During the Cold War the West associated itself with ‘freedom’ and contrasted that with the Soviet Union’s ‘repressive’ one-party state. This distinction formed the basis for much of the popular entertainment emanating from the West that dealt with the Cold War. The concept of Western ‘values’ and the notion of ‘freedom’ are somewhat nebulous concepts. The undefined idea of ‘freedom’ is more akin to an advertising slogan than a clear statement. While the definition of ‘freedom’ might have been hazy, the ‘free world’ was clear about one thing—it stood in opposition to the Soviet Union and international communism.
The black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) chronicles the world on the brink of a nuclear conflict. US and NATO forces are seen as comically out of touch, victims of circumstance, and gung ho. It’s not a flattering picture: rigid command structures, dysfunctional communication processes, vainglorious generals, lunatic cowboy bomber pilots, and an ex-Nazi scientist working to defend freedom. The humour mocks the egomania and casual power of people in the so-called ‘military industrial complex’, and the ill-equipped political advisors taking themselves too seriously. But it wouldn’t be lost on a 1960s audience that they were watching Dr. Strangelove (which poked fun at the establishment and questioned the authority of the ‘squares’, the ‘uniforms’, and the ‘boffins’) and that they were free to enjoy this whereas the people on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the Soviet controlled ‘Eastern Block’, had to endure censorship and state propaganda.
The communist states, with their powerful internal security ‘apparatus,’ lived in insecurity, anxious about their legitimacy, knowing that the state had been formed from revolution and could, just add easily, be brought down by another one. This fear about their legitimacy made them sensitive to jokes about incompetence, especially humour that might undermine the leader’s authority. This made Dr Strangelove doubly effective, because it not only mocked the insanity of warmongers everywhere, but its release in the West displayed enormous self-confidence. Unlike the humourless communists, the free world could shrug-off any comical jibes. Although Dr Strangelove looks visually like a Film Noir, and was shot in black and white, it embodies the anarchic spirit of the 1960s counter-culture. It was a remarkable example of the West’s cultural elasticity; its ability to accommodate a broad range of views and beliefs, unlike Soviet communism.
The West’s cultural playfulness often mocked both itself and communism’s self-important humourlessness. In Our Man in Havana the spy game is humoured when a vacuum cleaner salesman sends bogus information back to London, to secure his daughters financial future. The story plays on the absurdity of intelligence gathering. The children’s television series The Men From UNCLE regularly tasked its agents with fighting the shadowy THRUSH organisation, whose goal was world domination (much like the threat of international communism). The secret agents in Mission Impossible faced a range of adversaries: drug dealers, the mafia, rogue hitmen, and Soviet client states stealing technology or perpetuating dastardly schemes. The West’s handsome, cheeky, funny spies—like James Bond—typically fought against creepy, humourless, sadistic enemies.
But the Cold war wasn’t all light entertainment. It generated a real fear of enemy infiltration, double agents, and sleeper cells. No one could be fully trusted in a climate of such uncertainty, and this was bound to spill over into the fiction. In the classic Cold War thriller, Ice Station Zebra (1968) a US submarine races to the artic to retrieve valuable satellite data, but someone abroad is working for the enemy, and already sabotaging the boat. These stories, aimed at an adult audience, presented a picture of America and its allies facing a deadly foe. The spy genre typifies the Cold War subject—a gloomy atmosphere and uncertainty pervades everything.
In The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) a British agent defects to the East. Is he genuinely defecting or does he have an ulterior motive? The spy story genre unravels like an intricate game of chess, but with layers of deception and treachery. A Cold War spy cannot afford to trust anyone, much like the scientists in the Antarctic compound in The Thing, anyone can be an impostor. The alien clones in The Thing and the double agents in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, are really one and the same. The feeling of paranoia generated is identical. The theme of the enemy within lurks deep in storytelling, especially in Cold War stories. In The Manchurian Candidate (1959) a returning solder attempts to carry out an assassination. A mole causes havoc for British Intelligence in the novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and the TV series Smiley’s People (1979). Cold War fiction often uses the plot device of people being bumped off around the protagonist, often killed by someone on the inside. A number of more ‘realistic’ British spy films contrast with the glamour of James Bond. In these versions of the spy game the hero is struggling with a lack of resources, incompetent management, apathy, and a general cynicism within the system. In the downbeat The Ipcress File (1965) the mole is in the senior management, and in Funeral in Berlin (1966) the hero faces treachery, and dirty lies on both sides. The nameless hero is struggling to survive cover-ups and double-dealing for the sake of earning a bonus to buy a new car.
Cold War stories involving a full-scale invasion of the US were relatively rare. One exception was the film Red Dawn (1974). Screenwriters probably shied away from the full scale invasion story, because it was literally too big, too expensive to realise cinematically, and lacked a personal perspective. Instead, Cold War stories were more likely to explore individual experiences like Christopher Boyce’s in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985). Boyce works at a US Government contractor, becomes disillusioned and sells stolen secrets to the Soviet Union. He is, inevitably, doomed, and the story comes across as a warning about the naivety of the moral ‘high ground’, and taking risky shortcuts to wealth. At its darkest the Cold War was dysfunction and surreal like Captain Benjamin Willard’s journey in Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Vronsky’s experience in The Deer Hunter (1978). The meaningless insanity of conflict leads to horrific psychological damage.
The Soviets were not all caricatures of humorous communists, or heartless ‘monsters’. They were people too, and some stories in the West reflected this. In Telefon (1977) a rogue Soviet agent reactivates sleeper agents, causing chaos around the US. The Russians dispatch one of their most experienced agents in an attempt to avert nuclear war. The Russians are not presented as demented ‘baddies’ intent on destroying the world—they are like us. In The Hunt For Red October (1990) a defecting Soviet naval commander represents a rational, smart, human face of the Soviet Navy. The film Gorky Park (1983) follows the investigations of an amiable Russian Detective searching for the truth. In the buddy film, Red Heat (1988) an American policeman works with his Russian counterpart. In Firefox (1982) the story diverges from the dramatic action into an exploration of the anti-communist underground, with Western sympathisers dying in the hope of helping Russia earn its ‘freedom’.
As the Cold War went on the two sides came to an understanding that neither side could win. This was the period known as the détente. In Wargames (1983) a supercomputer works out that neither side can win a global thermonuclear conflict. Private Benjamin (1980) comes at the Cold War from a different angle, the humorous experiences of a pampered middle-class woman, an unlikely soldier. The farce of military procurement is sent up in Stripes (1981), and Spies Like Us (1985) turns the whole spy game into a screwball comedy.
The Cold War finally ended with the USSR’s implosion in 1991, its fate decided not by military defeat at the hands of NATO but by internal meltdown. Since then, the Cold War story has been revisited by the TV series The Americans (2013), which sympathetically follows a KGB sleeper cell, noting the subtleties of people’s motives, their weaknesses and failings—and how these were exploited by both sides. It also reminds us that the Soviet Union was not always on the ‘wrong’ side: in its support of the anti-apartheid movement for example. But without the Soviet Union’s existence the Cold War theme has withered or turned into another period drama. The Lives of Others (2007) examines the experience of East Germany’s surveillance culture, and the more recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) delves back into the 1970s, revealing a world of brown suits, foggy streets, and people smoking at work.