There is a scene mid-way through the anti-Communist masterpiece RED NIGHTMARE that is so sublimely ridiculous it causes the modern viewer to think—if only for a second—that the Cold War may well have been worth fighting if it helped produce such bizarre entertainment. In the scene, a Lee Van Cleef look-a-like frantically toots into a whistle while the protagonist demolishes ersatz Russian inventions that are on display in a State-converted Church that serves as a "People's Museum." The hero's appalled rage at the Communists trying to take credit for Alexander Graham Bell's telephone—in a house of worship no less—is nothing short of a defining moment in the annals of Soviet America cinema.
Produced under the "personal supervision" of studio mogul Jack L. Warner, this genuine Red Scare classic had a budget and a cast (Jack Webb, Jack Kelly, Andrew Duggan) that was unheard of for a government educational film of its era. Indeed, not too many made-for-government shorts before or since have been featured in Daily Variety as FREEDOM AND YOU (later retitled RED NIGHTMARE by the studio to give it more "punch") was. "Film will depict contrast between concept of American freedom and life under Communism," reported the trade paper in a Feb. 28, 1962 article announcing the picture's imminent production to the industry. "It will be part of the Defense Department's long-range program to strengthen servicemen's faith in his American heritage and to acquaint him with the dangers of Communism." Variety also noted helpfully that Mr. Warner was a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
The screenplay by Vincent Fotre, is a marvel of economy and efficiency that, by comparison, puts to shame its bloated thematic descendent AMERIKA (ABC, 1987). The story concept, which Fotre explained in a CONELRAD interview, was assigned to him when he was a young contract writer for Warner Bros., was simple: Show what would happen to a typical American town if the Communists took over. The resulting half-hour script that Mr. Fotre produced was the blueprint for one of the most infamous educational films ever made. The scribe recalled in an earlier interview with the L.A. Daily News the kind of high-level guidance he received in writing his propaganda opus: "Jack Warner was very gung-ho in that area (anti-Communism). He wanted the message spelled out in very blunt terms. He wanted us to hit ‘em over the head with it."
And what better choice could there have been to wield Warner's ideological cudgel than that icon of conservatism, Jack Webb? Webb is "Nightmare's" narrator, antagonist and muse—a kind of American Legion version of the "Our Town" Stage Manager. The film's prologue features Webb standing in front of a sentry marching outside of a typical 1950's town square. It is offered that the town serves as a Communist training ground "as part of a long range plan to destroy our free way of life." While a montage of the community flashes by (including a brief shot of future star Chad Everett in a coffee shop) Webb suggests, with absolutely no substantiation, that such a town truly does exist "shrouded in secrecy and protected by the utmost security deep behind the Iron Curtain."
Webb's foil or, better put, victim is Jerry Donovan (played by "Maverick's" Jack Kelly), who is branded a complacent American, "prone to take his liberties for granted." What are the civic lapses that condemn Donovan to his RED NIGHTMARE? He prefers to bowl instead of attend PTA meetings ("they can struggle along without me"), he skips "committee" gatherings in favor of watching his favorite television program; he is so busy at work, he keeps missing his reserve meetings.
But other than these minor failings, Jerry is depicted as a decent, caring family man whose biggest outburst comes when his older daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell) announces at dinner that she intends to marry college football star Bill Martin (Peter Brown). The announcement and the resulting argument have darkened Jerry's mood considerably. After the contentious dinner, he retires alone for the evening taking with him his concerned wife's wishes of "sweet dreams."
Little does Jerry know, however, that just outside his residence lurks a rather severe looking gentleman in a buzz cut and business suit who is about to haunt his formerly complacent dreams. The story shifts into hyperbolic overdrive from the moment Webb, his face sneering at the viewer, intones menacingly: "Let's give Jerry a nightmare, a real RED nightmare." The punishment that muse Webb inflicts on Donovan for missing a few PTA meetings is so out of proportion to the offense it comes off as comically sadistic as well illogical. But then, Jack Warner's advice to his screenwriter reverberates through the remainder of the film ("Hit 'em over the head with it!").
Donovan's dream commences in "Mid Town, USA," in the same coffee shop that is shown in the film's preface. As Webb reaffirms in his omniscient voiceover, Donovan is confused by his new surroundings. The telephone operator who asks for his "permit number" when he attempts to call his wife confuses our protagonist further. A speech given shortly thereafter in the town's square in which a military officer (Peter Breck of SHOCK CORRIDOR) congratulates the citizens on their "indoctrination" does little to clue him in either. Nor does everyone's addressing him as "comrade." Indeed, Donovan's realization that he is living in a town run by Communists is a painfully slow one.
Another prominent hint Donovan overlooks is the fact that his formally happy family has become cold and robotic. When he tries to hug his children at the dinner table the once chirpy Mrs. Donovan admonishes: "You are disturbing the children. Their meals are to be consumed without interruption."
