November of 1968, Rowan and Miartin 's Laugh-In was the highest rated regularly scheduled network
television program. Other highly rated, self-referential comedies of the era included Bewitched and Get
Smart. See "Network TV's Top Twenty (Nielson Ratings, Nov. 11 -17)," Variety, 27 November 1968: 33.
(DI). Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek was closer to the true motivations of AIP and the
filmmakers when he labeled the fi1m as "made for no other motive than profit" (101).
Nonetheless, the fi1m was a financial success and preceded by one year the release
of the even more successful sleeper hit Easy Rider (1969). Wildln The Streets was
similar in theme and budget to Easy Rider and helped build a potential audience for the
later film. Both productions were part of a cycle of youthful rebellion films that reached
its zenith with Easy Rider and continued into the next decade.
Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss
On one level, the central theme of Wild in the Streets is that you can't trust anyone
over thirty. Throughout the film, establishment figures are lampooned as stodgy and
obsolete. This parody of authority figures would have appealed to the target audience of
AIP. Thom, however, included an opposing theme in the film. When confronted with
Max's demands, Senator Albright complains, "youth is not only wasted on the young it is
a disease." Something has gone horribly wrong. The film also provides a cautionary story
of what happens to young people when they are exposed to popular culture. Sex, drugs,
music, and television rob them of their ability to reason and turn them into aliens who, in
effect, go wild in the streets. This alien transformation was already a typical plot device
of AIP horror films. In this instance, I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf was recycled as I Was a
Not so subtle parallels to fascism occur throughout the film. Young people follow
Max's musical directives without hesitation, even to the point of martyrdom. Violence is
condoned when a member of Max' s gang suggests assassination of legislators as an
expedient way to promote passage of Max's political agenda. When Max and his group
gain control of the government, they prove to be even worse than those that they have
replaced. Once Max wins election, he assumes absolute power. He is quite willing to
consign old people to concentration camps. The filmmakers chose to show him smirking
as he fields a reporter' s question about old people hiding in attics to avoid capture. The
policemen who capture the elderly are clad in identical black uniforms that resemble
those worn by Nazi storm troupers. The end of the film is not subtle either. Max crushes
the child's pet crawdad under his feet as a symbol of how easily freedom can be crushed
by new political bosses.
Thom was 39 years old when Wild in the Streets was released. Twice in the film,
the age of 37 is referred to as being excessively old. He would have been close to this age
when writing the original story. Thom seems to have been trying to please AIP by
scripting a youth rebellion picture while at the same time satirizing the excessive nature
of a youth culture of which he was quickly aging out.
Music and Politics
Music played an important part in this film, reflecting the growing cultural
influence of such successful musical groups as The Beatles. Max achieves the American
dream not through civic commitment, but through his musical talents. His band of
followers is not comprised of politicians, but by his musical group. A large part of the
commercial appeal of the film consisted of its soundtrack. Concert footage is included
throughout the film and songs frequently advance story exposition. Christopher Jones
was a competent singer of pop songs and looked like any of a number of musical front
men of the era. Audiences could relate the staging of Max's rock performances to similar
ones they had seen on televised variety programs including The Ed Sullivan .1/ww~l. 4
The lyrics of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil also serve to express Max's political
platform. Max appears at a well-attended, enthusiastic political rally and exhorts his
constituency to action through song, "we've got the numbers now, we want the vote now,
youth power that' s where it' s at now." When protesters are killed by police in the film,
the screen goes dark, and then Max appears to perform The \1/Aipel of things to Come.
This song instigates a revolution among young television viewers that results in Max's
Einal triumph. Once he becomes president, however, Max stops performing. The only
thing that gets Max off is destroying the system.
Senator Fergus is a representative of the system who suffers from a credibility gap
similar to that of President Johnson. In the film, Fergus misrepresents himself as
supportive of the youth movement when, in fact, he is not. The senator' s public speeches
promote enfranchisement of young people, but in private conversations, he admits that he
is trying to manipulate them for political gain saying, "we can't write these kids off, I
need them." Unfortunately for Senator Fergus, he cannot control young people, nor can
he control their leader. When events move beyond his control, Fergus becomes unhinged.
A drunken fit causes him to tear posters off his children' s bedroom walls. The senator' s
loss of control marks him as an unfit leader.
