November 01, 2008

Imagining the Enemy

Russians in American Movies 

In the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale, Bond’s plainspoken boss M (played by a resplendent Judi Dench) is so perplexed by the post-Communist world order that she wistfully complains: “God, I miss the Cold War.” Not only for M, but also for Hollywood producers, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 created new challenges and uncertainties. Because for decades – and especially since the end of World War II – Russia (aka the USSR) had furnished Hollywood studios with an unending supply of baddies. Yet, after the disappearance of the black-and-white, good buy/bad guy world of Communism vs. Capitalism, it was less clear how one should represent Russia on screen. 

Russia and Russians have played a highly visible role in Hollywood since the early days of the film industry. This should come as no surprise, considering that Russia and/or the USSR was the primary “other” in the American consciousness for most of the twentieth century. Russia was our chief ideological and military enemy, with vast and terrifying resources – by the middle of the century capable and allegedly desirous of blowing us all off the planet. It is also a most curious historical coincidence that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (which led to the establishment of the world’s first socialist society, one of whose avowed goals was to overthrow world capitalism, headquartered in the U.S.) occurred precisely at the moment when the American film industry was entering a rapid period of development, moving from New York to Hollywood (i.e. farther from Russia), with the palm-lined avenues of Los Angeles leading to even more abstract views of the East.

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