One of the great tales of Hollywood "censorship" remains little known today, more than 67 years after it transpired. And who was right at the center of it? None other than President Harry S. Truman. He even got rid of the actor playing him in the MGM movie. For good measure, protests by Eleanor Roosevelt led to the firing of the famed actor -- Lionel Barrymore -- portraying her late husband.
The 1947 MGM film The Beginning or the End deserves special review, however, as the film emerged, after many revisions, as a Hollywood version of America's official nuclear narrative: The bomb was absolutely necessary to end the war and save American lives, and we needed to build new and bigger weapons to protect us from the Soviets. And so the nuclear arms race began.
My fascination with the making and unmaking of the MGM film took me to the Truman Library, where I was the first to consult key documents. The story of the derailing of the movie, Truman and why it was important is told in my new book, just out this week, Hollywood Bomb: Harry S. Truman and the Unmaking of 'The Most Important Movie' Ever Made.
Several weeks 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 now at the Oak Ridge nuclear site. Tomkins expressed surprise 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. President Truman provided the title himself. Marx and others from MGM met with the atomic scientists at Oak Ridge and elsewhere.
Early scripts, I discovered, 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."
Then something happened, and the sensibility of The Beginning or the End shifted radically. The decision to use the bomb, in revised scripts, was viewed as justifiable, even admirable. Now, after the bombings, no victims appeared, just a burning landscape observed from the air. Amazingly, General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, had secured the right of script approval -- along with a hefty $10,000 fee -- and played a vital part in reshaping the film. (See the trailer here.)
MGM hired Norman Taurog to direct the film and Hume Cronyn to star as Robert Oppenheimer. Meanwhile, Ayn Rand worked on another script for a rival studio.
Nearly all of the scientists impersonated in the film signed releases, even Albert Einstein, but unlike Groves and President Truman, were not given script approval. Oppenheimer visited the set after being assured that his character, the film's narrator, would display "humility" and "a love of mankind." The Hollywoodization of the bomb had begun.
Even in minor details, the revised script now justified the bombing. General Groves made light of nuclear fallout. The B-29s flying over Hiroshima were pelted with heavy flak, a fabrication that makes the attack more courageous.. One scene depicted fictional German scientists visiting a (fabricated) Japanese nuclear facility in -- Hiroshima!
Yet it was in the script's central melodrama that the true message of the film was conveyed. Matt Cochran, a young scientist arming the bomb, prevents a chain reaction from blowing up 40,000 people on a Pacific island -- and thereby exposes himself to a fatal dose of radiation. But just before he dies, Matt concludes that "God has not shown us a new way to destroy ourselves. Atomic energy is the hand he has extended to lift us from the ruins of war and lighten the burdens of peace."
When former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt learned that filming had begun, and conservative Lionel Barrymore -- who had campaigned against her husband in 1944 -- was playing FDR she protested loudly, and Barrymore got the boot.
After screening the finished, watered-down, film, famed columnist Walter Lippmann said he still found one scene "shocking." President Truman felt uncomfortable with it as well. It pictured Truman making the decision to use the bomb, and the president and his aides objected to his deciding, after only a brief reflection, that the United States would use the weapon against Japan because "I think more of o
Following protests from the White House, the MGM screenwriter James K. McGuinness deleted the offending scene and wrote a new one. In the revised scene, Truman revealed that the United States would drop leaflets warning the populace of "what is coming" as a means to "save lives." (this did not happen). He said there was a "consensus" that dropping the bomb would shorten the war by a approximately a year (there was no such thing) and he predicted that a "year less of war will mean life for...from 300,000 to half a million of America's finest youth" (a highly inflated figure).
And he advised that the targets had been picked for their prime military value, rather than telling the truth: they were selected because they had not been bombed previously and so would demonstrate the pure power of this new weapon. In any case, the aiming points for release of the bombs would be the center of the cities, not over any military bases. The new scene had Truman claiming he had spent "sleepless nights" making the decision. But in real life he proudly insisted he had never lost any sleep over it.
Still, the Truman White House demanded further changes. Among them, deleting a reference to morally concerned scientists who favored demonstrating the bomb for Japanese leaders in a remote area before dropping it on a city. Also, the claim of shortening the war by "approximately" a year must be changed to "at least" a year. At the same time, the United States was suppressing film footage of the shocking results of the bombing (see some of the footage here).
Truman even wrote a letter to the actor who had portrayed him in the original scene, complaining that he made it seem like the president had made a "snap judgment" in deciding to use the bomb. The offending scene was rewritten -- and the actor, Roman Bohnen would write a sarcastic letter to Truman, informing him that people would be debating the decision to drop the bomb for 100 years "and posterity is quite apt to be a little rough." He suggested that Truman should play himself in the movie. Truman, who normally ignored critical letters, took the trouble to reply and defend the atomic bomb decision, revealing, "I have no qualms about it whatever." Soon Bohnen was replaced by another actor -- on orders from the White House?
The Beginning or the End, which billed itself as "basically a true story," opened across the country in March 1947 to mixed reviews (that's a publicity still, above left). Time laughed at the film's "cheery imbecility," but Variety praised its "aura of authenticity and special historical significance." Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, also backed the film, calling it a "creditable" re-enactment. He even hailed how it handled the moral issues in portraying the "necessary evil" of the atomic attacks. Harrison Brown, who had worked on the bomb, exposed some of the film's factual errors in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He called the showering of warning leaflets over Hiroshima the "most horrible falsification of history."
The MGM movie was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans. Because of its quasi-documentary form, its depiction of history was probably accepted by most viewers. But famed physicist Leo Szilard, after attending a screening, summed it up this way: "If our sin as scientists was to make and use the bomb, then our punishment was to watch The Beginning or the End."
Greg Mitchell's Hollywood Bomb was just published this week as an e-book. His previous books include Atomic Cover-up and, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America.