Max, on the other hand, remains cool, calm, and collected. He is a charismatic rebel
from outside the political mainstream who is capable of out-smarting the political
SThe soundtrack of Wild in the Streets was the 14th bestselling album in the country and had been on
Variety's bestsellers list for 16 weeks as of 27 November 1968. See "Variety Album Bestseller (a National
Survey of Key Outlets)," Variety 27 November 1968: 55.
establishment. He takes over the government not through armed conflict, but by lacing
the water supply with LSD. Max is media savvy. He knows how to banter with the press
in order to explain away the negative connotations connected with consigning old folks to
concentration camps. Max also is aware of how to use his celebrity to manipulate an
audience. He uses the death of twelve protesters as a reason to stage the key political
song of the film, The Mapel'l of Things to Come. How he convinced the networks to grant
him the free time to broadcast this media event is not clear; perhaps the network
executives were secret rock fans.
Max's constituency understands him only through popular culture. Televised
musical performances are his means of communicating with his constituency. In the film,
nothing truly matters that is not broadcast. The origin of Max' s political legitimacy lies in
his celebrity. People follow him because he is famous and he uses fame to attain power.
In the age of celebrity, the importance of political parties has decreased. In the film,
new political leaders emerge fully formed and have no need for party loyalty. When Max
becomes eligible to run for president, he has a choice as to which party he will be
associated. Max and his band sit in the senate chamber to discuss which course to take.
Max is encouraged by his group to run for president as a member of the Republican Party
for purely strategic rather than ideological reasons. It seems that no real difference exists
between either of the political parties winning is everything. Max then addresses a
political convention while huge black and white pictures of former Republican presidents
Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower can be seen behind him. Ironically, the
conservatives are now hip and the liberals are square.
Political change is rapid in the film and solutions to social problems are simplistic.
It took a quarter century to lower the voting age in America from twenty-one to eighteen.
In Wildln 7he Streets, the voting age is lowered to fourteen in a matter of weeks. Social
issues are no more intractable than the waxy yellow build-up that plagued kitchens in
television commercials of the era. Even national security issues are easily surmountable.
President Max Frost assures the public that giving away American agricultural surplus to
potential foes will guarantee world peace.
Despite the easy assurance of success, young people in Wild in the Streets are
willing to work for political change. They are optimistic and enthusiastic in their
commitment to Max's agenda. Their revolution does indeed succeed. Unfortunately,
Max' s agenda is no different than that of the leaders he seeks to replace. His only goals
are to punish his parents and gain the presidency. Once in power, Max and his followers
become as old and obsolete as the previous leaders.
No one in this fim reaches a happy conclusion. Max's parents are carted away to a
concentration camp, Senator Fergus hangs himself, and Max realizes the burden of
power. The fi1m suggests that revolution results in regret. Disenfranchised young people
commit themselves to achieving political change, but their victory turns hollow. They too
become metaphorically old. It is better to remain a passive consumer of pop culture than
to go wild in the streets.
The Whole World is Watching
Medium Cool (1969), written and directed by Academy Award winning
cinematographer Haskell Wexler, walks the line between reality and fiction. Wexler' s
film is set in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic national convention. The fi1m includes
scenes of professional actors interacting with non-actors, improvisational dialogue and
documentary scenes of actual events. Wexler used this experimental structure in order to
comment on the distancing effect of modern mass media and to tell a story about personal
commitment. For him, the choice to embrace political activism in the 1960s was every bit
as important as the choice to defend democracy from Axis powers was in the 1940s. The
commitment fantasy contained in Casablan2ca was depicted as equivalent to that
presented in M~edium Cool.
The film's protagonist is a self-centered, local television camera operator named
John Cassellis (Robert Forster). Cassellis views the world through the lens of his camera.
He is as detached and cool as the medium in which he works. When Cassellis and his
soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz) encounter an automobile accident on the highway, they
make sure to capture usable footage of the carnage before they bother to contact an
ambulance to help the victim. Cassellis' initial reaction to seeing a televised documentary
on assassinations is to comment on the camerawork saying, "Jesus, I love to shoot film."
Cassellis is emotionally removed from his girlfriend Ruth. After a romantic
encounter, she asks him whether he is worried about the fate of beached turtles in an
Italian movie she saw. She wonders if he thinks that the camera operators who shot the
footage stopped to turn the turtles back around so that they could return to the sea.
