Despite Hollywood's appetite for drama, it has almost never depicted one particularly epochal moment in U.S. history: the dropping of the atomic bomb. Nation magazine contributor Greg Mitchell explains how the first film about the bomb, in 1947, set the template. It's cautionary tone was revised and peppered with mistruths by the White House and the Pentagon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, we spoke to him again about the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were epochal moments, and yet they are really represented by that great synthesizer of American experience, the feature film. Hollywood has churned through nearly every dramatic moment in history, but it’s largely left one of the most consequential of the 20th century alone. Mitchell thinks he might know why. While doing research for an investigation of Hiroshima, he found documents detailing the role the U.S. government played in crafting Hollywood’s first treatments of the dropping of the bomb on Japan, a film called The Beginning or the End.
MALE ACTOR: The Beginning or the End is the personalized drama of the men and women who bent to their will the savage forces of nature to create the atom bomb and the terrifying seconds in time when Hiroshima became a livid ball of explosive fire and blazing chaos.
GREG MITCHELL: The initial impetus for the film came from the atomic scientists who were extremely alarmed about a future of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons in the U.S. But General Leslie Groves, who was one of the directors of the Manhattan Project, was given script approval, as was the White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The filmmakers obtained permission from the real people they intended to depict in the film, and they also needed permission of the U.S. government to film in places like Los Alamos. But why did they give script approval to the U.S. government?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, of course, this was just after World War II so, of course, everyone was in a very patriotic mode, and MGM probably couldn't have imagined going up against the military or the White House. In fact, Truman gave them the title for the movie when they talked to him in the White House. And so, I think partly they saw this as a great publicity thing. If they could get the President’s backing, it would seem to be sort of official.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the MGM trailer for the film, there is an MGM spokesperson.
GREG MITCHELL: Inquiring reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Inquiring reporter - an actor clearly, talking to audience members leaving the film who are also clearly actors.
MALE ACTOR: After all, the picture is based on fact and has official approval.
FEMALE ACTOR: The truth never hurt anybody.
GREG MITCHELL: Nowadays, of course, that would be death for a movie but back then the idea that the government, which had built and used the bomb, was also endorsing this movie certainly would have been enticing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was General Groves’ impact on the film?
GREG MITCHELL: One of his main goals was to downplay the impact of radiation, so there was a portion of the script that was rewritten to show that radiation wasn't that big a deal. Each variation of the script adhered more and more to the official Hiroshima narrative, that there was no choice but to use the bomb and that the President not only made the right decision but there was really no controversy around it. And I think one reason why the filmmakers were so anxious to have White House approval was that they actually depicted the President in the film, which was a very, very unusual thing for Hollywood. Truman had demanded from the beginning that if he was depicted he had to be filmed from the back or the side so that, as he said, it wouldn't show my countenance in talking about the bomb. And even after all the revisions, numerous fabrications in the movie, to help bolster the case for using the bomb, Truman still felt that it showed that he made the decision very quickly, that he had done it without a great deal of thought. They got a new actor to play Truman, reshot the scene and, in general, the new scene offers more of a rationale for using the bomb.
MALE ACTOR: Like the picture, sir?
MALE ACTOR: Well, it seems to me it doesn't make any difference whether I personally like it or not. There it is, the story of the atomic bomb. If it had to be told, you people certainly didn't pull any punches in telling it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In March of ’47, it was touted as basically a “true story” -
GREG MITCHELL: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - quote, unquote, but it actually helped to cement some real mistruths.
GREG MITCHELL: Just in the Hiroshima attack itself, it showed the brave pilots barely getting through under attack from heavy flak from the Japanese. And no such thing happened. They just flew without any opposition and dropped the bomb. One of the planes in the attack, they changed the name on the side of the plane from Boxcar to Necessary Evil, which I love the blatant nature of that [LAUGHS]. In the explanation in the movie, both in what Truman says and what others say, continually talk about Hiroshima being basically one big military base, which was not true at all. There was a military base there but 95 percent of the casualties were civilians, mainly women and children. He claims that they dropped warning leaflets on Hiroshima beforehand, which was - it was completely false. The film also does not mention Nagasaki at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you argue that this film had a real impact over how future films, and there were very few of them -
GREG MITCHELL: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - dealt with the subject later.
GREG MITCHELL: I count only three, really. There was a second film in 1953 called Above and Beyond, which was the story of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb. And that film, very similar to Beginning or the End, it had uh, official backing of the Pentagon. Tibbets and Groves were paid again for their cooperation. There wasn't another film really looking at this ‘til more than 30 years later, Fat Man and Little Boy. And this was made by Roland Joffe, the director who made The Killing Fields. And he attempted to raise questions. It was much, much more of a fair treatment. But unfortunately for Joffe, he had cast Paul Newman as General Groves.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And it kind of capsized the film a bit. Even though he made General Groves, in many ways, kind of the bad guy, Paul Newman portrayed him so well and so attractively that the full message didn't come across.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Beginning or the End was a reasonably successful film. It got mixed reviews. But did it actually have the impact of entrenching the narrative that the bombings were absolutely essential and couldn't have been avoided, except at the astronomical cost of American lives?
GREG MITCHELL: Right. I would never say it was the key factor. There was a lot going on in the popular culture and in the press, in the media and all tending to feed into this narrative. The Beginning or the End, the irony is that it was originally conceived by the scientists as a counter to that narrative, the –
[BOTH AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A cautionary tale.
GREG MITCHELL: Right. And the finished product, I think, was very disappointing to, to most of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you quote Leó Szilárd, one of the architects of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, as saying, quote: “If our sin as scientists was to make and use the bomb, then our punishment was to watch The Beginning or the End.”
GREG MITCHELL: [LAUGHS] Some of the scientists, like Oppenheimer, as much as they wanted to make a cautionary tale, they couldn't resist the Hollywood glamour. They went on the set, hung out with some of the actors. There were some people who did deny giving their permission when they saw what was going on. Others gave their permission and couldn't – like Szilárd himself – they gave permission, and then he couldn't take it back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg, thank you very much.
GREG MITCHELL: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Mitchell is a contributor to The Nation and coauthor of Hiroshima in America.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
MALE ACTOR: We know the beginning. Only you of tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow, can know the end.