Category Archives: Cold War

Conspiracy and Disaster in Hollywood

Two genres that have been significant in post-war Hollywood cinema are the conspiracy movie and the disaster film. With the end of World War II in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race that followed, and the paranoia of the Cold War, it is conspiracy and disaster movies that have voiced America’s deepest fears about its relationship to the rest of the world on the one hand, and the struggle to define what is American and what is un-American at home.

From the point of view of someone interested in how cinema deals with these types of questions these genres are interesting because of the way they occur together and interact. Both genres deal with fundamentally the same problem: that our deepest fears may be realised – that the world is coming to an end and that the person we share our life is not who we think they are. Both these genres deal with anxiety, the prolonged, persistent, irrational belief that something (although we may not know what) is going to happen.

By conspiracy movie I mean a film in which there is some paranoid element that leads us to conclude that the world as we experience it is not the world as it is – films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954), Seven Days in May (1964), The Parallax View (1974), or Shadow Conspiracy (1997) are good examples of how people are not what they seem, that the US government is ruled by the military, or that through mind control can be used to turn individuals into assassins. Timothy Melley refers to this pervasive strain in American popular culture ‘agency panic:’

An intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control – the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else, that one has been ‘constructed’ by powerful agents (2001: 62).

Agency panic provides a model of conspiracy in American culture based around a notion of diminished human agency in which the individual is subject to a broad array of social controls (the conspiracy). Conspiracy theory, in Melley’s view is a defence of the integrity of the self in the face of anxiety about the nature of individual action. As I have discussed elsewhere, the conspiracy movie is characterised by the emotional response of anxiety. Agency panic from The Hidden Persuaders, to the Unabomber’s manifesto, and to Invasion of the Body Snatchers is such an emotional response.

Disaster movies are harder to define as the cause of the disaster may vary considerably, but are characteristic by a certain scale of their events – disasters should be big, especially in Hollywood – or by their magnified impact on a small but largely self-contained social group (i.e. Jurassic Park (1993), Airport ’77 (1977)). Global Pandemics (Panic in the Streets (1950), Outbreak (1997)), geological disaster (Earthquake (1974), Volcano (1997)), or the complete and utter destruction of the Earth (Armageddon (1997)) are all recurrent topics. There is also a sub-genre of films in which mass transit systems are out to get Americans – having watched films such as Airport (1970), Speed (1994), or even Titanic (1997) is it any wonder that investment in US public transport is lacking and that that car is supreme?

Like conspiracy films, disaster movies put the viewer in the position of being unable to control a situation: earthquakes, swarms of killer bees, meteors cannot be reasoned with. Something terrible will happen and we will not be able to control it. The potentiality of the disaster is the terrible thing – it is this that produces in the viewer a sense of anxiety.

Disaster movies are an essentially earthbound form: they operate, almost by definition, within the realm of the possible. People must believe ‘it’ could – indeed, very well might – happen to them (Roddick 1980: 246).

There is an initial loss of agency in the disaster movie leading to panic – but, and this is where the genre diverges from the conspiracy film, that loss of agency can ultimately be recovered. The world may never be the same again but human beings survive. We will be able to land the plane safely, the meteor will be destroyed (at the cost of Bruce Willis), the aliens will be defeated by a computer virus (which in no way plagiarises The War of the Worlds)  – there will be a plan and that plan will lead to the continuation of the human race.

There are also some films that involve both conspiracies and disasters: Deep Impact (1997), for example, starts off with a journalist trying to uncover what she thinks is a conspiracy but in fact uncovers a disaster (a meteor heading for earth); while in The China Syndrome (1979) California is a risk because of cover-up at a nuclear power plant.

To chart the changing impact of the conspiracy film and the disaster movie I have searched books, databases and the internet to find Hollywood’s output since the end of World War II and have come up with two samples on which I am going to base my analysis of anxiety in Hollywood cinema. I have identified some 93 conspiracy films and 102 disaster movies produced in Hollywood from 1947 to 2006 inclusive (not including TV movies, straight-to-video), and plotting the number of these types of films released by 5 year periods we can see some clear trends (Figure 1). Obviously, cycles of films do not fit neatly into five year periods, and this data set will continue to grow as I carry on the research but it is a useful guide.