Cassellis expresses indifference to the animal's fate saying, "How the hell should I know,
those were Italian cameramen." In this scene, Cassellis is framed next to a poster of
French New Wave film star Jean Paul Belmondo. Cassellis mirrors Belmondo's self-
satisfied attitude and his action of smoking a cigarette. This establishes a connection
between the two existential characters and illustrates the influence of the French New
Wave on Wexler's work.
Ever the existential professional, Cassellis is disaffected by potential violence. He
receives an assignment to cover emergency civil defense training being conducted by the
Illinois National Guard in anticipation of possible rioting at the upcoming Democratic
National Convention. Instead of considering the potential violence, his first priority is to
obtain action footage of the training session including shots of reinforced j eeps and of
guardsmen pretending to use tear gas on other guardsmen dressed to look like protesters.
The Illinois National Guard training scene is an example of Wexler' s unique
production design. Wexler was a noted documentary filmmaker. For this film, he
attempted to achieve the opposite of a docu-drama. Instead of imposing a factual veneer
upon a Sictional work, he imposed his fictional characters upon real events. This
technique freed Wexler from the requirements of j ournalistic obj activity that he would
have encountered in a purely documentary form. He could choose to include a shot of an
extremely stiff general attempting to explain the Illinois National Guard's mission. Also
included in this sequence is footage of a guardsman at the training session pretending to
be Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. The guardsman playing Daley attempts to reason
with the fake protesters by saying in a joking manner, "We've given you everything we
thought you needed. I've let you use our swimming pools every Fourth of July."
The most interesting thing about this scene is that the real Illinois National
Guardsmen had an understanding of how the government might be perceived to be
5 Wexler framed posters in the background of many shots as a counterpoint to primary action. This scene
ends with a nude romp in front of a photograph of a South Vietnamese general executing a member of the
Viet Cong. Later in the film, a black militant advocates the violent use of handguns while framed in front of
a photograph of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Martin Luther King.
disingenuous by letting people swim only one day per year. It is also interesting that the
real life guardsmen are "acting" at their training session. They perform the roles of both
civil authorities and protesters, yet are unaware of the ironic juxtaposition. They know
what the opposition is for, but they do not care.
Personal and Political Commitment
Wexler intended M~edium Cool to make a statement about responsibility. He
compared the questions asked in his film to those asked at the time of the Nuremberg
trials and commented on the ambiguous nature of evil. According to Wexler:
The biggest problem in our country today is that the bad guys don't look like bad
guys. In movies, the bad guy comes into a room and he always needs a shave. And
the music tells us he's a bad guy. But in real life, the bad guys are the guys who
plan, who control the end of the world. Bacteriological warfare, chemical warfare,
missiles that protect missiles. These men speak grammatical English, they have
Ph.D.'s and they are undoubtedly nice to their wives and kids. If they think at all
about what they are doing there are rationalizations available to them. They're
doing it for peace. They're doing it to defend their country. They're doing it to
protect mankind. If there is one word that characterizes our society, it is hypocrisy.
A cocktail party scene, attended by members of the news media, expresses
Wexler' s theme of rationalized evil. When questioned about his professional choices to
broadcast violent images, a colleague of Cassellis points out that viewers do not want to
see boring shots of people talking about peace. In response to the colleague, another
member of the cocktail party points out that newscasters can afford to focus their stories
on the loud and violent aspects of society because of their relative safety: "All good
people deplore problems at a distance. Like Thomas Jefferson, he loved the common
man, but at a distance." This film condemns the choice of cool distance, both in civic life
and in personal affairs.
Cassellis begins to find a sense of civic commitment when he receives an
assignment to cover the story of a black cab driver who finds an envelope with $10,000
in his taxi. The police question the cabby closely as to where the money came from.
When the cabby says that he doesn't know the origin of the envelope, a detective, played
by an actual city of Chicago policeman, turns aggressive, asking him if he was "gonna
get funny now?" The portrayal of an innocent working man being harassed by an overly
aggressive cop is a standard plot device in countless Hollywood films, as is what happens
Cassellis is a journalistic pro who can smell a good story. He takes the cabby's
story to his assignment editor, but the editor is unwilling to pursue the details of the
$10,000 envelope. He decries a lack of resources due to coverage of the upcoming
political convention. The editor tells Cassellis to forget the story, but the intrepid
cameraman will not let it go. He and his soundman track the cabby down to the
neighborhood where he lives. Once in the cabby's apartment, they encounter a group of
black militants who accuse them of spying for the police. Cassellis and his soundman
deny the charges, but are lectured about news media exploitation and leave without any
When Cassellis returns to his station, he finds out that some of his past footage shot
of draft card burners has in fact been given to the police and the Federal Bureau of
Investigations. Cassellis becomes enraged at the duplicity of his superiors who would rob
6 For a discussion as to which characters in the film are actors working from a script, actors worlang via
improvisation, non-actors working from improvisation, or non-actors unaware that they are taking part in a
film, see Haskell Wexler, "Special Features: Commentary by Director, Writer and Director of Photography,
Haskell Wexler, Editorial Consultant, Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill," Commentary. Medium
Cool. DVD. Paramount, 2001.
