J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms

Under siege. John Ford’s Fort Apache established one of the major Cold War film archetypes, as J. Hoberman explains in An Army of Phantoms, his breathless, careening cultural history of the period (which the New Press released today). Covering the initial years of the political frost, from the mid-1940s through 1956, it’s the prequel to his 2003 The Dream Life, which ranged from 1960 to the release of Blow Out in 1981. He is preparing a third volume, Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy, that will cover the rest of the 80s and the end of the Cold War. His stated inspiration is Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, and Hoberman’s less deterministic project will likely cozy up to it on film reference shelves in the coming decades as an essential and idiosyncratic work of cultural studies.

The phrase “cultural studies” tends to make me recoil in various poses of disgust. It’s the lapsed academic in me. As David Bordwell said in a Cinema Scope interview, ” most film scholars aren’t interested in film as a creative art. I know it sounds odd to say that, but I think it’s true. Most scholars are interested in film as an expression of cultural trends, interests, processes, etc. or of political moods, tendencies, etc.” Much of what I encountered of cultural studies in school reduced films to fit ideological agendas, starting with a theory and then squeezing the movie to fit that theory. The art object itself was lost in the process.

What Hoberman is doing here is undoubtedly cultural studies, describing how social and political events shaped the era, and in turn the tone and texture of Hollywood’s product, but it is a supple and nuanced version of the discipline. Since he is coming from a film critic’s background, he never loses sight of the unruly complexity of the movies themselves. The wealth of production history Hoberman lays down here is one of its most invaluable aspects, and has me continually dogearing pages (Full disclosure: I took a Film Criticism seminar that Hoberman taught at NYU).

For example, in his thumbnail portrait of The Thing (1951), he places it in the context of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X, an alien cheapie that beat it into theaters, heralding 1951 as “the year that the saucers landed and the extraterrestrials arrived.” The Thing’s pre-production also “coincided with the emergence of Senator McCarthy and the early stages of the Korean War.”, resulting in a “congealed hysteria.” Politics and film inform each other, but they are not irreducible to the other. Hoberman is adapting French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul’s concept of sociological propaganda:

a vague, spontaneous, all-pervasive, yet half-conscious form of social bonding and ideological proselytizing advanced by advertising, newspaper editorials, social service agencies, patriotic speeches, and anything else that might use the phrase ‘way of life.’”

It is the haziness of being a part of an epoch, the received wisdom that we mouth daily because we don’t have time to reflect on everything we say. It is a flexible, elusive concept, the perfect prism from which to pursue the indirect but palpable influence of the social and political spheres on film. Those are his theoretical walking orders, but Hoberman fills the book  with the clammy details of the dream factory. After spotty snowfall in Cut Bank, Montana, the crew re-located “to an arctic landscape created on the RKO ranch in Encino – another sort of ordeal with sweaty, parka swaddled actors tramping over the artificial snow that had been created from rock salt, ground-up Masonite, and crystallized photographic solution.”

James Arness and Billy Curtis, backstage on THE THING

These offhand, pungent details buzz along on Hoberman’s technicolor prose. Reading his various metaphors for The Thing’s monster is worth the price of the hardcover alone. He rolls from “implacable vampire vegetable” to “carnivorous carrot”, while giving a nod to Manny Farber’s “vegetal ‘screaming banshee’” and a Los Angeles Daily News journalist’s description of “an Adonis with claws.” Each sentence pops with this wry slang, a kind of hipster Variety-ese argot that wriggles off the page (Joseph McCarthy is the “Patriot Roughneck”, John Wayne is the “Cowboy Warrior”, and Dwight Eisenhower is the “Christian Soldier”). This is not to mention his facility with exclamation points, which he peppers throughout with enviable abandon, usually as ironic counterpoint to egregious propagandizing. There is a choice interweaving of the nuclear inspired pop-song, “Sh-boom”, or, Sh-boom!, in the later stages of the book.

The Thing’s scenario was comic-book Fort Apache, the group under siege by a marauding, unknowable force. The parallels with Communist infiltration (and the bloody “police action” in Korea) were starkly clear, and The Thing’s “effete little Nobel Prize-winning scientist affecting a blazer, turtleneck, and goatee” is nothing less than a “wannabe Russian”. The Thing makes gestures toward anti-communism, but more than anything else it’s a Howard Hawks film, a buzzing group of insecure he-men talking their way through their problems and through the Red Menace. This Fort Apache scenario of terror from without is one of the repeated motifs of the book (Only the Valiant, which I wrote up earlier, introduces subversion from within into the cavalry Western), although many others wind through it, including The Next Voice You Hear, whose vision of God-as-entertainment actualized Hollywood’s fondest dreams of itself. Hoberman draws out the cruel irony of how the real universal communicator, television, almost puts Hollywood out of business. The third major strand is provided by Kiss Me Deadly and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’ term for nuclear power, The Great Whatzit, which Hoberman uses throughout as both a metaphor for nuclear weapons as well as the undefinable anxieties which haunted the generation.

All of these ideas are buttressed by meticulous research, with reams of contemporary opinions from Variety, The New York Times and especially The Daily Worker, as film and  political history start to smack up against each other. Everything converges in his tour-de-force explication of the House Un-American Activities Commission hearings, whose impact on the movie business is laid out in granular detail, as studio heads tried to triangulate between Sen. McCarthy and the panicky artist-progressives who pushed out their money-making product. Never have I read such a thorough examination of this period, and the moral gray areas that subpoenaed witnesses had to traverse. There is no cheap moralizing or blanket condemnations of those who named names, only a fanatically detailed, contextually rich rundown of the cultural currents that led to their decisions.

I’d advise you not to open the Great Whatzit, but please open the book.

