America and the Cold War World: Assignment on a Cold War Film

In The Culture of the Cold War, Stephen Whitfield uses novels and films as historical sources to demonstrate the ways in which anxieties about Communist infiltration deeply shaped American culture during the 1950s.

Your assignment is to pick an American film produced between 1945 and 1991, watch it, and write an essay about how it was shaped by the particular Cold War context in which it was made. Your essay should present your original historical analysis of this film, but also demonstrate how accounts of America in the Cold War world, including assigned readings for this course, have informed your analysis. We’ll talk about your ideas in class on September 22, so please come with an idea of what film you’d like to write about; it would help to have already watched the film before class, but you’re not required to have done so.

Because this is principally a course on cultural and political history and not specifically on cinema, I don’t expect you to provide a detailed aesthetic or technical analysis of the film in question. I do expect you, though, to think about how the story and portrayals of the characters may have reflected or shaped Cold War culture and politics. I also expect you to describe the movie enough so that I can follow your argument if I haven’t seen it, but not so much that summary crowds your argument out of your paper.

Writing about film often draws on the author’s experience of the film. In the context of historical writing, it’s important to distinguish between your own reaction to a film, the intentions of its creators, and the reactions of its initial audience. As long as you draw those distinctions, though, you’re welcome to describe your personal experience of the film in your essay if it supports your argument. Unlike in some other genres of academic writing, you are absolutely welcome to use the word “I” in your essays for this course.

Your essay should be five pages long, plus or minus a page. You should cite your sources, but you don’t have to use any particular citation style as long as you’re consistent throughout the paper. You’re welcome to use Wikipedia and other casual online sources as starting places to find more formal sources (journal articles, books, museum and academic websites, etc.), but please do not treat Wikipedia itself as an authority.

Here are some notes regarding what sort of film you might choose to write about:

If you’re looking for ideas, you can find titles and descriptions of many films that might suit this assignment in The Culture of the Cold War, as well as in online filmographies like The Red Scare: A Filmography and Poetic Horror, Pop Existentialism and Cheap Sci-Fi: Cold War Cinema 1948–1964.

Your paper is due on Monday, October 3. I’m happy to discuss your ideas with you in the meantime, both in class and during office hours. Please let me know if you have any questions about this assignment.