him of his street credibility. Station management summarily fires Cassellis, who now
appreciates the suspicions harbored by the black militants. He will not be fooled again.
Cassellis begins to Eind a sense of personal commitment when he meets Eileen
(Verna Bloom), a single mother from Appalachia, and her street-wise, young son named
Harold. Cassellis teaches Harold to box and initiates a romance with Eileen. Wexler
contrasts the idyllic life that Eileen and Harold had back in Appalachia with the mean
streets of Chicago. The Appalachian scenes contain picturesque flashbacks of Harold' s
father teaching him to shoot a gun, walks through flowering Hields, baptisms in rivers and
pious religious services. This is in keeping with traditional faith in bedrock American
values derived from simple rural roots. The mean streets of Chicago, on the other hand,
reveal tenement courtyards and impoverished street urchins emblematic of the
complexities of modern times.
Eileen is a good mother to Harold and is all the family he has left. Her husband,
like bedrock American values, is only seen in flashbacks. His absence is variously
explained as due to estrangement, military service, or death. Eileen had been a teacher
back in West Virginia, however, the state of Illinois does not recognize her teaching
credentials from back home. Her husband is gone so she must support her family by
working in a factory making televisions for the Motorola Corporation, another reference
to television production.
Eileen is different from the other women in Cassellis' life. His last girlfriend, Ruth
was a sex obj ect while Eileen offers the stability of an instant family. Cassellis takes
Eileen to a Frank Zappa concert. The scene is played in fast motion and strobe lights
flash on and off as everyone dances with abandon. Zappa' s lyrics parody trendy,
noncommittal members of the counterculture:
What' s there to live for? Who needs the Peace Corps?
I'm completely stoned, I'm a hippy and I'm trippy, I'm a gypsy on my own
I'll stay a week and get the crabs and take the bus back home
I'm really just a phony, but forgive me 'cause I'm stoned
Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet
It is interesting that Wexler includes Zappa's scurrilous indictment of disingenuous
political activists. This is not a politically naive film. After the concert, Cassellis makes
out with Eileen. Harold, still missing his father, runs away after seeing the couple. Eileen
searches for Harold all night and into the next day. She finds herself searching for her son
in the middle of a maj or confrontation between protesters and police in the streets of
Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
The 1968 Chicago convention was extremely acrimonious. Differing slates of
delegates fought over credentials. Delegates from New York and California interrupted
speeches to chant, "Stop the war." Speakers chastised Chicago Mayor Daley from the
podium. Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey received the party's nomination after
withstanding challenges from South Dakota Senator George McGovern and Minnesota
Senator Eugene McCarthy. Outside the convention hall, a crowd of 15 thousand
protesters mobilized in Grant Park and then attempted to march to the convention hall.
The Chicago police halted their progress. At 8:30 p.m., before a nation-wide audience of
prime time television viewers, the police and protesters clashed. By the end of the melee,
100 persons had been injured.'
SIn an action designed to unnerve convention organizers and to divert police resources protest leaders
disseminated fictitious rumors that they were planning to inject Chicago's drinking water with LSD, a
tactic similar to that employed in the film Wild in the Streets. See Witcover 321.
The actress, Verna Bloom, bravely walks in close proximity to both sides during
the conflict. She is playing a fictional character, but everything else in this sequence was
real, or at least as real as footage can be that was shot by Wexler and later edited for
dramatic narrative impact. Chants of "pigs eat shit" and "pigs are whores" are included
on the soundtrack. Police are seen forcibly removing camera equipment from the scene.
People are dragged into paddy wagons. Blood streams down protesters faces. Tear gas
explodes as Eileen frantically searches for her son.