FIGURE 1 Hollywood conspiracy and disaster films released from 1947 to 2006

Figure 1 shows that:

  • There have been three major cycles of conspiracy movies: the ‘red scare movies’ of the early Cold War (1947-1959, 30 films); the New Hollywood films, in which the individual is threatened by state institutions (1965-1979, 25 films); and from 1990 to 2006, which includes the nostalgia/history films of the 1990s (e.g. JFK (1991)), bog-standard conspiracy genre-fare (e.g. Shadow Conspiracy), and new millennium films that deal primarily with the problematic nature of memory (Paycheck (2003)), identity and agency (The Bourne Identity (2002)), and reality (The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003).
  • Although the conspiracy film never disappears, it does drop off markedly in the early 1960s (8 films) and the 1980s (7 films).
  • The disaster movie is more of a constant feature of post-war Hollywood cinema, and does not have such large swings in popularity as the conspiracy film. Nonetheless, there are clusters of disaster movies – in the 1950s and 1960s there are 15 and 14 films, respectively; in the 1970s this increases to 28 films; there are 13 films in the 1980s (almost all of which are released in the first half of the decade); before another increase in the 1990s to 24 films (of which 18 come in the second half of the decade); and 8 in the 2000s, with 7 released from 2000-2004.
  • The peak years for disaster movies are 1979 (7 films) and 1997 (8 films).
  • Of 102 disaster movies, the disasters are: alien invasion (5 films), disease (10 films), man-made disasters (i.e. fire) (5 films), natural disasters (35 films), nuclear disasters (11 films), and disasters involving some form of transport (36 films).
  • Of the 35 natural disaster films 3 involve avalanches, 9 involve some type of fauna (including bees (The Swarm (1978) and dinosaurs (Jurassic Park (1993))), 13 are geological (i.e. volcanoes, earthquakes), 5 involve meteors, and 5 involve some form of extreme weather event from tornadoes to hurricanes to global warming.
  • Of the 36 transport disaster films 2 involve buses, 10 involve boats, and 24 feature aircraft disasters.

In summary, the genres of the conspiracy film and the disaster movie a born in the early years of the Cold War and their fortunes broadly coincide as their popularity waxes and wanes – particularly in the 1970s and 1990s. That they should occur together is, I think, due to the shared basis in exploring the our anxiety about the nature of the world and the potential for action in the face of events that exceed our control.


Timothy Melley, ‘Agency Panic and the Culture of Conspiracy,’ in Peter Knight (ed.) Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Post-war America. New York and London: New York University Press, 2001: 57-81.

Nick Roddick, ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies,’ in D. Brady (ed.) Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and television 1800-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980: 243-269.

The military metaphor of government in the Cold War western

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner presented perhaps the most influential paper on American history ever written to the American Historical Association. In ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ Turner asserted that a crisis in American development arose from the closing of the “old frontier” and the delay in finding a new one. Turner argued that it is the frontier that defines “America:”

The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. … The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. … the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was predominantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across the free lands. … The growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier ([1893] 1956: 1-2, 10-11).

During the Cold War, the Western provided a widely known structure for representing the struggle between America and her enemies that was also a popular form of entertainment, and the frontier played a crucial role. For example, Melvin Lanksy, a cultural cold warrior who joined the ranks of the CIA, compared the cold war frontier of post-war Berlin to ‘what a frontier-town must have been like in the middle of the nineteenth century – Indians on the horizon, and you’ve simply got to have that rifle handy or [if] not your scalp is gone’ (quoted in Saunders 1999: 28). In 1953 Herbert L. Jackson identified that with the onset of the cold war the number of Westerns being produced in Hollywood had increased significantly:

It was no accident that the renaissance of the cowboy film took place during and immediately after World War II. And as America girds herself against the possibility of another great struggle, it is not surprising that the frequency of these films which reflect and nourish herself as successful defender of high ideals, has been stepped up (1953: 190).

