Gravity's Rainbow And Other Cold War Literature And Film Essay

Length: 8 pages Sources: 12 Subject: Drama - World Type: Essay Paper: #77425512 Related Topics: Slaughterhouse Five, Documentary Film, Counterculture, Cold War
Excerpt from Essay :

¶ … Cold War dominated American culture, consciousness, politics and policy for most of the 20th century. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the fall of the Iron Curtain and therefore finale of the Cold War, Cold War rhetoric and politics continued especially in the War on Terror. Depictions of the Cold War in American literature and film parallel the changes that took place in American ways of thinking about its own domestic policies as well as American perceptions of the alien enemy or "Other." Tracing the evolution of American film and literature from the end of World War Two until the 1980s reveals trends in thought. Early depictions of the Cold War were modernist in their approach, with clear distinctions between good and evil and no moral ambiguity whatsoever. Clear delineations between right/wrong and good/evil prevailed, a form of political propaganda and even brainwashing that prepped the American public into perceiving a mortal enemy and existential threat in a monolithic force known as Communism. The early depictions of the Cold War in America can be labeled as the Red Scare era, during which science fiction provided an apt vehicle for myth- and message-making. The culture and consciousness shifted dramatically in the 1960s, during which a greater willingness and ability to critique American domestic and foreign policy prevailed in both film and literature. A large degree of Red Scare remained, but it was combined with an equally powerful fear of American bureaucratic structures, propaganda machines, and the military-industrial complex. Cynicism, satire, and absurdity became the prevalent literary and film tropes during this phase. Close to the end of the Cold War, another shift toward the postmodern mentality emerged, providing the lens through which to better understand metanarratives and global perspectives. Depictions of the Cold War in American film and literature changed from the initially simplistic binaries to increasingly complex social and political critiques.

At the end of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union established themselves as the binary global superpowers. The status of the Soviet Union and the United States was bolstered by other nations, particularly in Western Europe but throughout Asia as well, which looked to one or the other superpower as helping to maintain law and order in the Universe. Projecting universal principles of good and evil onto the Soviet Union and the United States made science fiction the most apt of all literary genres in depicting the Cold War. From the perspective of the United States, the world was under threat by invasion from an alien civilization characterized by its lack of human emotion, annihilation of individuality, and its penchant for brainwashing and homogenization. At this stage, the irony of projecting these qualities onto the enemy/Other was lost on America, not to emerge until decades later. The Red Scare era capitalized on fear mongering by presenting the Soviets as existential threats and evil incarnate. Much as animation can enable hyperbole and exaggeration, so too can science fiction allow writers to explore the extent of their apocalyptic visions without being constrained by realism. The 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a quintessential Cold War science fiction drama, in which brainwashing features prominently. The title refers to the appropriation of bodies by the alien life form, which then inhabits the bodies and turns them into emotionless beings. The aliens "display familiar communist traits: above all, they are deprived of emotion (except rage) and dedicated to the common cause -- converting everyone into their likes," (Shcherbenok, 2010, p. 1). Invasion of the Body Snatchers was only one of the more famous of many other science fiction films and novels that bore direct comparisons with Cold War politics. Others include both film and novel version of The Puppet Master, as well as Them, and the more obviously titled films like Red Planet Mars.

A proliferation of science fiction movies of this ilk, in which aliens bore strong resemblances to depictions of communists, signaled an age of "hysteria" in America, paralleling the McCarthy-led witch hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (Booker, 2001; Pearson, 1998). Thus, film had the potential to shape American perceptions of Russians, of Communists in general, and of communism as a social, economic, and...


Essentially, communism was everything capitalism was not, and capitalism represented all that was healthy, wholesome, and good in America. The 1950s therefore witnessed the "Golden Age of Television," in which sitcoms presented idealized, and unrealistic, portrayals of the American nuclear family in its white suburban bliss (Booker, 2001). Also during this time, consumerism and mass marketing grew to epic proportions in America, in part a reaction against the fear of communist economic systems. The Golden Age of Television therefore coincides with the "Golden Age of Nuclear Fear," (Booker, 2001, p. 5). In this early Red Scare era of the Cold War, a fear of Soviet expansionism prevailed and led to American interventionist foreign policies. The Korean War and the War in Vietnam were escalations representing hot spots in the Cold War. These hot spots signaled the potential for actual nuclear war, which was presented as a means by which to destroy the entire planet. Science fiction was an ideal vehicle for communicating the absolute, extreme, paranoid existential threats represented by the encroachment of Communism throughout Asia and the rest of the world. As Booker (2001) also points out, the perception of Communist expansionism as a form of colonialism or imperialism shows that this era was firmly entrenched in the modern age. The 1960s would become a bridge between the modern and post-modern, when literalism faded into irony and sarcasm.