The key moment of personal commitment in the film occurs when Eileen
telephones Cassellis while he is inside the convention hall working as a freelance
cameraman. She tells him that Harold is missing and asks for his help. Without a
moment' s hesitation, Cassellis leaves his job. He puts down the camera with which he
coolly observed life and chooses to act. He joins Eileen in her search for Harold who
ironically, has already left the melee and returned home.
The film ends with an arbitrary death scene. Cassellis picks up Eileen in his car to
help her search for Harold. Unfortunately, their car runs off the road in a horrible
accident. The film's sound track includes reports of violence at the convention. In a shot
similar to the first scene in the film, a beat up old car full of rubber-neckers slowly drives
by the carnage. A young man in the back seat snaps a photograph of the auto accident,
but the driver does not stop to help. The last shot in the film is of Wexler pointing his
camera at the audience while actual attendees of the protest repeat, "The whole world' s
watching. The whole world's watching. The whole world's watching."
Wexler, born in Chicago, had always wanted to be a filmmaker. "My family
traveled a lot, and I channeled my antisocial behavior into taking family movies. It was a
socially acceptable way to be detached." Wexler traded detachment for commitment at
the University of California where he was "kicked out my first year for being a radical."
He then spent four and a half years in the Merchant Marine before returning to his native
Chicago where he began working on documentaries and educational films. After many
years perfecting his craft, he became a highly sought after Hollywood cinematographer
and won an academy award for best cinematography in 1967 for Who 's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf! (1966) (Hunter Al9).
In Medium Cool, the character of Cassellis serves as a surrogate for Wexler. Both
are accomplished cameramen from Chicago. Both have a rebellious streak and worked as
cameramen in Vietnam. Wexler wrote, directed, and photographed this very personal
film. It is a tribute to the art and professionalism of cinematographers. Almost every
scene in the film was shot with a hand held camera and without the benefit of modern
camera stabilizing technology. The extensive use of hand held camera used throughout
the film promotes a documentary-like sense of realism.
For Wexler the film became all too real when he received a dose of tear gas while
shooting the Grant Park sequence of his film. An Illinois National Guardsman fired a
canister at him. At first Wexler thought that it was only talcum powder, but soon blinded,
he began to roll on the ground. A bit of water, administered by some of the protesters,
brought him back around. The surreal nature of actual events struck Wexler who noted
"the disbelief was that it actually had happened. In the midst of the rioting, in Grant Park,
some guys in their late 20's who I guess always played baseball there, went right on with
their game with all that going on around them" ( Beigel 7).
Wexler wrote the script for M~edium Cool in the winter of 1967, well in advance of
the convention. His ability to forecast was due in part to an understanding of the political
dynamics of the city as well as his personal relationships with key members of the
community. Wexler' s original script did include scenes of protest and confrontation at the
convention. Still it was extremely fortuitous for the production, if not for the city of
Chicago, that violence did occur. He was able to stage graphic action sequences at
minimal expense (Beigel 7).
Wexler, a novice director, had to scramble in order to get his picture made. He
donated his own equipment to the production and shared in the film's financing as well as
profits with Paramount Pictures. Wexler spent $ 800,000 of his own funds on the
production and made a deal to receive $ 600,000 from Paramount in exchange for the
completed work. He was also to receive 50 % of the net profits. Wexler was motivated to
work fast and cheap, and in exchange, he secured relatively free rein over the film's
When Wexler first pitched his idea to Paramount, the story was titled The Concrete
Wilderness. The film originally was to be more about the experiences of a young child
from West Virginia who had an interest in racing pigeons. The film was also to be about
Harold's adaptation to living in the urban, Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Harold's
story was retained by Wexler, along with newer political content. The mayor of Chicago
was more concerned with the film's content than Paramount. According to Wexler, "We
SParamount was more concerned about Wexler's ability to manage money rather than content. The studio
sent an observer, disguised as a dialogue coach, to Chicago to watch over the film's budget. Wexler
discovered the ruse, told the spy not to get in his way, and wound up using him as an actor in one of the
film's scenes. See Beigel 7.
got calls almost every other day from Daley's office wanting reassurance that we
wouldn't show the city in a bad light. We didn't block any traffic so we didn't have to get
a permit or a license to film." Wexler delivered his film to Paramount on time and on
budget. Unfortunately, the film received an X rating at the time of its release for its
inclusion of frontal nudity and profanity. In spite of this, the film still turned a profit
Critical responses to M~edium Cool applauded the film's technical skill and topical
relevance but found fault with Wexler' s directorial ability. Wa~shington Post film critic
Gary Amold thought the film's blend of documentary and fiction captured "the
disj pointed, volatile character of American society." On the other hand, he also thought
Medium Cool to be "not so much a finished, coherent work of art as it is a brilliant set of
rushes." Amold felt that the film tried to cover too many subj ects, then could not resolve
all of its many story lines (B l).