Richard Slotkin has noted that, ‘the beginning of the Cold War in 1948 inaugurated the Golden Age of the Western: a 25-year period, regularly punctuated by the appearance of remarkable films, that saw the genre achieve its greatest popularity and that ended with its virtual disappearance from the genre map’ (1992: 347). During the Cold War, a number of Westerns took on the Russian threat directly. Edward Ludwig’s The Fabulous Texan (1947) was dedicated to the “war weary and liberty loving people” of Texas who had fought against a corrupt government that was clearly intended to be regard as synonymous with that which threatened the United States. Two Confederate soldiers returning home after the Civil War discover that their town has become a police state under the control of a demagogic attorney general. One citizen describes this state as “the land of your birth is becoming a Siberia.” In The Bells of Coronado (1952) Roy Rogers and Trigger foil a plot to sell the United States’ Uranium supplies to an unnamed foreign power. California Conquest (1952), apparently based on real events, tells of an attempt by Russia to take control of California. Uniquely this film reverses the Western genre by forcing the Americans to feel invaded as they have expanded westward. No longer is the white man taking over the Indian lands, but is fighting to preserve the frontier against the “old” world. Man Behind the Gun (1953) and Pony Express (1953) also deal with attempts to separate California from the Union that are defeated in order to maintain the integrity of the nation. Cripple Creek (1952) has federal agents revealing a conspiracy to hand gold reserves to the Chinese. Significantly in the cold-war Western it is the institutions of American democracy that secure the frontier and the nation. The federal government, so often projected as at odds with the individualistic frontiersman in the Western, is situated as the hero, as what links the west with the east thereby creating the nation.


Figure 1 California against the Russians in the old west: California Conquest (1952)

John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) takes up the theme of Turner’s thesis and directly concerns itself with the role of institutions in the west. The film presents a discourse on nationalism, on sacrifice and unity, and on the proper authority within the United States to make foreign policy decisions, and asserts that it is at the frontier of the Rio Grande that the family and the U.S. military finds their meaning. The family is integral to Rio Grande and the film asserts that families must make many sacrifices in order for the nation to be victorious. The corporal, for example, is not allowed to mourn for his murdered wife but must carry on with his duties, whilst the success of U.S. military policy comes with the rescue of the children and the reintegration of the family. Even murder is excused in the name of the family, as Tyree justifies killing a man for the honour of his sister. The centrality of the family is played out through the Yorkes, whose reintegration comes with the acceptance of national goals. Colonel Yorke’s estranged wife Kathleen arrives at the fort in order to buy their son out of the U.S. Cavalry. She has already had to pay a heavy price for the nation when as a southern landowner her husband, on General Sheridan’s orders, razed her home and lands to the ground during the civil war. Now she intends to reclaim her son from the Union army but is soon won over by becoming part of the family of the U.S. Cavalry thereby entering into the nation. Arriving at the fort Kathleen is shown to be clinging on to her identity as a provincial, dressing as and demonstrating the manners of a southern belle. She repeatedly declaims “Yankee justice” and blames the army for her predicament. She soon sheds these traits becoming a washerwoman at the fort although she is a colonel’s wife, even taking on the laundry of the junior ranks. At the close of the film Kathleen stands at the entrance to the fort like the other women waiting for the return of her son and her husband from their mission beyond the Rio Grande. In taking the Colonel’s hand and joining the march into the fort she signifies her acceptance of cavalry life and thus the reintegration of the family comes with the acceptance of military needs.

