Gulag on Film

by Christopher Orlet (June 2007)


How is it that six decades since the commencement of the Cold War there has yet to be a single made-in-the-USA film about the Soviet gulags, the Great Terror, The Moscow Show Trials, The Hungarian Uprising, the Katyn Forest massacre, the Ukraine Famine or the assassination of Leon Trotsky? It’s not as if these aren’t interesting topics. Arguably the subject matter is at least as absorbing as that of Che Guevera’s motorcycle diaries or the two Pee Wee Herman extravaganzas. 

Yet one has to turn to European or Canadian cinema to find first-rate films dramatizing the Soviet terror that cost an estimated 2.7 million lives, specifically films like director Casper Wrede’s 1971 adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a joint Norwegian-British production. Of course, “first rate” is just my opinion. Most American critics simply dismissed the film as pure “torture”: The trouble with making a movie about tedium and hopelessness is that it runs into the danger of being itself tedious,” wrote the critic Toni Mastroianni.

Mastroianni certainly knew his audience. After all, what self-absorbed American wants to sit through a hopelessly depressing film about starving and freezing Russian political prisoners, a film in which there can be no happy ending, and no thrilling escape to break the monotony? Perhaps Joseph Stalin was on to something. His horrors were so banal, so tedious that instead of turning away in horror, most Westerners simply yawned. Call it “The Tediousness of Evil.”

Another English-language adaptation of a Solzhenitsyn work that comes to mind was exiled Polish director Aleksander Ford’s The First Circle, a Danish-Swedish production. Released in 1973, the film suffers from bad dubbing and melodramatic dialogue (“We’ll shoot you like a dog. You’ll never get away!”). The New York Time’s Vince Canby called the film “anti-intellectual” and “fairly unforgivable.” Worse was a Post-Cold War made-for-TV miniseries of the same novel by a joint French-Canadian production company, whose portrayal of Stalin’s NKVD agents as bumbling buffoons worked against the seriousness of the subject matter. In 1965, British director David Lean brought the Russian Revolution epic Doctor Zhivago to American screens. Lean’s Zhivago is a masterpiece to be sure, but more of a gorgeously filmed winter-idyll-love story than harsh indictment of Marxist-Leninism.

Near the end of the Cold War HBO did put out an inane made-for-TV thriller called Gulag. The film concerned a 1980’s sportscaster in Moscow for the Goodwill Games picked up for allegedly trying to smuggle out Soviet state secrets. The foul-mouthed American hero, played by David Keith, is sentenced to ten years in a concentration camp. But in order to avoid the tedium of Wrede’s film, the pay cable director includes a gratuitous shower scene (the hero’s wife in a dream sequence) and allows the film to degenerate into an inane prison escape caper.  It hardly need be said that escape from the frozen archipelagos was virtually impossible–escapees either freezing to death, drowning or falling into the hands of Eskimo and Kazakh bounty hunters.

The same year that witnessed the declaration of martial law in Poland that crushed the Solidarity Movement saw the release of Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), a gorgeous lovesong to Bolshevism. Reds is the biography of the American journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, a comrade of V. I. Lenin, and the only American to enjoy the dubious distinction of being entombed in Red Square.

Speaking of Poland, director Agnieszka Holland’s To Kill a Priest (1988) premiered just as the revived Solidarity Movement was toppling the communist government in Poland. The film tells the true story of the young, populist chain-smoking priest Jerzy Popieluszko, a supporter of the dissident Solidarity movement murdered by the secret police in 1984.  Tellingly Holland had to secure funding from four international production companies in order to complete the film, in particular Columbia Pictures during the brief, 12-month tenure of Englishman David Puttnam (The Killing Fields, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express). On the whole it was a French production. The film’s American-British-French cast portraying Poles contributed to its disjointedness, causing critics to complain of its “heterogeneous components and hybrid dramaturgy (Variety). The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called it “as bewildering at times as it is imbecilic. It’s like some sadistic communist buddy movie in which persecution complex meets Jesus complex. The wall doesn’t come tumbling down, though that’s obviously the reason for releasing this malodorousness just now.”

