The Beginning or the End


Stop! Don’t touch that dial… if you like your atom-age propaganda straight up, MGM has the movie for you, an expensive 1946 docu-drama that became ‘the official story’ for the making of the bomb. The huge cast includes Brian Donlevy, Robert Walker, Tom Drake, Audrey Totter, Hume Cronyn, Hurd Hatfield, and Joseph Calleia. How trustworthy is the movie? It begins by showing footage of a time capsule being buried — that supposedly contains the film we are watching. Think about that. Mom, Apple Pie, the Flag and God are enlisted to argume that we should stop worrying and love the fact that bombs are just peachy-keen dandy.

The Beginning or the End
The Warner Archive Collection
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 112 min. / Street Date September 22, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Brian Donlevy, Robert Walker, Tom Drake, Beverly Tyler, Audrey Totter, Hume Cronyn, Hurd Hatfield, Joseph Calleia, Godfrey Tearle, Victor Francen, Richard Haydn, Jonathan Hale, John Litel, Henry O’Neill, Warner Anderson, Barry Nelson, Art Baker, Ludwig Stössel, John Hamilton, Frank Ferguson, Moroni Olsen, Norman Lloyd, Jim Davis, Charles Trowbridge, Kirk Alyn, John Banner, William Bishop, Blake Edwards, Bill Hickman, Jimmy Hunt, Martin Kosleck, Richard Loo, Chris-Pin Martin, Patricia Medina, Torben Meyer, Guy Williams.
Ray June
Film Editor George Boemler
Original Music Daniele Amphitheatrof
Written by Frank Wead, Robert Considine
Produced by Samuel Marx
Directed by Norman Taurog

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Stop!  Don’t touch that dial… this review isn’t going to debate the bombing of Hiroshima. If you like your atom-age propaganda straight up, MGM has the movie for you. In 1946 Metro set forward an expensive docu-drama about the massive wartime engineering program to create an atomic bomb. The Beginning or the End reportedly began with the intention of questioning many aspects of the bomb. The final result is in lock step with government policy. It’s been established that President Truman vetted the way he was presented on screen. The Cold War hadn’t officially begun, but the film as released is a troubling mass of propaganda message management.

In 1946 the country was overrun with misinformation and rumors about the Atom, as reflected in the goofy film clips and novelty songs commemorated in the 1983 documentary The Atomic Cafe. It wasn’t being publicized yet, but the scientists of what was called The Manhattan Project were already being scrutinized to see which were sufficiently loyal to continue making bigger and better bombs. Meanwhile, what the public was allowed to see of the two atom bombings of Japan was severely managed, limited mostly to a few B&W motion picture shots for newsreels, and in print, some sketchy shots of bombing victims. The actual shapes and appearance of the initial two bomb types was kept secret for quite a while.

The Beginning or the End sketches the basic events leading to the building of the first bomb. Frank Wead, the writer of movies about the Navy eulogized in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles takes credit for the screenplay, but it surely had many contributors making revisions. Much of the story is given over to a sidebar romance subplot.

The framing story smacks of self-aggrandizement. Robert Oppenheimer addresses the camera directly and says that a print of The Beginning or the End is being put in a time capsule in a Redwood forest, not to be opened until the 25th century. The kicker is that Oppenheimer is not Oppenheimer but actor Hume Cronyn. The other personages shown planting the capsule are also Hollywood actors. And that’s not all. How can a completed print of the movie be put in the time capsule, if the ceremony was filmed and is part of the movie?  It’s the same as saying that Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin that he helped his father build.

Thus The Beginning or the End carries the same bogus odor of MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay series of short subjects, each of which gave us supporting actors pretending to be district attorneys, etc. If the time capsule gimmick is a bald-faced lie, what else is fabricated?

