THE BEGINNING OR THE END
A Discussion with Author Greg Mitchell
by Michael Barson
Barson 1) Given the tragic aftermath of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August of 1945— actions that soon would lead to MGM’s decision to film “The Beginning or the End”—were you surprised to discover in your research so much inadvertent comedy in the bumbling efforts of the MGM “braintrust” as well as almost everyone else involved with the making of this movie? Not excluding the atomic scientists, nor the advisors to Truman, and certainly not excluding the military. It’s almost like Pirandello orchestrated these frequently absurd efforts.
Mitchell: I have researched and written enough about Hollywood–and political operatives–to find these new incidents in my book more darkly humorous (think: “Dr. Strangelove”) than surprising. Of course you start with the whole project being kicked off by a Manhattan Project scientist writing to his former high school chem student…actress Donna Reed. Her new husband happened to be a talent agent… you get the idea.
But the reason for so much promise-breaking and secret agreements and absurd script revisions was because MGM didn’t have the heart to make what studio chief Louis B. Mayer had announced as “the most important” movie he would ever make—one that would reflect the scientists’ warnings to the world about the dangers of building even bigger bombs and a nuclear arms race to come. Instead, MGM sold out the scientists by essentially giving script approval to General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, and to the Truman White House. Everything flowed from that, including so many laughable revisions ordered by Groves himself–for example, cutting a reference to him, overweight as he was, desiring a piece of chocolate, so that no one would conclude he was addicted to it.
Then you have Eleanor Roosevelt getting the famed actor Lionel Barrymore, who was set to play her late husband, fired because he had campaigned against FDR in one of his re-election races. And the actor seemed so perfect, the press noted, because he was now confined to a wheelchair! Truman, for his part, ordered the firing of the actor playing him for lacking “military bearing,” and also demanded other revisions to the script—as well as an costly re-take of a scene to make his decision-making process to use the bomb look better.
Plus, the movie ends with a scene at the Lincoln Memorial where a dead scientist appears, as a ghost, to narrate a final letter to his widow….
2) Of the dozens of questionable decisions made by powerhouse MGM in the nearly eighteen months it took them to make this movie, is there one particular example of their hubris—or tone-deafness—that even now, nearly seventy-five years later, you find difficult to believe?
There were many poor moves, but most were in line with the developing “Hiroshima narrative” that has held sway to this day—which holds that only the two atomic bombs could have ended the war in that time frame, thus saving “a million lives.” So the many major changes in the script eliminated anything that might put that in question. I was able to study at the Motion Picture Academy a couple dozen versions of the script as it was developed, and the revisions and cuts were so blatant in trying to uphold the virtue of the decision to drop the bombs.
On top of that, early scripts at least showed a bit of what happened to Japanese civilians on the ground after the bombings but that was cut entirely. And every reference to the even more troubling Nagasaki bomb were eliminated entirely! You’d never even know from the film that we devastated a second city.
This tiny detail says it all: In real life, at the time of the attacks, one of the B-29s was merely ID’d by a serial number on its fuselage. In the movie it bears the name: “Necessary Evil.”
3) The movie was an utter flop following its release in February of 1947, despite MGM’s efforts to create a film that literally would “make history!”, as they put it in their promotional materials… You point the finger at several elements, including the script. But why would MGM expect the film to succeed when they didn’t even bother casting any of their many first-rank movie stars? It seems almost perverse that star-studded MGM would end up selecting the minor-league cast that they did.
Yes, they had promised a Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy at the start but ended up with character actors Brian Donlevy and Hume Cronyn. (Too bad Donna Reed was busy making It’s a Wonderful Life…) One theory holds that MGM knew it had to spend so much on special effects in portraying two explosions of the bomb (its sole test in New Mexico and over Hiroshima) that it had to keep the rest of its budget in line. Another notion is that Mayer and others felt that very familiar stars would upset the realistic “docu-drama” tone. Indeed, “The Beginning or the End” today is credited as being a forerunner in that film genre.
My book depicts how MGM was actually in a heated race with Hal Wallis and Paramount to be first to make an A-bomb picture–this was our first “nuclear race”–and the latter had a script by none other than Ayn Rand! She is key player in my story (and a source of much unintentional humor). She even interviewed scientific chief J. Robert Oppenheimer, then based a key character in Atlas Shrugged on him. But once Wallis quit the contest, I think MGM relaxed and figured the Bomb was the real star and might drive people to the box office.