Ironically, the best film to capture the Soviet terror in all its horror and brutality remains Marina Goldovskaya’s 1987 documentary The Solovky Power, which tells the story of a chain of forced labor camps from the moment of their inception in 1923, to the day they were mothballed in 1939. It is only in this film in which the viewer will see posted above the gates of Solovky the same slogan “Work will make you free” found above the gates of Auschwitz. Goldovskaya’s film arguably did as much to bring down the Iron Wall as détente or Poland’s Solidarity movement.

The reason for this want of anti-Soviet films was expertly documented in Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930s and 40s, writes Billingsley, saw thick veins of Communist influence running through the Hollywood studio system. Studio Stalinism, the underground movement to smuggle Communist ideology into American cinema found a surplus of useful idiots in Hollywood, many of them disillusioned with capitalism and enamored with the so-called Russian Experiment. Indeed Hollywood was the equivalent of a one-party state, or, as screenwriter Budd Shulberg put it, the Communist Party “was the only game in town.” The party’s stratagem—doubtless highly effective—was to surreptitiously include five minutes of the Party line in every script, Billingsley notes.  Such was the influence of the Communist Party USA that they were able to hire pro-Soviet story analysts to read incoming scripts, weeding out the anti-Communist material. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that among the works kept from reaching the screen were: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the CommissarI Chose FreedomBernard Clare by James T. Farrell.” (This couldn’t have been easy considering Sidney Kingsley’s adaptation of Darkness at Noon had won the 1951 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play.) As Billingsly notes, it wasn’t what the party put into Hollywood films that mattered, but the anti-communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out. Later, during World War II, the Roosevelt Administration would encourage the studios to create films that celebrated the role of the USSR in the Allied cause–films like Mission to Moscow (1943) and North Star (1943)–not that the studios needed much encouragement.

Interestingly even though many of the Hollywood screenwriters were Trotskyites, they could not quite bring themselves to dramatize the assassination of their hero Leon Davidovich Bronstein Trotsky, murdered on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940. Thirty-two years after the murder the British director Joseph Losey made The Assassination of Trotsky starring the besotted and absurdly miscast Richard Burton in the titular role. As for the film’s fate it was rightly included in Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss’ The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and how they got that way).

In the Post-War years Hollywood‘s pro-communist screenwriters went back on the attack. Indeed, so successful were they in scripting films that depicted the inequities of American capitalist society that many screenwriters were perceived as being Stalin’s hirelings. This perception helped start the infamous Congressional investigation undertaken under the direction of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Reformed Communist and filmmaker Elia Kazan might have been one director expected to make an anti-Stalinist film or two, and indeed his neglected tour de force Man on a Tightrope (1953), regarding a raggedy circus trying to flee Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, premiered a year after his appearance before HUAC. The screenplay was penned by Robert E. Sherwood, who had won the 1941 Pulitzer Prize for his anti-Stalinist play There Shall Be No Night, about the Soviet invasion of Finland and–big surprise–failed to make it to the silver screen. Kazan, who left the Communist Party after a brief flirtation in the 30s, refused to give up his career to protect his former comrades who continued to espouse a Stalinist ideology he considered dangerous. Kazan‘s “informing” naturally earned him the enmity of Hollywood‘s liberal elite, and that along with the scarcity of good scripts, doubtless convinced the director that there was no point revisiting the subject.

As the Cold War dragged on Hollywood radicals, nursing the wounds of the McCarthy era, believed they had a moral obligation to the memories of the Blacklisted writers to ridicule the “exaggerated” fear of communism: the result were a series of black comedies best exemplified by Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Later, the studios turned out films like The Front (1976) and Guilty by Suspicion (1991) in which blacklisted screenwriters achieved a kind of ideological martyrdom.

The Hollywood communists, writes Billingsley, knew that any film depicting Soviet atrocities would force some to conclude that HUAC was right, and worse ” would violate the legend of the blacklist.” In the end the CPUSA succeeded at keeping all mention of Stalinist atrocities out of the theaters–up until and including today. Had the rest of the Russian experiment been as successful as the Hollywood portion, the Soviet Union might still be around today.

In retrospect it appears as though the Hollywood reds sought to give the Soviets every possible advantage in the propaganda war. And yet one cannot but help wonder what a good Spielberg treatment of The Terror might have done to hasten the end of the Cold War and bring liberty to the masses across Russia and Eastern Europe.


Christopher Orlet writes the Existential Journalist blog.


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