A Comparative Analysis of Cold War Films from Britain and America: Perspectives of the Political Atmosphere
Popular culture has a longstanding tendency for being affected by, and reversely affecting, politics. Films, in particular, can exist as either purse “escapism” or heady pathways for political commentary. During the Second World War, governments in both the United States and Great Britain used film as a vessel for their own messages, but after the war ended, the two nations allowed their respective film industries more free expression in commenting on wartime and post-war politics. Film also provided particularly vivid political commentary during, and in the years immediately following, the Cold War. Though film has a longstanding history of being a force for political commentary, the medium’s specific engagement with the Cold War holds particular significance because works produced by the two nations’ film industries paralleled the social trend toward political activism at the time. While films produced in the UK and the United States in the 1960s addressed a wide range of contentious political issues, a huge body of work was spurred on by one of the most pressing political tensions of the time: namely, the Cold War.
The United States and Great Britain were major, allied forces during the Cold War. Despite their allied positions, they had unique politico-social perspectives that greatly reflected their immediate involvement in the conflict, in addition to their respective political histories and engagement in previous wars. As the Cold War threat was a large and, in many ways, incomprehensible one, each country took certain elements of the Cold War situation and used those elements to reflect their varied political social positions to a more popular audience and the culture it consumed.
In turn, filmmakers in both countries used their mediums to make overarching political commentaries on the Cold War situation. This analysis looks at five films from those countries during the 1960s, and explores how each representation offered different, often conflicting, perspectives on how to “manage” Cold War tensions, while simultaneously reflecting their conflicted culture and political decisions. The films analyzed reveal that each country focused on contrasting perceptions about the source of the threat posed by Soviet forces, thus becoming tools to further promote their distinct political stances. While the specifics of that commentary changed with each filmmaker, they generally paralleled each country’s perspective on the overall Cold War atmosphere. The British message represented the Cold War as a very internal battle—one that involved the threat within UK borders via the infiltration of spies the tools of espionage. In contrast, the American films suggest that the Cold War threat was largely an internal one, a struggle best combatted by increasing weaponry that would help control the threat before it reached American borders.