14 Responses J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms
Posted By Al Lowe : March 15, 2011 2:33 pm

I have a friend, a few years older than me, whose father, now deceased, was a newspaper reporter who was once attacked by McCarthy.

The strange part of this story is that this reporter was a Republican. But Joe did not accept criticism and took exception to what the reporter wrote, so blasted him.

From what I read about about the anti-Communist hysteria of the time I don’t think the House Committee discovered much new information through its investigation. They didn’t accomplish much except harrass people and destroy some careers.

I tend to agree with the points you make about cultural studies.

I believe that learning can be fun and is something people naturally like to do. That is why some unlikely people watch PBS. There is something wrong if film study becomes an agonizing exercise.

By the way, I have seen THE THING many times. Who was Billy Curtis? A stand-in for Arness?

(Arness had a showy small part in Wellman’s ISLAND IN THE SKY a couple of years later and then, of course, starred in GUNSMOKE. Still I wonder if he had the stuff to become a major movie star.)

Posted By Al Lowe : March 15, 2011 2:33 pm

I have a friend, a few years older than me, whose father, now deceased, was a newspaper reporter who was once attacked by McCarthy.

The strange part of this story is that this reporter was a Republican. But Joe did not accept criticism and took exception to what the reporter wrote, so blasted him.

From what I read about about the anti-Communist hysteria of the time I don’t think the House Committee discovered much new information through its investigation. They didn’t accomplish much except harrass people and destroy some careers.

I tend to agree with the points you make about cultural studies.

I believe that learning can be fun and is something people naturally like to do. That is why some unlikely people watch PBS. There is something wrong if film study becomes an agonizing exercise.

By the way, I have seen THE THING many times. Who was Billy Curtis? A stand-in for Arness?

(Arness had a showy small part in Wellman’s ISLAND IN THE SKY a couple of years later and then, of course, starred in GUNSMOKE. Still I wonder if he had the stuff to become a major movie star.)

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 15, 2011 2:42 pm

Al – during the end of THE THING, when the monster is being electrocuted, he starts to shrink, and that’s when Billy Curtis stands in for Arness. Movie magic.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 15, 2011 2:42 pm

Al – during the end of THE THING, when the monster is being electrocuted, he starts to shrink, and that’s when Billy Curtis stands in for Arness. Movie magic.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 20, 2011 1:08 pm

I will be looking for this book. A critique of three great movies from that perspective is highly interesting.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 20, 2011 1:08 pm

I will be looking for this book. A critique of three great movies from that perspective is highly interesting.

Posted By Juana Maria : March 24, 2011 5:05 pm

THe title of your article reminded me of the title of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms”. Both that episode and “Fort Apache” had a unique way of retelling the battle of Little Big Horn. Henry Fonda was a Custer type character in the film. Thanks and please write more western articles.

Posted By Juana Maria : March 24, 2011 5:05 pm

THe title of your article reminded me of the title of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms”. Both that episode and “Fort Apache” had a unique way of retelling the battle of Little Big Horn. Henry Fonda was a Custer type character in the film. Thanks and please write more western articles.

Posted By la peregrina : March 26, 2011 5:37 pm

The book does sound interesting but how does it differ from Peter Biskind’s 1983 book Seeing is Believing? They both seem to be covering the same ground.

Posted By la peregrina : March 26, 2011 5:37 pm

The book does sound interesting but how does it differ from Peter Biskind’s 1983 book Seeing is Believing? They both seem to be covering the same ground.

Posted By I M Sumbudie : April 29, 2011 1:25 am

“The Thing” was a sci-fi horror film, NOTHING MORE! It was inspired by the revelation that nuclear weapons testing, as initiated under President Roosevelt and culminating in President Truman’s order to drop the bomb on Japan, could result in causing genetic mutations. From this information the writers’ imaginations came up with stories like “The Thing” and “Them” to give audiences a good scare.
Also, McCarthy had nothing to do with HUAC or the investigation of the Hollywood Ten. You, the commentators, and apparently Mr. Hoberman, foster a conflating of the two.

Posted By I M Sumbudie : April 29, 2011 1:25 am

“The Thing” was a sci-fi horror film, NOTHING MORE! It was inspired by the revelation that nuclear weapons testing, as initiated under President Roosevelt and culminating in President Truman’s order to drop the bomb on Japan, could result in causing genetic mutations. From this information the writers’ imaginations came up with stories like “The Thing” and “Them” to give audiences a good scare.
Also, McCarthy had nothing to do with HUAC or the investigation of the Hollywood Ten. You, the commentators, and apparently Mr. Hoberman, foster a conflating of the two.

Posted By I M Sumbudie : June 29, 2011 12:57 am

P.S.: I guess there was a little more to these films than just horror sci fi. Especially “The Thing” and “Day the Earth Stood Still” ended with a feeling of What hath man wrought? This fit in with the moral earnestness of the period following the War, in which it was felt that the sacrifices that had been made for freedom of expression required more reponsible themes than just entertainment. (Not all films followed this.) P.P.S. Couldn’t decide on McCarthy till learning Eisenhower despised him and got rid of him (Fred Greenstein, “The Hidden Hand President”).

Posted By I M Sumbudie : June 29, 2011 12:57 am

P.S.: I guess there was a little more to these films than just horror sci fi. Especially “The Thing” and “Day the Earth Stood Still” ended with a feeling of What hath man wrought? This fit in with the moral earnestness of the period following the War, in which it was felt that the sacrifices that had been made for freedom of expression required more reponsible themes than just entertainment. (Not all films followed this.) P.P.S. Couldn’t decide on McCarthy till learning Eisenhower despised him and got rid of him (Fred Greenstein, “The Hidden Hand President”).

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