The absurdity level of RED NIGHTMARE achieves a new plateau when "Officer Martin" (the intended fiance introduced in the non-dream portion of the story) barges through the front door of the Donovan residence to retrieve Linda who "as a member of the Young Communist League" has volunteered for "farm work." Donovan's incredulity over his daughter's leaving home is erased when she appears in a safari outfit claiming "Daddy, it's true, daddy. I did volunteer for farm work... The Party convinced me that I should free myself of the lingering Bourgeois influences of family life." The subtext is palpable as Donovan helplessly watches his daughter leave with the man he had earlier denied her to.
When the younger Donovan children Jimmy and Sally (Ronnie Dapo and Carol Nicolson) insist on leaving for State School because "home life does not encourage the growth of the collective character which the Party wishes to develop in its young people," Donovan is finally forced to put his foot down. Jimmy's threat to "report" his father for not "training us to think along Party lines" is the final straw. "This is going to be a family again and I know just where to start! You two are going to Sunday School right now! This time I'm going to overrule the Party!"
It would be disappointing, of course, if RED NIGHTMARE ignored the institution of religion as a key battleground between the Christian United States and the Godless Russians. And, thankfully, the film's most over-the-top scene, as noted in the preface to this article, takes place inside a church that has been modified by the State to be a "People's Museum" featuring "Soviet Inventions." When the museum's curator, Comrade Malenkov (a chap whose appearance is clearly intended to evoke Stalin) cautions Donovan to lower his voice, Donovan goes berserk. But before trashing the museum in a fit of fury, he brandishes an exhibit (of a telephone) at Malenkov and snarls "This, this was not invented by a RUSSIAN. The man's name was Bell, Alexander Graham Bell and he was an AMERICAN! Get that Comrade!" Within several toots of the curator's whistle, Donovan is taken into State custody and promptly put on show trial for "subversion, deviationism and treason."
With the aid of damaging statements from Officer Martin, Comrade Malenkov and, most dramatically, his wife, Donovan is sentenced by the court to be shot. One of the judges (played by Andrew Duggan) further dramatizes the sentence by explaining why the convicted defendant must be done away with: "as an ugly remnant of the diseased Bourgeois class, he must be eradicated before the contagion can spread."
The no longer complacent Donovan uses the opportunity just prior to his execution to make a long winded statement about the evils of Communism (no doubt hastening whatever time he had left): "Believe me you Communists can't keep fooling the entire world. You can't even keep fooling your own people. Because the news is getting around that it's only another word for slavery."
Following our hero's execution, Jack Webb appears again, this time bizarrely emerging from the gunshot smoke wafting through from the last scene. Webb soothes Donovan's fitful subconscious by reassuring, "Don't worry Jerry, that bullet will never reach you. Because it's time to bring you back from your Red Nightmare... Jerry is waking, let’s see if his dream has impressed him."
Judging from the lingering kiss Donovan plants on his wife upon coming downstairs from the bedroom, the dream HAS impressed him—like a shot of patriotic Viagra. And Mrs. Donovan's reaction demonstrates that she is clearly not the ice maiden of her husband's Webb-induced imagination. Donovan's post-Nightmare behavior is also suggestive of a capitalist Santa Claus: He eagerly agrees to buy his son a new space helmet (reinforcing the American commitment to the space race?) and offers to permit his daughter to marry (reinforcing the institution of marriage—never mind that Russians marry, too). But Donovan's future son-in-law volunteers to wait on the nuptials until his "hitch in the service" has been concluded. Everyone wins!
Our skulking muse appears one last time—in front of a tree—to present a final homily that is accompanied by stock footage resembling a highlight reel from the Eisenhower Administration: National monuments, people attending picnics, wedding vows being exchanged, highways, Levittowns, graduations and more picnics. "Jerry knows now so he'll never forget it. Responsibilities are a privilege—an inherent American right, the strength of our nation. The bright hope of a free world as founded on the dedication of individual Americans. People who guarantee freedom by standing ready to fight aggression. Against the Communist attempts at world enslavement... To prevent Communism from consuming the entire free world there stands but one man. That man is YOU."Like its Cold War pop cultural brethren (THE RED MENACE, INVASION USA, etc.) RED NIGHTMARE is the type of film that is incapable of having a truly "happy ending," for that would betray its ultimate, overriding message of eternal vigilance. After all, the Communist threat is not one that ceases just because one complacent American has resolved not to miss any more PTA meetings. Indeed, the clear intent of the producers of these types of films was to hammer home a political point with the hope that the message wouldn't be obscured by all the silliness. And while the "lesson" of RED NIGHTMARE may no longer apply, it is certainly impressive that the work still has the power to shock with its sheer preposterousness.
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