March 23, 1987: Hollywood in the twilight of the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, Ronald Reagan—who had headed the Screen Actor’s Guild in the heyday of anti-communist paranoia, and had been an FBI informant within the industry—goes on television to finally accept responsibility for his administration’s secret weapons sales to Iran. The miniseries Amerika, which depicts a near-future United States under Soviet control, has recently aired on ABC. The Eastern Bloc is groaning in anticipation of imminent collapse. At the American Film Institute, a group of Hollywood veterans meets with a visiting delegation from the USSR, led by Elem Klimov, director of Come And See and head of the Soviet filmmakers’ union. They are here to watch each other’s films as part of a panel called “Beyond Stereotypes,” to be followed by a three-hour discussion between Klimov and actor-director Sydney Pollack at the Director’s Guild Of America.
Part of the AFI event is meant to play like a game of dozens, with each side showing their worst onscreen stereotypes of the other. There are bursts of embarrassed laughter from both sides, but also a growing sense of the disparity between the way East and West tackled each other on film. There are propaganda pieces from the Stalinist era and warnings of corrupting capitalist influence that rival the anti-communist scaremongering of the McCarthy era. There are characters who pick life in the USSR over America when faced with the choice. But there is no Soviet answer to Red Dawn or either of the movies titled Invasion, U.S.A., and no violent fantasies of ordinary people gunning down the American threat. There are no villains on the order of Rocky IV or Rambo: First Blood Part II.
‘’We out-stereotyped you,’’ declares Franklin J. Schaffner, director of Patton and Planet Of The Apes. Sylvester Stallone does not attend, as he is currently in pre-production on Rambo III, in which he will personally fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reporting on the event a few days later, The New York Times reaches out for comment to Robert Chartoff, producer of the Rocky series as well as such classics as Point Blank and Raging Bull. Chartoff expresses regret at the characterization of Ivan Drago, the Russian killing machine played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. But, as he explains, ‘’You need worthy villains.’’
For more than 40 years, the Soviets were Hollywood’s worthy villains, ideological opposites up to all kinds of no good. So why didn’t the Soviet film industry respond in kind? Even after decades of conflict, the best they had to offer were the barely competent movies of Mikhail Tumanishvili, amateurish imitations of American action flicks, full of comically unconvincing fistfights and smash zooms. Tumanishvili’s The Detached Mission, a clip from which was shown at the AFI event, is often called “the Soviet Rambo,” with the being the key word, because of the dearth of Soviet movies depicting a violent conflict with the United States.
Ironically, it would take the collapse of the Soviet Union for a sui generis violent anti-American fantasy to come along: Aleksei Balabanov’s notorious Brother 2, in which the protagonist of Balabanov’s seminal low-budget crime film, Brother, is bizarrely transported into a Steven Seagal scenario that finds him mowing down slimy Chicagoans while testifying to the rectitude of all things Russian. But let’s keep our focus on the USSR.
The other howler of the AFI screening proved to be the Mystery Science Theater 3000-ready Stalinist flick Silver Dust, which depicts Americans working with Nazi scientists and conducting experiments on unsuspecting African-American men—both things that were actually being done by American federal agencies at the time it was made—in order to develop a poison to use against the Soviet Union. But even that was a relic of the Stalin era. For the most part, Soviet heroes didn’t fight Americans and weren’t threatened by them. In 1949, as America was succumbing to anti-communist paranoia, the biggest box office hit in the USSR was Meeting At The Elbe, which depicted the day advancing Soviet and American troops met in the middle of Germany as allies on the cusp of victory.
Here, one runs the risk of casting Soviet media in too positive a light, because the climactic scene of the same film, Meeting At The Elbe, depicts Americans beating up a black soldier—one of their own—in the American-occupied zone of postwar Berlin. (One uncomfortable truth of the Cold War is that it sometimes put the Soviets on the right side of history—in support of civil rights in America, for instance—for less-than-noble reasons.) And yet the Americans still aren’t villains; they’re victims. Both sides of the Cold War often depicted the other’s citizenry as victimized, but the Soviet Union elevated it into an art, much in the way that the American mainstream developed the Soviet super-villain into a fetish object. Instead of portraying Americans as eroticized torturers, inhuman strongmen, or sinister ringleaders, the few Soviet movies that do pit Soviet and American characters against each other mostly portray Americans as misled or misinformed.
The Soviet and American mainstreams expressed themselves in radically different ways, with different fears. Being a single party state, the Soviet Union was always factionalist and unsustainable, and could only perpetuate itself through cycles of repression and repudiation. Its anxieties were mostly directed toward itself; as the Americans made fantasies of threat, the USSR made fantasies of stability and global standing. The Soviet Union was also dominated by Russian culture, and inherited its taste for oblique metaphor and indirect address. (It should be noted that the three greatest filmmakers to come out of the Soviet Union—Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Aleksei German—never completed a film set in the present day.)
Simply put, it wasn’t an environment that was primed to depict the Cold War directly. But it was also an environment with a Cold War mythos that was very different from that of the West. The Soviets did have a “worthy villain,” whom they beat year after year on the big screen: the Nazis. The Soviet Union was the hero who slew the dragon; defeating the Third Reich was a point of national pride. There would never be a more important opponent. The Soviets couldn’t reasonably elevate the Americans to the same status, or even to the status of the White Guard of the bloody Russian Civil War—the USSR’s origin-story villains, in a way.
Seventeen Moments Of Spring—the Soviet Union’s most popular TV miniseries, and a touchstone of Soviet pop culture—was about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany. Exhaustively long World War II spy stories with way too many characters were surefire successes with Soviet audiences; On Thin Ice, The Shield And The Sword, and Teheran ’43—the top-grossing Soviet films of 1966, 1968, and 1981—all belong to the genre. (Other winning formulas: comedies about bumbling criminals, dramas about pilots, movies in which characters take vacations.) The most popular Soviet action movie, White Sun Of The Desert, is about a Red Army soldier fighting bandits during the Russian Civil War; the successful Elusive Avengers film series (The Elusive Avengers, The New Adventures Of The Elusive Avengers, The Crown Of The Russian Empire) was set during the same era. As far as Soviet pop culture was concerned at the peak of the Cold War, the best enemies were all in the past.
At the same time, Americans couldn’t be expected to kill or die for their cause, because—as the 1965 spy film Game With No Rules, set in Berlin at the start of the Cold War, suggests—they didn’t have a cause to begin with. Instead, the rare American antagonists of popular Soviet film were portrayed as pawns of business interests, military-industrial collusion, or, of course, the Nazis. Portraying a monolithic United States of true believers, focused on the eradication of the USSR, would have gone against two essential aspects of the mythology of Soviet propaganda: the defeat of Nazism, which rid the world of an evil the likes of which it would never see, and the notion of communism as a self-evident ideal.
For decades, Soviet media attacked the United States—with varying degrees of subtlety—as a broken society, its failure obvious. Capitalism and Western democracy weren’t values that could inspire the same kind of commitment as communism, and the only reason anyone would fight for them was because they’d didn’t know better.