The timeliness of Rio Grande, adapted from an earlier story by James Warner Bellah, is apparent in the attacks on diplomacy and the State Department, which in 1950 were under constant assault during the Korean War. In 1945 Soviet and American troops occupied Korea, dividing control along the 38th parallel. An arbitrary boundary and originally intended to be temporary, the line became an international frontier in the struggle between Communism and the West. On 24 June 1950 the Soviet backed North Korean army launched a full-scale offensive across the 38th parallel. President Truman committed American naval, air and ground forces to assist the south that dominated the United Nations force led by General Douglas MacArthur. The Korean War initiated a new type of conflict in the nuclear age: limited warfare. Limited warfare has defined local aims, in this case to drive the Communists out of South Korea, and has no goal of total destruction of the enemy. Truman came under increasing criticism during the Korean War for his use of limited combat, which even his Pacific Commander-in-Chief MacArthur denounced as the ‘appeasement of communism.’ In the face of the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb, the Communist victory in China, and the Alger Hiss case Truman never looked more than soft on Communism. Limited warfare was hard to swallow for the American people who, in their short experience of global warfare, had achieved little below the total destruction of the enemy, and had developed a taste for the “all-or-nothing” victory. This approach to foreign policy, John W. Spanier states, is ‘nowhere more appropriately revealed than in that uniquely American genre, the Western. … In his consuming passion for justice and morality, the cowboy pursues the outlaw and “shoots him dead.” This is typical of the American approach to war once the nation has been provoked: shoot the enemy dead and thereby solve the problem. Moreover, the enemy is evil and his death is therefore socially beneficial and morally justified’ (1965: 6).

In dramatizing the Korean conflict as a Western Ford replicated the situation of Untied Nation’s forces, overwhelmingly dominated by the U.S. military, of facing a clearly defined enemy (The North Korean Army/the Indians) across a clearly defined frontier (the 38th Parallel/the Rio Grande). Ford also replicated MacArthur’s frustration with limited warfare through presenting the frustration of Colonel Yorke with the State Department. Rio Grande opens with Yorke returning to the fort having been forced by diplomatic restrictions to halt his pursuit of the Indians at the Rio Grande. Sheridan reminds Yorke that “That’s the policy and soldiers don’t make policy, they merely carry it out.” It is the State Department, the bureaucrats isolated in the East, which ties the hands of the Indian fighters unaware of the nature of the war at the Rio Grande. Ford’s film questions the fitness of such men to make policy decisions whose notion of limited warfare is at once self-defeating as the Indians escape with ease and un-American as it goes against the “all-or-nothing” codes of the Western. Success for the cavalry is forthcoming but only once Sheridan defies his stated orders, criminally overriding the federal government and his own Commander-in-Chief, and orders Yorke to cross the Rio Grande. This extreme act is rationalized with the knowledge that three tribes have united against their common enemy and the siege mentality of the cavalry troop is a figuring of the America’s response to the united nations of international communism. Sheridan’s words reveal his exasperation with Washington: “I want you to cross the Rio Grande, hit the Apache and burn him out; I’m tired of hit and run, I’m sick of diplomatic hide and seek.” The move from limited warfare to the “all-or-nothing” code of the Western is presented as the reason for Yorke’s success and projected into the realm of public debate on the Korean War, which was largely in favour of totally destroying the enemy, it supports MacArthur’s calls for a more aggressive foreign policy. Rio Grande presents Sheridan and Yorke as the proper authority to make policy decisions in times of crisis and here taps into an important post-Civil War strain in progressive ideology was the “military metaphor,” which saw in military organization a possible model for good government. General Ulysses S. Grant was elected to the office of President, and it is a notable feature of American history that in times of crisis a General is made Commander-in-Chief, the clearest examples beside Grant being Washington and Eisenhower. It is this type of demagogic military power that, following Eisenhower’s identification of the “military-industrial complex,” becomes the focus of American cinema as the nation comes to realize the dangers of an all-powerful military bent on victory at any cost.

