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The 10 Best Movies to Watch to Understand the Cold War

From paranoid sci-fi to aggressive action to romantic comedy nostalgia, these films captured key aspects of the times.

by
James Jay Carafano

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April 19, 2014 - 7:00 am
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The last bobsled had barely finished its run when Vladimir Putin pounced in Ukraine, snatching Crimea and massing troops for his next move.  The Russian “reset” was dead, as even its author, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, admitted.

Relations with Moscow look to get worse. That doesn’t necessarily mean that another Cold War will break out. But what if it does? Many Americans aren’t old enough to remember when the Iron Curtain was Moscow’s drapery of choice. It’s time for a refresher course.

Superpower rivalry started almost as soon as the “good” war, World War II, ended. Most Americans were indifferent, until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. That really brought the Cold War home to Main Street.

Americans were worried that the invasion of South Korea was just the first skirmish in another global conflict. Having just saved the world a few years earlier, they weren’t excited about having to do it again, particularly since this time both sides had the atomic bomb.

The U.S. also had Hollywood, and Tinsel Town cranked up the cameras and marched off to the Cold War. Here are the 10 movies that give a very good feel for what that war was all about.

10. Invasion U.S.A.

This 1952 Cold War classic (not to be confused with the 1985 Chuck Norris epic in which he karate chops his way through transnational terrorists threatening the homeland) was one of the first films from a major studio to exploit emergent war hysteria. Columnist Hedda Hopper declared, “It will scare the pants off you.” At the time, she was probably right. In retrospect, the film, which cuts-and-pastes a lot of stock military footage, is pretty laughable. A great drinking game would be just pointing out all the scenes that don’t make sense, like when “enemy” paratroopers descend on Washington, D.C., jumping out of what are obviously U.S. military planes. Still, the film made its point. Americans couldn’t be indifferent to the menace from Moscow.

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Top Rated Comments   
I and thousands of my colleagues patrolled, afoot and mounted, the Inner German Border many, many times. Absolutely did not see the Warsaw Pact's dissolution coming. Props to Gorbachev for not saying "F--- It!" and going all in to either keep it together, or go out in a blaze of nuclear glory.

One of the reasons the Cold War was relatively stable was the presumption that both sides were rational actors and could be counted on to act rationally in their own self interest. I'mna thinking that that might not be the case any longer wrt Korea, Pakistan, Iran, etc.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
That would help to explain Harry Reid.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
This article can best be described as superficial trivialization of the Cold War.

How about a real list and include serious movies...

The Lives of Others
Pork Chop Hill
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Fail-Safe
The Third Man
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (70)
All Comments   (70)
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Yep. Where's The Lives Of Others? Or Fail-Safe? But thanks so much for including The Bedford Incident, a movie whose neglect never fails to mystify me. It's a wonderfully good film. Oh, and BTW, The Thing is an unexpected, but excellent pick. The movie is one of my favorite sci-fi films largely because of its wonderfully un-cynical, upbeat, can-do spirit. It just oozes American confidence.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Can't imagine how the author left out "Fail Safe" and included "Rambo." C'mon.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
… one of the first films from a major studio to exploit emergent war hysteria.
... from worrying about being invaded, to paranoia over internal subversion.
... shortly after the “Red Scare” hysteria of the late 1950s
... It manages to make Cold War fears seem pretty silly.
... Red Dawn[‘s] … take on Communist invaders is the ultimate Hollywood hoot.
... making fun of Cold War paranoia”


I had an English teacher in high school who was from a wealthy Northeastern family. A true born-n-bred Nawtheastern liberal. He was doing his service to humanity by serving as a teacher in a “poor” area. (At a mostly middle class high school.) We got to talking about Khrushchev’s “we will bury you” speech one day. Little Lord Fauntleroy was quite sure that Mr. Khrushchev didn’t mean anything by it – he was just using a figure of speech.

I’m going to be generous and assume the author of this piece is afflicted with the same sort of idiocy. Otherwise, it looks like he’s a fellow traveler.

McCarthy was right. His methods may not have been, but time has proven his thesis to be dead right. It was not “paranoia” or “hysteria”. The Cold War never ended. It just took a vacation for a little while.

It’s back.



By the way, that "Red Dawn" invasion scenario was a very close parallel to a summer exercise my Army Reserve outfit did a year or two before the movie came out. No, it was not far-fetched at all.



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23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good call on 'The Bedford Incident'; an excellent film.
Surprised, though, that 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' (1956, Kevin McCarthy) wasn't included. A better movie than 'The Thing', overall, with a similar theme.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Don't forget On the Beach.
Also, Panic in Year Zero on the B-list.
And long before War Games, there was Colossus: The Forbin Project.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ice Station Zebra was pretty good.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
A little-known (here in America) movie about nuclear war's aftermath is "Threads," a made-for-TV movie from Britain. Far superior to "The Day After," which was made in Hollywood.

And as a satire of Cold War paranoia, a close second to Doctor Strangelove is "War Games." With its famous tag line: "The only winning move is not to play."

It's hard to tell satire from reality sometimes. In the mid 1980s, when the Air Force decided to start upgrading the computer systems at NORAD, they asked for a system that looked as good as the one that Hollywood's set designers had come up with for "War Games"!
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't think I ever even heard of "Blast From The Past" though it sounds cute, but wouldn't "Fail Safe" be better on your list?

I notice there are no Cuban missile crisis movies - none ever made? Nor the Egypt-Israel 1967 war, which was also a US/Soviet proxy. No Vietnam movies? Nor Vietnam protest movies, even Woodstock? What is most interesting about your list is that there are no movies, at least no major ones I can think of, that cover so many aspects.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
There was a very good made-for-TV movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, called "The Missiles of October."
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
As was 1973
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
MOVIES CAN PROVIDE MEMORY FOR THINGS THAT MANY PREFER TO BE FORGOTTEN
I just saw The Monuments Men -- a very bad title, but really nice movie. Without saying it, Clooney demonstrates American Exceptionalism: While the Germans were destroying our Western culture, the Russians were trying to steal it. I think Germany et al are still trying to get stolen art back from Russia -- which would've been nice if it were stated as a postscript. Also, a recent news article about the son of a German art dealer with hundreds of priceless paintings that were first taken by the German gov't -- because they're clearly stolen war booty -- then returned. Movies can provide memory for things that many prefer to be left forgotten. [I almost didn't see this movie because of Clooney's association -- director, writer?, but he was surprisingly good in all ways. Cate Blanchett was sensational with her scepticism.] I await the movie about Colonel Matthew Bogdanos and his attempt/partial success to find the looted art from the Iraq National Museum. I will always hear Putin denying American Exceptionalism and Obama not defending it.
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wolverines!
23 weeks ago
23 weeks ago Link To Comment
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