One of the most notorious pro-Communist films has been taken out of mothballs and will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on February 16 and 17.
Mission To Moscow, produced at the high tide of Stalinist influence in Hollywood, 1943, took the then and now astonishing thesis that Stalin’s Purge Trials were justified. An adaptation of useful idiot Joseph Davies, who attended the trials and endorsed them (“there are no fifth columnists in the Soviet Union–Stalin shot them”), the film was, in the words of largely sympathetic reviewer James Agee, “the most pro-Stalinist film ever to come ouf of a major studio.”
Watched in its entirety, the film is less a time capsule document recalling Grand Alliance days and more in sync with the party line presentation of today’s political culture. Like those on the left today who trot out Republicans for Obama, or religious figures against the War On Terror, the backdrop of Mission to Moscow is deniability. No one associated with its production wants to leave a Stalinist trail. Ambassador Joseph Davies attended the trials and advertised his capitalist/business background before endorsing the trails in a manner that would make Pravda proud. Howard Koch, the screenwriter attached to adapting it, portrayed himself as merely a New Dealer liberal seeking to help the war effort (a description amplified by Victor Navasky); the reality was that he was a sincere fellow traveler who described American Stalinists as “saints.” Attached as a technical advisor, Jay Leyda characterized himself as a sincere liberal but was, in fact, an ardent Stalinist who was being monitored by American intelligence at the time.
In choosing Lincolnesque actor Walter Huston to play Davies, the filmmakers anticipated the Oliver Stone motivation for casting: pick the cosmetically typical American, highlight his conservative, Establishment background, have him disillusioned and then voice subversive statements.
Five minutes into viewing the film, one can understand all the efforts at ideological deniability. Mission to Moscow endorses every claim of the Purge Trials. The Trotsky-Hitler-Hirihito conspiracy is alive and well, and is a lurking presence beside all the smiling peasants and earnest government officials. In the beginning of the film, it is without form, merely present in the suggestive tones of a Nazi officer speaking with Davies. But thanks to dogged, but reasonable efforts of Prosecutor Vyshinsky, the conspiracy is admitted by goateed Old Bolsheviks.
Old Leftists who never got over McDonald in Red Square will no doubt get a nostalgic jolt out of this film’s release; to the rest of us, however, viewing this fantasy world of the Old Left backed by a major studio is eerie. Leyda and Koch’s attempts to bridge the cultural gap between the Soviets and Americans by Americanizing the former produces a nightmare effect, as if Our Town put Bernard Baruch on trial for conspiring with Dwight MacDonald to put Herbert Hoover back into power.