Penelpe Gilliatt, of 7hze New Yorker, thought the film fit well within current taste in
its mixture of illusion and disillusion, but felt it contained the same "moral fallacy as
Antonioni's Blow Up, which attacked the shallowness of a fashion photographer and of
London swingers in a film that itself saw them only shallowly"( 143).
Newsweek critic Joseph Morgenstemn thought the film had moments of brilliance,
but found fault with what he felt were "uneven performances and the banalities and
uncertainties of the script." Morgenstern thought that Cassellis's character transformation
was unconvincing, and the film's opening and closing scenes of automobile wrecks were
an awkward attempt at parallelism. Morgenstern also charged Wexler with being didactic
when the film lectured its viewers. Despite Wexler' s difficulty in handling fiction
however, Morgenstern felt that M~edium Cool was "a brave, significant attempt to break
out an American feature fi1m into the real world" (66).
The fi1m' s title, M~edium Cool, is a play on words derived from the work of noted
1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan. According to McLuhan, a hot medium supplies
great amounts of information so that consumers are not required to invest a great deal of
involvement in a particular production. A cool medium, on the other hand, supplies
minimal amounts of information requiring consumers to become more invested in a
media production. In the presence of a cool medium, the consumer must attempt to fill in
the information that is lacking in the message. This coolness promotes introspection and
passivity rather than action. In addition, the content of the medium is not so important to
the consumers as much as the fact of interacting with the medium itself. The medium can
appear to be more real to the viewer than its content. Radio, newspapers, and motion
pictures are hot media, while television is a cool medium (McLuhan).
Medium Cool uses the hot medium of film to tell the story of a cameraman who
works in the cool medium of television. It also examines how people interact with
different media realities. At the time of its release, audiences could not be sure which
scenes were real, partially real, or fictional. Wexler included footage of Reverend Jesse
Jackson addressing followers at a national rally held at the makeshift Resurrection City
site in Washington D.C. This actual news event could be verified as having taken place.
Other events in the film, such as the romance between Eileen and Cassellis, fit movie
audience expectations of a fictional plot. Still others scenes in the film could not
obviously be judged either way. Gus can be seen at the protests along with other working
soundmen. Who is a real soundman, who is an actor, and who is the soundman charged
with obtaining sound for Wexler' s film? The confrontations between protesters and
police were real, but they just as easily could have been staged and would have been if
Wexler was not permitted to shoot in Chicago. Motion picture audiences had to decide
for themselves what level of reality was being presented in this film.
Wexler noted that people often had difficulty discerning real behavior from what
the media conditioned them to expect. During shooting, he observed that average citizens
were quite willing to allow the presence of television crews to alter their actions. He saw
that rioters, police, and National Guardsmen in Chicago would often pause in their tracks
when they saw a TV van. They would make certain that the cameraman was ready to
shoot before resuming their confrontations and ritualized chanting (Beigel 22).
The character of Cassellis addressed the media's ritualized response to violence. In
the film, Cassellis and Eileen watch a televised documentary on the assassinations of
President John Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. The
television screen is not visible in the frame, but its glow illuminates them from a
dramatic, low angle. Eileen's emotional response to the program causes her to state, "I
don't know what to think, it seems like no man's life's worth anything anymore."
The more cynical Cassellis finds fault with the program. He complains that the
media has a script now, by the numbers. "Flags at half-mast, trips cancelled, ballgames
called off, schools closed, memorial meetings, marches, moments of silence. The widow
cries and then she says brave words, the moment of silence, the funeral procession."
Cassellis feels that the real motivation behind the production was fear of black violence
that might result from the assassination of Dr. King and a wish to abrogate blame so that
"no one's really on the hook, you see?"
Marginalized Socio-Economic Groups
Wexler' s familiarity with Chicago's political dynamics provided him with unique
access to participants in his film including a group of black activists. After the police
harass the cab driver, he returns to his apartment only to be criticized by his friends. They
insinuate that he is not sufficiently conscious of his race. The cabby's friends tell him that
if he was "acting as a black man" rather than "as a Negro" he would have kept the money
and bought guns with it.