4) One of the most disturbing aspects of the constant tweaking and rewriting of the script was how shameless the studio was about including outright lies as part of the story. One of the most egregious examples of was having characters in the film discuss how thousands of leaflets were dropped over Hiroshima days before the bomb warning the populace to exit the city or risk disaster from a terrible new weapon.
Again, in the mandated from on high re-writing of the script they took a kernel of truth–warning leaflets were dropped–but omit that they did not warn of a new bomb. The leaflets that DID reference this deadly new bomb arrived the day AFTER Nagasaki was bombed.
But there were countless falsehoods introduced. For example, to make the flight of the American bombers more risky and heroic, MGM showed the planes barraged by “light” flak near Hiroshima. Then that was upped to “heavy flak.” And finally: to Japanese fighter planes approaching. All of this was simply a myth.
Perhaps most outrageously, scripts added a repeated claim that our use of the bomb was only natural because Japan was close to building its own nukes! Again, total fiction. The topper was a scene that had a German scientist arriving by U-boat in a cove near Tokyo bringing nuclear secrets that would allow Japan to quickly build an atomic bomb and repel the Americans. The scientist was to be taken to the main Japanese lab in, where else….Hiroshima! Well, this was one scene that at least was cut in the end.
5) If there is a central villain in this tale, it surely must be General Leslie Groves, who took a $10,000 fee to act as a consultant for MGM–over $100,000 in today’s currency–and who also exercised his almost unilateral powers of shaping the script and the character portrayals in any manner that made himself and the U.S. military (in that order) look better. By the time you finished writing the book, you must have utterly loathed him.
Of course I knew all about Groves from two previous books on this subject, Atomic Cover-up and, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America. His views on radiation were especially immoral, from believing it was no threat to the clearly suffering Japanese bomb victims at all–“propaganda” or a “hoax,” he said–to telling Congress he had heard that radiation disease was a “rather pleasant way to die.” While he is famous for heading the Manhattan Project, it’s less well known that he had tremendous influence on Truman in choosing targets for the bombs and pushing him to use them. As Groves once said, there was “nothing” he did not have a hand in, including bullying Oppenheimer into staying in line.
Imagine Paul Newman playing Gen. Groves. Well, director Roland Joffe did, in his movie Fat Man and Little Boy. That casting wrecked Joffe’s attempt to make an anti-bomb movie.
6) One character with whom I expected to sympathize with was Oppenheimer, widely celebrated at the time as being “the father of the atomic bomb.” But the further I went with your history, the more frustrated I became with his often dithering, passive-aggressive interactions with everyone from General Groves to the FBI to MGM studio executives to President Truman himself. Were you surprised to learn exactly how ineffectual he was throughout the entire movie-making process?
Well, his “dithering,” moral confusion and conflicts over creating the bomb have been well-analyzed, but no one knew how this also played out in his involvement with this movie. A full look at his papers at the Library of Congress showed me how he was originally dismissive of the movie, then became open to being portrayed in it if handled right. Finally he met with the producer and read a script–which he knew was garbage, but he signed the release for his portrayal in it anyways. Classic Oppenheimer. I also got new material on the FBI surveillance of him during this period and the phone taps, including one where he talked with his wife about the film’s laughable weaknesses. Even his work on the bomb did not save him from being considered a Commie sympathizer and security threat.
But the book also shows how even Einstein was cajoled into signing a release, as did Leo Szilard, who had tried to stop Truman was using the bomb. And both of them, we see, were also tailed by the FBI.
7) The popular media was divided over the merits of “The Beginning of the End” at the time of its release… But would you agree that the kiss of death for its box-office prospects was the mocking picture essay/review that appeared in the hugely popular Life magazine in March 1947?
The great James Agee also ripped the movie in Time and The Nation. But I will close by quoting from the book’s account of the Life critique: “In its subtitle on the first page it asserted that the long-awaited movie about the bomb had now exploded–‘with pseudoscientific pap.’ Nuclear physics in the movie was often simplified ‘to the level of an Erector set.’ The final page delivered the death blow, with three stills under the heading, ‘IT HAS PLENTY OF MOVIE HOKUM.’ We see one scientist’s wife showing him some leg but he ‘is always too busy with plutonium to pay much attention to her.’ Finally we see his wife at the Lincoln Memorial reading ‘a final letter full of flossy but trite hopes for a better world. On this depressing note the movie ends.”
No wonder it “bombed” at the box office… Well, at least in this instance, no one died.
The Beginning or the End:
How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
by Greg Mitchell
(The New Press)
July 7 publication/$27.99