A lot more is fabricated. Some scenes are intended to mislead the audience, and some to make The Beginning or the End more acceptable as entertainment. The story is essentially the same as 1989’s Fat Man and Little Boy, a more critical but still gutless look at the secret program called ‘Manhattan District’. Earnest scientists are portrayed by fine actors like Joseph Calleia, Hurd Hatfield, Richard Haydn and Victor Francen. They split an atom in a lab outside Chicago, and designate Einstein (Ludwig Stössel) to petition President Roosevelt to start a crash program to make a bomb before the Germans can. General Leslie Groves is played by Brian Donlevy, who gets top billing. Instead of behaving like his famous Quatermass character, Donlevy’s Groves is a cheerful bureaucrat, literally moving mountains, and building cities for the multi-billion dollar research and development project. Groves appropriates much of the U.S. Treasury’s supply of silver in the cause. No steel mill can supply the right kind of metals needed?  Build one. It would be fun to cannibalize Donlevy’s scenes for a short subject called “Young Quatermass,” showing him cheerfully building his secret Rocket Group space base at enormous expense.

The testing of the first Atom Bomb is fairly accurate, except for the bomb itself, which in the movie looks like a stubby torpedo. Truman then gives the OK to clobber a Japanese city, and the movie begins to diverge from fact. Fat Man and Little Boy ends after the first test, but The Beginning or the End concludes with the bombing of Hiroshima as witnessed by the crew of the Enola Gay. Nagasaki is not even mentioned, surely to avoid the issue of that mission’s necessity.

Instead of pretending to be qualified to judge the film’s politics, I’m just going to note my reactions to some of the of the movie’s events. It’s not fair to slam the movie as a poor documentary, as it’s obviously trying to be a popular drama as well. In 1946 there were not really any established ‘rules’ for documentaries or docu-dramas. Later on, there were some conventions and guidelines, never really codified or enforced, and honored by the major TV networks, etc.. Then Reality TV and Infotainment came along and corrupted most everything we see and hear.

Right after the initial bombings, important essays appeared in leading magazines, some of which suggested that in using the bomb, America crossed a very dark moral line. I’m aware of impassioned, sober pieces by James Agee and George Orwell that placed grave doubts on the future of the human race. Would the bomb make war impossible, or wipe out mankind?  Would its possessors hold the rest of the world in sway with threats of atomic annihilation?  Seen today, The Beginning or the End comes off as a defensive maneuver to answer those questions.

But the chosen method is slippery at best. The show pretends to be wary of the new atomic weapon, but in every scene, the prevailing dialogue supports the interpretation that the bomb program was the right thing to do. In bald expository statements, scientists, military men and politicians worry about the issue, but in short order come up with pragmatic counter arguments that set aside such concerns. Going forward with the ultimate weapon is always the best thing to do. As soon as Fermi splits the atom, some of his scientists announce that they’re quitting on moral grounds. After they exit stage right, Fermi calls them principled men — and then adds that it takes greater principles to stay on the job. Every dissenting speech is countered with an opposite and unequal slogan or epigram to let the audience know that making and using the bomb is the only rational course of action.

Director Norman Taurog is mostly known for comedies, which seems strange, especially when combined with the fact that MGM’s follow-up ‘Nukes are tough on a pilot’s home life’ melodrama Above and Beyond was directed by Melvin Frank & Norman Panama, then known mostly for Bob Hope comedies. What am I missing here?   Taurog’s direction is efficient and flat, and doesn’t try to smooth out the script’s raw lumps of exposition.

The movie is given excellent montages, using elaborate special effect images as if they were stock shots — the government wasn’t handing out film footage of all those secret atom labs. The first atomic pile is given a dramatic buildup, with a countdown to critical mass, a ‘suicide squad’ of physics students (?) manning the control rods, and lots of flashing lights and loud noises, much like the matter transmitter in The Fly.