When Casselllis and his soundman Gus come to the apartment to follow up on the
cabby's story, they meet with resistance. The militants accuse them of media exploitation
and maintain that they cannot possibly tell the complete story or place it in its historical
context in just fifteen-minutes. It is interesting that fifteen minutes was considered short
for a news story in 1969. At the end of the scene, one angry man (Felton Perry) tells
Cassellis what he thinks of the media. The militant states that what little media coverage
there has been of blacks has ridiculed, exploited, and rendered them invisible. The
resentment felt at being treated as a non-person leads him to warn of violent
consequences. It is surprising that a mainstream American film managed to capture this
level of anger toward the establishment.
The scene in the cabby's apartment employed a mixture of actors and non-actors.
The cab driver and the last militant were actors; the other performers were a collection of
activists, along with artists and sculptors, who were pretending to be more militant than
they were in real life. Wexler supplied the performers with a script, however, they were
free to improvise on specific wordings, add lines and decline any dialogue they felt
uncomfortable speaking. This is true up to the long close-up at the scene's end, which
was performed by an actual actor according to a script (Wexler).
As the final militant speaks, he is framed in the center of a close up and directly
addresses the camera. This privileged framing indicates that Wexler intended to make a
point about what he perceived to be the media's indifference to the lives of African
Americans. The film also suggests that the media has also ignored the lives of poor
whites. Wexler juxtaposes an interview conducted at a fancy hotel swimming pool with a
social worker' s interview conducted with Harold at his tenement apartment. In the
poolside scene, Cassellis films a wealthy society matron as she speaks about her plans to
vacation in Ontario for the summer.
The next scene shows Harold, alone in the middle of the day, trying to explain to a
social worker where his father is. Unlike the society matron, Harold's world is not
pleasant and his family cannot afford to vacation anywhere. Eileen and Harold are
symbolic of an entire class of poor white people that Wexler feels have been rendered
invisible. Although Wexler is neither African American nor from Appalachia, his
sympathies lie with marginalized socio-economic groups. He reserves his antipathy for
those in power.
Messages in the Medium
In Medium Cool, establishment figures are obj ects of derision. The Illinois National
Guardsmen train for protesters while carrying toy guns and wearing longhaired wigs.
Frightened suburban housewives practice firing guns at a shooting range. When Gus
points a shotgun mike at the shooting range manager (Peter Boyle), the manager cracks
an obvious joke asking, "is that thing loaded?"
Cassellis's boss cares about budgetary limitations more than he does about getting
to the truth. He refuses Cassellis' request to follow up on the cabby's story and fires
Cassellis for insubordination. Cassellis quickly obtains a new j ob as a cameraman
assigned to cover the Democratic convention. He conducts preproduction reconnaissance
at the convention hall and remarks that the building's proximity to the Chicago
stockyards causes it to smell of dead animals- a foreshadowing of the climactic
"slaughter" of protesters in the park. Inside the convention hall, political leaders ignore
the street violence going on outside. They cast their votes by state. Banners wave,
speeches are made, and a pretty campaign worker, in a silly, cone shaped hat, pins a
political campaign button on Cassellis' s jacket. The Roosevelt era Democratic Party
theme song, Happy Days are Here Again, is included on the sound track as an audio
bridging device between shots inside the hall and the action outside.
An extended montage follows. Police beat people to the ironic counterpoint of the
up-beat musical standard. The editing sequence depicts private citizens moving in one
direction and uniformed guardsmen and police moving in opposition to them. De-
personalized close ups of boots are followed by shots of wounded protesters being placed
in ambulances. In contrast to the moving shots of anonymous policemen, the camera
stops to show personalized, medium close-ups of individual protesters. All is in chaos as
the police march on.
The fi1m breaks new ground in its depiction of political violence. Mainstream films
had seldom depicted police and military personnel fighting against their fellow citizens.
Authorities were trusted to serve and protect average citizens from attacks, but in this
film, men in uniform turn against the people. It seems as if the American system has
broken down, and the establishment is responsible for its demise. American leaders are
depicted as not only illegitimate, but down right dangerous.
