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Red Scare Flicks, Part I
Hell and High Water (1954) is, among much else, a reminder of how things used to be. It is both a cloak and dagger as well as war movie, on board a submarine, chasing after the Red Menace. There are two points of view in the film, that of a professor, Montel (Victor Franken), and that of a submarine commander, Capt. Jones (Richard Widmark). The former wants to stick closely to the monitoring of a situation brewing in the Pacific, involving an atomic bomb. The latter wants to do something about it. Each has his pride. The professor speaks of an associate who is an MOL, Master of Oriental Languages. The commander speaks of periscope depth, full sweep, and flood negative, terms having to do with what he also calls the "sewer pipe" into which they have all been herded. Their mutual goal is to find out what is happening on a certain island. There is cause to believe that it is being used to deliver an atomic bomb.
They are right to be suspicious. A prisoner yields the requisite information that the Red Chinese plan to employ a plane disguised as American to drop a bomb on either Korea or Manchuria. It is a good thing this never happened. Despite being a "only a movie", there is the smidgen of a possibility that something similarly conceived might have actually worked. How serious a topic, and yet, since it is, after all, a movie, lots of comic and romantic relief undercuts the subject matter. It is worth mentioning, in addition, that this production is far from the usual Hollywood fare, written and directed by maverick Samuel Fuller, whom the Europeans admire, and some Americans, too.
That familiar mushroom cloud must have looked different in 1954, and yet, then again, maybe it didn't. It still packs a wallop just seeing it rise, ripple, and shape and reshape itself -- a dragon-like monster consisting of dust, power, and heat. From the 1940s till today, the success of scientists in Los Alamos continues to baffle the human race. What is to be done about such ordnance? In the early days, it was either Red China or the U.S.S.R. that the United States felt threatened by. Now, smaller nations as well as organizations, like Al Qaeda, who can settle in one country and then relocate elsewhere, are more worrisome. There are watchdog agencies, sure, but what do they care about them?
Still, with Richard Widmark's Capt. Jones in charge, this film should hold a modern audience's attention -- if it is so-inclined. Throughout, the American crew is up to its usual pranks and antics, but when it comes time to act, they do. Samuel Fuller does not mess around. He was very active during World War II, became a purple heart recipient, and had a flair for journalism. In 2013, the dreaded atomic bomb is somewhat antiquated. Since the late 1940s and early 1950s, explosives have been refined and perfected to become much more deadly. It is hard to imagine just how much damage they can do, but no one really wants to find out.
Over the years, especially since the dismantling of the U.S.S.R., Russia has proved to be, thus far, a responsible possessor of nuclear weapons. Red China has also achieved the same high level of responsibility. Both countries are not quick on the trigger or prone to rant vociferously against those with whom they have long-lasting differences. They are sensitive to US policies, however, and get miffed by missiles pointed in their direction. The ordinary citizen, moviegoer or not, hopes that the international business of checking, verifying, conferencing, and the mutual elimination or reduction of warheads will simply go on forever. But even as the red in red scare has faded into a vague and distant imperceptibility, the scare continues unabated.