Read an Excerpt from The Beginning or the End

Friday, July 10, 2020

Award-winning author Greg Mitchell's new book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released this week. We're celebrating the book's publication with a special giveaway. The Beginning or the End chronicles the never-before-told story behind Hollywood’s 1947 film of the same name. The film was a big budget dramatization of the Manhattan Project and the invention and use of the atomic bomb in World War II, though it was a flop at the box office. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer called The Beginning or the End “the most important story” he would ever film.

Before the film went off the rails, MGM courted the approval of key Manhattan Project scientists. Greg Mitchell writes about this in an excerpt from the book published in American History:

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When Hollywood’s largest studio, MGM, decided in autumn 1945 to create the first major movie about the creation and use of the atomic bomb, producers naturally sought the approval of key Manhattan Project scientists. The movie, in fact, had been inspired by an urgent letter written by a young atomic scientist. Before coming to work at the Oak Ridge site in Tennessee, Edward Tompkins had taught high school chemistry in Iowa. Writing to actress Donna Reed, a former student, Tompkins pleaded with her to get Hollywood to make a movie that would warn the world about the dangers of building even more powerful weapons, leading to an inevitable nuclear arms race and perhaps the end of civilization.

Reed happened to be well-positioned to get such a film made. Her new husband, Tony Owen, was a talent agent and friend of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer. Within days Owen had pitched the idea to Mayer, who immediately signed off on a docudrama. Mayer promised that The Beginning or the End, as the film came to be titled, would be the “most important” movie he’d ever release. To achieve that, however, the studio would have to get signed releases from the leading characters. These figures ranged from military officers to scientists Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and the scientific chief at Los Alamos in New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The key military man, Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, overall director of the Manhattan Project, quickly signed a contract and—in the most crucial move of the film’s trajectory—secured the right from the studio to approve the script. Groves also negotiated a $10,000 fee—today, $130,000—for serving as chief adviser. President Harry Truman received a similar veto power. Among other moves, Truman wielded his authority to get an actor cast to play him fired and to order a costly re-take to bolster his defense for using the bomb against two Japanese cities. Thanks to Groves and Truman, the movie’s message would lurch far from the original goal of a cinematic warning, becoming an endorsement of the bomb and its use against Japan.

None of the scientists involved were to be paid or given script approval, but MGM could not proceed unless these individuals signed releases. This led in early 1946 to rather desperate attempts to gain the scientists’ signatures, after sending them portions of the script. For a time, the studio seemed unlikely to make an ally of the very skeptical and always outspoken Szilard. Einstein, now leading a public campaign for international control of the atom and convinced there had been no need to use the bomb against Japan, was so hostile to the idea that he penned a dismissive letter to Mayer. “Although I am not much of a moviegoer, I do know from the tenor of earlier films that have come out of your studio that you will understand my reasons,” Einstein wrote. “I find that the whole film is written too much from the point of view of the Army and the Army leader of the project, whose influence was not always in the direction which one would desire from the point of view of humanity.”

Mayer replied that he “was most anxious to have the picture made,” adding, “As American citizens we are bound to respect the viewpoint of our government….It must be realized that dramatic truth is just as compelling a requirement to us as veritable truth is to a scientist.” Einstein, understandably, still balked.

Continue reading at American History

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The film began as a cautionary tale inspired by atomic scientists but was hindered revisions from the White House and Pentagon. Author Greg Mitchell wrote about this in an excerpt from the book published in MotherJones:

The Washington screening for the MGM epic on the creation and use of the atomic bomb, The Beginning or the End, arrived on October 26, 1946. Attendees gathering at the Navy Building auditorium ranged from famous scientists to the country’s most esteemed newspaper columnist, Walter Lippmann, and White House aides Charles Ross and Matthew Connelly. This came at a low point for the Truman administration, as the president’s approval ratings in polls had fallen to barely half the heady 80 percent mark he enjoyed after the Japanese surrender ended World War II the previous September.

Hosting for MGM were studio executive James K. McGuinness and his DC fixer Carter Barron. The movie had taken root a year earlier when young actress Donna Reed received a letter from Dr. Edward Tompkins, her former high school chemistry teacher back in Iowa, who had worked on the bomb at the top-secret Oak Ridge site in Tennessee. He suggested a drama that would reflect the atomic scientists’ fears about further developing the bomb for military purposes, likely leading to a nuclear arms race with the Russians and threatening the future of the planet.

Her husband, Tony Owen, an agent, along with producer Sam Marx had taken the idea to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who vowed that it must become Hollywood’s “most important” movie ever, an early example of what would become known as the docudrama genre. Owen and Marx met with President Truman, who happily supplied the title for the movie when he told the two men to “make your film” but “tell the world that in handling the atomic bomb we are either at the beginning or the end.” Oscar winner Norman Taurog was hired as director, with Brian Donlevy and Hume Cronyn chosen for the leads. Over at Paramount, producer Hal B. Wallis attempted but then aborted a similar project, with novelist Ayn Rand, of all people, penning a wild screenplay in which the development of the bomb was portrayed as a triumph of individual discovery and private industry.

The first MGM scripts generally endorsed the scientists’ warnings and depicted graphic scenes on the ground in Hiroshima after the first atomic blast. The scientists did not know that MGM, in hiring General Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, as chief consultant, had not only paid him $10,000, a lavish fee for that time—and $130,000 in today’s value—­­­but granted him script approval. From that point on, as his demands for edits in the screenplay piled up—dozens in all, most accepted by the studio—the message of the film shifted dramatically to fully endorse the use of the bomb against Japan and stockpiling more earth-shattering weapons going forward.

—Continue reading at MotherJones

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August 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of America's use of the atomic bomb in World War II. In The Beginning or the End, Mitchell exposes the political and media manipulations of the “Hiroshima narrative” in Hollywood's first nuclear epic and shows how those manipulations persist today.

Enter our book giveaway, through the end of day Sunday July 12th,  for a chance to win a copy or pickup the book at your local independent bookstore.


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