Robert Walker plays Army intelligence officer Jeff Nixon, who gets a lot of technical stuff explained to him in terms suitable for a sixth grader. As general audience movies must dumb down the science even today, this is understandable, but the scientists still sound silly when talking to each other at this level. Nixon also romances Groves’ secretary Jean O’Leary, played by MGM woo-bait Audrey Totter. This shoehorns a woman into the picture. Marie Curie wasn’t available, having unfortunately croaked in 1934 from exposure to radiation.

Curie’s demise should have been a lesson to young Atom scientist Matt Cochran (Tom Drake), who serves as another audience surrogate and identification figure. As the ‘everyday guy’ in the movie, Drake’s Matt also has a new wife (perky but colorless Beverly Tyler) who is very understanding when his top-secret work keeps him from necking and snuggling with her 24/7. Another function performed by Matt Cochran is to bring up 25 arguments against the project, the bomb, everything they’re doing, and then talk himself out of each of them one by one. Actor Drake does very well in not making Cochran seem totally schizophrenic.

Matt operates the ‘Dead Man’s Rod’ during the first tests, lowering something into the pile with a simple rope. There is no depiction of any precautions for radiation exposure, even though Fermi quips that a goof in the experiment may result in some sort of atomic disaster. What a card, that Fermi. Did Washington direct MGM to downplay the risk of radiation contamination associated with nuclear lab activity?  We see no shielding, but when a sample of pure, intensely radioactive plutonium arrives in a naked glass ampoule, Oppenheimer graps a pincer and holds it up for all to see. Like, what if he sneezes and drops the &*^%@$ thing?  If it’s really harmless, someone please correct me.

In a fairly hilarious foreshadowing of what we all know is coming, the Geiger instruments go nuts when Matt exits the lab glowing with radiation. He’s rushed to the infirmary. Just as in the animated prologue to The Simpsons, it’s a false alarm — a fragment of deadly radioactive material has somehow slipped into his pocket. Gee, that stuff just gets everywhere, doesn’t it?

Almost every scene has something in it that feels calculated to deceive. We’re told that landholders whose property was appropriated for atom centers, patriotically sold out without resisting the government, after being told it was necessary for national defense. In your dreams. When President Truman mulls over the use of the bomb we hear all the arguments I was told by my parents, such as the idea that the Japanese will fight to the last woman and child. Dropping the bomb, we are assured, saved untold thousands of lives, American and Japanese. Other explanations, in the knowledge that Hitler has his own bomb program, and that Japan struck first at Pearl Harbor, remind me of the all-purpose, let-’em-have it argument from the movie The Conversation:  “He’d kill us if he had the chance.”  We’re also wooed with pie in the sky predictions that atom power will transform the world for good, creating a paradise on Earth.

When the actual air strike begins, The Beginning or the End is hijacked by a second mandate: to make the Army Air Corps look good. Nobody brings up the fact that B-29 bombers fly so high that they were all but unopposed by enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft fire. Curtis LeMay’s fliers are already incinerating entire Japanese cities in nightly firebombing raids, wreaking destruction and slaughter on a scale much larger than the atom blasts. The business of strategic bombing was to bring maximum disruption ( = utter devastation ) to the enemy, and the bomber crews are killers doing a job deemed necessary.

The movie builds up the Hiroshima run as a hazardous mission. Ak-ak bursts threaten the planes, when the military knew that the real flight encountered no such resistance. Much more pernicious is the way The Beginning or the End transfers our sympathy for the trauma of the bombing away from the victims, to the bombing crews. Excellent A. Arnold Gillespie effects produce images that make it look as if all of Hiroshima was utterly incinerated — but from afar.  The audience isn’t given a chance to dwell on the tens of thousands of people caught in the inferno below. We stay with the crew of the Enola Gay, and watch them stare in horror at what they’ve wrought. Some of the airmen appear emotionally stricken. The movie encourages us to think, ‘gee, it must be rough to be a bomber crewperson, dealing with all this.’

