This Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb against a large city. Since that day, creative artists of every variety have made incisive, satiric or powerful statements about nuclear threat. They have offered cautionary works that depict the horror of the bomb or its meaning in our society. What these artistic statements share, however, with rare exceptions, is an avoidance of the specific subject of Hiroshima.
Since August 1945, hundreds of "nuclear" movies have appeared. At least one American "nuclear" film was a work of genius (Dr. Strangelove), and several others explored the issue thoughtfully (Fail-Safe, The War Game, Testament and Desert Bloom come to mind). But more often the fear of nuclear war in Hollywood spawned survivalist fantasies, irradiated-monster films and post-apocalypse thrillers.
What is striking is that few of these films say anything directly about Hiroshima. Almost all of them are works of pure fiction, imagining nuclear attacks in the near or distant future while ignoring the two instances when atomic weapons have already been used: Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Only three Hollywood movies have emerged about the making or use of the first atomic bombs: The Beginning or the End, Above and Beyond, and Fat Man and Little Boy (the only such film since the 1950s).
Ambivalence or guilt is certain to be evoked by any cinematic treatment of Hiroshima. Perhaps that is why the films all grapple with the notion of American decency. The three Hollywood films have much in common: Each was highly touted and directed by a talented film maker but was an artistic failure. Each was subject to political pressure or scrutiny. Here’s a close-up look at the "coverup"–led by the Truman White House–of the first "Hiroshima movie," some of it based on material we were first to discover at the Truman Library in Missouri.
The Beginning or the End
This controversial MGM film emerged, after many revisions — some demanded by the White House — as a Hollywood version of the official Hiroshima narrative: the bomb was absolutely necessary to end the war and save American lives.
About a month after the Hiroshima attack, Sam Marx, a producer at MGM, received a call from agent Tony Owen, who said his wife, actress Donna Reed, had received some fascinating letters from her high school chemistry teacher, Dr. Edward Tomkins–who was not at Oak Ridge. Tomkins expressed surpise that Hollywood did not already have an atomic bomb feature in the works, and wondered if the film industry wanted to warn the people of the world about the coming dangers of a nuclear arms race.
Soon, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer gave the film a go, calling it "the most important story" he would ever film. Marx and others from MGM met with the atomic scientists at Oak Ridge and elsewhere.
Early scripts raised doubts about the Hiroshima decision and portrayed the effects of the atomic bombing in a way that would have shocked many viewers, with Hiroshima pictured as ghostlike ruins and a baby with a burned face. The overall political message was alarmist and aligned with pro-disarmament scientists: It would have been better to lose half a million American lives "than release atomic energy in the world."