In the film, the nation's media are equally dangerous, coconspirators in the
destruction of democracy. Newscasters substitute ritual for context and every story is the
same as the last and the next. Individual cameramen, personified by Cassellis, are
depicted as professional seekers of truth who must negotiate between the animosity of
those they cover, police interference, and the impatience of their editors. Cassellis's
editor is a harmless functionary. Those higher up at the station are another story. The
bosses are unseen and dangerous. When Cassellis is given his severance letter, he runs
through the station's hallways demanding to know who was responsible for his
termination. No one takes responsibility for the action. In a film about a cameraman,
being visible is important. That which is hidden from society has the potential for grave
danger. According to this film, the public good can only be maintained if a metaphorical
camera is trained on both the weak and the powerful.
One of the few establishment Eigures that receive respect in the fi1m is Senator
Robert Kennedy. Cassellis conducts an interview scene outside of a campaign office.
Actual Kennedy campaign workers are asked why they support the senator. A young
woman likes Kennedy because "He's got long hair." A young man says, "He is against
the war." The woman jokingly dismisses the man saying, "He' s an idealist; he' s for
anybody who doesn't have a chance." This line echoes Senator Smith from Frank Capra' s
M~r. Smith Goes to Wa~shington, "Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for."
Wexler' s film maintains that sense of 1960s idealism.
Later in the film, Wexler presents the assassination of Senator Kennedy in a unique
manner. A continuous 360-degree panning shot shows the interior of a large commercial
kitchen. The kitchen looks like the kitchen inside of the Ambassador Hotel in Los
Angeles where Kennedy died. Kennedy is never seen in the sequence, but his last speech
is heard on the sound track. The camera slowly scans the entire minutia of the kitchen
including workers, dirty dishes, etc. The pan continues until the camera arrives back at its
starting point. Kennedy can be heard above a cheering crowd as he finishes his speech
saying ". and now on to Chicago." The shot concludes when the pantry door explodes
open, throngs of people rush in, and we realize that the senator has been shot. 9
Wexler' s film suggests that revolution comes at great cost, as it did for Robert
Kennedy, but is it worth the sacrifice. Americans have failed to realize their full political
and personal potential. Leaders have been slain, protesters beaten; Cassellis and Eileen
have died in a fiery automobile crash. National government alone, however, cannot be
trusted to solve the complex problems of society. As stated by various characters in the
film, committed individuals must choose to affect change "phony hippies" need not
apply. Good people should no longer "view problems at a distance" because "the whole
world is watching." It is time for a change.
The personal transformation that Cassellis undergoes in M~edium Cool occurs when
he chooses to leave his work at the convention hall to join Eileen in searching for her son.
His choice to j oin a new style of blended, nuclear family symbolizes the individual
commitment needed to build a better family of man. Wexler' s inexperience as a director,
however, caused him to miss an opportunity to emphasize this key dramatic moment.
One moment Cassellis is seen shooting footage. He then gets a message and leaves the
9 The kitchen scene was filmed at a date after the assassination of Kennedy. A Chicago kitchen stood in for
the actual kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel. See Wexler.
Wexler also fails to take advantage of the extended riot scenes that end the fi1m. In
simple movie terms, the cops are the bad guys in the blue hats and the protesters are the
good guys without hats. It is easy to discern who the filmmakers wish the audience to
root for, but it is hard to discern the heroes' political agenda. The fi1m does include a
brief shot of a sign urging that American troops be brought home from Vietnam and the
chant "hell no we won't go" can be heard on the sound track, but the audience is left to
fi11 in the extra information needed to understand why this confrontation is happening.
Unlike earlier, politically charged scenes, few protesters in the park are black or
obviously, from Appalachia and other than a photograph on Cassellis' desk, the issue of
Vietnam is not emphasized in the fi1m.
The audience for this film most likely would skew politically left. This is not a film
for centrists or right-wingers. The film's target audience would be aware of the political
agenda championed by the protesters. They would have been aware of the concept of
marginalized socio-economic groups. Even if they were not politically active, they would
at least know who Frank Zappa was. According to McLuhan, the tactic of forcing the
audience to supply information to the fi1ms material would be more at place in a cool
medium like television that promotes passivity. Viewing society's problems at a distance,
however, was not the filmmaker's intent.
Wexler created M~edium Cool in the hot medium of film. He wanted his audience to
react. The very last shot in the fi1m is of Wexler himself filming the car crash of Cassellis
and Eileen. He then pans his movie camera directly toward the audience as an unseen
newscaster reports on the on-going violence in Chicago. "We're being thrown up against
the wall. People are being hit by clubs and those are real nightsticks." According to