As a genre and a history familiar to American audiences the Western allowed for a rationalization of events that would otherwise have disturbed the United States. Rio Grande, for example, presented the “military metaphor” of government, necessarily surrendering the principles of democracy, in terms of a war fought and won by the United States, and in doing so attempted to prove the worth of military government. This “military metaphor” is also evident in Springfield Rifle (1952), where the military leadership is frustrated by political considerations in the Union’s war against the south. The film opens in the War Office in Washington where General Halleck explains to Colonel Sharpe that the politicians do not feel that it is proper for a nation’s army to be involved in espionage. Sharpe rebukes this view strongly: “The only answer to their espionage is an espionage system of our own.” Springfield Rifle thus portrays the political leadership of the United States as being unaware of the true threat from an enemy who would undermine the nation. The hero of the film is Gary Cooper, who plays Major Lex Kearny, a spy for the Union who infiltrates a gang that is stealing horses during the Civil War. The future of the nation rests with men like Sharpe and Kearny who are prepared to use subversion and murder in order to destroy the nation. Kearny goes to extreme lengths to fight the covert war against the horse rustlers and in one sequence maneuvers a member of the gang into a position where a fellow agent can kill him. Springfield Rifle rationalizes the need for a counter-espionage program against the Soviets such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) and the un-constitutional lengths to which the nation must be prepared to go through replaying previous victories that are vital in the history of the construction of the nation.

The return of the military metaphor

In films such as Uncommon Valour (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Heated Vengeance (1985), Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988) the attempt is made to demonstrate that America did not “lose” Vietnam through depicting a Vietnam War that did not end with the fall of Saigon in 1975 but one that has continued to the present day and which must be fought by men such as Braddock and John Rambo. These films are the descendants of John Ford’s Rio Grande in that they depict men of action disregarding the empty words of diplomats in order to return to South East Asia and ‘win’ the war. In Missing in Action, the narrative concerns the attempts of Braddock, a veteran, in rescuing American prisoners of war from Vietnam. The government in Ho Chi Minh City denies that any American soldiers continue to be held and the American diplomats take this at face value. This is not good enough for the veteran, and Braddock having spent many years in a POW camp himself possesses a realm of knowledge, an experience of having “been there,” that is inaccessible to those who spent the war safely in Washington. Braddock decides to go back to Vietnam in order to release the POWs and his decision to bypass the ineffectual structures of diplomacy, strongly reminiscent of Colonel Yorke’s attitude towards the State Department during the Indian Wars, draws the conclusion from one official that he is the “most undiplomatic man” she has ever met. Braddock’s lack of diplomacy, like Yorke’s, is what allows him to succeed as he refights the war, this time with a much more satisfactory, and perhaps more Hollywood ending.

These same attitudes to authority and winning the war are displayed in the most popular of the revisionist veteran films, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Rambo is no longer the deranged loner of First Blood but is reintroduced into the American military effort and is sent back to Vietnam in order to free POWs. In re-fighting the war Rambo relishes this second chance and asks, ‘Do we get to win this time?’ Like the other Reagan veteran films Rambo sets its hero against the diplomats in Washington who, in the far-right view of this film, prevented America’s initial success in South East Asia through its refusal to sanction an “all-or-nothing” struggle. Rambo’s verdict of the Vietnam War is that “somebody wouldn’t let us win” and in his mission he is constantly frustrated by bureaucrats, a Pentagon that is too concerned with politics, and CIA men such as Murdock, who lies about his own war service. Rambo had such an impact on the American psyche that following the release of 39 hostages held by Lebanese terrorists President Reagan remarked that, ‘I saw Rambo last night. I know what to do next time this happens.’


Figure 2 Decision makers in US foreign policy from Rio Grande to Rambo: First Blood Part II


Jackson, H. L. (1953) Cowboy, pioneer and American soldier, Sight and Sound 22 (4): 189-190.

Saunders, F. S. (1999) Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta.

Slotkin, R. (1992) Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum.

Spanier, J. W. (1965) The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Turner, F. J. ([1893] 1956) The significance of the frontier in American history, in G. R. Taylor (ed.) The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co.: 1-18.