During the height of Red Scare hysterics, Russians were depicted "as foreign as possible," to the point of being non-human alien beings in science fiction (Booker, 2001). The science fiction trope would end by the middle of the 1960s, when Russians were actually humanized in ways that interjected moral ambiguity into film and literature. Pearson (1998) credits Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North by Northwest as the "beginning of the end of Red Scare melodrama," (p. 1). Other novels and films produced during the early 1960s included Richard Condon's 1959 book The Manchurian Candidate, made into a film in 1962. In The Manchurian Candidate, the Americans are depicted as being just as complicit in Cold War absolutism in terms of using brainwashing techniques. Yet the moral constructs are still binary in nature, with the communist scare remaining salient. Shcherbenok (2010) also claims that Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Norman Jewison's The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) were notable film examples of how Cold War depictions were changing because Russians were becoming humanized characters as opposed to a force of monolithic aliens. Prior to 1964 and Dr. Strangelove, satire had not become a tool in the arsenal of fictionalized Cold War accounts. Dr. Strangelove was a pivotal production because it used satire to critique the American anti-communist Red Scare. Other films, such as The Manchurian Candidate, did criticize the hypocritical tactics of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the use of propaganda. Films and literature about double-crossing and double-agents revealed the deeper fear of not knowing who to trust.

In part a reaction to the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the growing hippie and counterculture movement, films and novels of the 1960s and 1970s shifted their tone, themes, motifs, and characterizations entirely. One of the most notable Cold War novels during this interim stage was Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. In the 1950s, communism was depicted as a monolithic psychic force of total evil and annihilation, and the enemy was dehumanized. The focus shifted from demonizing the Russians toward critiquing American policy in the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways, Gravity's Rainbow can be read as a prototype of postmodern literature because it uses metanarratives. Hamill (1999) points out that Gravity's Rainbow develops the concept of a "constructed audience" (which could be read to mean gullible Americans), and is directly "about the formation of the Cold War in its techno-bureaucratic context," (p. 417). Again, the focus is no longer on the threat of Communism, but on the more immanent and direct threat of American policies on limiting the very same freedom and liberties the nation purports to uphold in the Cold War. Gravity's Rainbow is characterized by its "containment and counterforce become metaphors," as Hammill (1999) points out (p. 417). The imagery of containment and counterforce parallel the growing rift in American society between the hippie counterculture and anti-war movement, and its growing mistrust of government, and the older generation of more trusting but also more brainwashed set whose fear of Communism remained. Another significant element of Gravity's Rainbow is its questioning America's sense of moral righteousness. Pynchon "scurrilously uses" the primary constructs in the novel "to subvert moral righteousness of the Western Cold Warriors in their defense of a 'free world' (paradoxically) under siege from an ever threatening Communism," (Hamill, 1999, p. 417).…

Sources Used in Documents:


Booker, K.M. (2001). Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Comyn, J. (2014). "V2 to Bomarc: Reading Gravity's Rainbow in Context." Orbit 2(2). Retrieved online:

Hamill, J. (1999). Confronting the Monolith: Authority and the Cold War in Gravity's Rainbow. Journal of American Studies 33(3): 417-436.

Jarvis, C. (n.d.). The Vietnamization of World War II in Slaughterhouse Five and Gravity's Rainbow. Retrieved online:
Landon, P.J. (n.d.). Films of the Cold War: 1948-1990. Retrieved online:
Pearson, G. (1998). The Red Scare: A filmography. The All Powers Project. Retrieved online:
Shcherbenok, A. (2010). Asymmetric Warfare: The Vision of the Enemy in American and Soviet Cold War Cinemas. KinoKultura 28(2010). Retrieved online:

Cite this Document:

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