I grew up during the last phase of the Cold War in the 1980s, and I’m beginning to feel old, if only because it’s so difficult to explain to younger people just how all pervasive the anti-communist ideology was, how thoroughly Americans were brainwashed into thinking the Soviet Union was not just a rival great power, but an existential threat, and, indeed, the very embodiment of evil. In junior high school we would be assigned Readers Digest articles about food lines in Moscow. There were highbrow films like the cinematic version of George Orwell’s 1984. There was sentimental schlock like Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams. There were out and out fascist war cries like Red Dawn or Rocky IV. There were politicized TV commercials like the Wendy’s Fashion Show and ridiculous TV sitcoms like the now very comically dated episode of Night Court where a Soviet émigré played by Yakov Smirnoff is confidently reassured that the United States government doesn’t torture. I think it reached its zenith during the 1984, Los Angeles Olympics. I even remember Robin Thicke’s father Alan, a late night talk show host, ranting about the Soviet Union. “Russian women are dogs,” he bellowed as he tossed a photo of a Soviet athlete into a garbage pail. “Communism makes people ugly.”
In other words, “we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”
At the same time, however, I studied history in high school, and I knew all about the American alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It wasn’t emphasized, of course. We never really talked about Stalingrad or Kursk, and I grew up believing that the “greatest generation” beat the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy along with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. But it was difficult to deny when you looked at the maps showing us “The Axis” and “The Allies” that at one time Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin were on the same side. There were even pictures of them sitting together at Yalta. By the time I got to college, I began to meet people who considered themselves communists. Oliver Stone’s film Salvador told us that “both sides do it.” We all laughed at Ronald Reagan when he told us that Nicaragua was a threat to the United States. We supported Communist Party USA front organizations like CISPES. We read the Communist Manifesto, if only to demonstrate our intellectual superiority to the boobs in flyover country. At some point, the Cold War became a bit like the “war on terror.” It was all a show for the rubes. Nobody with any brains took it seriously. When street vendors on St. Marks Place started selling little pins with Lenin and shirts with the image of Che Guevara you pretty much knew it was all over. The Soviet Union was now safe enough to market to hipsters, or whatever you called hipsters back then (I don’t remember).
Nothing prepared me, however, for the shock I felt last night when I got around to watching the 1943, pro-Soviet, fictionalized documentary Mission to Moscow, the film version of the book of the same name by Joseph Davies, a former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union. I had expected something along the lines of “we have to support the brave Russian people in their struggle against fascism.” At the very most I thought it would be a movie by a left-wing fellow traveler, one that supported communism, but glossed over the uglier reality of the KGB and the purge trials. But no. Mission to Moscow is an out and out love letter to Joseph Stalin and a full throated defense of the purge trials. Bukharin, in fact, is one of the film’s villains. We even see him arrange a “secret meeting” with Nazi Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop. The film’s director, Michael Curtiz (more on him shortly) even stages the purge trials, giving us a long line of fifth columnists who confess, one after the other, to conspiring with Leon Trotsky to conduct terrorist attacks against Soviet Industry. As ludicrous as they seem, we’re supposed to take the confessions seriously.
So have we always been at war with Eurasia?
It’s true, of course, that Mission to Moscow was not a hit at the box office, and was widely panned by film critics in the United States. A film designed to push the United States into the war against fascism in 1943 was pretty much beside the point. The United States was already at war with fascism. But it’s also worth noting that Joseph E. Davies was no crank. In fact, he was the highest paid corporate lawyer of the 1920s and 1930s, a confidant of Franklin Roosevelt, and the husband of Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the richest women in the world. The book Mission to Moscow sold 700,000 copies, and, in fact, Franklin Roosevelt himself commissioned the film version as part of the war effort.
It’s easy to see why Mission to Moscow failed at the box office. It’s not that it’s blatant, laughable pro-Stalinist propaganda. It’s that it’s dull, horribly, crushingly, unbearably dull. 45 minutes into it, I was ready to confess to conspiring with Trotsky and the Nazis to disrupt the latest 5 year plan. Please, I was ready to say. Take me to the gulag. Yet I was stuck with it, mainly for two reasons, the charismatic performance of Walter Huston — father of John Huston — as Joseph E. Davies and the cinematography. Mission to Moscow may be dull, totalitarian propaganda, but it’s beautiful, an ode to Soviet power, each and every frame looking like an image from Margaret Bourke White’s industrial photography in the 1930s. Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, may have lost his mind before signing onto Mission to Moscow, but if he lost his mind, he also knew how to do it with a certain kind of grandeur. Everything about the cinematography of this film conjures up the aesthetics of the 1930s. The sexy Russian female paratroopers, the massive steel plant, the gigantic military parade through Red Square, the grand, brutalist architecture, the look of Mission to Moscow is totalitarian propaganda I can believe in.
In fact, I came away with a sense of lost potential. Why couldn’t Michael Curtiz have made the sequel to Casablanca, a genuinely liberal, genuinely anti-fascist movie with a taut, exciting script? Why did he give in to the demands of Joseph E. Davies, a bizarrely pro-Soviet member of the 1% who wanted his dull, Stalinist propaganda filmed almost word for word instead of letting the creative geniuses in Hollywood work their magic? Indeed, the screenplay of Mission to Moscow may be Stalinist propaganda, but the visuals are American propaganda. Oh for the days when American men on the left were forthright, square-jawed crusaders against fascism like Walter Huston. We see Joseph Davies at the film’s opening, a plain-looking little man who mumbles his words. Was this guy really the highest paid corporate lawyer in the 1920s and 1930s? In Huston’s portrayal, however, he’s transformed. No longer the balding little man in the introduction, Davies is now a silver-haired knight in shining armor. He shoots down America Firsters in Congress in rapid fire succession. He shames a Nazi economist in Berlin by the very majesty of his presence. After an aid warns him that the American embassy in Moscow is probably bugged, he boldly declares that he says nothing in private he wouldn’t say right to Stalin’s face. Joseph E. Davies, as portrayed by Walter Huston is a handsome distinguished Ivy League WASP, fully committed, not to “fuck you money” and trust funds for his kids, but to democracy and to the struggle against fascism. In other words, he’s the personification of the New Deal.
It’s just too bad he wasn’t in a better movie.