That’s nothing compared with the emphasis given the fate of Matt Cochran, who throughout the film has been prepared to become a heroic martyr of the atom age. Matt doesn’t talk about buying a farm but he does make plans for the future; his perky bride waits and frets more or less like the loyal dogs in other aviation movies, that whine when they intuit that the Master ain’t comin’ back no more. For maximum impact, Matt’s lethal atom goof happens on the eve of the bombing, not back in New Mexico as in Fat Man and Little Boy. Again, the show doesn’t make out that plutonium is intrinsically dangerous, just when it’s dropped or put in contact with another element (?).   The movie discreetly declines to depict Tom Drake fried like a hot dog in a microwave, and dying a horrible death, as happens to John Cusack in Fat Man. Apparently, the real incident this tragic death is based on occurred a few months later, in a lab back in the states. The disclaimer at the front of The Beginning or the End says that basically everything we see is true, except the things that aren’t.

The true awfulness occurs at the finish, when Matt’s martyrdom builds to a climax that brings in the Lincoln Memorial for patriotic leverage, as well as a heavenly endorsement of the bomb. The show concludes with more self-serving speeches to the effect that America, the world, God, and even the Japanese victims will thank us for making a bomb and using it. Our concern has been completely shifted from the anonymous, unseen citizens of Hiroshima (and the unmentioned people of Nagasaki), to an American boy who made the ultimate sacrifice for the betterment of mankind.

Matt ‘ghosts in’ at the finale, assuring us that he’s alive and well in heaven. It’s a sentimental, tear-jerking vision right out of The Human Comedy of two years before. What a great, noble, wholly fictional guy. Maybe the inscription on Matt’s fictional tombstone reads, ‘Butterfingers’.

At the conclusion we return to the wraparound story, in which ‘Oppenheimer’ tells the people of the 24th and a Half Century (Duck Dodgers?) that this story has no end: “Only you of tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow, can know the end.” Of all the Hollywood movie studios, only MGM was capable of creating such a miserably manipulative, mendacious ‘true’ film. It resembles propaganda produced by our totalitarian enemies. Remember, nuclear bombs are GOOD.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Beginning or the End is a picture-perfect rendering of this very strange movie, that begins with a fake newsreel, just like Citizen Kane. TV broadcasts ended about the time that cable service came in, which is why I only saw it once a few years back on TCM, and then in pretty ragged condition. Here it’s in fine shape, allowing us to appreciate how much of the ‘docu’ film was cobbled together by MGM’s special effects department. The polished cinematography carries the Metro brand of high-key gloss, even in dirty factories. Daniele Amphitheatrof provides an effective score, serious and powerful for the bomb scenes, and reaching for religious significance during the sentimental/preachy passages. Of course, the movie has so many recognizable actors that it can serve as a pop quiz for face recognition: ‘Look, there’s the great Norman Lloyd!” He’s over a hundred years old now and still going strong.

The Beginning or the End was obviously a special problem for Metro’s marketers, but the trailer included (in perfect condition, too) establishes a new low in shameless hype. We expect the oversell in the copy (“The most timely production in human history!”), but half of the trailer is a session with MGM’s ‘The Inquiring Reporter’, who stops ordinary audience members (all MGM contract players) coming out of a theater. The theater manager awed by the special movie is Morris Ankrum, ‘Col. Fielding’ from Invaders from Mars. Everybody loves the show, with words of approval straight from the publicity department. Women and kids are especially excited, and a minister gives his seal of approval. It seems especially ugly to make a movie containing so much calculated falsehood, and then to sell it with fake endorsements declaring how brave and noble you are. In 1946, media outlets were so few that even an official-sounding movie trailer had enormous political power, enforcing a kind of consensus peer pressure: here’s what everybody thinks. You naturally agree, right?  What can I say — this trailer is almost as craven as much of what we see on TV today.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Beginning or the End DVD-R rates:
Movie: well made and perhaps well intentioned, but pretty warped propaganda
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: original trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2016

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